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What is Refuting the example fallacy?

Examples are often adduced in support of an argument. When attention is focused on showing the example to be a false one, but leaving the central thesis unchallenged, the fallacy is known as ‘refuting the example’.

 

‘Teenagers are very bad-mannered these days. That boy from next door nearly knocked me over in the street yesterday, and didn’t even stay to apologize. ‘

‘You’re wrong. Simon is no longer a teenager.’

(None of which knocks over the original assertion, only one example.)

 

While an example can illustrate and reinforce an argument, the discrediting of it does not discredit the argument itself. There may be many other instances which support the thesis, and which are genuine cases.

There is a fine distinction between the quite legitimate activity of casting doubt on an opponent’s evidence, and concentrating criticism on the example instead of on the thesis which it supports. If the rejection of the central claim is urged only because a bad example was used to support it, the fallacy is committed.

 

I can show that there is no truth at all in the allegation that hunting is cruel to animals. In the case of the Berkshire hunt described to us, what we were not told was that a post-mortem showed that this particular fox had died of natural causes. So much for charges of cruelty.

(The argument has less life in it than the fox.)

 

A case of this fallacy occurred in a general election. One party featured a poster showing a happy family to illustrate the slogan that life was better with them. Their opponents devoted an extraordinary amount of time and attention to the actual model who appeared in the photograph, and to publicizing the fact that his was not a happy marriage. The effort was presumably expended in the belief that the public would be less likely to believe the fact once the example was refuted.

For some reason, this fallacy is very prevalent in discussion about sport. In support of a generalized claim, such as ‘Spain produces the best strikers’, an example will be produced. This seems to be the cue for lengthy and dull evaluation of the merits of the individual concerned. The assumption throughout the discussion seems to be that the case for or against the original general statement will be won or lost with that of the example.

You can set up situations for using this fallacy by prodding your opponents with a demand for examples. Your heavy skepticism as you respond to their claims with ‘such as?’ will prompt them into bringing forward a case in point. Immediately they do so, you attack the case, showing how it could not possibly be valid. The case of a family produced to show that bus drivers’ pay is too low can be attacked with great merriment by asking whether they have a colour television and how much the husband spends on beer. Even if you cannot undermine the example in apparent destruction of the assertion it supports, you can probably widen the talk to a more general discussion about what constitutes poverty, and cast doubt on whether the original statement means anything at all. This is called ‘linguistic analysis’.