The Meta-Fallacy: The Mother Of All Fallacies

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.

Meta Fallacy

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.

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Categories: Culture, Philosophy

17 replies »

  1. Theres a related bit in conspiracy circles – never believe anything until its officialy denied. The difficult but is that the gaslighting powers that be lie so much that offical denial in a strange way does confer some sort of idea that “the official story is the one thing thats not true”.

  2. ”…a shelf life shorter than sushi…”

    Fine metaphor. If original, gold star; if borrowed, silver.

    ”This book, therefore, is doomed to fail. Yet we press on.”

    Doomed to fail, only in that a man does not have the power to eradicate lies and nonsense in society-at-large. He does have the power to eradicate, or at lease put a dent in, lies and nonsense in his own mind. And to assist others in doing same. In that the book succeeds. May it have a shelf life longer than linguine.

  3. This reminds me of the headlines I saw over the weekend about the new leader of Italy, universally called “far-right” and, everyone said, probably a Fascist. I know nothing about her or Italian politics. However, I know that nearly ALL European politics is “left” (by our reckoning), so what is generally called “right” in Europe is just the right end of left. Given that knowledge, I was naturally skeptical of how “far right” this woman could be — is it even plausible that people in Italy would elect a literal Fascist? Digging only a little deeper, I saw that the name of the party was associated withe Mussolini nearly 100 years ago. So there’s one fact. And I saw that she said a lot of things about family and God, and against unfettered Muslim immigration, so there are some other facts.

    There may be a lot more than that–I’m NOT saying there isn’t–but nothing I read was based on anything more than that. Now this may get you a passing grade in Common Core composition, which seems to be based solely on regurgitating what you read regardless of whether or not what you read is true, but it is pretty crappy reporting. Based on what I have read, I have and can have no idea whether she’s far right or (in American terms) centrist. All I can say for certain is that she’s not left. But “not left” isn’t same as “far right Fascist,” even if you are SURE she MUST have said Fascist and “far right” things or no one would call her that.

  4. I’ve always called this the “where there is smoke there must be fire” fallacy. The problem is that sometimes the smoke is real….but the root cause proposition may not be.
    So in the case of Pastor Mark Driscoll it was true – he really was and remains a complete scoundrel.

    As Gail pointed out – the same applies to Georgia Meloni in Italy.
    Or Robert Bork.
    Or Clarence Thomas.

    But the most egregious has been Trump. Never seen anything on that level of utter devotion by my liberals friends to that narrative. So much mud was slung at him it convinced them there MUST, there just HAD to be something that would stick.

  5. Exactly right. Men do not live by bread alone. Faith underlies our lives. Faith is certain knowledge of that which we can’t know any other way. The catch is, what do we put our faith in, God or Satan. Don’t put your faith in Satan, or fallen man, either.

  6. One way I look at these things is to visualize a Venn diagram. The box is all conditions, and its size is relative knowledge of them. Inside the box are two circles. One circle is all necessary and sufficient conditions. The other circle is the actual conditions, including place and time conditions. Their size is relative knowledge of them, too. Are the two circles completely disjointed, partially disjointed, or concentric. Even though I’m still a man and limited in time, place, and knowledge; I strive to conform to reality, whether I like it or not.

  7. More like, “Your mom’s a fallacy!”

    A classic rhetorical strategy for when you’re up against a wall during an intellectual debate.

    Works every time. It must! How else do you explain liberal atheist lefties resorting to it so often?

  8. You’ve always got me on the hook, then suddenly you bring in religion (Jesus, miracles) and the wrench hits the whirling spokes.

  9. Everything You Believe Is Wrong is a wonderful book! Bright, engaging, funny, instructive; it’s a delight to read — I’ve read it three times.

    It’s not a book for everybody. Some (most) people cannot or do not think logically and have no desire to do so. A dear friend of mine disdains people who “read books”. He’s a fool but a good friend nonetheless (I’m very tolerant in certain situations).

    Logic ought to be taught in every school at every grade. The concept and success of “education” requires logic in all disciplines. It’s necessary and not that difficult, but, alas, logic runs counter to the principal thrust of modern schooling — which is heavy on indoctrination of illogical garbage. We can’t have sheeple thinking for themselves; they might desheepilate.

    Get the book anyway. Leave copies in libraries and coffee shops. Be surreptitious about it. Infect others with logic. Maybe we’ll reach a tipping point, herd immunity to bogosity, or at least spawn a small cadre of logicians to carry on in secret after the Collapse.

  10. A standard meta-analysis takes a risk ratio and its CLs from individual papers and combines them to give an overall risk estimate with CLs. Consider the observational studies used in a meta-analysis. Virtually all observational studies are p-hacks (many p-values are computed and if there is a small p-value a paper can result). We’ve counted out many observational studies. The median number of possible analyses is ~10,000. So arguably every base study has no reliability, yet conventional wisdom is that the results of a meta-analysis are GOLD STANDARD science and hence reliable.

    There are 10s of thousands of meta-analysis studies. ~ half are based on observational studies. None of these are reliable. Even meta-analyses based on RCTs are problematic.

  11. Maybe it should be called the Horse Bleep Theory: There is so much Horse Bleep, there has to be a pony here somewhere.

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