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Logical fallacies and the environment: the slippery slope

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The slippery slope is a logical fallacy that uses gravity as an analogy. It’s like a rolling snowball: once you set it in motion on a snowy slope, a snowball keeps on growing as it gathers snow and soon becomes uncontrollable. It is a common argument behind the idea of “gateway drugs”, for instance, or opposition to same-sex marriage. It is also called the camel’s nose fallacy.

camelsnose03_490For instance, some people use the slippery slope argument in their opposition to a ban on incandescent lights. “They want to ban these lights, but everybody likes them! Pretty soon they’ll be banning flashlights, and street lights, and then you won’t even be allowed to go out at night!” Uh, no. The ban is in place because incandescents are inefficient, use too much electricity, and indirectly contribute to climate change, and the ban is made possible because of the numerous alternatives.

One may not be in favour of the ban, for a variety of reasons. For instance, one may argue that this measure is unnecessary in BC because our electricity is abundant and does not generate GHGs; or that the sacrifice is too high because the alternatives produce poorer quality light. These are debatable propositions which can be weighed in a logical fashion. But invoking the slippery slope is an emotional argument that relies on the fear of over-regulation – not a logical argument.

Other common examples of the slippery slope argument in environment debates include:
Once you let them put a small tax on carbon, they’ll keep increasing it until you can’t afford a tank of gas anymore.
• If you allow any logging (or hunting or mining) on park land, you can kiss the whole park goodbye.
• Environmentalists are trying to regulate people’s behaviour. Once that start, everything people do comes under the microscope and you’ll find freedom restricted everywhere. Green environmentalism is just red communism in disguise.

The slippery slope fallacy is closely related to the so-called law of unintended consequences. There is no such law. Any action, sometimes, may produce unexpected or unwanted results, but there are also many occasions where no such effect arises. Commuting by car does entail a risk of accident; this not unforeseen (though in the overwhelming majority of cases no such thing happens). Driving instead of walking leads to back problems and excess weight issues, which is unfortunate, but not at all unexpected.

EPT students once presented a motion to Vancouver Council requesting a ban on single use plastic bags. One of the councillors replied with “but what about the law of unintended consequences?”; in other words, this is like the slippery slope, except that does not even bother to outline possible bad outcomes, but instead simply relies on a fear of the new. Who knows what could happen if anything changes! This “law” is often invoked in the defense of the status quo.

Some people have drawn a parallel between the “law of unintended consequences” and the precautionary principle. This is also a faulty analogy.

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy entails a risk of important harm (to people or to the environment), then it should not be deployed until its safety has been clearly demonstrated. For instance, a new pesticide or a new drug should not be allowed on the market until it is shown to be safe (toxicity to non-target organisms and other side effects small, and risks manageable). The onus is usually on the proponent of the new action or policy or substance to quantify the risks and demonstrate that they are small.

The precautionary principle has been derided in some circles as “a recipe for paralysis”. This would be true if the onus was to demonstrate that there is zero risk prior to acceptance, which is clearly impossible. In fact, all the precautionary principle requires is that the risk be assessed and weighted against benefits before applying. This is in contrast with the “law of unintended consequences”, which implies that the risk can never be known.

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Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: non-sequitur.

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Written by enviropaul

March 14, 2016 at 10:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: the slippery slope. […]


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