The genetic fallacy is an informal fallacy that is caused by basing the truth value of an argument only on where or who that argument came from rather than the argument’s internal logic. It is similar to the appeal to authority fallacy.
In the genetic fallacy, people care about the origin of the argument when determining whether we should believe it or not. This is a fallacy because the truth value of a conclusion should be based on the validity of the premises and not the origin of the premises.
In other words, the place where an argument comes from and how correct that argument is are two separate things.
Often, the origin of the argument can have some validity such as citing a scientific expert as the basis for why your argument is correct. However, this is not always the case and we need to be able to distinguish when the origin of an argument lends validity and when it does not.
- Branded Products: If a consumer prefers a brand-name item over a store brand, saying it’s better because of the name, this is a genetic fallacy. It wrongly assumes the brand-name product’s superiority based on its association with a prestigious brand rather than its quality or performance.
- Appeal to Tradition: Believing an old method of doing things is better just because it’s been done that way for generations falls under the genetic fallacy. It overlooks the functionality or efficiency of the current method due to reliance on tradition only.
- Academic Pedigree: Some discredit a scientific argument because it came from a lesser-known college. This example of genetic fallacy overlooks the validity of the argument by basing judgment solely on the source’s prestige, not its intellectual merit.
- Normative Judgment: Believing ideas from older people are inherently wiser because of their age is a genetic fallacy. It mistakenly assumes wisdom based on age rather than credibility and quality of the idea itself.
- Political Origin: Discrediting a policy because it came from a particular political party is a genetic fallacy. Here, the fault is found in the lineage of the idea, not in the idea’s value or validity.
- Stereotyping: If someone believes all pit bulls are dangerous because some of them attacked humans, this is a genetic fallacy. It generalizes the behavior of an entire breed based on the actions of a few.
- Untrusted Source: Ignoring important information about climate change simply because it came from a climate activist is a genetic fallacy. This error stems from dismissing useful information based on the origin of the source rather than the value of the information itself.
- Religious Prejudice: Refusing to accept valid arguments about morality from an atheist due to their lack of religious faith falls under a genetic fallacy. It wrongly dismisses arguments based on the speaker’s belief (or lack thereof), rather than on the merit of the arguments.
- Dismissal Due to Gender: Discounting the advice of a male nurse based on gender stereotypes is a genetic fallacy. This creates an erroneous assumption about the nurse’s competence based primarily on gender, ignoring their knowledge, skill, and experience.
- Discounting Youth Input: Disregarding a young person’s socio-political commentary because of their presumed inexperience is a genetic fallacy. It incorrectly attributes inferior intellect or understanding to an age demographic, bypassing the inherent quality of their perspective.
- Socioeconomic Bias: Rejecting financial advice from someone who is not personally wealthy is a genetic fallacy. It falsely equates wealth with financial wisdom, disregarding the possible expertise of the provider.
- Geographical Preconceptions: Overlooking worthwhile investment opportunities in developing nations due to preconceived notions of instability is a genetic fallacy. It wrongly associates an investment’s potential with geographical characteristics rather than analyzing its actual merits.
- Racial Prejudice: Assuming a piece of literature lacks depth because it’s written by a person of a particular racial background would be a genetic fallacy. Here, the value of the literary piece has been falsely correlated entirely with the author’s racial background.
- Cultural Stereotypes: To believe that all French people must be great cooks because France is famous for its gourmet cuisine is an example of a genetic fallacy. It simplistically links culinary expertise with nationality, rather than considering individual talents or skills.
- Source Bias: Dismissing a potentially valid article critical of a corporation because it was written by a former employee is a genetic fallacy. The ex-employee’s perspective is assumed to be biased and untrustworthy, instead of examining the content of the article itself.
- Occupation Stereotyping: Believing advice from a mechanic about your health issues holds no value merely because they’re not a doctor is a genetic fallacy. It disregards the possibility that the mechanic might have relevant knowledge or experience.
- Prejudice Against Immigrants: Thinking that immigrants won’t be able to understand your culture just because they are from a different country is a genetic fallacy. It assumes inability strictly based on origin, skipping any consideration of the individual’s capacity to learn or adapt.
- Educational Assumptions: Assuming a person who did not go to college cannot make significant contributions to philosophical discussions is a genetic fallacy. It underrates potential acuity or wisdom by Confounding education with intelligence or knowledge.
- Social Class Bias: If you believe that every member of the upper class is snobbish or arrogant because of their wealth and status, you are falling into the genetic fallacy. It wrongly extends a stereotypical behavior to all members of a category based on their social standing.
Some Examples in Detail
James is telling his friend that he read a very interesting medical fact in the encyclopedia Britannica from 1850. He read that sickness can actually be caused by an imbalance of our humor – which according to the 1850 edition – are the vital forces in our body.
His friend informs him that just because he read it in a book – and an outdated one at that – it does not mean that it is true. There is no such thing as humors and sickness is generally caused by either bacteria or a virus.
James is committing the genetic fallacy by using the origin of his claim as the reason for why it would be true. His medical fact originated from an encyclopedia and, therefore, he thinks it must be true. Even when dealing with usually reliable sources like an encyclopedia we still need to look at other factors to determine the validity of an argument. In this case, it would be when the encyclopedia was released.
2. Family know-how.
My uncle always told me that the only way to fix a car was with a beverage in your hand and a spanner in the other. I never take my car to the mechanic.
The proposition in this scenario is that the only way to fix a car is to do it yourself while drinking a beverage.
The only reason given for why we should accept this as true is because it came from my uncle. It is the origin (and the origin alone) which is given as the reason for why we should accept the truth value of the conclusion.
For this reason, the proposition in this scenario commits the genetic fallacy.
I believe that ghosts are real. I would never have believed it until I saw it in a photo. There is no way it could have been faked. I know for a fact that there was no digital tampering.
In this scenario, the origin of why we should believe that ghosts are real is because of the photo. We are given no other reasons for why ghosts might be real. While it is true that photos can be reliable evidence, they can also be tampered with and faked in many different ways.
Arguing that ghosts are real from one photo is committing the genetic fallacy. It is basing the entire argument on the origin of your claim without any other evidence.
Plato wrote that Solon, an Athenian born over a hundred years before him, traveled to Egypt and was told that the ancient city and civilization of Atlantis was real.
Plato believed him to be a trustworthy source and we believe Plato about many fundamental ideas of philosophy and society.
For this reason, we should believe Plato when he says that the lost city of Atlantis is not a myth at all and that it was a real place.
In this scenario, we are only told to believe that Atlantis existed because Solon said so. He and Plato may seem like trustworthy sources but that is not enough evidence for such a grand claim. Proper evidence would be archeological and scientific. Therefore, the argument in this scenario is committing the genetic fallacy.
John has an excellent business idea. He is telling his friends about it to see if they want to invest. They are very excited about it until they hear that the business idea came to him in a dream.
John’s friends lose interest in the business idea solely because of where it came from. They are committing the genetic fallacy as they are not assessing the idea for its real merit.
Life was so simple and peaceful in the good old days. People really had time to stop and think. That’s why all the great philosophers come from ancient times.
The above argument about why there were great philosophers in the good old days is false.
To accept any idea just because it came from a certain period of human history is the definition of the genetic fallacy. The fact that an idea originates in a certain place does not make it a good idea.
7. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.
The assistant at the bank told Clarissa to get a loan and that she would definitely be able to pay it back despite the high interest rate. When Clarissa was discussing this with her parents she told them that surely the bank knows best.
Clarissa is committing the genetic fallacy by believing the banker’s advice just because it came from the bank.
In fact, bankers have their own interests (they want you to take out the loan) so they’re not as reliable as you’d think!
Fred gets stuck in a violent storm. When he gets home his family asks him “didn’t you see all the warnings all over the place.” Fred had ignored the warning he saw because it happened to be on a tabloid newspaper he passed on a newsstand.
Fred explains to his family that he dismissed the warning because of where he saw it. He just doesn’t trust the tabloids for any news.
Fred committed the genetic fallacy because he dismissed a message because of its origin.
At a paper industry expo, a guest speaker is talking about how they want to plant more trees because it is good for the environment (especially in this time of global warming).
Some people at the talk don’t believe the speaker. They thought that all he wanted to do was plant more trees to make more money for the paper industry.
While the speaker may have ulterior motives to make money for the paper industry, this does note mean that he is wrong about more trees being good for the environment. The sceptical people at the talk are committing the genetic fallacy.
They are committing the genetic fallacy because they are dismissing the truth value of the claim that trees are good for the environment because of the origin of that claim.
In this scenario, the origin of the claim is the paper industry who have a financial incentive to plant trees for profit regardless of the environment.
10. Submarines aren’t reliable.
Sam and Tim are talking about submarines. Sam is trying to explain to Tim why he would never ever go in a submarine.
Sam finishes off his point by saying “Anyway, did you know that the submarine was first inspired by science fiction. I would never trust anything that comes from Hollywood.”
In this scenario, Sam is committing the genetic fallacy in his argument for why he would never go in a submarine.
His reason for why we should accept his point of view ends up being that submarines were first thought of for science fiction and, therefore, can’t be trusted in the real world. He is arguing against the origin of submarines as a whole, which has nothing to do with the safety of submarines today.
The genetic fallacy is an important fallacy to understand. Often, the origin of an idea or argument holds value for how we may perceive that thing. As we have seen in these examples, though, the origin of an idea or argument is not enough to guarantee the truth or falsity of that idea or argument.
As we hold the origin of ideas or arguments in high value, we need to take extra care to not let that cloud our judgment of the truth of the ideas or arguments.
The origin of something is worth consideration and can add credibility to an idea or argument. However, alone, it does not determine if something is true or not.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]