Also Known as: Scare Tactics, Appeal to Force, Ad Baculum
The Appeal to Fear is a fallacy in which something that is intended to evoke fear is substituted as evidence for a claim. It has the following pattern:
Premise 1: Y is presented with the intent to invoke fear.
Conclusion: Therefore, claim X is true.
This reasoning is fallacious because the feeling of fear does not provide evidence for a claim. While lacking in logical force, this fallacy can have considerable psychological force because fear is a powerful emotion and can be effective in bypassing reason. People also can see their fear as self-justifying: if I am afraid of X, I must have a good reason to be afraid. But people can obviously be afraid for bad reasons or no reason at all.
Fear is also an effective persuasive tool because a person’s fear can easily be shifted to an unrelated target. Politicians often make use of this feature of fear, in some cases shifting justified fear to an unwarranted target. For example, it does seem reasonable for some American workers to be afraid they will lose their jobs because of business decisions beyond their control. But politicians can shift this fear towards unrelated targets, such as migrants.
While this fallacy can be used in ignorance, it is commonly used in bad faith. Someone using it might exaggerate or lie to create fear and knowingly use this fallacy. They are also likely to make use of stereotypes, biases, and prejudices. This is a common tactic in politics. For example, a politician might invoke fears that migrants are diseased, job stealing criminals to “prove” that their immigration plan should be accepted.
While this fallacy can be as crude as a “believe or you get hurt”, it can also be more subtle. Advertisements, for example, often make use of scare tactics. For example, a commercial for a home security system might attempt to scare potential customers by presenting a mother and daughter at home, suddenly being menaced by a scruffy looking intruder. The intent is to offer fear as a reason to buy their security system. But, of course, this invocation of fear does not prove that you should buy their product.
Perhaps the most subtle examples involve personal grooming products. For example, a commercial for hair coloring might show a grey-haired man walking a woman to her door after a date. He asks if he can come in for some “coffee” and she declines. The scenario runs again in the commercial, but this time the man has purchased and used hair dye to hide his grey. He is then invited in for some “coffee.” The message of fear is clear: if you have grey hair, you must buy their product or you will home alone “making your own coffee.” But, of course, this is just scare tactics.
As with some other fallacies, it is important to distinguish between a rational reason to believe (evidence) and a prudential reason (motivation) to do something. A rational reason to believe is evidence that logically supports a claim. The Appeal to Fear provides no rational reason to accept a claim. A prudential reason is a reason to act. Something that invokes fear can provide a prudential reason to do something. For example, it might be prudent to not fail the son of your dean because the son threatens that they will make life tough for you. However, this does not provide evidence for the claim that the son deserves to pass the class.
Being an emotion, fear is not itself a fallacy. There are also cases in which a claim can evoke fear while also providing a good reason to accept or reject a claim. However, the feeling of fear is not evidence; it is just the case that a claim can both serve as evidence and invoke fear. For example, if you were about to go for a swim and you were warned that crocodiles had just been seen in the area, then you would probably feel some fear. But you would also have a good, non-fallacious, reason to stay out of the water.
Defense: The main defense against this fallacy is to remember that the feeling of fear is not evidence, nor are threats. While there can be prudential reasons to act based on scary things, the invocation of fear is not proof. Since fear is often driven by biases and stereotypes, it is wise to be especially on guard in such cases. To avoid mistakenly thinking the fallacy has been committed, also keep in mind that something can both invoke fear and serve as evidence for a claim.
“You know, Professor Smith, I really need to get an A in this class. I’d like to stop by during your office hours later to discuss my grade. I’ll be in your building anyways, visiting my father. He’s your dean, by the way. I’ll see you later.”
“I don’t think a Red Ryder BB rifle would make a good present for you. They are very dangerous, and you’ll put your eye out. Now, don’t you agree that you should think of another gift idea?”
“You must believe that God exists. After all, if you do not accept the existence of God, then you will face the horrors of hell.”
“You shouldn’t say such things against multiculturalism! If the chair heard what you were saying, you would never receive tenure. So, you had just better learn to accept that it is simply wrong to speak out against it.”
Mike: “So, I’m looking at pickup trucks.”
Salesperson: “We have an excellent selection.”
Mike: “This one looks interesting, can I test drive it?”
Mike, after test drive: “This seems like a good truck.”
Salesperson: “I’ll get the paperwork.”
Mike: “Wait, I still want to look at some other brands. But if they aren’t as good, I’ll consider coming back.”
Salesperson: “If you don’t buy it now, I can’t guarantee there will be one available when you return.”
Mike, looking at a lot packed with trucks: “I’ll take my chances.”