The Genetic Fallacy: He Works For An Oil Company!

The COMT gene “for” altruism is mighty selfish.

I’m on the road for the next several days and won’t always have access to the Internet. So I’m reposting a series of classic fallacies. Regular service to resume early next week. This post originally appeared on 17 April 2013.

The genetic fallacy is committed when a proposition is accepted or rejected because of its origin, history, who speaks it, or who paid for it to be spoken.

It is one of the most popular of all fallacies, probably because it is the most fun. You get to raise your eyebrow when using it, and even leer. It is like gossip because it makes you feel superior and need only be put in the form of an unsubstantiated aspersion. It is thus the favorite fallacy of journalists and activists.

An example, which is said in a whisper between two people or boldly shouted if on a website or newspaper, is: “What he says can’t be true. His organization accepts money from a certain corporation. You know the one I mean.” Examples of corporations are Apple, Abercrombie & Fitch, or New York Times Company.

So if you criticize Greenpeace or the Sierra Club by saying they accept money from oil companies, it does not prove that whatever Greenpeace or the Sierra Club says about oil (and its derivatives) is therefore true or false.

So if you criticize a Columbia University professor by saying she is a convicted bomber and accomplice to murder and is otherwise thoroughly disagreeable, it does not prove that what this professor says about sociology is therefore true or false. This example works at several universities.

So if you criticize an NPR reporter by saying his salary is based upon money from corporate advertisers, it does not prove that whatever the reporter says about rivals to those corporations (rivals who did not advertise) is therefore true or false.

So if you criticize a Nineteenth Century philosopher who claimed Utopia would evince once the State was in control of all, it does not prove that his philosophy was true or false because it was uttered so long ago.

So if you criticize a politician by saying he was lobbied furiously (including receiving generous campaign donations) by, it does not prove that the bill sponsored by the politician is therefore good or bad.

So if you criticize a scientist by saying he accepted grants from an ever-increasing government, and that his entire career is based on the government so increasing, it does not prove that the conclusion reached by the scientist is therefore right or wrong.

Further examples of people who take money or accept consideration to provide opinions: everybody. Except hermits and my Uncle Donald.

Don’t confuse the genetic fallacy with the gene fallacy, which is all the rage among the over-educated. This fallacy claims we are all slaves to our selfish—or rather “selfish”, which does not mean selfish but something else like selfish but not—genes. This fallacy claims our thoughts, will, and reason are fully determined by “blind” genetic forces. It is likely this fallacy is embraced because it is so wildly at odds with commonsense, and is a way to separate occult masters from the endarkened masses.

Full disclosure Your author, unlike Greenpeace, has never, very unfortunately, received any consideration from any oil or tobacco company, nor any of their subsidiaries—even though he would have taken the money were it offered.


  1. Briggs,

    Your Quote: “we are all slaves to our selfish … genes”. I don’t believe that anyone actually says or believes this, not even Dawkins.

    Its opposite, the tendency to ignore genetic influence of human behavior, even when it is staring you in the face is widespread. I call it the environmental fallacy (agenda), although not the one that usually goes by that name. I enjoy Dawkins’ writings on evolution, but I must agree that his anti-religion tirades miss the mark.

    Yes, there is a tendency to over estimate the usefulness of studies that try to show a simple relationship between genetic markers and behavior as you have shown in the brain imaging studies that you have reviewed, but this is a separate issue. Gene expression is a complicated subject. See the following link.


  2. William S,

    That there are genetic influences, few doubt (I do not). I am tall, others are short, and this affects our interaction. Etc.

    But Dawkins does indeed (when he is being coherent) claim determinism. See, inter alia, this article.

    Update Arrgh. I fixed the link here. I hope.

  3. Briggs,

    I was all keen to read the article, but the link is a loop back to your posting. Also, more than a few doubt genetic effects, especially on behavioral and mental abilities. See your own reference to Steven Goldberg’s extensive work on this subject as well as Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”. Even strong effects such as height and sexual dimorphism are treated as taboo topics and only grudgingly accepted when brought up by right wing meanies.

  4. If the government is funding your research and you don’t give them the answer they want, no more money. I still believe in the old saying, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

  5. The examples of the genetic fallacy in this post are meant to cast doubt on the integrity of a claim or a person’s character. They can be highly effective!

  6. When I try to point out the flip side of the equation, that more money from BigOil goes to the Alarmist side of the discussion, it is solely to try and slap sense into the person claiming that Briggs, Watts, Brignell, et al are in the pay of Big Oil. I don’t worry about who pays who. I worry about the inability of the opposition to adjust their reference frame and recognize when pots, kettles, frying pans, and griddles are yapping about hue.

    One of the most uncomfortable things I learned in the last 15 years was that I couldn’t trust the analysis coming out of scientists’ mouths. Part of that trust is lost because of origins of pay. Even though I don’t worry a lot about the genetic fallacy, I don’t completely let it go either. I am very guilty of saying “Yes, sir, right away sir!” I expect that even the strongest of wills can bend when it comes to making sure there is food on the table.

    That is the origin of my own grand conspiracies: “The Food on the Table” conspiracy and the “Cover your Ass” conspiracy. I have another one that is related: the “I read to many super hero comics” conspiracy. Of course there is also the “salesman” conspiracy (never ever question the validity of your product).

  7. Briggs,

    I don’t understand. The linked article is about Thomas Nagel not Richard Dawkins and is written by Andrew Ferguson. This second hand account barely mentions Dawkins and gives no insight to his beliefs.

  8. All,

    I’d say rather that Dawkins has said contradictory things on determinism (as well as on many, many other items). From the linked article, which reported Dawkins was at a workshop of deep, weighty, important thinkers in the Berkshires:

    This view is the “naturalism” that the workshoppers in the Berkshires were trying to move forward. Naturalism is also called “materialism,” the view that only matter exists; or “reductionism,” the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics; or “determinism,” the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang. The naturalistic project has been greatly aided by neo-Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, including areas of life once assumed to be nonmaterial: emotions and thoughts and habits and perceptions. At the workshop the philosophers and scientists each added his own gloss to neo-Darwinian reductive naturalism or materialistic neo-Darwinian reductionism or naturalistic materialism or reductive determinism. They were unanimous in their solid certainty that materialism—as we’ll call it here, to limit the number of isms—is the all-purpose explanation for life as we know it.

    I’ll take the meaning of “unanimous” literally (and anyway, “The biologist Richard Dawkins was there”). It is at this point the comedy begins:

    One notable division did arise among the participants, however. Some of the biologists thought the materialist view of the world should be taught and explained to the wider public in its true, high-octane, Crickian form. Then common, nonintellectual people might see that a purely random universe without purpose or free will or spiritual life of any kind isn’t as bad as some superstitious people—religious people—have led them to believe.

    But others thought that

    If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.

    To paraphrase: “Only We deep, weighty, important thinkers are capable of handling the knowledge that all our actions are fully determined. If we tell the rabble they are nothing but ‘moist robots’, they shall despair! They may even lynch us.”

    Now just how did it occur to the very moist Dawkins, Dennett and others that their thinking, which is also full determined, is fully determined? And how can telling somebody that his actions are fully determined change his actions? And if they are going to tell the rabble, they have no choice but to tell them, so there’s no point debating whether to tell them. Unless the debate was pre-programmed too.

    Oh, how I laughed and laughed!

  9. I prefer C.S. Lewis’s term for the phenomenon, which he calls Bulverism, and wrote about in God in the Dock among other places: “The modern method is to assume without discussion that [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from [proving] this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.”

    That said, while I grant Bulverism’s invalidity as a tactic of rhetorical and logical argument, there is sadly some merit to asking the question, “Cui bono?” of anyone advocating a particular policy. I can skip examining the motives of anyone arguing that X is true, because I can always disagree with that if I find his evidence lacking; I may have to bring up the motives of someone arguing that due to X being true we should do Y, because if Y is to his advantage and my disadvantage, he and I are not likely to agree on the standards of evidence for X.

  10. Briggs,

    It is still a second hand account specifically written by Andrew Ferguson to produce a type of morality play with a set piece hero and villains included as foils. To be fair we should listen to the conference itself which has been posted on the web at:

    I’m not masochistic enough to spend the time required.

  11. The point of Dawkins work is that our genes are selfish or at least to perpetuate their existance act in a manner which can be described as such. We are not.

  12. This is not in any way controversial. When people lack argument against the content they accuse the motive of the person who wrote it.

    I know that some people here dismissed sources I provided without even taking time to read them and without even contesting a single argument made in those sources.

    I myself rarely do this but I’m a very independant person and sometime lonely. I rarely find myself in the majority anywhere.

  13. A genetic fallacy is not committed, however, when arguments are suspected to be incomplete, misleading, or false because of the argument’s origin, history, or advocate. And suspicious arguments which contradict one’s beliefs should be regarded as non-persuasive until evidence can be examined in detail.

    Furthermore, if someone argues he has found a better way of life and that you should live it, but he himself does not follow his own way, that argument can be immediately dismissed. This, too, is not the genetic fallacy, because the evidence (inability to live as advocated) contradicts the argument. (Hilarious, true-to-life example: a friend who advised I buy a Prius, ‘for the good of the environment,’ when he owned a sports car and an SUV.)

  14. “Furthermore, if someone argues he has found a better way of life and that you should live it, but he himself does not follow his own way, that argument can be immediately dismissed.”

    One caveat: if the advocate’s failure to live up to his own preached standards can be determined to be due to honest human fallibility, limitations, imperfections, or even simple prior commitments, rather than dishonest misrepresentation, the argument need not be dismissed.

    A man who smokes but is honestly trying to quit does not disprove the truth of the health benefits of quitting simply because he still succumbs to temptation from time to time. Similarly, a professional truck driver can still recommend that all those who need not drive such heavy vehicles should not; the benefits of fuel efficiency are no less true for being trumped in his personal case by the needs of his living. And a woman who forgoes motherhood herself (perhaps as a nun) can still recommend it as a worthwhile vocation to others, perhaps even a better one for specific people.

    (There’s a wonderful line in the Tony Hendra book Father Joe where the titular priest says to Tony, in a gentle puncturing of all Tony’s religious aspirations, “The moment I met you I knew you would never make a monk. Your vocation is to be a husband and father.” Was Father Joe a hypocrite for recommending to Tony a way of life Joe would never live himself?)

  15. I can see where one should not always dismiss advice that the person is giving while not following it themselves, as Stephen J. says. It is possible to know what is a better way to live one’s life without actually practicing it. There is also the honest person who says smoking is bad but they don’t care because it’s what they choose to do. It is possible to know what one is doing is bad, but just not care. In that case, I don’t think you can just dismiss the advice. The advice can still be sound. That’s why you have to look at the idea or theory separate from the speaker. Even if the speaker is hypocritical in his/her actions. (It is much harder to convince people of something if you yourself don’t follow the theory or advice, which is why it’s best to try and practice what you advocate.)

  16. It is a subset of the general group of ad homs: guilt by association.

    Here is a quick quiz. An oil company expert gives you some new information about energy. You were not aware of it before. It is plausible but many things are plausible but wrong.

    Do you:
    1. Discount it because it comes from an oil company employee
    2. Disregard it as irrelevant
    3. Give it status because it comes from an expert in the field.

    Ans: If you are a climate scientist whose livelihood depends on continuing alarm, the answer is 1. But at the same time if you substitute IPCC for oil company, the answer changes to 3.

  17. Without the genetic fallacy, the writings of Marx and Engels would have totaled a pamphlet or two.

  18. “This fallacy claims we are all slaves to our selfish—or rather “selfish”, which does not mean selfish but something else like selfish but not—genes.”

    Oh heck, and all this time I thought they were talking about SHELLFISH genes!!

  19. Noblesse Oblige,

    Do you:
    1. Discount it because it comes from an oil company employee
    2. Disregard it as irrelevant
    3. Give it status because it comes from an expert in the field.”

    You came up at least one short.

    4. Take the information and research it to try and determine its validity.

  20. kuhnkat: That’s definitely the point. While the origin of the information may raise questions, the only actual way to determine it’s accuracy is to research. What the genetic fallacy does is allow people to short-cut the hard thinking and researching part and jump to an easy conclusion.

    While it is true that convicted bomber may be well able to teach sociology, I would think the hiring of said individual would certainly merit a look at the school’s HR department. It does same something about the school itself.

  21. Most real-world examples of rhetorical fallacies are actually nothing of the kind, since they aren’t formal deductive logical arguments to begin with, but rather inductive and serve to calibrate our internal probability measures. Does a lawyer commit an ad hominem fallacy by casting doubt on paid informant’s testimony? Of course not. There are various epistemic paths people pursue to arrive at some semblance of the truth about the world, if the only one we pursued was deductive logic, then we wouldn’t know anything about the world.

  22. Ali Baba: The question I would ask is not does, the lawyer commit an ad hominem fallacy (or other fallacy) by questioning a paid informant, but rather “Should” the lawyer’s questioning of the testimony be listened to. If paid informant supply accurate information most of the time, then no. If they do not, then yes. I suppose it’s the reasoning behind the question that counts. Is it just to smear the testimony or is it because paid informants are not reliable.

  23. Similarly,if vested economic interests have a history of abusing the scientific process in matters that would affect them adversely (unpossible!), then it is not a genetic fallacy to point these conflicts of interests out RHETORICALLY when they occur. We’re suggesting something when we do that. It would be fallacious if the suggestion were phrased formidably, in the form of a logical argument (“this logically entails that”), but rhetoric almost never reads that way (and if you were to ask the author, invariably that is not what she or he means). In real world rhetoric (which is the only place these fallacies apply; there’s no “genetic fallacy” or whatever in formal logic), the idea is to convey to reader something she already knows very well about the world, namely, that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

  24. Perhaps if one actually knew for certain the past behaviour of someone or something, then it could predict future behaviour. But that is not the point in saying, for example, that the paid informant is lying. The goal is to disparage the idea based on an association that is not proven–the informant may never have lied. Yet the lawyer clearly is trying to get the jury to believe the person is lying. Even though it’s not “formal logic”, it’s still saying that person A is a paid informant and paid informants lie so person A is lying. The origin of the data is being used to disprove the information, not actual evidence. It’s still a fallacy–even if it does win the case and let a killer go free. Or sends a killer to jail. The ends do not justify the means.

  25. “Perhaps if one actually knew for certain the past behaviour of someone or something, then it could predict future behaviour.”

    Well, when I say past behavior, I mean behavior that actually happened in the past. Also, logic != persuasion. To commit a rhetorical fallacy means (at worst) that one’s argument is not formidably correct, that is, its *form* is incorrect. (Why did I write “at worst”? Because it’s content may still be true.) For example, this:

    Smith says my client did X.
    But Smith is paid by the police to say things.
    Therefore my client did not do X.

    is a rhetorical fallacy. This, on the other hand,

    blah blah blah
    Smith is paid by the police to say things.
    blah blah blah

    is DATA embedded in some rhetoric or persuasive writing, and data is frequently (9/10 times, at least) what fallacy spotters on the internet incorrectly identify as an fallacy in persuasive writing. Again, there are various epistemic paths we pursue to arrive at a semblance of truth. There are various tools in the art of persuasion. By giving the jury a *warrant* to believe in his client’s innocence, a so-called reasonable doubt, the lawyer is not trying to *prove* anything by pointing out that Smith is a paid informant. Proof is what logicians and mathematicians do, in order to confirm in their reader’s mind that the symbols on a page of logic or math are all in the correct form.

  26. So why are people so easily trapped by the genetic fallacy?

    Daniel Kahneman ( argues (,_Fast_and_Slow) that we substitute a more comfortable stereotype question for the one that confronts us. Not, “what’s the answer to the question challenging me” but “who’s challenging me with this question.” Much easier to answer the second question with “he’s a bad guy so I don’t accept his challenge” than with “maybe I have to think long and hard about the challenge.”

  27. “The Genetic Fallacy!” LOL!!! Oh man, that’s funny. Briggs, I will never understand how someone who rejects all but the most visceral evidence to accept anything can possibly be religious.


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