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Fallacies of Argument

We live in a culture in which people tend to glide on the surface of things, seldom pausing long enough to consider anything very deeply; we live in the age of the sound byte, the video clip.  It is my own belief that this leaves us very vulnerable to what are called fallacies of argument:  certain “moves” in arguing a claim which by their very nature are bogus, invalid, and deceiving.  Sometimes a writer or speaker will use a bogus line of argument simply out of ignorance and lack of experience.  But a student can benefit much by realizing that all too often, writers and speakers use fallacies of argument entirely by design, from a conscious intent to deceive and manipulate us.  This intent, quite frankly, is particularly true in advertising and in politics.  Thus it pays to learn to detect such fallacies.  And in regards to being an ethical communicator, a person must never stoop to the dishonest position of using these fallacies deliberately, in order to manipulate one’s own audience.

In the textbook Everything’s an Argument by Andrea Lunsford, John Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters, fallacies of argument are subdivided according to the three classic appeals of logos, pathos, and ethos.  Following their lead, below you will find brief descriptions of the main types of fallacies having to do with each of the three main ways a writer appeals to a reader.

FALLACIES OF LOGOS (fallacies of the logical appeal)

Hasty generalization:  a conclusion drawn from insufficient evidence.

Example:  Because my mechanic cheated me, all mechanics must be crooks.  Hasty generalization depends on stereotyping.  It is a very commonly used strategy, so much so that many people do this unconsciously. 

To avoid:  slow down, study the topic to get adequate evidence, and if using generalizations, qualify them with words such as occasionally, in some cases, under certain circumstances, in my own experience.  Certainly, do not knowingly use vague generalizations to conceal a logical weakness in your own argument.

 Faulty causality:  the assumption that just because one event follows another, it was caused by the previous event. 

This is also called the post-hoc fallacy.  For one thing, there is, after all, such a thing as coincidence.  However, the more common occurrence of this fallacy is the version in which someone with a personal or political agenda ignores all probable causes of something, but the one which casts the opposing faction in the worst light.  Example:  the current stock market and general economic crisis.  Liberals point out the lack of adequate federal regulation as the single cause, which allowed greedy speculators free rein; conservatives claim the cause was too much federal interference, specifically certain rules spelling out how investments must be shown on the books of investment banks.  In most complex situations, there are multiple causes.  Beware of suspiciously simple claims of causality, and of politically convenient ones. 

To avoid:  look for and provide evidence or logical argumentation of the causal relationship; don’t just assume it.  Never try to falsely assign blame by oversimplifying causality.

 Begging the question:  any claim made on questionable grounds.

Example:  You can’t flunk that paper; I’m an “A” student!  In the example, the student is disputing the grade on the very basis that is made questionable by that very grade.  This fallacy is a form of tautology, or circular argument. 

To avoid:  break the circle.  Support your claim by substantial evidence that is not a part of the very thing in doubt.  In the example, the student needs to dispute the grade on the merits of the paper itself.  Never deliberately cover up your lack of substantial evidence by arguing in such a circular way.

 Equivocation:  a half-truth, a lie that is given an honest appearance so it will be accepted. 

To equivocate means to say one thing while seeming to say another.  When Bill Clinton claimed “I never had sex with that woman,” he was equivocating; the half-truth was that by a certain very limited definition of “having sex,” he could say that—but he did not reveal, until pressed, what definition of “having sex” he was going by. 

To avoid:  Because this fallacy tends to happen either from confusion or intentionally, avoid confusion by studying your topic adequately, and avoid intentional equivocation simply as a matter of personal honesty.

 Non-sequitur:  a breakdown in logical connection from point to point; one point does not follow logically from another. 

There is a gap in logic, in other words.  Example:  If you really loved me, you’d buy me that new car.  There could be many reasons for not buying the car, even assuming the deepest love possible. 

To avoid:  Be careful not to omit steps in your argument.  This is very common; it is the lazy writer’s way of arguing a claim, and it is also typical of a writer who, on some level, assumes his reader “gets it” without his having to spell out each step in the argument.  Spell out each step.  Assume nothing.  And certainly, never deliberately use a non-sequitur simply to hide the fact that  there is no logical connection between your points.

 Ignoring the question:  simply avoiding answering questions which one has no good response for.

Basically, this is the same as changing the subject.  Usually, if used as a conscious strategy, it is not done abruptly, but more subtly.  The speaker or writer will respond, perhaps even using the term or referring to the question, but instead of answering it, will gradually drift into some preferred line of argument.  An inexperienced listener or reader may never even notice that the question was left dangling.  On the other hand, a more seasoned debater will at some point respond by saying You haven’t answered the question, repeating it and thus pinning the person down.  Of course, a speaker or writer who lacks a disciplined, orderly mind may often do this quite by accident, rather than intentionally. 

To avoid:  learn to organize your thoughts so as to avoid ignoring key questions or points by accident, and be informed enough so that you are not tempted to use this strategy intentionally to hide your lack of knowledge. 

Faulty analogy:  an analogy is an extended comparison, okay in itself.  But if taken too far, they can become faulty.   

To use Lunsford’s example, one can think of the mind as a garden; both grow when nurtured with the proper food.  To that point, the analogy is fine.  But when we carry it further, and note that gardens respond well to horse manure, at that point we have probably taken it too far. 

To avoid:  If the two things compared have more differences than similarities, the analogy is probably faulty.  Never deliberately choose an analogy you know is flawed, simply to deceive your audience.

Straw man:  when someone pretends he is responding to the actual position of his opponent, but in reality is misrepresenting those views in a way that is easy to refute, just as a man of straw is easier to demolish than a real person.

A common version of this is to twist or exaggerate the view of the opposing side.  Another variation is to choose to respond only to an extreme member of the opposition whose words do not adequately or accurately represent the position of the opposition.   Example:  An argument against abolishing the entire Social Security system does little or nothing to counter concerns about problems with the way Social Security is financed or administered.

To avoid:  Never deliberately dodge the stronger arguments put on the table by your opposition.  To make sure you are not doing this through ignorance, you must inform yourself well as to what the opposition is actually saying.  Be very wary of accepting a version of their position put forward by an extreme member of your own side in an issue.  Research the issue for yourself by listening to the opposition's arguments firsthand.

Fallacies of Logic, Short Version:

  • Hasty generalization:  a conclusion drawn from insufficient evidence.
  • Faulty causality:  the assumption that just because one event follows another, it was caused by the previous event. 
  • Begging the question:  any claim made on questionable grounds.
  • Equivocation:  a half-truth, a lie that is given an honest appearance so it will be accepted. 
  • Non-sequitur:  a breakdown in logical connection from point to point; one point does not follow logically from another. 
  • Ignoring the question:  simply avoiding answering questions which one has no good response for.
  • Faulty analogy:  an analogy is an extended comparison, okay in itself.  But if taken too far, they can become faulty. 
  • Straw man:  when someone pretends he is responding to the actual position of his opponent, but in reality is misrepresenting those views in a way that is easy to refute, just as a man of straw is easier to demolish than a real person.

FALLACIES OF PATHOS (fallacies of the emotional appeal)

Scare tactics:  the exaggeration of possible dangers well beyond their statistical likelihood, in order to induce people to act in a certain way.

Example:  those who fear for their jobs are susceptible to scare tactics calling on us to distrust all immigrants, especially those of a different race or ethnicity.  This tactic tends to close minds and polarize people into an “us against them” mindset.  People who are scared seldom make rational decisions.  Those who use this tactic deliberately do so in the cynical desire to further their own self-interests. 

To avoid:  Usually this strategy is used deliberately.  In the cases where it is not, then the person using it is simply passing on the fear planted in him or her by someone else.  So to avoid using scare tactics, first learn to detect them when they are used on you.  Then be willing to bypass such a cheap, unethical way of appealing to your own audience.

Red herring:  avoiding the issue or some tough question by introducing a distraction.

Example:  We should not invest money in AIDS research because most AIDS victims choose to put themselves at risk and they deserve what they get.  This is a red herring, because it distracts the audience from the real question, whether to invest money to combat a major disease which has taken the lives of vast numbers of people.  It seeks to blame the victims of the disease, many of whom are completely innocent, thereby putting many more people at risk.  In this case, the unspoken implication is probably also that AIDS is a disease affecting only homosexuals—which is of course not true.  Red herrings are bogus emotional appeals which seek scapegoats to distract from dealing with the issue at hand. 

To avoid:  As a reader, be focused enough to detect when the topic is being shifted, and informed enough to detect bogus scapegoating.  As a writer, be organized enough not to become distracted in this way inadvertently, and be honest enough not to consciously use such a strategy.  Deal with the issue at hand.

Either/or:  falsely reducing options to only two choices; eliminating awareness of any middle path.

Then the writer or speaker paints the preferred choice in the warmest possible light, while doing just the opposite with the choice he desires you to reject, portraying it as being sure to cause ominous consequences.  This strategy is often used in combination with scare tactics.  While either/or arguments may be used with good intent to break a stalemate and gets things accomplished—such as a parent telling an unresponsive child to either do such-and-such or face the consequences—this strategy becomes fallacious when it is used to obscure reasonable alternatives, thus creating a falsely limited set of options:  we must do this, or else that dire consequence will result.  This strategy preys on ignorance, working well on those who are not familiar with a topic. 

To avoid:  as a reader or listener, inform yourself; be skeptical of either/or choices.  As a writer, do the same thing:  inform yourself.  Most situations have various alternative solutions, the best often being somewhere in the middle ground.  Do not deliberately present an either/or choice when you know there are other options.

Slippery slope:  an argument that portrays today’s seemingly small concession as tomorrow’s catastrophe.

As with all of the emotionally-focused fallacies of argument, this one too plays on the fear factor.  Sometimes, correcting a small error can indeed prevent greater subsequent errors, as when in the 1990s New York City cracked down on petty crimes and by doing so, saw a drop in major crime as well.  But not all slippery-slope arguments make as much sense as fixing loose shingles on a roof so the entire roof will not begin to leak.  For example, in the topic of gun control, it is probably a “slippery-slope” argument when those against gun control argue that if a law is passed limiting ownership of fully automatic weapons such as an AK-47, the inevitable consequence would be the government battering down our doors and seizing our hunting rifles. 

To avoid:  as both reader and writer, the student must learn to reason through such arguments to discern probable consequences from wildly improbable ones.  Certainly the student should never knowingly use this strategy when the predicted consequence seems implausible.

Sentimental:  arguments that appeal to emotions specifically to distract the audience from hard facts which go against the writer’s claim. 

In this case, as you know, I have encouraged you to use stories of incidents involving specific individuals in order to engage the emotions of your readers.  Such specific examples can be said to appeal to the sentiments of readers.  This is a valid, legitimate use of the emotional appeal, unless the story is told to distract the reader from data which go against the claim being made. 

To avoid:  Never appeal to sentiment to hide a lack of logical argument.  Use this appeal to augment logic, not distract from it.

Bandwagon:  urgings to follow a course of action simply because the majority of people are doing so.

The fact is that the majority is often wrong.  Examples:  the centuries when this country practiced and endorsed slavery; more recently, when seemingly every lending institution jumped on the bandwagon of sub-prime mortgages, a bandwagon which has gone out of control and wrecked our entire economy.  Bandwagons often, in fact, careen out of control; another example is how the anti-Communist, McCarthy era of the 1950s ruined the careers of many innocent people. 

To avoid:  Think for yourself!  Inform yourself about an issue and decide the best path, regardless of what others are choosing.  As a writer, do the same with any topic, and avoid the temptation of throwing logical argumentation aside in urging your reader to “jump on the bandwagon.”

Fallacies of Pathos, Short Version:

  • Scare tactics:  the exaggeration of possible dangers well beyond their statistical likelihood, in order to induce people to act in a certain way.
  • Red herring:  avoiding the issue or some tough question by introducing a distraction.

  • Either/or:  falsely reducing options to only two choices; eliminating awareness of any middle path.
  • Slippery slope:  an argument that portrays today’s seemingly small concession as tomorrow’s catastrophe.
  • Sentimental:  arguments that appeal to emotions specifically to distract the audience from hard facts which go against the writer’s claim. 
  • Bandwagon:  urgings to follow a course of action simply because the majority of people are doing so.

FALLACIES OF ETHOS (fallacies of the appeal to authority)

False authority:  persuading the audience by citing some other figure who is not a knowledgeable, unbiased authority, but simply one of the same “camp” as the writer.

These days, the most common use of this fallacy is the widespread blogging and chain emails associated with the Internet.  Much of what is passed around could even be considered libel, if the targeted person were to pursue the matter.  What typically happens is that an unscrupulous person with an agenda or axe to grind--often political--will either exaggerate, twist, or at times simply fabricate material, and start it circulating.  Those of a similar persuasion are all too happy to pass it on.  Soon, gullible recipients begin to accept the smear as "fact," as though it were published in a reputable journal by a reputable writer--far from the case.  In this election year, Barack Obama is a frequent target:  I have seen him branded as Islamic, which he is not, "not even a U. S. citizen," which he is (or by law, could not be elected President), and even accused of conspiring with jihadist terrorists, which of course is absurd.  On the other side of the political spectrum, I have read complaints by legitimate liberal female journalists about the similar mudslinging at Sarah Palin, most of which targets her simply because she is female.  All of this is completely unethical. 

 Another  variation of this fallacy is citing the authority of some body of work, such as a religious text, which may not hold sway outside the boundaries of the group that adheres to it.  Thus, while citing Christian scripture may appeal to Christians, it will probably not appeal to others.  The writer must keep this in mind.  Yet another variation of this is to twist the meaning of some cited authority, so as to portray support for the claim being made, when a careful examination of the source would open the door to various other interpretations.  The U. S. Constitution is often cited in this way. 

To avoid:  As a reader, be suspicious of citations of “authorities” you never heard of, or who are noted for being completely on the side of the writer citing them.  And the repeated advice to read written sources for yourself, rather than relying on the interpretations of others, is also wise.  As a writer, try to choose truly knowledgeable authorities to cite.  When citing written text, do not “cherry-pick” passages which, when quoted out of context, twist the meaning of the source. 

Dogmatism:  the claim that the issue at hand is beyond argument, that the solution is self-evident.

The corollary to this is that since the solution is self-evident, then clearly, anyone who disagrees must be either stupid or evil—or so the dogmatist believes.  This stance completely blocks communication of any sort.  Religious zealots are especially prone to using such a strategy, ignoring how usually, even within their own denomination or group of believers, there may be legitimate debate about that very issue.  Politics is probably the other broad area in which dogmatism often prevents compromise and agreement. 

To avoid:  be suspicious of any assertion that some particular topic cannot even be debated.  This is very, very seldom the case.  As a writer, realize that if you depend on dogmatism to appeal to readers, you are only “cheerleading”:  appealing only to those who already agree with you.  Even neutral, undecided readers are often turned away by reliance on dogmatism instead of logic.

Moral equivalence:  suggesting that serious moral wrongs are no different in kind than minor offenses.

This strategy can work in either direction.  In one direction, someone accused of a major crime may try to diminish guilt by comparing his/her crime to some trivial offense, the argument then becoming If I’m guilty, then everyone else is too.  An example of that might be ex-President Richard Nixon, who insisted the Watergate break-ins ordered by him, and resulting in his resignation, did not differ from the behavior of earlier Presidents.  In the other direction, a writer who is trying to gather support against a “pet peeve”may try to elevate it into a major issue by comparing it to something vaguely similar which most people do regard as a serious offense—like arguing for a return to prohibition of drinking by equating someone who stops for a beer on the way home from work to a drunkard who can’t even hold a job because of alcoholism. 

To avoid:  Yet again the solution is to inform oneself, whether as writer or as reader.  Only then can you adequately weigh for yourself the relative magnitude of supposedly “similar” behaviors.

Ad-hominem:  a counter-argument that attacks the opponent’s character, rather than arguing against his/her position on the issue at hand.

This may occur because the writer using it is himself too carried away by anger at the opponent, but it may also occur because the opposing logical argument is obviously a strong one—so the unethical debater tries to avoid dealing with it at all, substituting an attempt to assassinate the character of the opponent.  Of course, if someone is a public figure and is also a womanizer, a drug addict, an embezzler, etc., then that person should rightfully expect to lose influence, because character does count.  However, an informed reader learns to be suspicious of personal attacks people make on their opponents, especially if the attack refers to a very dated, ancient-history offense, or if it tries to elevate a trivial matter into a major one (use of the “moral equivalence” fallacy), or if it dishonestly misrepresents an innocent action for a reprehensible one. 

To avoid:  As a reader, be suspicious of all such attacks; inform yourself of the facts.  As a writer, avoid this strategy in favor of arguing against the position, rather than against the person.

Fallacies of Ethos, Short Version:

  • False authority:  persuading the audience by citing some other figure who is not a knowledgeable, unbiased authority, but simply one of the same “camp” as the writer.
  • Dogmatism:  the claim that the issue at hand is beyond argument, that the solution is self-evident.
  • Moral equivalence:  suggesting that serious moral wrongs are no different in kind than minor offenses.
  • Ad-hominem:  a counter-argument that attacks the opponent’s character, rather than arguing against his/her position on the issue at hand.

 

 

QUIZ ON THE FALLACIES OF ARGUMENT

Answer the following ten questions by filling in the blanks.  You may copy the questions and paste them into your file, then simply replace the blank with your answer.  However, please answer in complete sentences, not just with the missing word(s).   Worth ten points each.  Submit your quiz as a Rich Text file on Blackboard, as you have done on previous quizzes.  Your filename will be Q3 plus your initials.

  1. A conclusion drawn from inadequate evidence is the _________________________ fallacy.

  2. Avoiding an issue by introducing a distraction is called the ____________________ fallacy.

  3. An argument that attacks an opponent's character rather than his position on the issue is the ___________________________ fallacy.

  4. A half-truth, lying in such a way that it sounds plausible, is the __________________ fallacy.

  5. Claiming that the issue at hand is beyond argument, and that the solution is self-evident, and that anyone disagreeing is either stupid or evil, is the _________________________ fallacy.

  6. When one point does not follow logically from another, this is the ___________________ fallacy.

  7. Persuading by citing some unknowledgeable, biased source is the _____________________ fallacy.

  8. Exaggerating possible but unlikely dangers is the ___________________________ fallacy.

  9. Portraying some small concession as leading inevitably to catastrophe is the ___________________________ fallacy.

  10. Falsely reducing options to only two choices is the __________________________ fallacy.

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