Biases, fallacies, argument: Would you argue with a T-rex?

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If you were the brontosaurus, what would you say back? The following cartoon sequence is designed for TOK to prompt examination of assumptions, emotional appeals, and fallacies of argument. Students will quickly see some real world relevance and echoes of common knowledge claims.

If you would find this activity useful with your own students, please feel free to download a formatted copy here (with permission given to teachers to use it in their own classrooms): Would you argue with a T-rex?

You’ll find commentary on the cartoon frames at the end of this post.

DOWNLOAD a formatted copy here: Would you argue with a T-rex?

Using the cartoon sequence in class

Why did my husband Theo and I resort to designing cartoons for a TOK activity? Well, to be honest, it was partly for fun – of a sort! But we also recognize that a storyline or a touch of humour helps to engage students. These cartoons provide, we hope, a light boost for them to look at assumptions behind some common knowledge claims and the flawed reasoning that often comes with arguments based on them.

I wasn’t sure whether to provide any commentary to accompany them in this blog post, since I think I can safely assume that all TOK teachers will see the fallacies and biases. But then, I thought to myself, if our positions were reversed, I’d like you to tell me at least what you had in mind!

Frames 1 and 6: Story frame and ethics

The first and last boxes are simply the story frame. If you wanted, you could use the story to raise ethical questions of what we owe to others, reciprocally, within a context that’s metaphorical – and how we would know our obligations. (Are those other dinosaurs fleeing their erupting island “creatures” or “fellow creatures”?) However, I’d be inclined just to leave those ideas implicit, or just nod in their direction, unless students raise them for discussion themselves. To go exploring ethical imperatives in any serious way, I’d choose more substantial stimulus material than these cartoons.

Frame 2: “They must have done something wrong….”

Human beings seek causes for events – as observed long before cognitive scientists studied our intuitive biases and their role in swift, pre-rational conclusions. Plenty of fallacies crowd around the attribution of cause as we try to understand our world and make living in it less dangerous and threatening. In this frame, the tyrannosaurus immediately seizes on a cause of the natural catastrophe of volcanic eruption – the action of the creatures themselves. Clearly, no chain of evidence links the cause and the effect in this case!

I don’t think it’s necessary for students to apply a name to a cognitive bias in order to identify the thinking. But this one has been given the name “just world fallacy, a cognitive bias toward treating the world as much fairer (more just) than, on reflection, one might acknowledge it to be. The world can feel safer if you feel that people get what they deserve, and that if your own actions are blameless then you are safe. This bias often lies behind blaming victims for their own problems – assuming that the victims of bullying or assault, for example, must have done something to provoke attack (with the result of directing blame toward them as well as – or instead of – the perpetrators).

Important here is only to get students to spell out what the T-rex is assuming behind his comment: that those in a mess must have done something to get there, that it’s somehow their own fault! You might choose to note that sometimes – outside this cartoon – people (as individuals, as societies) MAY have caused their own problems (at least in part), but conversely, they may NOT have caused them. Finding solutions requires moving beyond blaming and analyzing causes in a thoughtful and critical way.

For general treatment of cause, see my TOK book pages 252-254, for a treatment of causal fallacies see page 128, and for the cognitive bias “just-world fallacy” see page 201 in the chapter on intuition.

Frame 3: “We have no proof that they’re not.”

This one is a variation on the “argument from ignorance” – assuming a knowledge claim to be true on the grounds that there’s no proof that it’s not. Silly? Yes, silly – but possibly deadly. The classic: If you can’t prove that you’re not a witch, you must be one! It’s important for this cartoon only to pin down the assumption, so that students might be more alert to the way that absence of evidence is sometimes flung about in arguments. A catchy summary is often quoted, making a good point in a pithy way: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This assertion simply needs a follow-up, always mentally tagged on: “Neither is it evidence of presence. More study needed.”

For further comments on the argument from ignorance, see my TOK book page 126 on errors in the reasoning process.

Frame 4: “We’ll end up starving.”

The important thing in this frame is to identify the emotional content, so that threat is recognized as being assumed – and can then be questioned and evaluated. The “appeal to fear” is one of the most common fallacies, and permeates arguments about how best to deal with a world that is often scary. It’s a bit more complicated than the others here, though, in that fear can be an appropriate reaction if the threat is genuine. If you ask “What is being assumed?” then there’s a chance to identify the nature of the threat and look more thoughtfully at whether the situation requires a fight-or-flight response – or the numerous social and political versions of it.

Mixed in with the fear here is an all-or-nothing over-simplification – that if you allow any creatures ashore, you must allow them all. This is a common argument for taking no action at all: if you can’t fully solve a problem, then why try? (“THAT measure won’t go far. It won’t solve the problem. So it’s useless.”) Yet we know that problems are often solved using a combination of several measures.

To a large extent, this all-or-nothing argument is a classic “false dilemma”: a situation with several possible alternative choices is simplified to allow only two contrary positions; either we do A (accept all) or we do B (reject all). (The classic: either you’re with us or you’re against us.) Arguments that use a false dilemma make one of the two alternatives sound terrible, thus leaving only one acceptable choice. They don’t allow that C, D, and E might also be possibilities, and they certainly discourage the creative generation of alternatives important in problem-solving.

Plus in this frame there’s a touch of “slippery slope” thinking, according to which a particular action is treated as the first in an imagined sequence. It’s seen as the first step toward dreadful ruin – as if it will precipitate an inevitable sequence of increasingly awful consequences. “Don’t do that” is rephrased as “Don’t take that dangerous first step!” While we do have to be alert to “taking first steps” that are genuinely dangerous, again the weight of attention should fall on assessing the risk based on good information. A panicky reaction to imagined doom can get in the way of an evidence-based evaluation.

For further comments on logical fallacies in dealing with alternatives and gradations, see my TOK book page 127 on errors in the reasoning process. For logical fallacies using emotional appeals, see pages 171 to 173.

Frame 5: “If alien microbes enter….”

Microbes? This one is the common fallacy of “false analogy” – a metaphorical comparison treated as though it’s a factual equivalent, and used to draw a conclusion. Personally, I like analogies and I’m fond of metaphors: when well used, they do help us to conceptualize abstractions or understand complexity. But even a good analogy has to be identified as carrying only some points of likeness! It can illustrate an argument, but it can’t logically carry it. Here, the analogy chosen is one of disease, so instantly reflects and reinforces the appeal to fear.

For further comments on logical fallacies using metaphors, see my TOK book page 149 for explanation and an activity.  

Enough! You’ll probably interpret these cartoon frames slightly differently from how Theo and I do, and your students might interpret them differently from how you do.  If you opt to try out this cartoon-based discussion in class, we’d love some comments back from you on how it worked.


Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013.