Logical Fallacies



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  • *Before we start diving into Essay 1, I wanted to discuss one more basic element of rhetoric and argumentation: “logical fallacies.” The word logical fallacy is simply a fancy term for the adoption of a faulty piece of reasoning in an argument. Like the Toulmin Method, logical fallacies provide us as a class with a grammatical vocabulary in which to discuss future articles and arguments. In particular, they provide us with a set of terms for common rhetorical errors and pitfalls
  • *Studying fallacies will be a useful endeavor because by learning the names for such errors, we will begin to recognize them more readily. Our eyes (and ears) will become more attuned to identifying those fallacies which we have baptized with a name…
  • e.g.
  • “Schadenfreude”
  • False Cause
  • *Definition: Concluding that one thing is the cause of another thing just because they are related to each other or closely connected in time.
  • *Algebraically put:
  • A
  • (A occurs)
  • B
  • (B occurs)
  • (A caused B to occur…)
  • Ex:
  • “Every morning, I see the rooster crow and then I see the sun rise a minute later.
  • Therefore, the following must be true: the rooster causes the sun to rise…”
  • *The most famous example of the false cause fallacy is concluding that just because something happened before something else in time that it therefore caused it to happen…
  • Ex:
  • “President Jones raised taxes last year. The crime rate has increased since last year. Wait a second…it must have been President Jones’ raising of taxes which caused the crime rate to go up!!”
  • *This is guilty of the false cause fallacy because it lacks proof. If one were to fix this false cause, they would have to show the direct connection between the rise in taxes and the rise in crime rate. But right now, this bridge does not exist…
  • *However, the false cause fallacy is not always restricted to time. It can also suggest any doubtful connection of causation…
  • Ex:
  • “My argument is simple. Beards help to produce creativity. Take the Beatles for example—precisely at the moment when they began growing crazy Rip Van Winkle beards, they started producing some of their best songs. And this isn’t just true of the Beatles. There’s countless other examples of artists doing the same thing: growing beards and suddenly becoming creative. Marvin Gaye, for example and George R. R. Martin, to name just two. Therefore, crazy as it sounds, I guess beards must help to foster creativity.”
  • *While the two might happen at the same time (correlation), this doesn’t prove that they cause each other (i.e. “correlation is not causation”). The arguer has to prove how exactly beards produce creativity…
  • Ex:
  • *False Causes in Commercials (Volkswagen)
  • Slippery Slope
  • *Definition: When one claims that a chain reaction will take place, but, truthfully, there's not enough evidence to forecast the inevitability of such a drastic domino effect.
  • *Algabraically put:
  • If A is allowed to happen…
  • B will surely happen…
  • And then C because of B…
  • And then D because of C…
  • And then D will lead to E…
  • And E, as we all know, is Hell on Earth…
  • So, to avoid Hell on Earth, don’t let A happen!
  • Ex:
  • “Just look at those bags under your eyes! Are you getting enough sleep honey?”
  • “I had a test and stayed up late studying grandma…”
  • “You didn’t take any drugs, did you?”
  • “Just coffee…”
  • “Erika! You know what happens to people when they start drinking coffee! Pretty soon, caffeine won’t be strong enough for you, and then you’ll have to start taking something a little stronger – a diet pill maybe or even Ritalin. Then, after that, something even stronger. Before you know it honey, BAM, you’ll be doing cocaine! So quit with the coffee, okay…”
  • *How ingrained the slippery slope fallacy is in our consciousness can be seen in how often it appears in our language…
  • “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile!”
  • “Once they get their foot in the door, there’s no telling what they might do!”
  • *It is also the subject of nursery rhymes, such as the following…
  • “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
  • For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
  • For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
  • For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
  • And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
  • *The problem with most slippery slopes is that they willfully ignore any instances where the brakes could be applied…
  • A must end in E…
  • But couldn’t it also end in C?
  • Ex:
  • *Slippery Slopes in Commercials (Direct TV)
  • *However, not all arguments which contain multiple steps are inherently slippery slopes. If each link in the chain is a solid one, then the chain as a whole is solid. In other words, if A does in fact lead to B and B does in fact lead to C and C does in fact lead to D, then it is likely that A will actually cause D…
  • If I don’t leave right now, I’ll be late for class. After all, it takes me
  • twenty minutes to commute from work to school and its 3:40 right
  • now.
  • If I’m late for class, Mr. Punctuality won’t let me take the daily
  • quiz. That’s the way Mr. Punctuality rolls…
  • If Mr. Punctuality won’t let me take the daily quiz, I’ll
  • receive a 0 on the quiz. Again, that’s how Mr. Punctuality
  • rolls…
  • Therefore, if I don’t want to receive a 0 on the quiz, I
  • must leave right now!
  • *Each of these steps has a chance of leading to the next, and therefore it is not a huge leap to imagine that if you don’t leave right now then you’ll receive a 0 on Mr. Punctuality’s daily quiz…
  • False Dilemma
  • *Definition: The situation is presented so it looks like there are only two possible options. One of the options is clearly undesirable and therefore must be eliminated, making the other option the only rational alternative...
  • You’re either with us or against us!
  • *For this conclusion to be true, one must be absolutely sure that there are no other possibilities out there which the arguer has failed to mention. For example, what if being “neutral” was a valid option? Or what if you could also be “with you up to a point” or “against you up to a point”… If these are also valid options, then the arguer is creating a false dilemma, making it seem that you have to “with” them because, well, going against them seems intimidating and alienating…
  • Ex:
  • “Bill and I both support the new fine that charges 5000 dollars for littering.
  • “What – I never said that...”
  • “Well, you love the environment, don’t you Bill?
  • *Bill doesn’t necessarily have to support the fine in order to love the environment. There are other options. He may believe that littering is wrong in principle but that the proposed fine is rather excessive…
  • Ex:
  • Dad, either you should trust me to do the right thing or you and Mom did a poor job of raising me. What’s it going to be…
  • *The key to avoiding a false dilemma is to make sure you have considered every plausible option possible. If, however, there are only two real options and one of the options is noticeably weaker than the other, then the argument is by no means a false dilemma…
  • “We really only have two options. We can either drive to Georgia and attend Julie’s wedding on Saturday or stay here in D.C. and attend the Kanye West concert on Saturday. If we skip out on Julie’s wedding, she’ll probably never forgive us. That said, if we want to stay friends with Julie, our only real option is to suck it up and go to Julie’s wedding and thus miss the concert.”
  • vs.
  • Appeal to Authority
  • *Definition: When an arguer claims that because an expert on a given subject matter has made a claim, that therefore that claim must be true.
  • *Algabraically put:
  • 1) A cites B.
  • 2) B claims X.
  • Therefore A is right
  • because X must be true.
  • *This is only a fallacy because of the word “must.” There is a high likeliness that X is true and it is typically a good move in argumentation to cite experts on a given subject to support one’s position. The mistake here is to treat an “appeal to authority” as a knockout blow. Much like the “false analogy,” appeals to authority are suggestive but never airtight statements of unassailable truth…
  • 3) B is an authority on X.
  • *The appeal to authority can take various forms. One common form is the appeal to some past, wise figure…
  • *Again, the problem here is not that the arguer is citing Thomas Hobbes, but that they are doing so in a way that makes the authority figure a knockout blow. It could be the case that Hobbes was wrong about life without government? In any event, the arguer must use the quote to suggest and then go on to use logic and more reasoning to make their point as plausible as possible. Authority figures should be used like commas, not periods.
  • “Anarchists are naïve. They think that peace and harmony will follow if we just get rid of the government. But Thomas Hobbes, a famous 17th century political philosopher, claimed that ‘life without a government is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.’ So I guess the anarchists were wrong? I mean, how can something ‘nasty and brutish’ be peaceful and harmonious?
  • *Another variant of the appeal to authority is using popular proverbs and aphorisms in order to prove one’s point. Again, such sayings are suggestive but never conclusive!
  • “I’m just not sure if it’s a wise time to go public with our company.”
  • “Why? The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • “Granted, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
  • “So what you’re saying is that we shouldn’t look before we leap?”
  • “And yet he who hesitates is lost.”
  • The Machine Gun
  • *Definition: Bombarding the reader with reason after reason after reason for why your claim is true without actually developing in depth any of these reasons. In other words, drowning the reader with quantity (as opposed to washing them clean of their confusion with quality).
  • *Algebraically put:
  • 1) Claim A is true.
  • 2) Because of Grounds B
  • , C
  • , D
  • , E,
  • F,
  • G, etc.
  • Ex:
  • “English 101 should not be a required class at USM. To begin with, only 4% of students at USM major in English. In addition, incoming freshmen have already been subjected to nearly a dozen years of English classes. If you don’t know how to write after 12 years of instruction, seriously, what is one more year going to do? Furthermore, how proficient in English does one have to be in order to be successful in the real world? I mean, it’s not like your boss is going to give you pop quizzes on Shakespeare and Faulkner! Also, forcing students to write is not going to make them better writers: one only learns how to write better by volunteering and approaching the topic on one’s own terms. In addition…
  • *The writer bombards their audience with a machine gun of reasons. Unfortunately, none of these reasons have time to be developed and therefore to truly become convincing to a skeptical reader…
  • *The way to avoid the machine gun fallacy is to limit your grounds to your very best and most convincing reasons. Spend multiple paragraphs developing these grounds, considering counter-claims and providing examples and analogies which make the reader see your point of view concretely and from a new vantage-point. Remember, always imagine that the person who is reading your argument disagrees with you. The only way to persuade a skeptical reader is through the quality and thoroughness of your reasoning (not its quantity – i.e., don’t drown your reader)…..
  • Begging (or “raising”) the Question
  • *Definition: To beg the question is to base a position on a questionable assumption which is doing all of the legwork of the argument. One is begging the question if one never brings this assumption to the light and backs it up…
  • Ex:
  • I can’t believe you’re watching The Tale
  • of Slaughter MacSlaughterhouse again!!
  • What MOM? It’s just a TV show…
  • *This seems to beg the question as to what a TV show is and is not? Is a TV show simply harmless entertainment (as the son has assumed), or can TV shows be potentially dangerous and influential on our real lives? The son, in order to make his point clearer and more persuasive, needs to explore his assumption and back it up…
  • To cast abortion as a private question is to lose touch with common sense. How two human beings treat one another is practically the definition of a public matter! Therefore, abortion is an inescapably
  • public matter.
  • *Again, one way to identify a case of “begging the question” is to ask yourself if the arguer has already made an important (unstated) assumption that makes their argument seem tighter than it really is.
  • *The arguer has assumed that abortion is between two humans, but this question is debatable. In fact, it’s the very heart of the abortion controversy. The question that needs to be answered is whether a zygote is really a human, and thus whether abortion is really a public or a private matter?
  • *In many cases of “begging the question,” an adjective or an adverb is doing all of the work of the argument. In such cases, one must isolate the modifier and specify exactly what that modifier entails…
  • Can’t we all agree that we need to cut down on wasteful military spending?
  • *But what exactly is “wasteful” spending? What do you consider “wasteful” and what do you consider “prudent”?
  • *Again, what precisely is “unnecessary” force as opposed to “necessary” force? Nothing is being said here. All we are really being told is that unnecessary force is unnecessary.
  • Last but not least:
  • the three most insidious fallacies—(the fallacies of diversion)
  • Red Herring
  • *Definition: A digression or an aside that leads the audience off-track and causes them to consider material that is not relevant to the issue at hand.
  • *Algabraically put:
  • 1) Topic A is under discussion.
  • 2) Topic B is introduced as being relevant to topic A.
  • 3) Topic A is abandoned altogether…
  • *The red herring fallacy receives its name from the fact that a red herring’s scent is strong enough to lead astray even the keenest of bloodhounds…
  • THE REAL ISSUE
  • *The crudest version of the red herring fallacy might go something like this (note: they are often much more subtle than this)…
  • Now, as you can see, my position is quite clear…
  • *The crudest version of the red herring fallacy might go something like this (note: they are often much more subtle than this)…
  • Squirrell!!!!!!!!
  • *Clearly, the position the man was speaking of was never addressed. Instead, he diverted the audience’s attention with a hyperbolic identification of a squirrel…
  • Ex:
  • Dollar coins are the way of the future. We need to get away from paper money altogether. Consider the face of Sacagawea – don’t we owe it to the Native Americans to make dollar coins the money of the future!
  • *The speaker is arguing for why dollar coins are the way of the future, but the fact that Native Americans have been historically oppressed doesn’t really have much to do with why dollar coins are the way of the future. It’s simply a red herring, a diversion…
  • Ex:
  • “Al Gore argues in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth that global warming is a danger to the environment. But look where Gore got the money to make his movie – PETA gave him money, Peace Frog gave him money, the World Wildlife Fund gave him money. Everyone who backs Gore’s argument gave him money to make this movie! Therefore, An Inconvenient Truth should be re-titled A Convenient Scandal…”
  • *Precisely who gave Gore money is irrelevant to the argument. The question is whether global warming is or isn’t a danger to the environment. Or, to beg the question, whether global warming is a reality or not. Those are the real issues. The economic backing is simply a red herring…
  • Straw Man
  • *Definition: One sets up a weak version of the opponent’s position and then defeats this weak version as if it were the real one.
  • Haha! What a silly argument!
  • *Algabraically put:
  • 1) Person A has position X.
  • 2) Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
  • 3) Person B refutes position Y.
  • 4) Person B believes they have refuted position X…
  • But Y is ridiculous because of A, B, and C!
  • Y?!
  • X!
  • (Person A)
  • (Person B)
  • (undeserved applause)
  • Ex:
  • *X was Person A’s original position and not Y. Therefore the comment that Y is ridiculous because of A, B, and C is simply irrelevant…
  • Ex:
  • “I move that we lower the drinking age to 18. After all, if we expect the youth of this age to fight our wars, isn’t it the least we can do to allow these same youths to down a Budweiser every now and then?”
  • “Are you serious?! Ladies and Gentlemen, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants becomes a society of laziness and drunkenness! Everyone knows this. What this man is proposing is ridiculous!”
  • *“Lowering the drinking age to 18” and granting “unrestricted access to intoxicants” are not the same thing. Speaker B has exaggerated the position of Speaker A in order to ridicule it…
  • *The key to avoiding the straw man fallacy is to be charitable to your opponents. State their arguments as strongly, accurately, and sympathetically as possible. If you can knock down even the best version of an opponent's argument, then you've really accomplished something…
  • vs.
  • Ad Hominem
  • *Definition: An attack is made on an opponent’s character in place of their argument. The logic being “if the opponent’s character is discredited, the same must apply to their argument…”
  • *Algabraically put:
  • 1) Person A makes claim X.
  • 2) Person B sullies Person A’s character.
  • 3) Therefore, X is false…
  • *Even if Person A has particular character flaws, they might not necessarily have anything to do with X and, ultimately, X is what is at stake here and not Person A’s character…
  • *Ad hominem literally means…
  • “against”
  • “the person”
  • *Put another way:
  • “Killing the messenger doesn’t alter the message”…
  • Ex:
  • *Even if the following is true, what does Einstein’s failure as a family man have to do with his science? Can’t great scientists be jerks too?
  • Why should we trust Einstein’s science at all? The man was a horrible husband and a horrible father to boot!
  • *One variation of the ad hominem fallacy is the
  • “tu quoque” (“you too!”) argument. A tu quoque occurs when an arguer attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by pointing out that they’ve failed to act consistently with their own position. Essentially, a tu quoque is an irrelevant charge of hypocrisy…
  • People shouldn’t drink! It’s a dangerous habit…
  • But look at you: you’re drunk?! Therefore, what you’re saying is invalid…
  • *Where ad hominems can be tricky is when someone’s personal character is actually relevant to a particular argument…
  • *If your personal character is what’s on the line, then it’s perfectly OK for the arguer to attack your character…
  • Columbo, you’re a jerk! You lie to my face, you slander me behind my back, and you only want to hang out when you’re running low on money. Ergo, as I stated earlier, you’re a jerk!
  • Logical Fallacy Glossary
  • False Cause (Concluding that one phenomenon is the cause of another phenomenon just because they are related to each other or closely connected in time.)
  • Slippery Slope (When one claims that a chain reaction will take place, but, truthfully, there's not enough evidence to forecast the inevitability of such a drastic domino effect.)
  • False Dilemma (The situation is presented so it looks like there are only two possible options. One of the options is clearly undesirable and therefore must be eliminated, making the other option the only rational alternative...)
  • Appeal to Authority (When an arguer claims that because an expert on a given subject matter has made a claim, that therefore that claim must be true.)
  • Machine Gun (When the arguer tries to prove a claim by drowning the reader with reason after reason after reason, without sufficiently developing and elaborating on any of these reasons.)
  • Begging the Question (When an arguer assumes what they want to prove – put another way, when the arguer’s claim rests on an assumption which is debatable or dubious.)
  • Red Herring (A digression or an aside that leads the audience off-track and causes them to consider material that is not relevant to the issue at hand.)
  • Straw Man (One sets up a weak version of their opponent’s position and then defeats this weak version as if it were the real one.)
  • Ad Hominem (An attack is made on an opponent’s character in place of their argument. The logic being “if the opponent’s character is discredited, the same must apply to their argument…”)


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