Of all the things that our educational institutions can be criticized for, the one thing that bothers me more than perhaps any other is their failure to teach the habits of good reasoning. This includes, of course, formal and informal logic and concepts like deduction, induction, and abduction. Also included is the ability to recognize various fallacies. And in our current socio-political environment, few fallacies are as pervasive and pernicious as the genetic fallacy.
The genetic fallacy, like all logical fallacies, is an example of erroneous or invalid reasoning. This means that conclusions drawn from reasoning or an argument that employs this fallacy ought to be suspect. My goal is that once you’ve read this post, you will not only realize how pervasive and problematic this fallacy has become, but that you will also see that this pervasiveness has very important, real-world consequences.
First, of course, we must come to some understanding of what the genetic fallacy is. Here, I will use two definitions that say basically the same thing in different ways.
According to the Fallacy in Logic website, “the genetic fallacy is a logical fallacy in which someone accepts a claim as true or false solely on the basis of its origin.”
The Logical Fallacies website says that “the genetic fallacy reasons that one can accurately judge or assess something as good or bad based on where it originates from.”
What this means in practice is that people who employ the genetic fallacy bypass evaluating a claim on its own merits and, instead, evaluate the claim solely on its source.
- Entity A has made the claim X.
- Entity A is bad.
- Therefore, X is not true.
- Entity B has made claim Y.
- Entity B is good.
- Therefore, Y is true.
This kind of reasoning is fallacious because the truth value of either X or Y is not dependent upon whether A or B is good or bad in either an objective or subjective sense.
You employ the genetic fallacy any time you say something along the lines of: “I do not believe X because that is what A says.” And if you claim that you don’t do this, I won’t believe you. We all do it, to one extent or another. In some sense, doing so is probably natural, and it’s probably natural because there are certain people who, ideally, we ought to be inclined to believe above others. For example, ideally, children ought to have such a relationship with their parents that they’re inclined to trust in and believe the claims of their parents. However, it is necessary and important to distinguish between our trust in certain people and institutions–like parents and the family–and the truth value of the claims made by those people or institutions.
It is not contradictory to have a concept of trusted or reliable sources of information while being intentional in recognizing and avoiding the genetic fallacy. For example, it is reasonable to assume the general reliability of certain sources of information when that assumption is itself based on certain rational standards. To continue with the child-parent example, it is rational for a child to trust his or her parents if their parents are, generally speaking, reliable as parents. But, again, it is important that we recognize the distinction between the general reliability of a source of information and the truth content of the actual information.
In other words, the idea that the general reliability of an information source means that all the claims made by that source are necessarily true is logically untenable.
Likewise, the idea that a generally unreliable source of information always makes claims that are not true is equally untenable.
I raise all of this because I think that it’s clear, if one stops for a moment to consider all the facts, that the American public is being conditioned, on a massive scale, to employ the genetic fallacy in reference to a certain set of individuals, organizations, and institutions.
It’s hard to know exactly where to begin, since I’m sure that at least some of the people who may stumble upon this website will not fully absorb the information I just covered and reject much of my case merely on the basis of my sources. That being the case, let me begin with a book I read earlier this year by a source that is firmly grounded within the established “credibility complex.”
If/Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, by the Harvard historian (and New Yorker staff writer) Jill Lepore, tells the story of how ideas like big data, behavioral algorithms, and manipulation through narrative came to be part and parcel of American politics and journalism. I recommend reading the book, but you can get the gist by reading Lepore’s long-form treatment of the subject in her New Yorker article.
That gist is something that all of us are all too familiar with in 2022: Governments, politicians, and corporations want to know how and what you think, and how you behave, so that they can manipulate and exercise some level of control over how and what you think and how you behave.
Observing this and stating it as a truth claim is not controversial. Nor should it be controversial to observe that this applies to all governments, all politicians and political parties, and all large corporations, along with the various forms of media employed by these entities. At the very least, this is not controversial because academics in the fields of political science and communications have been discussing this since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Although all of this is well known and well documented, it has come to the forefront over the last two years due to an intersection of several factors relatable to, and simplifiable to, the COVID pandemic, Donald Trump, and various forms of activism on both the Left and Right in America.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Spring of 2020 brought with it controversial measures and responses that included extended periods of lockdown, the forced closure of businesses and schools, mandated mask-wearing in public spaces, forced vaccinations, and the tracking of private citizens based on the results of ubiquitous COVID testing. Because these measures were, by any account, extremely unusual, often borderline draconian, and both contemporaneously and retroactively questionable in terms of efficacy, people began to think differently from what the typically “reliable sources” wanted them to think and expressing these thoughts publicly.
This widespread, and often quite rational, questioning of official guidance unleashed an overwhelming response on the part of government, big tech, and media. Suddenly, two related words began flooding our various screens and streams: misinformation and disinformation. Any and all questioning of official narratives related to COVID-19 was labeled as one of these two terms. Social media companies began manipulating the way things appeared online, for example, by blurring out links to so-called disinformation in a fashion similar to pornography or other explicit content. Not only this, but more important to the point I’m trying to make, they also accompanied or altogether replaced these links with their own links to “trusted sources of information” about COVID-19.
Of course, what I’m getting at is this: governments, big tech, and media not only actively encouraged the employment of the genetic fallacy, they practically endorsed it as a legitimate standard for judging the truth content of any claims made about the COVID-19 virus, the official responses to the virus, and the appropriate reaction to those responses. Naturally, those “trusted sources of information,” just happened to be government and the media.
To complicate matters more, Donald Trump was the sitting U.S. president. Anecdotally, it’s hard to argue with the observation that Trump was the most fact-checked president in history. It gets even harder once you realize that his adversaries in the media admit to this. Of course, they claim that the level of scrutiny directed at Mr. Trump was necessary due to the former president’s unending proclivity for lying and embellishment. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is a consummate truth-teller, a paragon of honesty, or even a good or halfway decent model of leadership. Instead, I’m relying on observations made by one of Western civilization’s most important political thinkers in suggesting that Donald Trump was not much different than any other political leader. Politicians lie. A lot. Like, all the time.
Ask anyone who has managed to stay married for 10, 15, or 20 years, or more about the role of honesty in a relationship. One lie, even a little one, can shatter the trust that’s been built up over years and decades. That doesn’t mean you stop believing everything someone says. It does mean that you give extra scrutiny to those claims. In other words, it makes you less likely to practice the genetic fallacy and more likely to judge claims based on their own merits rather than their source. Over time it is possible, but not by any means easy, to rebuild trust.
However, the relationship between a politician and the public is nothing like a marriage. There is no intimacy. There is no shared commitment to common goals or concerns. The goals and motives of the politician rarely, if ever, align with or compliment those of the public. The politician does not really know the public, and the public does not really know the politician. There is no basis on which to build trust. The only thing that the public can consistently expect from its politicians is that they are going to tell lies.
As recently as 2013, this was a fact not only accepted by the intrepid journalists of CNN, but it was downright celebrated. That is, it was celebrated just as long as the lie serves the agenda of elite institutions like the media, the state, and their non-governmental partners. They usually try relating it back to something called the “common good,” but that’s probably a lie, too.
That this, too, is a lie can be rationally argued given the current president’s own demonstrable proclivity for lying and embellishment. Just in the last few days, Joe Biden’s public relations team has been busy lying about the lies he told about student loan debt forgiveness.
None of President Biden’s lies are as condemnable as Donald Trump’s according to CNN, even when they can’t avoid addressing them. You see, it isn’t that presidents lie that’s important, it’s which presidents lie that matters.
When it comes to protests, who it is doing the protesting also matters.
Throughout 2020, several major cities around the United States faced violent, destructive protests ostensibly in response to police violence directed at black Americans. Many of the protests followed the death of George Floyd, a tragic story that needs no introduction. And while the manner of his death and the actions of police that led to his death are condemnable and unjustifiable, it is equally condemnable and unjustifiable to burn down entire neighborhoods, many of them minority neighborhoods, as an act of protest.
Of course, with the protests, it all comes back full circle. These protests took place throughout 2020 at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. And yet, while children were being told they couldn’t go to school and governments took it upon themselves to arbitrarily decide which businesses were essential and which weren’t, the public was expected to believe that mass gatherings for the purpose of protesting the supposed “public health emergency” of police racism was perfectly okay. Of course, one also shouldn’t forget that the governments of the City of Seattle and the State of Washington allowed Antifa extremists to take over an entire neighborhood and declare it an “autonomous zone” free from police and government interference. Keeping out the “racist” police worked so well in C.H.O.P/C.H.A.Z that two black teenagers were killed, on top of several sexual assaults. This, of course, didn’t stop some in the media from defending the “experiment.”
And since I mentioned Antifa, I can’t forget to also mention the fact that Antifa organized several violent protests in Portland, Oregon during the peak of COVID. The best known of these riots were those that directed violence at an occupied federal courthouse. This included the use of commercial-grade fireworks and other explosives. Nonetheless, the insightful analysts at CNN never hesitated to remind the public that these protests remained “largely peaceful.” And despite clear evidence that Antifa was involved in protests throughout Portland, and in spite of the fact that they openly use social media to organize, our federal criminal justice agencies, politicians, and their media lapdogs all repeat the line that Antifa is not an organization and “just a myth,” an ideology, not a group.
In spite of all of this, last Spring it came to the public’s attention that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was planning to launch a so-called “disinformation board” that would take on the task of benevolently informing Americans who could and who could not be trusted when it came to information related to matters of public discourse, policy, and governance. You should only believe what government, and its trusted partners in big tech, media, and academia tell you to believe. All comparisons and allusions to George Orwell are, of course, misinformation.
I say in spite of because anyone with a commitment to philosophically consistent, logically rigorous thinking can see that this push regarding misinformation, disinformation, and whatever other terms get used, as a push to encourage the adoption of the genetic fallacy as a basic epistemic technique for determining what one should and should not believe. At the very least, this push for the mass adoption of a logical fallacy that favors the very institutions and groups making the push should cause one to be suspicious. At worst, and in my opinion, the worst-case scenario is much more likely given the evidence, our institutions are openly engaged in a massive disinformation campaign of their own. This campaign is not just directed at getting you to believe things that aren’t true by judging truth based on the information source, it’s more like a massive, society-wide gaslighting campaign that wants you to think that you’re crazy–a dangerous extremist, even–for trusting the evidence more than you trust government, media, academia, and the technology they use to deliver their messages.
As anyone paying attention can see, the major point of this push to label anything outside approved narratives as disinformation is aimed at creating the illusion of unanimity. The goal is to make it look like there is a large-scale consensus on whatever it is elite actors wish to do with our most important institutions. There is ample evidence that people tend to revise their own conclusions to match what they perceive to be the consensus position. This often causes a high degree of confidence in revised conclusions that are not as accurate as conclusions arrived at via independent judgment. In a way, it resembles the intentional creation of a false-consensus effect, where people assume that their own views are in line with the majority of others’ views. All you have to do is convince them that they’re the only ones who hold the independent judgments that they do. And this is made much easier when you can limit the sources of information people have available. It can even be made to appear consistent with a commitment to free speech, free thought, and traditional principles of liberty if you can convince them to do the work of limitation on their own–based on a consensus as to who is or is not a reliable source.
At this point, the advice of Mark Twain is perhaps most appropriate: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
I don’t think Twain was suggesting that the majority is always wrong. Instead, what I think he’s getting at is that one should stop to pause and reflect on whether they believe whatever it is they claim to believe because it’s what they think everyone else believes or if it is because it is true.
Doing this is made much harder when we’re encouraged to judge whether something is true because of where we got it rather than if it actually describes the state of affairs existing in our world. Given the empirical evidence for the proclivity among government, media, academia, and their technological gatekeepers to collude in saying things that are obviously false (trans women are women; Antifa doesn’t exist; COVID-19 is not man-made; the vaccine prevents transmission; public schools are not sexualizing our children; public sexual degeneracy will not lead to child abuse; BLM engages in peaceful protests; the effects of hormone blockers in adolescents are reversible; all white people are racist; and the list could go on) there are no good reasons why we should trust them when it comes to their claims about disinformation since a lot of what they claim is disinformation turns out to be true.
At this point, it is obvious that the examples I have given above are focused on lies–disinformation about disinformation–that originate on the Left end of the political spectrum in the United States. There are several reasons for this.
First, in keeping with my own advice to own one’s bias, I admit that my goals and purposes are aligned with conservative and traditional values, both politically and theologically. I am biased in this way because I am convinced, for reasons beyond this post’s purpose, that an adherence to classical definitions of truth as a primary value in political and religious thinking leads necessarily to a position of conservatism.
Second, the philosophical stance of the American Left, and the Left generally within the West, is predicated on a rejection of truth as either objectively real or objectively knowable. That doesn’t mean that politicians and institutions on the Right do not lie or that, at times, they have a questionable association with truth. It does mean that when those on the Left attempt to play gotcha with right-wing people and positions, they must abandon their own worldview position on truth and adopt the conservative position. In other words, accusations of lying are only meaningful if you have a robust definition of what it means for something to be true. This is not something the Left possesses.
Finally, and following from the fact that some on the Right engage in tactics that are indistinguishable from those of the Left, the Right in America needs to disassociate itself from groups and individuals who refuse to be precise and unwavering in their adherence to truth. I’m of course speaking primarily about Donald Trump. On the level of mere policy, I found little to disagree with in the Trump administration’s approach. That doesn’t mean I agreed with everything his administration did or proposed to do. But given the fact that I’ve staked my positions of conservatism on its necessary links with a robust understanding of truth, I cannot agree with making someone given to embellishment and imprecise language the standard-bearer of the ostensible conservative party in the U.S. Nor can I agree with the apparent willingness of so many, including Christians who ought to take the commandment to not bear false witness seriously, to apologize and dissemble in Trump’s defense.
The Trump-associated goals of “draining the swamp” and “gutting the deep state” are worthy and worthwhile. Most of the disinformation fed to the American people finds its origins in agencies and institutions of government–primarily the bureaucracy and state-funded educational institutions–that need to be reformed along lines consistent with a classical understanding of truth. That these entities are being marketed as “reliable sources” makes the problem that much more important. But one cannot achieve this goal if one does not have a firm grip on what truth means, why it’s important, and where it ultimately originates.
There is a lot that needs to be fixed in our society and it begins with a commitment to truth as a primary value. This means teaching people that they cannot and ought not outsource the responsibility for truthfulness, especially if the outsourcing is given to agencies and institutions with a primary value of political and social power. Where something originates is not a valid determinant of its validity or truth. Working through these issues–becoming a more intellectually rigorous public–will not be easy, but it is necessary if we are as committed to liberty and freedom as we claim. In other words, the truth value of our commitment to freedom is only as reliable as our commitment to truth as a value.