Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tension, Apprehension, and Dissension Have Begun (Fallacies, Part 8)

Red herrings confuse the issue by distracting you from the actual argument. From ad hominem attacks against the arguer to ad populum appeals to mass sentiment, they form a major subcategory of logical fallacies. Today, we’ll cover argumentum ad metum,  the appeal to fear.

Argumentum ad metum

FUD, “fear, uncertainty, and doubt,” is a marketing tactic that spreads negative information about a competitive product as a way of making it less desirable as an option. Former IBM executive Gene Amdahl (after starting his own competing company), described its use by his former company this way: “FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products.”

It used to be said, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” and if you can position yourself as the safe choice, it’s a very powerful argument indeed. The trouble it, it’s a logical fallacy, part of the “appeal to fear,” or argumentum ad metum (sometimes argumentum in terrorem).

It’s a traditional parental argument. “A Red Ryder BB Gun? You’ll shoot your eye out!” In politics, it’s “Vote for Candidate X and it’s the same thing as voting in a Communist dictatorship!” In school, it’s “If you don’t make good grades, you’ll never amount to anything in your life.”

Reduced to its logical form, the fallacy is clear:

  1. Either P or Q is true.
  2. Q is frightening.
  3. Therefore, P is true.

There are a few tricks to using the appeal to fear. First, fear appeals are “nonmonotonic.” That means the persuasiveness isn’t increased with the amount of fear. One study of public service messages about AIDS found that if the messages were too fearful, they were rejected. In addition, a persuasive appeal to fear has to provide you with a way to cope, an action you can take. Don’t buy that BB gun and you’ll keep both eyes. Make good grades and you’ll be sure to make a good living. Buy IBM, and you’ll never be fired.

But none of these is guaranteed.

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