As the death toll from COVID-19 rose, people on social media started asking if anyone personally knew someone who had gotten COVID or died from it. I first thought people were either curious or concerned but then I noticed a correlation: people who asked this question tended to be COVID doubters. It was evident the question was often not a sincere inquiry but a rhetorical tactic and perhaps an attempt to bait people into fallacious reasoning. In this essay I will look at this sort of question as a rhetorical tool and as fallacy bait.
This sort of question can be raised about things other than COVID, so the generic question would be “do you personally know anyone who X?” Used as rhetoric, the purpose is to garner either “no” responses or no responses. If this succeeds, it will tend to create the impression that X is rare or does not occur at all. It can also be used to create the impression that X is not serious. In the case of COVID, one goal is to create the impression that COVID is rare. Another goal is to create the impression that it is not that bad.
Rhetoric is logically neutral in that it neither counts for nor against the truth of a claim. Its purpose is to influence people, and this is often aimed at making it easier to get them to accept or reject a claim. To use an analogy, rhetoric is like the flavoring or presentation of food: it makes it more (or less) appealing but has no effect on the nutritional value. As flavoring and presentation is compatible with serving nutritional food , rhetoric is compatible with serving plausible claims and good arguments. A person could use this rhetoric to influence their audience when they are making a true claim. For example, a person who wants to protect sharks might address worries about shark attacks by asking the audience if anyone has been attacked by a shark. They are hoping that no one will say “yes” and plan on using that to make the audience receptive to their dull statistics showing that shark attacks are incredibly rare.
There is an obvious risk in using this rhetorical device—it can backfire if someone says “yes”, especially if they tell a vivid story. Psychologically people are influenced more by anecdotes (especially vivid ones) than by dull statistics—this underlies the fallacies of anecdotal evidence (rejecting statistical data in favor of a story) and misleading vividness (estimating likelihood based on how vivid an event is rather than on the basis of how often it occurs). In the case of the shark example, if someone stands up and says a shark bit their arm off, then this will tend to outweigh the statistical data about shark attacks—at least in the minds of the audience. As such, this method can be risky to use.
If this tactic backfires and you are making a true claim, you can try to get the audience to accept the statistical data while honestly acknowledging that rare occurrences can occur. If this tactic backfires and you are making an untrue claim, then there are various rhetorical tactics and fallacies that can be used. One tactic is to launch an ad hominem attack on the person who says “yes”—the usual approach is to just accuse them of lying. If the attack on the person is successful, this can make the rhetoric even more effective—those who fall for it will tend to reject anyone else who says “yes.” This is, of course, morally problematic and runs counter to the methods of logic.
It must also be noted that this sort of rhetoric can also be aimed at getting a “yes” response—though this is less common than the one aimed at getting “no.” The same general principles apply to this version.
If you want to be a critical thinker, you should recognize the rhetorical device for what it is—something that proves nothing. It must also be noted that its use disproves nothing—it would be an error to reject a person’s claim because they use this (or any) rhetoric. While rhetoric is neutral, fallacies are always bad—and this sort of question can be seen as being fallacy bait. That is, it is aimed at getting people to engage in or fall for fallacious reasoning.
One possibility is that the question is aimed at getting the audience to engage in the fallacy of anecdotal evidence. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. It has the following forms:
Premise 1: Anecdote A is told about a member (or small number of members) of Population P.
Conclusion: Claim C is inferred about Population P based on Anecdote A.
Premise 1: Reasonable statistical evidence S exists for general claim C.
Premise 2: Anecdote A is presented that is an exception to or goes against general claim C.
Conclusion: General claim C is rejected.
It can also be used to lure people into accepting or making the hasty generalization fallacy. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough. It has the following form:
Premise 1: Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population P.
Conclusion: Claim C is drawn about Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
Premise 1: X% of all observed A’s are B’s.
Conclusion: Therefore X% of all A’s are B’s.
The fallacy is committed when not enough A’s are observed to warrant the conclusion. If enough A’s are observed then the reasoning would not commit the hasty generalization fallacy. As you might have noticed, anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization are similar: both involve drawing a general conclusion based on a sample that is too small.
The “do you personally know anyone who X?” question can be used to lure people into making or accepting these fallacies in the following ways. If a few people respond “no”, then these can be taken as anecdotes that “prove” that X does not happen often (or is not serious). These “no” responses could also be taken as “disproving” a claim that is based on good statistical evidence. They could also be used as the basis of hasty generalization. For example, a few people said “no” to my question on Twitter, so the same holds true for the general population. A lack of responses could also be used as “evidence” in a hasty generalization. For example, someone might reason like this: no one responded “yes” to my question on Facebook, so the answer must be “no” for the general population.
While I have been focused on people raising the question in contexts in which they can get an answer, the tactic can be used in one-way communication as well (such as a YouTube video or televised speech). A person can ask this sort of question in the hopes that their target audience will be influenced by it. For example, a politician might ask “do you personally know anyone who has died of COVID?” in the hopes of getting the audience to believe that the COVID death toll presented by credible media sources is exaggerated.
It must be noted that the same fallacies can be committed with “yes” answers. To illustrate, if a few people respond with “yes” to my Twitter question, it would be an error to generalize to the entire population. It must also be noted that if the question is being asked on a properly conducted survey that has a large and unbiased sample, then this would presumably not be intended to bait people into a fallacy. The conclusion of such a strong generalization would be reasonable to believe. Of course, the conclusion might be that many people believe something that is untrue—but it would be reasonable to believe that many people (mistakenly) believe that untrue claim.
The tactic of using the rhetorical question to bait people into fallacies is most effective when the X is something that is statistically uncommon—that is, there is a good chance that an individual would not personally know someone who X. If X is too common or the truth about X is well accepted, then this tactic will tend to fail. For example, asking “do you personally know anyone who has heart disease?” would probably not be an effective way to get people to engage in fallacious reasoning about heart disease. This is because many people know people who have heart disease, and it is well known that it is relatively common. As such, this tactic usually requires an X that is not too common and for which there is not an established base of belief. As you might guess, it is possible to undermine belief and make this tactic work.
This tactic can be quite effective in situations in which an occurrence is significant or serious yet is uncommon enough that many people will not personally know someone who has been affected. Take, for example, COVID-19. I have 826 friends on Facebook. At this time, I personally know two people who have been infected and do not personally know anyone who has died. As such, it would seem almost reasonable to infer that COVID-19 is not that big of a deal. However, I do not know anyone personally who was killed on 9/11. Although I personally know several people who are active duty or veterans, I do not know anyone personally who was killed in action in the recent wars. I could run through lists of causes of death or serious injuries/illness and note that I do not personally know anyone who was so inflicted. But it should be obvious that it would be an error to infer that such things do not happen or that they are not serious. In the case of COVID, it is not surprising that I do not personally know someone who has died. Given the scope of who I personally know, it is statistically unlikely that a person who died of COVID would be within that small group. But it does not follow that the death toll from COVID presented by reputable media sources is untrue nor does it follow that COVID is not serious. After all, few would question that 9/11 occurred or was not serious because they did not personally know someone who died that day.
In closing, my main point is to be on guard against being misled by questions like “do you personally know anyone who died of COVID?” While they might be asked sincerely, they can be a rhetorical tactic aimed at baiting you into a fallacy.