Stream: The False-But-True Fallacy
There’s concern in the City of Others Riches (Washington D.C.) that Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book about the Trump White House contains as much truth as an advertisement for herbal male supplements.
Matt Labash at Weekly Standard read the book and told us of the author’s note
where Wolff states that many of the accounts in Fire and Fury are in conflict with one another and many, “in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue…and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself” is “an elemental thread of this book.” Or put another way: Despite him weighing the evidence and settling “on a version of events I believe to be true,” everything that follows might be a lie.
In spite of this sobering and cautionary warning that the book might better resemble one of Bill Clinton’s “explanations” than the truth, Labash concludes “what comes through loud and clear in Wolff’s telling is that no matter how bad you thought it was in Trump’s White House, it was actually much worse.”
Many are saying things like this. Sure, Wolff might have included stories like the one he heard from a guy, who himself got it “from a woman on the beach in Florida, who heard it in a carpool line”, but since these stories show Trump to be the moronic oaf we know him to be, they must be true. Even if they’re false.
Seeing What Isn’t There
The reception of Wolff’s book is thus a prime example of the False-But-True Fallacy.
The False-But-True Fallacy, which I sometimes call the Meta Fallacy because it is the mother of all fallacious arguments, is difficult to explain. So stick with me.
How it works is like this. A certain proposition is first conjectured to be true, like “President Trump is an idiot or incompetent”. Evidence for this belief is put forward, as in the case of Wolff’s book. This evidence, if accepted, confirms the belief.
But it is later discovered that the evidence is false, or likely false. Indeed, it is learned that the evidence might have been juiced, or even in part manufactured.
Since the evidence upon which people have been relying has been proved or judged faulty, it would seem that the strength of the belief in the proposition must diminish. But it doesn’t. If anything, it increases.
How could this happen when the rules of logic say it is impossible?
Because people argue like this. “The evidence would never have been juiced if the proposition wasn’t really true, because nobody would have bothered to make up stories unless there existed other stories like the made-up ones, but about which we never heard.”