For most people, a logical fallacy is something to be avoided if you want to be taken seriously in an argument. If someone argued that tax breaks for the rich are wrong, you wouldn’t have a very convincing counter-argument if you just said, “you’re only against it because you’re poor.” You’ve contributed no information to help anybody determine whether tax breaks for the rich are right or wrong, you’ve merely attacked the individual you’re arguing with in an attempt to make yourself look like you’re right. This is an example of ad hominem, a fallacious argument directed at the individual rather than addressing the issue. These tricks are best avoided, because once they’re pointed out your argument pretty much crumbles into nothing.
So spare a thought for the anti-vaping zealots, those who are opposed to e-cigarettes or tobacco in any form, who continually have to rely on similarly flawed arguments in order to make it look like they’re maintaining a defensible position. Reading through anti-e-cig arguments is like taking a whistle-stop tour of logical fallacies, and here is our top 10 of the most common:
#10. Appeal to Emotion – “E-Cig Flavors Lure Children into Smoking”
An appeal to emotion is a fallacy because it contributes nothing in the way of facts but sways people’s opinions through things like fear, hatred or disgust. If in a trial over a murder case, the prosecution lawyer went into the disturbing details of the crime, pouring over grisly, sick allegations and offering no evidence, then asked “what if that had happened to your son or daughter? Would you want this man to go free?” some jurors may be fallaciously swayed to vote guilty. This is a fairly transparent (but sadly common) method of eliciting an emotional response in order to convince people of your point of view.
In the e-cig debate, the common appeal to emotion is the notion that sweet and fruity e-cig flavors are designed to lure children into smoking. The emotional arc of this claim is immediately obvious – attempting to get under the skins of parents by painting this picture that e-cigs are a “gateway” device which will quickly lead to your kid sparking up a tobacco cigarette and thereby risking an early death. There is no evidence that non-smoking kids become regular e-cig users (the recent widely-cited CDC study doesn't even contain an accurate measure of regular e-cig use) or that any non-smokers have ever started vaping and then graduated to smoking. It is simply a logical fallacy in action, evidenced by the fact that it was repeated long before the flawed CDC study was even completed. It’s designed to tug at heart-strings, and nothing else.
#9. Appeal to Authority – “The FDA Hasn't Approved Them”
Appeals to authority can be a reasonably good reason to believe something. If an astronomer tells you that the Sun is around 93 million miles away, you can pretty much take it as truth even though you haven't made the measurement yourself. However, there are also many situations in which the quoted authority is either wrong or just not an authority on the given topic. For example, you’ll often see news reports in which victims of a crime are asked what they think the punishment for the perpetrator should be. These people are not experts on criminal law and punishment, and the fact that they have become victims of the crime doesn’t suddenly transform them into experts. Similarly, you can’t say that something is wrong just because it’s illegal – the government (the authority) could easily have made an incorrect judgment on that issue.
The straw man fallacy is when the opinions of your opponent are re-stated in an exaggerated or misleading way in order to easily shoot them down (and make yourself appear right in the process). For example, say you think that religious officials shouldn't have any sway over government policy decisions. Someone using the straw man argument may respond, “so you don’t think religious people are capable of deciding what’s best for the country?! That’s absurd, prejudiced and clearly wrong!” In this case, the original argument is distorted into an unrecognizable form to make the original speaker appear ridiculous.
Some form of straw man occurs in almost any anti-vaping story you read, where the views of those in favor of vaping are packaged in a simple format, exaggerated and without any of the scientific evidence which led to the conclusion. This example reads, “a smoker gets their nicotine fix in a familiar format, theoretically without the many health risks associated with tobacco. That’s the sales pitch, at least.” The robust scientific argument supporting the notion that health risks are drastically reduced is presented without evidence and described as a “sales pitch” to further weaken the stance. This straw man is demolished, but defeating a purposefully weakened version of the pro-vaping stance does not constitute a valid rebuttal.
#7. The Moralistic Fallacy – “It's Better to Use Approved Methods”
The moralistic fallacy can be simply be described as saying that the arguer asserts that the way things should be is the way things are. This has been described as equivalent to only looking one way when you cross a one-way street; whilst people should only drive in one direction (moralistically speaking) in actuality that is not how things always are. It’s like believing everything a politician says because they shouldn’t lie; it’s taking your own view of how things should be and mistakenly superimposing them onto reality.
In the e-cig debate, this is one of the rifest. It comes in the form of, “approved cessation methods are the best option for quitting smoking” and is often backed up by other fallacious arguments regarding how to judge the “potential risks” associated with e-cigs. The idealistic assumption being made here is that the currently available methods (such as gums and patches) are the best way to quit smoking and are effective for most smokers, when this certainly isn't true. In fact, they only increase the quit rate (vs. going “cold turkey”) by between 2 and 3 percent, and as such aren't effective for over 90 percent of smokers. We might like to think they work, but reality tells us differently.
#6. Equivocation – “You're Still Smoking”
Equivocation is a fallacy related to definitions. If you change how a word is used over the course of a single argument, you can reach false conclusions from unconnected premises. A comical example runs that “hot dogs are better than nothing. Nothing is better than steak. Therefore hot dogs are better than steak.” The different definitions of “nothing” (first as “not eating any food” and second as “no food in existence”) used led to an unsupported and flawed conclusion.
In the e-cig debate, this is basically the reason the term “vaping” has taken off so much. The media may not equate vaping with smoking too often, but it’s rife in general conversation when people refer to vapers as “smoking.” This may be because it looks like smoking or because it involves nicotine consumption, but it can easily lead to unreasonable opinions. The flawed argument runs that, “using e-cigarettes is smoking, and smoking causes cancer, therefore e-cigarettes cause cancer.”
#5. Moving the Goalposts – “There Still Isn't Enough Evidence”
Moving the goalposts (otherwise known as special pleading) is commonly used to continue to support an opinion which has been shown to be incorrect. An example from Your Logical Fallacy Is uses the “psychic” John Edwards, who was amazingly unable to perform his supposed supernatural abilities when tested under scientific conditions. To defend his morally repugnant career choice, he simply moved the goalposts and said that you had to believe in his abilities for them to work.
This happens from the anti-vaping zealots every time a new study comes out which shows no risk from e-cigarettes, that the quantities of harmful chemicals are well below accepted safe exposure limits or that they successfully help people quit smoking. Every single time the argument runs that the evidence still isn't enough to say they're safe and effective. The problem with this is obvious: there is no defined end-point. It often simply represents a refusal to admit the conclusions that can reasonably be drawn from the evidence at hand. We do need long-term studies, but merely to confirm what is already clear: the risks from e-cigs are drastically less than tobacco cigarettes and are likely to be miniscule even in an absolute sense.
#4. Cherry-Picking – “The FDA Study, the Heavy Metals, the Formaldehyde, the…”
Cherry-picking is the widespread practice of discarding anything that contradicts your opinion and mentally cataloguing anything which confirms it to reel out in a debate. Cherry-picking enables people like homeopaths to only cite evidence which supports their cause (which is, of course, absolutely ridiculous), and it is also responsible for many of the flawed opinions we all hold as individuals. Racists cherry-pick, forgetting whenever somebody in their hated group does something kind, honest or otherwise redeemable and remembering any indiscretions.
I said “widespread practice” because we all do this to some degree. Indeed, although you could argue that the anti-vapers always fall back on the same studies because there are much fewer negative ones than positive ones, the vaping community is guilty of this too. However, it does become extremely tedious to see a paper claim that e-cigs contain diethylene glycol because of the FDA and trot out the heavy metals data (like the Guardian did here), or mention the airway resistance study (like the Lexington Herald Leader) we've all heard about so many times before. The problem is on both sides, but the lack of evidence in opposition to e-cigs makes it all the more rampant in the anti-vapers.
#3. The Slippery Slope – “E-Cigs Will Renormalize Smoking”
The slippery slope fallacy is another well-known one. It states that if you allow one thing to happen, something much more extreme will happen in the future. A will eventually lead to Z, so A is bad. An example would be saying that if we legalize marijuana, then eventually we’ll all be buying crack from 7/11. It’s really stupid, for obvious reasons. We can make fresh decisions every step of the way. We have brains, so we can appraise each and stop whenever we want. This is merely inventing a terrible dystopian future to use as some rudimentary form of evidence.
The World Health Organization gave the perfect example of this fallacy when they chose to release a report claiming that e-cigarettes will undo the “norm change” there has been regarding smoking in public, and that they should therefore be banned. You may have noticed that they threw in a little equivocation for good measure (vaping is not smoking). The key problem, however, is that they've implied that through the slippery slope mechanism, e-cigarettes will ruin all the positive work they've done to combat smoking. What exactly the imaginary chain of dominoes looks like is anybody’s guess, but it’s a truly absurd suggestion. E-cigs are used by people who want to stop smoking.
#2. The Burden of Proof – “You Don't Have Any Evidence They’re Safe”
The burden of proof lies with the person who makes the claim, as we've previously explained on the site with regards to Russell’s Teapot. This is the idea that there is a teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars which is too small to detect with our telescopes. Because you can’t prove this wrong, the burden of proof fallacy would be to call it a valid claim. In actuality, there is only as much reason to believe that there is a teapot in orbit as there is to believe there is a purple dinosaur. The rule is that if you make the outlandish claim, the burden of proof lies with you.
In the case of e-cigarettes, there is no reason to believe they’re dangerous. Containing only nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and levels of things like nitrosamines and heavy metals (see full list of ingredients) which are equivalent to those found in approved stop-smoking products like gums, patches and inhalers, there is no reason to assume significant risk at all. Those claiming e-cigs are somehow dangerous need to offer the proof, not the advocates. The burden of proof fallacy underpins the entire debate.
#1. Ad Ignorantiam – “Ban Them Until There is Evidence That They're Safe and Effective”
Ad ignorantiamis known as an argument from ignorance. You can succinctly state this as “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This means that just because some evidence hasn’t been found yet, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. This is closely related to the burden of proof, but is distinct in that it suggests that a lack of evidence at this time proves that there is no evidence altogether. It effectively uses ignorance as a defense: “you can't prove that there isn’t a global Jewish conspiracy, so that means that it’s true!” A lack of evidence can’t be used to call the issue either way.
Yet we've all seen this happen all over the place with regards to e-cigs, with various anti-vaping arguments stating that since there is no evidence that they work, they must be banned or strictly regulated. Ignoring the fact that there is plenty of evidence that they work, the biggest issue with this argument is that it’s based on nothing whatsoever. With the ever-changing goalposts and the misplaced burden of proof, e-cigs have been given quite a tough task, and until it’s complete, people continue to argue that the absence of long-term evidence in support of e-cigs is in itself evidence to the contrary. We are missing long-term data, but until we get some (which would also have to go against the consensus thus far) you can't just assume it’s going to be bad news.
Conclusion – The Fallacy Fallacy
Of course, the identification of a fallacy in itself doesn't mean a conclusion is wrong. Although research in favor of e-cigs does show that the anti-vaping zealots are being unreasonable, just because somebody uses a fallacious argument doesn't mean they're wrong. I could commit the authority fallacy and say “the sky is blue because my boss says it is,” but I would still be right. In other words: use what you've learned cautiously. If you identify a fallacy (and believe me, you’ll spot plenty if you’re debating about the safety of e-cigs), all you can say for certain is that the individual’s conclusion isn't right based on that argument; it may still be true anyway. Finally, we all commit fallacies from time to time, so try to use your knowledge to create more robust arguments of your own (although thankfully, when it comes to e-cigs, that’s pretty easy to do).