What Is the Genetic Fallacy? | Examples & Definition - QuillBot

The genetic fallacy involves judging a claim based on its origins rather than the evidence and reasoning presented. Instead of evaluating an idea based on its merits and flaws, an argument that commits the genetic fallacy simply casts aspersions on its source.

Genetic fallacy example
“Recent studies have claimed that black cumin seed has therapeutic potential, but that’s absurd. The medicinal use of the seed originates from ancient superstitious practices.”

This stance exemplifies the genetic fallacy by rejecting scientific evidence of black cumin seed (Nigella sativa) based solely on the fact that the seed was used medicinally in ancient times.

Genetic fallacies can result from poor reasoning or a disingenuous attempt to discredit an opposing position.

What is the genetic fallacy?

The genetic fallacy is the mistake of dismissing an argument, idea, or practice based solely on some aspect of its origins.

To evaluate an idea as objectively as possible, it’s essential to focus strictly on the evidence and reasoning presented. However, arguments that commit the genetic fallacy focus on irrelevant information about the source of an idea or practice, while ignoring its actual merits or flaws.

Because of this reliance on irrelevant information to distract from the fundamental issues at hand, a genetic fallacy is considered a type of fallacy of relevance (or red herring fallacy).

Like other fallacies of relevance, genetic fallacies are informal logical fallacies. In other words, they are errors of content or context rather than structural errors.

The guilt by association fallacy is sometimes confused with the genetic fallacy. However, rather than focusing on origins, the guilt by association fallacy unfairly dismisses concepts based on the affiliations or contexts of its proponents (e.g., rejecting a humanitarian effort because it has received support from controversial figures).

Why does the genetic fallacy occur?

Recognizing the underlying cognitive biases and mental shortcuts that contribute to the genetic fallacy is essential for improving critical thinking skills. These include the following:

  • Confirmation bias: People have a tendency to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs and dismiss sources that represent opposing views.
  • Source credibility bias: Sources that are perceived as generally credible or trustworthy are generally given more weight than other sources, regardless of the logical and factual merits of a specific claim or argument.
  • Heuristic decision-making: To reduce cognitive load and make decisions efficiently, individuals often rely on mental shortcuts (i.e., heuristics), which can lead to errors in judgment.
  • Social influence: Peer pressure and conformity can lead individuals to adopt their social group’s aversion to something without critical analysis.

Remember to evaluate an argument based on its content and reasoning, guarding against these innate tendencies.

Why is the genetic fallacy a problem?

The essential problems with the genetic fallacy are shared by all fallacies of relevance:

  • Intellectually dishonest: Focusing on the source rather than the argument itself leads to unfair evaluations, hinders critical thinking, and perpetuates biases.
  • Hinders communication: Diverting a discussion away from its core issues leads to missed opportunities for meaningful communication and problem-solving.

There are often legitimate reasons to critique the origins of an argument or idea. In such cases, be sure to explicitly assess the source’s biases and credibility in direct relation to the current discussion, rather than outright dismissing an argument or claim based solely on its source.

Genetic fallacy examples

Examples of the genetic fallacy can often be found in casual discussions and debates in daily life.

For instance, a common reason given for dismissing a claim out of hand is the fact that a report originated from a source perceived as biased.

Genetic fallacy example in real life
“I saw a report on CNN about inflation decdeclining. Trump warned us about their fake news, so I don’t believe it.”

In this example of a genetic fallacy, the speaker dismisses a claim about the economy based on the perception that CNN is a biased source without analyzing the evidence or reasoning behind the claim.

While it’s essential to be mindful of biases in media, it is equally crucial to resist the habit of summarily dismissing claims and arguments solely based on their origins.

Any given source should be scrutinized, but it’s important to engage with ideas on their own merit rather than resorting to the genetic fallacy as a shortcut to forming opinions.

Genetic fallacy example in media
A university’s research team publishes their findings in an elite scientific journal. However, media outlets in another country downplay the discovery without examining the details of the case, claiming that the research must be flawed because it was conducted in a foreign government-funded institution.

In this example of a genetic fallacy, the media dismiss scientific evidence based solely on its source, without critically assessing the research methods, data, or reasoning presented in their journal article. While it’s reasonable to examine the source of research for potential bias, the nationality or funding of the research team should not automatically lead to the conclusion that the research itself is flawed or unreliable.

Frequently asked questions about genetic fallacy

What is the difference between the ad hominem fallacy and the genetic fallacy?

Genetic fallacies are similar to ad hominem fallacies in that they are both fallacies of relevance that focus on the source of an argument rather than criticizing it in terms of facts and reasoning. However, there is a difference:

  • Ad hominem fallacies focus on whoever is currently presenting an argument as the sole basis for rejecting it.
  • Genetic fallacies focus on the original sources of an argument (e.g., people, cultures, movements) as the sole basis for rejecting it.
What are fallacies of relevance?

Fallacies of relevance, also known as red herring fallacies, divert attention from the core issues of an argument, dismissing an opposing view based on irrelevant information. Examples include the following:

  • Genetic fallacies, which focus on the origins of the ideas expressed
  • Tu quoque fallacies, which criticize the supposed hypocrisy of the person presenting the argument
  • Straw man fallacies, which attack a distorted version of the opponent’s real argument
Why are fallacies misleading?

Arguments that commit logical fallacies can be misleading because they typically resemble valid or sound arguments on a superficial level, while they actually present conclusions that aren’t adequately supported by their premises.

Fallacious arguments are often effective at misleading an audience because they fall into convincing patterns of errors that people tend to make based on emotional instincts, cognitive biases, and heuristic decision-making patterns.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is the author of Rhetoric, Logic, & Argumentation and Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion. She began her career in the educational publishing industry and has over 15 years of experience as a writer and editor. Her books have been used in high school and university classrooms across the US, including courses at Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has taught ESL from elementary through college levels.