This is an excerpt from Chapter 26 of Everything You Believe Is Wrong. I am very much interested to learn of reader’s experience with this fallacy. Please let us know in the comments.
The Meta Fallacy is also known as the False But True Fallacy. It is the mother of all fallacies, in the sense that it is driven by desire, by raw emotion. Combating this fallacy is brutal hard labor, almost all spent in vain. Because there is nothing more arduous than overcoming devotion.
A few years back there was concern in the City of Other’s Riches (Washington DC) that one Michael Wolff’s scandalous Fire and Fury, a book about the first year of the Trump White House, contained as much truth as an advertisement for herbal male supplements. Most have probably already forgotten about this “monumental” book (most political books have a shelf life shorter than sushi), but have no worries; the book itself and the subject matter of the book is not the point. We use it only for an example.
Matt Labash, a writer at the now-defunct Weekly Standard, read the book and told us of the Wolff’s own cautionary 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 eyebrow-raising warning that the book might better resemble the “explanation” of a politician caught with his pants down than the truth, Labash somehow still manages to conclude that “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.” Wolff lies, therefore he tells the truth.
Many were saying things like Labash. 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 therefore must be true. Even if they’re false.
The reception of Wolff’s book is thus a prime example of the False But True Fallacy. The False But True Fallacy, which is also the Meta Fallacy because it is the generator of all fallacious arguments, is difficult to explain. Try to stay with me.
How it works is like this. A certain proposition is first conjectured to be true, like “President Trump is an idiot and incompetent”. Evidence for this belief is put forward, as in the details in Wolff’s book. This evidence, if accepted, confirms the belief, a local truth. 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 this 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.” If we accept this, then it really does follow that the proposition “Trump is an idiot” is true. Trump really is an incompetent if we believe there are stories about which we don’t know that prove Trump is an incompetent. In this way, the man who wants to believe, can. His argument is complete, as long as his false-but-true premise is accepted.
The only problem is, there is no real basis to believe the false-but-true premise other than desire. Desire is key.
Where else might you have seen the False But True Fallacy? It sounds uncommon, but it isn’t. The Meta Fallacy really is the driver of all lesser fallacies. We might even call it the I Want To Believe Fallacy, or for fans of science fiction, the X-Files Fallacy, named for a protagonist of that show who had a poster with those words on his wall. If you want to believe, you will.
The False But True Fallacy is beloved of UFO buffs. Every time NASA or the Air Force says, “It wasn’t a UFO; what people saw was a natural phenomenon”, the saucerologist says, “Aha! He’s denies it! So it must be true.” The hidden premise used by the believer is, “The government doesn’t want us to know, therefore when the government has information about a UFO sighting, it lies to us.” That the government sometimes, or even often, lies to us is not a always bad premise, but it is here.
Atheists are overly fond of the False But True Fallacy. Eyewitness reports that Jesus turned water into wine are used in a false-but-true proof that God (probably) doesn’t exist, because, it is believed, eyewitnesses of miracles are always confused or lying. Thus the presence of an eye-witness account proves the miracle couldn’t have happened! If you want to believe (in the non-existence of miracles), you will.
Talking the True Believer out of his false-but-true belief is never easy. For instance, Labash quoted a passage from Wolff’s book indicating that, one time, Trump’s “eyes rolled” while being lectured by a subordinate, which Labash took as proof of Trump’s limited mental capacity. But the eye-rolling could equally well have been the standard reaction of a bright student who grasps the material faster than this less-gifted teachers can dish it out.
Or in being lectured to by a cocky subordinate. The evidence supports all these (and other) views. Yet in this case, we have to ask why the common-sense evidence that only an intelligent man could rise in the manner Trump did to the post of Presidency is excluded.
Here is where the Meta Fallacy becomes really odd. What happens is that the mere presence of this fallacy, that it is exists at all, is taken to be a kind of vague proof for the fallacious position a person holds. Some folks seem to reason like this: Yes, the argument I have used is flawed, but that it exists proves, in a way, that the position I hold is correct, else there wouldn’t have been such widespread enthusiasm for the fallacious argument. (See the similar but opposite Coyne Fallacy in Chapter 21.) The conclusion is still true, which accounts for the fallacy’s creation. The argument has only erred in inessential ways, the believer thinks; therefore, the spirit of the argument is correct, even though its letter of it, and its conclusion, is flawed.
Wolff only made up his stories (where for the sake of argument we assume he did) because it really is true Trump is a fool. He wouldn’t have lief otherwise! Stated so starkly, it is obviously a fallacy. Unless, that is, one desires greatly the proposition to be true.
It’s not only politics. The Meta Fallacy is used everywhere and all the time. We want to believe. We hate contrary evidence. All of us.
The Meta Fallacy is a mental tic built into us and which is ineradicable except in rare moments of clarity or spiritual insight. Desire trumps rationality almost always. Showing a man he argues fallaciously is never enough to eliminate his belief. For one, the Meta Fallacy works against truth, and for another, even though a fallacy has been exposed and accepted, and the Meta Fallacy avoided, it will regularly be claimed that other, non-fallacious arguments for the desired conclusion exist, even though these arguments always appear to have just left the room. We are believing machines.
This book, therefore, is doomed to fail. Yet we press on.
Buy my new book and learn to argue against the regime: Everything You Believe Is Wrong.