Thursday, 27 November 2014

Logical fallacies and AA discourse

A lot of discourse in AA is riddled with logical fallacies. If one understands how these are used, one can counter them more effectively, and reach a true understanding of the object of discussion more effectively.

'This is all too clever for me. I'm going to stick to working with drunks.'

This method is used to dismiss an argument by attacking its 'cleverness'. The argument itself may not actually be particularly clever, but the attack is sufficient to discredit it.

Additionally, there is a false dichotomy: according to the speaker, one can (a) indulge in 'clever' arguments or (b) work with drunks, but one cannot do both. Since working with drunks is self-evidently good, indulging in 'clever' arguments is self-evidently bad.

'Keep it simple (stupid).'

This is an example of argument by cliché/slogan. The cliché/slogan in question, 'keep it simple', is at times appropriate. Clearly, it is not always apposite. Just because hammers are good for hitting nails into planks of wood does not mean that they are good for removing tyres from cars. This slogan is often used, however, as a method of wholesale dismissal, as though playing this particular card always 'trumps' any argument, as if 'keeping it simple' is always the right approach. Clearly 'keeping it simple' could go too far: some people claim that not drinking and going to meetings is sufficient for anyone to stay permanently sober. The difficulty with combating this argument is that any examination of whether or not the object of attack is excessively complex will itself attract the instruction 'Keep it simple (stupid)!' In practice, the phrase is often used to dismiss and shut down a line of argument that the speaker disagrees with but cannot counter substantively.

Similarly: 'utilise, don't analyse'; 'analysis, paralysis'. Self-evidently, there are situations in life and in recovery that require analysis, and the Steps encourage analysis (Steps Four, Eight, and Ten, in particular).

'I've been sober 20 years, and ...'

This is an appeal from (false) authority. If length of sobriety is used to support the size of the body of evidence the individual has gathered, length of sobriety may be cited validly. But an argument is not valid simply because the person using it is 20 years sober. A similar appeal from false authority is to say to someone, 'keep coming back', as a way of responding to a contribution to a discussion. This saying is often used to position the speaker as an 'old-timer' and the opponent as a 'newcomer'; rather than addressing the argument substantively, the opponent is belittled. This is a variation of the 'ad hominem' attack.

'All of the old-timers I know say that ...'

This is an appeal to anonymous authority: we do not know who these old-timers are; they may indeed be fools. Again, the assumption is that anyone sober a long time is automatically right.

'In early AA, they would ...'

This is an appeal to false authority: just because something was done in 1937 or 1941 does not mean it is automatically better or more effective than something done now. If there were to be a presumption, it would be fairer to presume that the greater knowledge and understanding acquired over time has led to greater effectiveness, as this is the principle that operates in most fields. This can go too far, also, as it is not necessarily true that things are better now because of the passage of time and greater knowledge and understanding acquired. Instead, each proposition must be examined on its own merits.

This is also a manifestation of the 'wisdom of the ancients' fallacy: the 'ancients' (aka old-timers or founders of AA) are automatically right.

'When I was new, I used to think that ..., but now ...'

This is a 'statement of conversion', and a weak way of asserting expertise. A conversion from one belief to another does not mean that the conversion is in the right direction. One might well have gone from believing something true to believing something false.

'You think too much. Thinking won't get you sober.'

This is the fallacy of the general rule. Experience may suggest that certain individuals cannot be induced to stay sober by application of logic and reason. To derive a general rule, that logic and reason should be shunned, is inappropriate, however.

'That's just treatment centre crap.'

This is an example of the 'poisoning-the-wells' fallacy: 'treatment centres' are often a dirty word in AA (a fallacious belief itself, because of false generalisation), so, to discredit an idea, all you have to do is attribute it to treatment centres. This is a variation of the 'ad hominem' argument (where one attacks the person rather than the argument).

'What you are shouts so loud no one hears a word you're saying.'

This quotation attributed to Emerson is used to discredit the opponent, as an ad hominem attack. Effectively: 'you, Sir, are an cad, so everything you say is false.'

'I'm only new in AA and I just need to be given a break ...'/'I've been through such a lot—give me a break.'

This is the card being played: 'take pity on me, so do not challenge what I am saying'.

'He stopped going to meetings, so he got drunk.'

This is the fallacy of false cause. Just because one thing follows another does not mean the latter caused the former. The individual may have decided he wanted to return to drinking, which is why he stopped going to meetings. In that case, the decision to return to drinking was therefore the reason he got drunk, not stopping going to meetings per se. In other cases, stopping going to meetings may be a factor, but implying it is the only factor is without basis.

'She was twenty-five years sober and working with lots of newcomers, and she got drunk. I'm going to be careful about how many sponsees I take on.'

This betrays a confusion of correlation and causation. Simply because a factor is present does not mean it was causal. The speaker could have chosen one hundred other factors ('She lives in Santa Monica; she watches daytime TV; she also goes to Al-Anon') ... This also betrays 'causal reductionism'—the truth is that there were likely many contributing factors.

'AA is a cult. I know someone who attended a group where you had to cut ties with all of your old friends and family and spend all of your time with group members.'

This is the fallacy of composition: just because one group behaves like a cult does not mean that AA itself is a cult.

'AA has worked for millions of people around the world. If you can't get sober at your home group, that's your fault, not AA's, because AA works.'

This is a combination of the fallacy of composition and the fallacy of division. Firstly, the speaker is concluding that AA, as a whole, 'works', on the basis that many groups are self-evidently effective. Secondly, the speaker is concluding that, because AA as a whole 'works', any individual group must be effective. The truth is, the individual's home group may be lousy, with no one carrying an effective message, which is why newcomers are not able to achieve sobriety there.

'I had a benzo problem for years. Now I won't even take an aspirin, in case I abuse that.'

This is an example of the slippery slope/camel's nose fallacy. In this fallacy, there is the assumption that something is wrong because it is has some resemblance to or is otherwise somehow close to something that is wrong. This is a very common fallacy when individuals are talking about medication in recovery. Clearly, some forms of medication, in some individuals, are conducive to relapse. The idea that an aspirin is the start of a slippery slope, however, is fallacious.

'I knew someone who drank in the middle of her Step Four. It was clearly bringing up too much emotion, so she drank. I don't advise taking Step Four.'

This is argument by half-truth. Very often, behind these stories, there are numerous other factors: e.g. the individual was barely going to any meetings, was not actually following the advice of her sponsor regarding fellowship and service, etc.

'AA has only a 5% success rate today. It used to have a success rate of 93%.'

A common problem in discussions is a gross misunderstanding of statistics, and innumeracy. Success rates, for example, are meaningful only if one knows what pool of individuals is being taken as the base. Is that 5% of people who attend at least one AA meeting? Or is that 5% of people who complete the twelve-step programme in full? Very often, AA's low success rates measure the proportion of people who stay sober, say, for one year, out of a population of people who are introduced at all to AA. Since participation and follow-through are voluntary, however, the rate measures not the success of the programme but a combination of the ability of AA to attract and keep problem drinkers and members AND the success of the programme, rolled up into a single figure. It should be recalled, also, that in early AA, membership was highly filtered, and the pool of individuals on which basis success rates were calculated did not include anyone who was not successfully twelfth-stepped.

To summarise: when using statistics, be sure you understand exactly how the statistic was calculated.

'I can't take Step Two. I simply can't believe in an old man in the sky with a beard.'
'I can't meditate, because I get restless leg syndrome.'

These are examples of the straw-man fallacy, where an exaggerated or caricatured version of a position is adopted and attacked. The counter-arguments: your higher power can be the spirit of the universe, your home group, or anything you like; you could try walking meditation.

'If you don't work the Steps, you will die of alcoholism.'

This is an appeal to force, effectively, a threat. It may or may not be true in the case of the individual in question. Many people do indeed die of alcoholism, and many people who work the Steps do indeed recover from alcoholism. One cannot fairly assert, however, that this will necessarily be the consequence if this individual does not work the Steps.


Arguing in capitals is argument by vehemence. Rather than letting the argument stand on its own, the speaker is using a tantrum to block opposition.

This one is also an example of the appeal to pity: if you position yourself as a victim and others as bullies, you do not have to substantiate your argument.

'AA operates like a cult. It has to be either their way or no way.'

This is a combination of the straw man argument, the fallacy of the excluded middle, and the fallacy of composition. Firstly, as indicated elsewhere, individual AAs proclaiming the 'my way or the highway' position does not mean that AA as a whole operates in that way (fallacy of composition); secondly, presenting this as AA's general approach is a straw man argument—this is a caricatured version of what generally happens in AA; the fallacy of the excluded middle is the fallacy that there are two extremes and nothing in between. This fallacy is being projected onto the opponent (AA!) to discredit it.

Another example of the excluded middle/false dichotomy:

'Personally I'd rather be insulted sober than coddled, drunk.'

This implies that these are the only two options (insulted/coddled), with no other options available (e.g. being respected, being told the truth kindly). This is also a good example of false correlation: sobriety is associated with truth, however unpleasant, and drunkenness is associated with being coddled.

A very common example of the false dichotomy/faulty dilemma is this: 'When I was new, I am glad people cared more about whether I lived or died than my feelings.' It is, in fact, possible, to care about whether someone lives or dies and act and speak accordingly, whilst taking care not to hurt someone unnecessarily.

'Just remember that opinions are like assholes; everyone has one.'

By generally dismissing all opinions, one does not need to engage substantively in any of them. In a debate setting, this is like sweeping all of the chess-pieces off the board.

'I don't make amends to ex-partners, because it says in Step Nine that we do not make amends to people if we are going to harm them.'

This is called 'begging the question', where the thing to be proved ('making amends to ex-partners is harmful') is actually the premise of the argument (as making amends to them and harming them are equated).

Lastly, my personal favourite, often seen on online discussions:

'In recovery, I only do what is in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Anything else ain't AA'.

This is an example of the stolen concept. This is where you use what you are attacking to support your argument. In this case, engaging in an online debate to attack recovery activities not set out in the Big Book is to engage in just such an activity. If one were genuinely to believe that principle, one would have to refrain from online debates, as these are not discussed in the 'main text' part of the Big Book.

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