Updated: Jun 21, 2022
Developing a spy mindset means developing positive habits, but it also means avoiding negative habits, such as invoking informal fallacies when making arguments. One of the most pervasive is the genetic fallacy.
The study of logic includes both formal and informal fallacies. Our minds are hard-wired to think logically because logic reflects the laws of thought. Mistakes are made, but most of us wouldn’t need a class in formal logic to recognize the following formal fallacies:
All poodles are dogs.
All silky terriers are dogs.
Therefore, all poodles are silky terriers.
If we turn on the sprinkler, the grass will be wet.
We didn’t turn on the sprinkler.
Therefore, the grass isn’t wet.
These are formal fallacies because the structure of the arguments makes it impossible to derive a logically valid conclusion. For the first argument, if you remove poodles, silky terriers, and dogs and replace them with any three words in the dictionary, the argument will be logically invalid 100% of the time.
I should highlight that logically invalid isn’t the same as false. That is, a logically invalid argument can have a true conclusion.
The Morning Star is a celestial body.
Venus is a celestial body.
Therefore, the Morning Star is Venus.
In this case, the conclusion is true, but the argument is logically invalid.
Shifting to informal fallacies, these are less concerned with the formal structure of the argument and more concerned with the reasoning process. For example, the ad hominem fallacy involves a personal attack.
The Chairman of the Federal Reserve recommended higher interest rates to fight inflation.
Sure, but he’s a jackass.
The Chairman might be a jackass, but this has no bearing on his argument regarding interest rates and inflation. Truth is its own standard. Whereas the ad hominem fallacy focuses on the person’s character, the genetic fallacy focuses on the origin of the idea.
For example, suppose that a congressman submits a bill with measures to ensure that only registered U.S. citizens 18 years and older are allowed to vote – one time. A person guilty of the genetic fallacy might retort that the congressman is from Alabama, which has a history of racism and suppressing the minority vote.
It’s possible that the congressman is a racist and hopes to suppress the minority vote, but logic requires us to debate the bill on the merits.
Or suppose that a congressman submits a bill to give subsidies to green energy companies and stop the production of oil refineries and coal power plants. A person guilty of the genetic fallacy might retort that the congressman is a World Economic Forum (WEF) member who aspires to destroy the U.S. economy and surrender to a one-world government.
It’s possible that the congressman is a WEF member who aspires to destroy the U.S. economy and surrender to a one-world government, but logic requires us to debate bill on the merits.
I deliberately selected political examples to trigger emotions, to show that we are all vulnerable to the genetic fallacy, especially when defending our own views, but the same principle applies to less controversial issues.
Suppose you hold a weekly staff meeting to discuss marketing ideas for a new product and the best idea comes from a quiet intern in the corner. Curious, you invite the intern out for lunch to discuss the idea, to include asking which prestigious books and journals the intern read to develop such an innovative idea. To your surprise, the intern boldly states that he got the idea from a dream.
I’m not saying that the origin of an idea is irrelevant or that you should treat all ideas with equal consideration but developing a spy mindset means walking this fine line and understanding that experts in different fields often don’t see how disparate dots can be connected.
The genetic fallacy also applies to giving undue credibility to the origin of an idea. For example, although it’s reasonable for government executives (mayors, governors, president) to consult with public health officials about the risks of a pandemic, their expertise is limited to this topic alone.
Many factors contribute to our demise (diet, stress, age, disease, etc.) but there are many things worse than facing a less than 1% chance of death from a virus, such as structural damage to the economy, a spike in substance abuse and mental health issues, and disrupting the educational and emotional development of our children.
The genetic fallacy (e.g., giving undue deference to ideas from the CDC) explains why we ignored other experts who understood that the pandemic lockdowns would have second- and third-order effects that in many ways were worse than the disease.