, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 431–456 | Cite as

The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life

  • Maarten BoudryEmail author
  • Fabio Paglieri
  • Massimo Pigliucci


Philosophers of science have given up on the quest for a silver bullet to put an end to all pseudoscience, as such a neat formal criterion to separate good science from its contenders has proven elusive. In the literature on critical thinking and in some philosophical quarters, however, this search for silver bullets lives on in the taxonomies of fallacies. The attractive idea is to have a handy list of abstract definitions or argumentation schemes, on the basis of which one can identify bad or invalid types of reasoning, abstracting away from the specific content and dialectical context. Such shortcuts for debunking arguments are tempting, but alas, the promise is hardly if ever fulfilled. Different strands of research on the pragmatics of argumentation, probabilistic reasoning and ecological rationality have shown that almost every known type of fallacy is a close neighbor to sound inferences or acceptable moves in a debate. Nonetheless, the kernel idea of a fallacy as an erroneous type of argument is still retained by most authors. We outline a destructive dilemma we refer to as the Fallacy Fork: on the one hand, if fallacies are construed as demonstrably invalid form of reasoning, then they have very limited applicability in real life (few actual instances). On the other hand, if our definitions of fallacies are sophisticated enough to capture real-life complexities, they can no longer be held up as an effective tool for discriminating good and bad forms of reasoning. As we bring our schematic “fallacies” in touch with reality, we seem to lose grip on normative questions. Even approaches that do not rely on argumentation schemes to identify fallacies (e.g., pragma-dialectics) fail to escape the Fallacy Fork, and run up against their own version of it.


Fallacies Demarcation Fallacy Fork Pseudoscience Argumentum ad ignorantiam Genetic fallacy Post hoc ergo propter hoc Ad hominem Ecological rationality Probabilistic reasoning Pragma-dialetics Destructive dilemma Irrationality 



The research of the first author was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO). The second author’s work was supported by the project PRISMA—Interoperable Cloud Platforms for Smart-Government, funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR-PON). The third author was supported by the K.D. Irani fund for Philosophy of Science at the City College of New York. We would like to thank Jan Verplaetse, Danny Praet and John Teehan for useful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maarten Boudry
    • 1
    Email author
  • Fabio Paglieri
    • 2
  • Massimo Pigliucci
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Moral SciencesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della CognizioneConsiglio Nazionale delle RicercheRomeItaly
  3. 3.Department of PhilosophyCity College of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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