The “Meta-Fallacy”: Ace This One, and You’ll Never Be Confused Again
You’ve probably heard of logical fallacies. They’re errors in logic that sound right for various reasons but do not hold up to logical scrutiny. Here are a few of the most well-known logical fallacies:
- Argumentum ad hominem, or argument “against the man.” This fallacy points out a defect in someone’s character in order to refute their argument. For example, discrediting someone’s scientific discovery by claiming, “That person is a thief.” The person may or may not have stolen, but that does not affect the truth or falsehood of their scientific discovery.
- Tu quoque, which means “You’re another.” In this instance, someone deflects an accusation by pointing out that the accuser themselves exhibits the same fault. Its colloquial expressions include “Look who’s talking,” or “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.” An example would be a teen getting chastised for drinking alcohol, and in response, he points out that his dad also drinks.
- Argumentum falsum dilemma — argument from false dilemma. This refers to reducing a situation to just two options. For example, a person who visits a chiropractor with back pain gets told, “It’s either weekly adjustments for six months or surgery.” True story. This fallacious framing leaves out other possibilities, like physical therapy, massage, or exercise.
There are many more logical fallacies, both well-known and less-known. You can see a comprehensive list here. Learning them can help you spot when one is being used, whether in your own mind, in reading material, or in someone else’s speech. Understanding how each of these works can help you think more clearly.
However, most people aren’t taught (yet) that one logical fallacy underlies most of those other logical fallacies. When we understand, practice, and get good at recognizing this “meta-fallacy” and how it operates, we gain an extremely powerful tool for dispelling most of the myths, misconceptions, and specific fallacies that come our way — without having to memorize or learn long lists of those specific fallacies. Knowing this meta-fallacy helps us recognize not only all its known forms but also other new instances.
Schools don’t teach this insight. Most people haven’t heard of it. And yet, it’s baked into the English language.
That original fallacy is using the word “is” (or any form of the verb “to be”) to take an unconscious or unwarranted mental leap. I also call this “external reference.”
When we talk about how something “is,” we locate reality outside ourselves, often in an unverified place. For example, we say, “This election is the end of my candidate’s political career.” That may or may not be true, but a truer statement would be, “I just saw the preliminary results on CNN, and I’m feeling despondent.” Or we tell ourselves, “I am a failure,” which we may have done to survive early traumatic experiences. Or, “That guy’s a jerk,” in order to protect our friend from being hurt. A truer statement would be, “I felt hurt and angry when that guy said/did these things…”. All those examples above translate the external reference of “is” into truer internally-referenced statements.
Not all external reference is false, or indicates a logical fallacy. For example, the true statement “My name is Jill” does not create or mask a logical fallacy. However, most logical fallacies rely on some form of “is” expressed either overtly or covertly. This includes all forms of the verb “to be,” including are, will be, has been, as well as subjunctives like ought, should, and so on.
To take the examples above, ad hominem arguments appeal to a trait of a person or how that person “is.” Same with tu quoque: You are another. The second logical fallacy, falsum dilemma defines the outcome of one situation as having only two possibilities. The chiropractor may have said, “There are only two courses of action you can take.”
Sometimes, however, the “is” isn’t so obvious. To take the last example, the chiropractor also might have said, “This situation has only two possibilities.” In this case, the wording of the description hides the “is” claim by fallaciously attributing a limited set of possibilities to a situation. Knowing that specific list of fallacies could help spot this one.
Even more useful is to realize that any conclusion, worded with or without a form of the verb “to be,” potentially masks a fallacy or hidden “is.” So, in addition to forms of the verb “to be,” also watch out for generalizations about how things “are” that do not use forms of the verb “to be,” but nevertheless proffer a conclusion.
With any externally-referenced statement, one can usually say a truer version of the thing by using an internally-referenced statement. For example, when I hear my students or clients say negative things in an externally-reference way like “I’m (she is, they are) so messed up,” I offer a reframe in the form of an empathy guess, like, “Are you feeling despair (anger, sadness), because you doubt whether this situation will work out in the way you hoped?” Or something like that.
Whenever we find ourselves thinking or voicing conclusions in the form of “is,” we can ask ourselves, “Could I think or say a truer, more internally-referenced thing?” From there, we can begin to inquire into what we’re actually seeing, feeling, or wanting. I call that process replacing external reference with internal reference. We catch ourselves “is-ing,” (using external reference), then turn our attention inward to refer to what’s truer, from our own perspective.
The tricky thing is that our thinking and the way we communicate it often follows our visceral emotions. This is how slogans and verbal memes take hold. “Black Lives Matter,” “Make America Great Again,” and “Yes we can” all touched common nerves that rallied people from their seats to demonstrate, vote, and get involved. We’re wired to rally around a common theme or external reference. Political and other kinds of marketers know this. Our own brains will take us down paths we didn’t fully choose — unless we intervene.
The reason schools teach logical fallacies is that those fallacies work. They get people on board with false beliefs by harnessing emotions or tricking the more logical and analytical part of our brain. The vehicle all those fallacies use is “is,” which maps to how our brains got trained when we learned English. I suspect it may also carry over from tribal times when our survival depended upon automatically trusting when another tribesperson told us what “is.”
One final note: Just because someone uses a logical fallacy, or external reference, does not mean that the point they’re trying to make isn’t true. To continue an example above with the statement “This election is the end of my candidate’s political career,” I suggested that a truer statement would be, “I just saw the preliminary results on CNN, and I’m feeling hopeless about the outcome.” I stand by that suggestion. And, the first statement may well have been true — the election may have signaled the end of the candidate’s political career. The mistaken thinking of pointing to someone’s logical fallacy as a way of disproving the truth of their claims is called “the logical fallacy fallacy,” or “the argument from fallacy,” which also rests on an “is” leap, in this case, saying that what someone said is a logical fallacy and therefore untrue.
Now that you know how “is” works, you can start to listen for all the examples — and there can be hundreds in a day — where you or others think, do, or speak along these lines. This can be difficult — we use “is” constantly to refer to our compex shared reality. We’re so used to thinking along the lines of what “is” in ways that are true and that work, that we can easily unconsciously follow those paths “off the cliff” as it were, to untruths. Getting good at spotting the places we go astray means sharpening our attention to when something feels or sounds “off.” Then we can inquire into it equipped with this new ability to listen for the fallacious use of “is,” the meta-fallacy underneath the other fallacies.
When we find a fallacious use of “is,” we can break out of this meta-fallacy’s trap. We can choose to think, do, or speak a truer, more internally-referenced thing. You’ve probably already done this or seen it done many times. For example, if your boss says, “This is a fiasco,” you might ask, “Can you tell me more specifically what you’re referring to?” In this case, you’d be asking for your boss’s internal reference of her observations, helping her unearth truer statements than her initial generalization. Or you might find yourself thinking, “I’ll never finish all this work,” and then feeling scared and hopeless. Once you notice that you’re fallaciously “conclusionizing,” you can replace that thought with an empathic inquiry to yourself: Am I feeling afraid that I won’t finish this, and wondering whether my job is secure? When you’ve identified your feelings and concerns, take some time, and give yourself empathy. Then you can consider what options might work best to help you move forward.
Understanding fallacious thinking helps ferret out illogic, untruths, and wobbly arguments. However, in real life, any logical fallacy signals a deeper truth to be unearthed underneath — and you can spot most of them by listening for their overt or covert “is,” the meta-fallacy that gives rise to all the other fallacies. With your tool of internal reference in hand, you can not only spot the common fallacies we already know about but also more easily identify unwarranted conclusions and ferret out the truer truths underneath them.