|Critical Thinking And Argument
People argue to settle differences of opinion. Using intelligence and reasoning in an exchange of words rather than blows, arguers strive to convince their audience to accept an idea, course of action, or point of view. In his book The Elements of Reasoning, Professor Edward Corbett has written, “When we argue informally with fiends and acquaintances, many of us resort to arguing by vigorous assertion rather than by reasoned demonstration”: Reliable evidence and logical presentation sometimes take a back seat to shouting and demotion. However, sound and fury rarely persuade people as successfully as a convincing presentation of well-marshaled facts.
The familiar process of gathering information, deciding what it means, and using it to shape someone else’s thoughts or actions occurs repeatedly in you own life. Your history exam requires that you write a short essay answering the question, “What caused the end of the Cold War?” Your boss asks you to prepare a report comparing two computer software packages and recommending the one that seems better. To cut costs, the school board is thinking of closing your child’s school, sending him or her to a more distant one. You decide to write a letter to the local newspaper in protest.
Each of these tasks requires the complex skills of critical thinking and argumentative writing—more than just reporting facts and summarizing information. Each writing task mentioned in the preceding paragraph will have as its focus a central thesis, an assertion of the writer’s position on the subject: “The primary causes of the end of the Cold War were a, b, and c”; “The Digital Dynamite software will best serve our needs”; “The school board should not close our neighborhood elementary school because of y and z.” Convincing readers of the truth of these assertions requires analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of the facts to transform the information into a well-reasoned point of view, a persuasive case, and adequately supported stand.
Analysis and interpretation go beyond summarizing and synthesizing facts, beyond asking “What are the main ideas?” Higher-level thinking seeks to answer the question, “What does it all mean?” Critical thinkers take information apart and put it back together in new combinations, looking for patterns and relationships. In argumentation, information becomes evidence to prove a point, to make a decision, to convince people to think or act in certain ways.
Inductive reasoning proceeds from the particular to the general. If particular facts are shown to be true time after time or if a laboratory experiment yields the same result whenever it is run or if people in a wide and varied sampling respond the same way to a given question, then a general conclusion may be drawn. Thus, repeated experimentation and testing led to the conclusion that the Sabin vaccine would prevent polio. Scientists use induction when they test and retest a hypothesis before stating it as a general truth. The scientific method proceeds by inductive reasoning.
Deductive reasoning proceeds from the general to the particular. From a general conclusion other facts are deduced. The validly of the deduction depends on the truth of the initial conclusion. Because you know that penicillin is an effective weapon against infection, seeking a doctor to administer it to you if you have an infection is valid deductive reasoning.
Induction and deduction may occur in the same argument, with conclusions from one serving as the basis for the other. For example, based on data from its years of careful recordkeeping of the occurrences and circumstances of highway accidents, the National Safety Council has concluded that the proportion of automobile accidents on holiday weekends is the same as the proportion on weekends that are not holidays. From this conclusion, arrived at inductively, you may deduce that you can travel as safely by car to a Memorial Day celebration as you can to the mall on Saturdays.
Decide whether an issue is arguable.
The novelist Joseph Conrad wrote, “Every sort of shouting is a transitory thing, after which the grim silence of facts remains.” A corollary to Conrad’s statement is that some things simply cannot be debated from factual evidence. Learn to distinguish those things that are arguable from those that are not.
Things That Are Arguable
Matters of opinion about which reasonable people disagree
that present alternative possibilities for which a believable case can be made,
for which sufficient proof can be assembled to establish a likelihood of truth,
for which absolute proof has not yet been established.
Things That Are Not Arguable
A priori premises Unverifiable facts
Matters of taste Insufficient facts
Matters if fact
Disagreement about issues has resulted in solutions to difficult problems, important scientific breakthroughs, and new ways of thinking and behaving. Argument about matters for which evidence exists (or can be discovered, as in scientific research) is, in fact, the basis for much of your college education. When choosing a topic for an argumentative essay, ask yourself the following questions:
Does the topic involve an identifiable controversy?
Can the sides of the controversy be argued from evidence?
Is reliable information available about the sides of the controversy?
Is there enough information to construct a stand on the controversy that can be
If you answer yes to all four questions, you can probable write a successful argument on the topic.
It is impossible to argue successfully about subjects that do not contain controversial issues or statements that cannot be supported with evidence. For example, matters of taste and matters of faith are basically inarguable. The follow discussion will help you identify inarguable subjects.
A priori premises. A priori is a term of logic meaning, roughly, “before examination.” A statement based on an a priori premise cannot be argued because such a premise can be neither proved nor disproved: People are simply convinced of its truth or untruth. A priori premises have the force of fact because they are so deeply held, even though they cannot be supported by factual evidence.
Many deeply held and widely shared assumptions about human nature are a prior premise with cultural, racial, social, or religious roots. If you argue from an a priori premise with someone who does not share it, you find yourself arguing in circles or along parallel lines—but never toward resolution—because legitimate proof is not possible. For instance, many arguments about the value of one social system or government versus another are futile because they are based on different a priori premises. Or if one person believes, a priori, that human beings are basically good, altruistic, and trustworthy, whereas another person believes human nature is essentially wicked, selfish, and dishonest then the two can never agree about human nature—no matter how many examples each person cites.
A priori premises may change or be replaced over time, as attitudes toward gender roles American society show. A priori assumptions about the unsuitability of women for the workplace or men for child-care roles are not widely shared today, as they once were.
Subjective expressions of taste and nonrational reactions. The Latin phrase de gustibus non disputandum est, “there is no disputing about tastes,” is another way of saying that subjective reactions do not lend themselves to reasoning. Some people prefer green; others prefer purples. Similarly, no matter how sound your logic that there is plenty of oxygen in the stalled elevator, to a claustrophobic the sense of suffocation can be very real.
Matters of fact. If a fact is verifiable, there is no point debating it. It can either be a true (a bona fide fact) or false (not a fact), but in neither case is it a matter for argument because the record can be checked. The earth is round, or nearly so. This fact was verified by fifteenth-century explorers and more recently by means of space flights.
Unverifiable facts. Although it is interesting to speculate about whether there is life after death, we simply cannot know. Various types of proof may be offered for theories as yet unverified. For instance, theories such as Einstein’s theory of relativity may be proved mathematically before they can be verified though physical observation. Although scientists were willing to grant the mathematical validly of Einstein’s theory, they searched for other forms of verification. Be aware of the need to differentiate between fact and theory, even widely accepted theory. Whereas it is possible to argue from theory, it is not possible to argue conclusively.
Insufficient facts. Statements based on insufficient facts cannot be argued conclusively. For instance, people enjoy arguing that life exists on other planets. Statistically, the odds favor the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, but we have no hard evidence to prove this assertion. If information pointing one way or the other comes to light, a conclusion may eventually be reached. In the meantime, logical reasoning on the topic won’t carry us very far.
Keep in mind that facts are slippery and not necessarily static. What may be accepted as verifiably true this year may be proven false by next year. Before sailors circled the globe the populace accepted as fact that the world was flat. During the Middle Ages, the plagues that killed millions were attributed to God’s wrath; Europeans had no knowledge that fleas could transmit microorganisms from rats to humans that infest the population. What was once the fact of God’s wrath is today regarded as a problem of hygiene. Correspondingly, what serves as fact today may be tomorrow’s quaint, ignorant notion. Time and scientific inquiry have taught us that very little is absolutely certain. The best we can do is draw conclusions from available data, deciding to formulate an argument when the supporting data warrant it.
Analyze your audience.
Because argumentative writing seeks to change readers’ views or move them to action, analyzing your readers is as important as thinking about the points you want to make.
As you consider the audience for your argumentative paper, you should understand that three outcomes are possible:
You will change your reader’s point of view from opposition to agreement. This
outcome is ideal, but also the most unlikely.
You will be able to modify your reader’s point of view, bring it closer to your
own. If not total agreement, you many be able to gain some acceptance for your
point of view and establish a basis for great understanding between you and
You will not change your audience’s mind at all. Even in the face of faultless
logic, readers can reject your argument.
The outcome of your argument depends in part o how well you understand your audience and accordingly shape your material to make it convincing. The audience’s level of expertise and it preexisting point of view are two important components of this understanding.
Expert versus novice readers. Someone who knows little about the subject will need more background information. Someone who is already familiar with the facts and various points of view on the subject will probably demand greater detail, more evidence and expert testimony, and a more sophisticated analysis.
Convinced, neutral, or skeptical readers. If your audience already agrees with you, clearly you do not have to persuade them further. Rather, you goal is get them to act. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience,” he knew his audience was already opposed to slavery; his task was to inspire them to act on behalf of the antislavery cause. Given their preexisting viewpoint, he did not need to compile catalogs of factual evidence. Instead, Thoreau’s essay, full of emotionally charged language, calls for action passionately.
If readers are neutral or skeptical, you must convince them at least to consider your position. Establishing common ground will help you get a hearing for your point of view: What characteristics do you share? What points can be agreed on? Identifying common ground, acknowledging opposing points of view, even admitting the strength of some of those arguments shows respect for the readers’ convictions. If you suggest you’re your readers are uniformed, ignorant, stupid, or ridiculous for believing as they do, you will only antagonize them. You will never persuade them.
Skeptical audiences are likely to be very exacting readers—highly critical of misused facts, weak evidence, insufficient proof, biased testimony, faulty logic, and slanted or emotion language. These readers require the most rigorous arguments and counterarguments to refute opposing viewpoints.
Emotional versus rational appeals. Audience analysis can help you decide whether readers are likely to be swayed by examples, anecdotes, and language that appeals to the emotions. Some expert or skeptical readers may insist on factual evidence and reject emotional appeals as manipulative. In contrast, a reader who is familiar with a subject may respond positively to emotional language that reinforces his or her agreement with the point of view being expressed.
How much emotion is too much in argumentative writing? There are no easy rules of thumb. Emotion has had a legitimate place in argumentation since ancient times. The following diagram shows a tradition representation of the relationship between the message, the writer (or speaker), and the audience. Each element in the diagram is associated with a particular argumentative appeal.
The message focuses on the clarity of the point of view being advocated: the logic of the reasons, the validity of the supporting evidence, and the structure of the presentation. This element of an argument is called the logical appeal (from the Greek word logos, meaning “word.”). The writer’s relationship to the argument involves credibility and trustworthiness. Should we believe what the writer says? This element is called the ethical appeal (from the Greek word ethos, meaning “character”). The audience’s role in the argument concerns feelings and imagination. How can readers be engaged and motivated to think or act in a certain way? This element is called the appeal to emotions (from the Greek word pathos, meaning “emotion”). Successful arguments balance the three elements. Too much pathos, and the argument become propaganda; too little, and the argument will fail to engage the audience’s interest.
Plan your argument.
Once your have determined that your topic is arguable and you have researched it enough to know that you will be able to locate supporting material, you can plan your argument. If you have approached the differences of opinion with the idea of learning which side has the most convincing evidence, you any not want to frame your final thesis until you have investigated the different sides of the controversy. However, you should write a working thesis statement fairly early in the planning stages so that you have established a focus to guide further research and drafting. In addition to writing a working thesis, early planning involves compiling a list of the supporting points you will need to prove your thesis and thinking carefully about the logical connections between the thesis and the supporting points. These three elements of argumentative writing are termed the assertion, the evidence, and the warrant.
Assertion. In an argumentative essay, the thesis expresses the position you are taking on the controversy. It asserts your belief and stakes out your claim to the argumentative territory. In fact, the words assertion and claim are synonyms for an argumentative thesis. An assertion along with reasons forms the core of an argumentative thesis:
Assertion Schools should pace more emphasis on math and science because
Reason American students lag far behind students from other industrialized
countries on math and science test scores.
Assertion Voluntary tipping at restaurants should be replaced by a mandatory 15
percent service charge
Reasons because a service charge would be fairer to servers and make owners’
Reasons Neither drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, nor crime, but a severe
Assertion shortage of low-income housing, causes the majority of homelessness in the
Evidence. The reasons rest on evidence. Your essay must supply evidence to support your assertion and to show that the reasons you offer are valid. Evidence is the part of an argument the reader is willing to accept as true without further proof.
Common Types of Supporting Evidence
Facts Verifiable occurrences or experiences; statistics
compiled from systematic observation
Testimony Reliable reports of events, experiences, or
Informed Opinion Judgment believed reliable because the source is
highly knowledgeable about the subject,
prestigious, and authoritative
Examples and Illustrations Particular instances of generalizations
As you plan your argument, you will need to think about the type and quantity of evidence needed to convince your audience. Although most people respond to emotional appeals, they are unlikely to be convinced unless you also offer solid evidence. Of the types of evidence in the preceding list, which ones are most convincing? The more factual your evidence, the more your audience is likely to believe it. The more prone to bias or the farther from the original source the evidence is, the less credibility it will have with your audience. As a general rule, facts carry the most weight as evidence in an argument, followed by testimony from reliable observers, informed opinion from experts, and finally examples and illustrations. As the evidence moves farther from hard fact, it becomes more and more open to error, emotion, and manipulation.
Evidence often comprises a major portion of an argument, especially if the issues are complex. How much evidence is enough depends on the nature of the subject and the characteristics of the audience—on how likely the readers are to agree or disagree with you. The more widely shared or commonly acknowledged an experience, the less evidence you need to convince readers. If, for example, you state that traffic accidents area leading cause of death among teenagers, most people will agree with you. Numerous news reports have verified this statement. Statistics comparing traffic deaths to other leading causes of death for this age group would simply strengthen the validity of the assertion. If, on the other had, in a paper on the value of home remedies you offer as truth the statement that mustard plasters are good for curing colds, you will need plenty of evidence. Most readers would view your statement not as fact but as an assertion needing proof. To convince you audience, you will have to cite a wide and representative sampling of incidents as well as testimony from respected medical authorities who have studied the effect of mustard plasters on colds.
Evidence is only as good as its accuracy and your audience’s willingness to accept it. Consequently, persuading the reader means looking at the evidence from the reader’s point of view and then supplying statistics, illustrations, specific examples, personal experience, and occurrences reported by authorities to validate the evidence in your reader’s eyes.
Warrant. The third element in an argument, the warrant shows the connection between the truth of the supporting evidence and the truth of the assertion. It represents the because or therefore in the assertion + reasons core of the argument. Sometimes the warrant is implied rather than stated.
Assertion You should reduce the amount of fried food you eat.
Evidence Research as connected cholesterol to heart disease.
Warrant Fried foods often contain high amounts of cholesterol.
Using an implied warrant and a different order of presentation, the same argument might be written as follows:
Evidence Because research has connected cholesterol to heart disease,
Assertion you should reduce the amount of fried food you eat.
The word because serves as the warrant, clearly implying the reason why or connection between the truth of the evidence and the trough of the assertion.
Sometimes your audience will accept the warrant; other times you will have to prove its truth, just as you would the assertion. For instance, few people will dispute that fried foods are often high in cholesterol. This warrant rests on well-verified fact. However, the argument “You should increase the amount of red wine you drink because research has connected red wine to lower incidence of heart attack” will probably not be accepted as readily. Most people will want to see scientific evidence for the warrant that “red wine contains heart-attack-reducing agents.”
Define terms in your argument.
As you plan your argument, identify terms your audience may not understand or may define differently than you do. Much senseless argument arises because people do not agree on meanings. Readers must understand your terms before they can follow your reasoning. Proving the assertion “The end of the Cold War signaled the failure of communism” requires careful definition of not only the term communism but also what the writer means by failure. Both words are abstractions, and abstract terms are among the most difficult to define.
There are three principle methods of defining terms. Which you choose will depend on some extent on whether your readers require a brief definition or a lengthy one. Word substitution is the shortest type of definition; formal definition (also called sentence definition) is somewhat longer; extended definitions may be quite long.
Definition by word substitution. Many terms can be defined satisfactorily by offering a synonym the reader is like to know. Often an appositive—another noun or a group of words used as a noun—placed immediately after the term will define it sufficiently.
aerobic (oxygen-requiring) bacteria
aquifer, a natural underground water reservoir
layette, clothing or equipment for a newborn child
Formal definition. We learn about something new first by discovering that it resembles things we already know and then by noting how it differs from them. Following the same steps, formal definition also relies on comparison and contrast. First we explain the class of things (its genus) to which a term belongs, and then we show how it differs from other things in that class (its differentiation). Formal definition characteristically takes the form f “x is a y that…,” which is why it is sometimes called a sentence definition. The following steps are important in creating a good formal definition.
Classify the term by putting it with other terms of its kind. In general, the narrower the classification, the clearer the eventual definition.
A carpet is a floor covering.
A rifle is a firearm.
NOT A rifle is a weapon.
Although weapon is a legitimate classification of rifle, the class is broader than necessary (including knives, spears, clubs, and so on).
Differentiate the term from other members of its class.
A carpet is a floor covering of woven or felted fabric
usually tacked to a floor.
A rifle is a firearm with a spiral-grooved bore,
designed to be fired from the
Use parallel form in stating the term and its definition. Do not use the phrases is when or is where in definitions.
NOT A debated is when two people or sides argue a given proposition in a regulated
BUT A debate is a regulated discussion of a given proposition between tow matched
Avoid circular definition. Definitions are circular when words are defined in terms themselves.
NOT A rifle is a firearm with rifling insides barrel to impart rotary motion to its
BUT A rifle is a firearm with spiral grooves inside its barrel to impart a rotary motion to
NOT A multicultural curriculum can be defined as one that draws on many cultures for
its subject matter.
BUT A multicultural curriculum can be defined as a course of study that draws on
people and events from many ethnic, racial, national, geographic, and gender
backgrounds for its subject matter.
Define a term in words that are familiar to the reader. It doesn’t do much good to describe a truffle as a “fleshy, subterranean fungus, chiefly of the genus Tuber, often esteemed as food” if you readers don’t know the meaning of subterranean, fungus, or genus. “An edible, lumpy plant that grows underground and is related to the mushroom” may be a much more understandable definition, depending on your audience. As always, analyze the audience to determine which terms need defining and which synonyms to use.
Extended definition. Abstract words like propaganda, democracy, happiness, religion, justice, and harassment may require more than word substitution of a formal sentence definition to make their meaning clear. Extended definitions usually include a formal definition but expand it using examples, analogies, descriptions, and various other explanations to show the reader precisely what is meant. Depending on the complexity of the term being defined, the audience’s background, and the importance of the term in the argument, and extended definition might be a singe paragraph or many pages long.
Extended definition can be used to clarify terms in an argument, but sometimes it constitutes the whole argument. For example, a charge of sexual harassment may be won or lost in court largely based on whether the alleged behavior meets the legal definition of sexual harassment. The entire case will evolve around definition of terms.
Anticipate opposing arguments. Strong arguments anticipate the points that might be raised by the opposition. One good way to prepare for these counterarguments is to do some research; you need to know where, specifically, you and your opponent are likely to disagree. You may be able to find opposing arguments and evidence in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers. If possible talk to someone who holds an opposing viewpoint to sound out conflicting reasons. You can also ask a friend to classmate to act as devil’s advocate and raise as many counterpoints as possible to your assertion and supporting reasons.
From the results of your reading and conversation, make a list of points the opposition may raise. Next to each point, write a counterargument you can use to rebut the opposition. Look for fallacies and weaknesses in the opposition’s reasoning; be sure not to include fallacies in your rebuttal points (for a discussion of logical fallacies see the Check the logic of your argument section). You probably won’t use this list in the order you have written it, but it will help you to remember important points of opposition that you need to take into account when you are drafting your essay.
Construct your argument. Arguments may draw on any of the organizational patterns. Definition, analogy, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, even narration and description have their place in argumentative writing. Some patters, such as cause and effect and comparison and contrast, are quite common.
Although the structure of an argument may take a variety of forms, many arguments follow what is called the standard form, composed of five basic parts:
Attention-arousing opening (anecdote, example, startling statistic)
Explanation of issue; definition of terms as necessary
Other background information as necessary
Common ground established, if any
Thesis statement asserting writer’s point of view
Summary of opposing viewpoint(s)
Rebuttal of opposing viewpoint(s)
Weakness in opposition’s viewpoint attacked
Strengths in opposition’s viewpoint conceded (counterbalanced against
strengths in writer’s argument)
Explanation of writer’s viewpoint
Writer’s claims, evidence, and warrants developed
Supporting points presented and argued (opposing viewpoints may be
review and rebutted here)
Strengths of writer’s argument weighed against opposition
Thesis assertion shown to be proven
Identifying common ground—issues or points upon which you and the opposition can agree—will strengthen the persuasiveness of your argument. For example, agreeing that everyone wants safe streets can set the stage for a reasoned discussion of how best to achieve that goal.
If you have researched opposing viewpoints, you should be able to summarize them fairly and acknowledge their valid points. In the rebuttal, you may find it more effective to concede the opposition’s strengths first and then discuss its weaknesses, rather than the other way around. The subsequent explanation of your viewpoint will benefit from the contrast.
Anticipating opposing viewpoints during the planning stage helps you generate a counterargument that identifies the opposition’s weaknesses. Apart from attacking an opponent’s reasoning by spotting logical fallacies, refuting the evidence is one of the most common ways of revealing weaknesses in an opposing viewpoint. The following are some weaknesses to watch for:
Opinions or interpretations offered as fact. Be alert for incorrect information
or opinion that is not validated by sufficient information.
Examples or testimony that can be contradicted or shown to be
unrepresentative or insufficient. If you can provide experience, observations,
instances, or experts that counter those offered by the opposition, you will cast
doubt on your opponent’s argument. Showing that there are numerous
exceptions to your opponent’s representative sample suggests that the opponent
is offering atypical cases.
Examples, testimony, or statistics that are irrelevant or not recent enough.
Be alert for evidence that is fundamentally unrelated to the issues at hand (red
herrings) or that is outdated. Also examine the methods opponents used to
collect and interpret data. Were they scientific and careful, or sloppy?
Authorities and experts who lack credibility. Simply because a person is a
doctor, he or she may not be an expert in every area of medicine. Gynecologists
do not usually make good brain surgeons. Check for relevant expertise on the
part of people being offered as authorities. Also look at their objectivity: Are
their opinions derived from evidence, or are they the result of biased
Check the logic of your argument.
As you write your argument and look for weaknesses in opposing counterarguments, it is important to check for errors in logic, called fallacies. Most common fallacies can be categorized as either fallacies of oversimplification or fallacies of distortion.
Fallacies of oversimplification. Fallacies of oversimplification occur when an arguer draws a conclusion from insufficient evidence, generalizing from too few facts. Generalization is essential to thinking; without it, we would not evaluate experience—only accumulate isolated bits of data. Similarly, generalization is essential to argument. An argument’s main assertion may be presented as a generalization: “Most people are indifferent to local politics” or “Assault weapons should be banned.” Because arguments of any length or complexity are comprised of clusters or chains of smaller, related arguments whose proof supports the main assertion, writers typically use a number of generalizations in the course of convincing their audiences. But like any claim, generalizations must be supported by sufficient evidence—neither too broad nor too hasty, relying on neither false choices nor false comparisons.
Hasty Generalizations. Do not leap to conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence. It is tempting to generalize from a few striking examples, especially when they agree with what we want to believe. However, unless examples are irrefutably typical, they can lead to fallacies or even absurd assertions.
PARTICULAR A The newspaper reported that a child was recently mauled by a pit
PARTICULAR B My mother’s mail carrier was bitten by a pit bull dog last year.
PARTICULAR C The gas meter reader said a pit bull chased her from its yard.
GENERALIZATION As a breed, it bull dogs are vicious.
Hasty generalizations rely on unfair stereotypes; they make assertions about groups, containing thousands of individuals on the basis of a few examples which may not be at all typical of the entire class.
To construct a valid argument and to be fair to your readers, never advance a generalization unless you can support it with sufficient evidence. Two or three examples may be enough when you readers are likely to have encountered evidence elsewhere in their experience, but if readers are likely to be skeptical or unfamiliar with the issue, you will need to analyze the evidence in detail. If you can think of exceptions to the generalization, you can be sure your readers will too. Consequently you should prepare a counterargument to handle them.
Broad Generalizations. Be careful about using words such as always, never, all, none, every, right, wrong in generalizations. Sweeping statements invite readers to start thinking of exceptions even before you’ve presented your evidence. Many an otherwise reasonable assertion has foundered for lack of seldom instead of never, usually instead of always.
OVERSTATED Playing football always results in injury.
Playing football results in injury.
QUALIFIED Playing football sometimes results in injury.
Playing football can result in injury.
Note that an overstated generalization need not specifically state that it applies to all people. By not making a qualification it clearly implies all, as in the second overstatement in the preceding examples. Similarly, words other than modifiers can act as qualifiers. For example, the verbs can and may prevent overstatement, as in the second qualification in the preceding example, where can implies possibility rather than certainty.
Inadequate cause or post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). Don’t assume that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between two facts simply because one follows the other in time.
The Navy began allowing women to serve on its ships in the 1970s, and its preparedness has decreased steadily since then. [The newspaper columnist who made this statement ignored other important factors such as cuts in defense spending and a shortage of new vessels and equipment, all of which adversely affected the Navy’s military strength.]
False analogy. Don’t assume that because two circumstances or ideas are alike in some respects, they are alike in all respects. When one or two points are analogous, it is very tempting to go overboard and claim that two situations or concepts are wholly analogous. Political speeches, for example, are full of oversimplified, faulty analogies.
I don’t believe you can run a major U.S. company from abroad. George III tried to
run the United States from Britain, and look what happened to him.
-----Sir Gordon White
[About the only commonality between the eighteenth-century monarch facing the American
Revolution and the head of a twentieth-century multinational corporation is the ocean between
Analogy can be a useful persuasive tool, but although it can clarify, it can never prove a point. Analogy’s value increases in direct proportion to the number of parallels you can cite and decreases with every difference your reader perceives.
Either/or fallacy. Don’t claim there are only two alternatives if, in fact, there are several. Truth sometimes is an either/or sort of thing: Either you passed the examination, or you failed it. But most things about which we argue are not as clear-cut. During the Vietnam War, some automobiles carried bumper stickers asserting “America. Love it or leave it.” Of course, Americans may protest their government’s policies without being unpatriotic, although this bumper sticker fallaciously suggested otherwise.
Students come to college for one of two reasons: either to study or to party.
Judging by Mack’s attendance at campus mixers, I’d say he didn’t come to study. [It’s possible Mack studies very little, if at all. It’s also possible that he studies very efficiently and thus has free time to go to parties. Many combinations of studying and partying, to say nothing of the endless possibilities that include neither studying nor partying, are available to college students.]
Fallacies of distortion. If you ignore counterarguments, you will weaken you own position. Worse, if you try to divert attention from counterarguments by appealing to your readers’ prejudice and emotions, your argument will be distorted and unfair.
Slanted language. Slanted language distorts meaning by using connotation to appeal to emotion and prejudice. Fore example, today words like radical, permissive, and cover-up produce negative responses from any people, whereas words like freedom, responsibility, and efficiency produce positive responses. These words evoke emotional rather than reasoned reactions. Ironically, it’s not unusual to find diametrically opposed positions described by the same connotative language. “Fiscal responsibility” can mean a tax cut in one politician’s campaign and a tax increase in another’s. This shows the danger of slanted language: People are persuaded to draw conclusions without learning the facts of the matter.
Transfer. Don’t associate a famous name with an idea or cause in the hope that the reputation of the celebrity will persuade people to accept your point of view. Unlike argument from authority, which legitimately uses expert testimony as a form of evidence, transfer relies on the principle of greatness by association. A celebrity often has no more expertise on a subject than the average person. Examples are professional athletes’ endorsements of motor oil or coffee makers.
We are the party of Franklin D Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Our campaign platform follows in the great democratic tradition.
If Miss America can get beautiful hair like this using Goo shampoo, you can too.
Argumentum ad hominem (argument to the man). This type of distorted reasoning ignores the point being argued and attacks a person’s character instead. An ad hominem argument is similar to a red herring because it substitutes a false issue for bona fide proof. Furthermore, even though discredited for one thing, a person may be right about others.
Why should you believe what Hartwell says about the needs of our schools? He is suspected of taking bribes. [Apart from the fact that Hartwell is only suspected of taking bribes, what he has to say about school needs may be based on extensive study and analysis.]
Argumentum ad populum (argument to the people). This fallacy arouses deeply held emotions about institutions and ideas. When politicians evoke God, country, or motherhood, they are making an argument to the people—as for example when candidates say they will protect the interests of the American family.
A slightly different fallacy that uses similar crowd appeal is the bandwagon approach. This fallacy says that what is right for the masses is right for the individual: One must go along with the crowd in belief or action. Obviously this is not true, as many incidents of mob behavior have shown. Nevertheless, the bandwagon is a favorite ploy among advertisers (and children) who claim that everyone is buying or doing something.
But Mon, all the kids are wearing shorts [or rollerskates or green wigs] to the prom!
The responsible citizens of this state know that a vote for Jenkins is a vote for open and honest government.
Non sequitur. Don’t substitute inference for a logically sound conclusion. A non sequitur (“it does not follow”) is a fallacy that occurs when a premise requiring proof is put forward as true. A related fallacy is called circular argument.
This insurance policy is a wise purchase. It covers all expenses related to cancer treatment. [Although the policy may pay cancer-related expenses, the statement assumes the buyer will get cancer. If he or she does not, the policy may not have been a wise purchase.]
His handwriting is hard to read because it is illegible. [This argument does not move from premise to conclusion but merely moves in a circle. Illegible means “difficult or impossible to read.”]
Red Herring. Don’t introduce a false issue in the hope of leading your reader away from a real one. A red herring supplies a false sent in an argument diverting the hounds from their quarry and leading them down an irrelevant trail. Usually the false issue elicits an emotion reaction, sidetracking the reader’s attention from the real issue and the proof it needs.
American tax dollars must not be spent to support medical research and treatment that uses fetal tissue. Such hideous scientific experiments performed with the remains of unborn children simply play into the hands of criminal abortionists who encourage pregnant women to abort their unborn babies for profit. [Any reasoned ethical or scientific debate concerning the role of fetal tissue research is completely obscured by the specter of women being paid to undergo abortions. Here the writer introduces extremely loaded language and a highly emotion issue to short-circuit discussion. Medical advances in the treatment of several fatal diseases and genetic conditions are never mentioned; neither is the fact that the tissue isn’t purchased from abortion clinics.]