Appeal to probability fallacy

An appeal to probability fallacy occurs when one assumes that because something could happen, it will inevitably happen. This fallacy overlooks that being possible doesn't make something certain.

A slight variation of this is the appeal to possibility fallacy, which occurs when one argues that because something is possible, no matter how unlikely, it is reasonable to believe it will happen. This fallacy dismisses the low probability of the occurrence, basing the argument merely on its possibility.

In both cases, the error is in conflating potentiality with inevitability, but the emphasis differs. The appeal to probability fallacy overestimates the likelihood of an event, while the appeal to possibility fallacy leverages the mere existence of a possibility, regardless of its likelihood.

How it works with disinformation?

The appeal to probability fallacy and it's variant - appeal to possibility fallacy - may be used to mislead or disinform by:

  • Creating doubt by highlighting the possibility of alternative outcomes or explanations, seeking to undermine established facts or consensus, creating confusion and casting doubt on accurate information.
  • Exaggerating the risks and the probability of negative outcomes or risks associated with certain actions or policies by focusing on worst-case scenarios and instilling fear.
  • Distorting scientific consensus by cherry-picking or misrepresenting scientific studies or opinions.
  • Making misleading predictions or forecasts that are speculative and without sufficient evidence or rigorous analysis.
  • Exploiting uncertainty by capitalising on genuine uncertainties or gaps in knowledge or highlighting the incomplete understanding or ongoing debates within specific fields, attempting to create the perception that there is significant disagreement.

Curious how this might look in the news? We generated some news headlines examples that you might see in the tabloids:

  1. "Vast majority of gun owners law-abiding! Do we even need more gun laws?"
  2. "Terrifying unknowns: Could GMOs be silent killers lurking in your food?"
  3. "AI uprising looms! 5% chance spells doom for humanity?"
  4. "Big brother alert! Is every single online chat being watched by the government?"
  5. "Legalize and doom? How making drugs legal could turn us all into addicts?"
  6. "Crime wave alert? One bad apple means we need a lockdown on borders now!"

 

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Video by Colburn Classroom | Used under Creative Commons license

Suggested use in training

  • Fallacy Detective Game: Divide your learners into teams and provide them with examples of both non-sequitur fallacies and valid arguments. Have students identify which statements are non-sequiturs and explain why. Run this in a competitive format.
    (Note that you may use this learning activity with any logical fallacy and may combine several fallacies in a single activity)
  • Fallacy Challenge: Ask your learners to find social media posts, articles or clips from movies, TV shows, or political speeches where non-sequitur fallacies might be present. Have the learners pinpoint and explain the fallacies in the collected resources. and discuss why they are used and why they might be persuasive, even though they are incorrect. You may want to run an intensive collection of content where everyone participates and then randomly distribute the resources to groups of learners for analysis and discussion.