The Appeal to Definition Fallacy: When People Misuse the Dictionary - Deepstash





Deepstash brings you key ideas from the most inspiring articles like this one:

Read more efficiently

Save what inspires you

Remember anything

The Appeal to Definition Fallacy: When People Misuse the Dictionary

The Appeal to Definition Fallacy: When People Misuse the Dictionary


Key Ideas

Save all ideas

The argument from dictionary

The argument from dictionary

The argument from a dictionary is a logical fallacy and happens when someone's argument is based, in a problematic way, on the definition of a particular term as it appears in a dictionary. The problem with these arguments:

  • Dictionaries are descriptive, meaning that they attempt to describe how people use the language. It is not prescriptive in that it instructs them how to do so in a definitive manner.
  • Dictionaries don't always reflect the meaning of words as they're used by people.
  • Different dictionaries can list different definitions for a given term, and may even have several definitions for the same word.



An example of the appeal to definition

"We should ignore the theory of evolution because the dictionary says that a theory is just an opinion that you have about something you can't prove."

The person using this fallacy is basing their statement on a specific definition of the word "theory" while ignoring alternative definitions that will better capture the meaning of the term as it's used in a scientific context.


Appeal to definition: when the process becomes fallacious

Not every use of a definition is necessarily fallacious. If the definition is properly justified and is selected in a properly justified way, it is generally not fallacious. However, it is fallacious when at least one of the following conditions are true:

  • There is no valid reason for using the definition.
  • The definition was cherry-picked out of a range of possible definitions.


Responding to an appeal to definition

When responding to appeals to definition, it is useful to know the terms denotation, which is the literal meaning of a word, and connotation, which is a feeling the word evokes beyond its denotation.

  • Explain why the use of the definition is inappropriate in this case.
  • Explain why the proposed definition is flawed. Other dictionaries may offer different meanings than the one your opponent has chosen.
  • You can sometimes benefit from using specific and relevant examples to show why such arguments are problematic.
  • You can ask the person using the fallacy to correctly justify their reasoning in light of your criticism.


Modern dictionaries

The structure and use of dictionaries have changed as new technologies developed.

  • Easily available online dictionaries make it easier for people to use and cherry-pick preferred definitions in their arguments.
  • Dictionaries can be quickly updated with new words or new meanings of existing words.
  • Dictionaries are able to list a wider range of meanings and connotations.


Types of definitions

  • Reportive definitions aim to accurately capture the meaning of a term as it's ordinarily used.
  • Precising definitions add relevant criteria to a reportive definition to make it more precise for a specific purpose.
  • Stipulative definitions are used to establish a specific purpose. For example, "for the purpose of the present document, the term 'contract' means..."
  • A persuasive definition is a stipulative definition that is dressed up as a reportive definition or as a claim in an argument. The terms are redefined to present one's preferred definitions as facts.
  • Ostensive definitions are based on examples of the word that is being described. For example, "liquid" could be "things like water and oil."
  • Misleading definitions relies on misleading language so that its intended meaning is different than the meaning that most people will use.
  • Operational definitions are used to define certain measures where an exact, reproducible definition is needed, such as in scientific studies.



Cherry picking

It is a logical fallacy and it happens when we choose and focus only on evidence that supports our views and arguments while ignoring anything that may contradict us.

The problem with cherry picking

  • It fails to take into consideration all the available information
  • It presents information in a misleading way.
  • It might lead to improper analysis and might cause someone to paint a misleading picture of a certain outcome.

The principle of total evidence

Also referred to as Bernoulli’s maxim, it states that, when assessing the probability that a certain hypothesis is true, we must take into account all the available information.

Basic structure of an argument from incredulity

Premise 1: I can’t explain or imagine how proposition X can be true.

Premise 2: if a certain proposition is true, then I must be able to explain or imagine how that can be.

It’s ok to be incredulous

... and to bring this up as part of an argument. The issue with doing so occurs when this incredulity isn’t justified or supported by concrete information, and when this lack of belief is used in order to assume that a preferred personal explanation must be the right one, despite the lack of proof.

At the same time, it’s also important to remember that it’s possible that the person using the argument from incredulity is right, despite the fact that their reasoning is flawed.

Counter the argument from incredulity

  1. Explain why this sort of reasoning is fallacious: namely the fact that your opponent’s inability to explain a certain phenomenon or to understand a certain theory, does not invalidate current explanations for it.
  2. Shift the burden of proof back to your opponent: ask them to support their initial assertion, and explain why they are incredulous, and why they think that this validates their position.
  3. If possible, you should show that there is scientific evidence that can be used in order to explain the phenomenon that’s being discussed. 

Jumping into Conclusions

Jumping to conclusions is a common phenomenon, where people prematurely decide and finalize something, without having sufficient information or choosing not to consider it.

Jumping into Conclusions: Examples

  • Inference-observation confusion: An assumption made that may or may not be correct. Example: Concluding that a guy is rich, based on the car he drives.
  • Fortune-Telling: Assumption of knowing exactly what will happen in the future.
  • Mind Reading: Assuming based on how to have read someone's mind and concluded something which may not be true.
  • Extreme Extrapolation: Finding a minor clue and making something major out of it.
  • Overgeneralization: Copy-pasting a piece of knowledge over something that you think is related, but is not.
  • Labeling: Stereotyping a set of people based on their likes and dislikes.

Why We Jump to Conclusions

The reason people jump to conclusions is the fact that they find it easy.

Fact-checking and 100 percent accuracy on everything they see or observe consume way too much time for a normal person.

Taking mental shortcuts is the path most people choose to jump to conclusions.