More logical fallacies in planning policy

Michael Lewyn's picture
A couple of weeks ago, Todd Litman made a blog entry on logical fallacies in planning.*   After looking at the list of possible fallacies at the end of his post, I thought I would show some (hopefully not too common) examples of these fallacies:

Ad hominem (arguing against the person rather than the argument) – "Smart growth is in the U.N's Agenda 21 so we have to fight it to stop the U.N's plan to socialize the world."  "Concern about urban containment is just another example of Tea Party extremism."

Anageon (relying on inevitability)- "Sprawl is inevitable, so there's nothing we can do about it."

Anecdotal evidence (relying on one example that might not be probative)- "Suburbs are all turning into slums.  Just look at Central Islip [the low-income Long Island suburb where I work]."  "Density causes crime.  Just look at the South Bronx."

Fallacy of composition (assuming that what is true of one part is true of the whole)- "Since Central Islip is full of foreclosed houses, suburbia must be going downhill." "There are some neighborhoods in St. Louis City that are really scary, so you should live in the suburbs."

Fallacy of division (assuming that what is true of the whole must be true of the parts): "We live in a car-dependent nation, so we need to have most of downtown occupied by parking lots." "The city of Chicago has been losing population for decades, so hardly anyone wants to live downtown."

False dilemma (assuming that there are only two possible alternatives, when in fact there are more): "Since most people don't want to live in high-rises, suburban sprawl is what they really want."  "Because the book of Genesis says God won't destroy humanity completely, global warming must be harmless."

Hasty generalization (making a generalization based on a small sample): "Downtown condos in city X are suffering from the recession, so obviously there's no evidence of an increase in city living."

Historian's fallacy (assuming decisionmakers in the past knew what we knew now)-  "The people who supported the interstate highway program must have known that it would create sprawl."

Judgmental language (using perjorative language to influence a reader's judgment)- "Obama and his socialist Chicago machine support high-speed rail." "Smart growth means we'll all be crammed in apartments like rats in a cage."

Meaningless statement (too vague to be agreed or disagreed with)- "You can't stop progress."

Nirvana fallacy (comparing actual things with unrealizable alternatives): "You can't un-invent cars or suburbs, so we better keep building highways and putting cars first."

Pathetic fallacy (treating inanimate objects as if they had human emotions): "We need more environmental regulation because the Earth is angry at us."

Politician's fallacy (because something should be done about a problem, a particular remedy is necessary): "We must do something about traffic congestion, so we must widen the roads."  "We must do something about climate change, so we should build a new light rail line instead."

Retrospective determinism (because something happened it was bound to happen): "American cities have declined, so sprawl was inevitable no matter what policies we followed."

Straw man (attacking a position that isn't really your opponent's position): "The smart growth lobby wants everyone to live in high-rises, so its goal is impractical."


Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Michael Dudley's picture


Nicely done Michael!

Meaningless Statement?

Very well done, Michael, but I have to disagree with this example of a meaningless statement:

Meaningless statement (too vague to be agreed or disagreed with)- “You can’t stop progress.”

People did mean something during the 1950s and 1960s, when they said "you can't stop progress" to opponents of new freeways, dams, or suburban subdivisions.

Now we can not only disagree with them but also prove them wrong. We can point of lots of examples where environmentalists have stopped "progress" by blocking new dams or freeways.

Charles Siegel

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