by David Ferrer
A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning common enough to warrant a fancy name. Knowing how to spot and identify fallacies is a priceless skill. It can save you time, money, and personal dignity. Formal fallacies are breakdowns in how you say something, the ideas are ordered wrong somehow. Their form is wrong.
Informal fallacies, like the ones below, have to do with what you are saying (the “content” of an argument). The ideas might be arranged right, but something you said isn’t quite right. The content is wrong. Here’s a list of the 15 informal fallacies you are most likely to encounter in discussion and debate.
1. Ad Hominem Fallacy
When people think of “arguments,” often their first thought is of shouting matches riddled with personal attacks. Ironically, personal attacks run contrary to rational arguments. In logic and rhetoric, personal attacks are called ad hominems. Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man.” Instead of advancing good sound reasoning, ad hominems replace logical argumentation with attack-language unrelated to the truth of the matter.
More specifically, ad hominems are a fallacy of relevance where someone rejects or criticizes another person’s view on the basis of personal characteristics, background, physical appearance, or other features irrelevant to the argument at issue.
An ad hominem is more than just an insult. It’s an insult used as if it were an argument or evidence in support of a conclusion. Verbally attacking people proves nothing about the truth or falsity of their claims. Ad hominems are common known in politics as “mudslinging.” Instead of addressing the candidate’s stance on the issues, or addressing his or her effectiveness as a statesman or stateswoman, ad hominems focus on personality issues, speech patterns, wardrobe, style, and other things that affect popularity but have no bearing on their competence. In this way, ad hominemscan be unethical, seeking to manipulate voters by appealing to irrelevant foibles and name-calling instead of addressing core issues. In this last election cycle, personal attacks were volleyed freely from all sides of the political aisle, with both Clinton and Trump facing their fair share of ad hominems.Ad hominem is an insult used as if it were an argument or evidence in support of a conclusion.
A thread on Quora lists the following doozies against Hillary Clinton: “Killary Clinton,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Hilla the Hun,” “Shillary,” “Hitlery,” “Klinton,” “Hildebeest,” “Defender of Child rapists,” “Corporate Whore,” “Mr. President,” “Heil Hillary,” “Wicked Witch of the West Wing,” “Robberty Hillham Clinton,” “Mrs. Carpetbagger”, and the decidedly unsubtle, “The Devil.”
The NY Daily News offers an amusing list of insults against Donald Trump: “Short fingered Vulgarian,” “Angry Creamsicle,” “Fascist Carnival Barker,” “F*ckface von Clownstick,” “Decomposing Jack-O-Lantern,” “Chairman of the Saddam Hussein Fanclub,” “Racist Clementine,” “Sentient Caps Lock Button,” “Cheeto Jesus,” “Tangerine Tornado,” and perhaps the most creative/literary reference, “Rome Burning in Man Form.”
Ad hominems often signal the point at which a civil disagreement has descended into a “fight.” Whether it’s siblings, friends, or lovers, most everyone has had a verbal disagreement crumble into a disjointed shouting match of angry insults and accusations aimed at discrediting the other person. When these insults crowd out a substantial argument, they become ad hominems.
See if you can tell which of these is an ad hominem and which is just an insult.
Example 1: “MacDougal roots for a British football team. Clearly he’s unfit to be a police chief in Ireland.”
Example 2: “All people from Crete are liars”
2. Straw Man
It’s much easier to defeat your opponent’s argument when it’s made of straw. The Strawman fallacy is aptly named after a harmless, lifeless, scarecrow. In the straw man fallacy, someone attacks a position the opponent doesn’t really hold. Instead of contending with the actual argument, he or she instead attacks the equivalent of a lifeless bundle of straw, an easily defeated effigy, which the opponent never intended upon defending anyway.
Straw man fallacies are a cheap and easy way to make one’s position look stronger than it is. Using this fallacy, opposing views are characterized as “non-starters,” lifeless, truthless, and wholly unreliable. By comparison, one’s own position will look better for it. You can imagine how straw man fallacies and ad hominems can occur together, demonizing opponents and discrediting their views.In the straw man fallacy, someone attacks a position the opponent doesn’t really hold.
This fallacy can be unethical if it’s done on purpose, deliberately mischaracterizing the opponent’s position for the sake of deceiving others. But often the straw man fallacy is accidental, because one doesn’t realize he or she is oversimplifying a nuanced position, or misrepresenting a narrow, cautious claim as if it were broad and foolhardy.
See if you can detect how both of the following statements could qualify as a strawman fallacy.
Example 1: “The Senator thinks we can solve all our ecological problems by driving a Prius.”
Example 2: “Quite the contrary, the Senator thinks the environment is such a wreck that no one’s car choice or driving habits would make the slightest difference.”
3. Appeal to Ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam)
Any time ignorance is used as a major premise in support of an argument, it’s liable to be a fallacious appeal to ignorance. Naturally, we are all ignorant of many things, but it is cheap and manipulative to allow this unfortunate aspect of the human condition to do most of our heavy lifting in an argument.Ignorance isn’t proof of anything except that one doesn’t know something.
Interestingly, this fallacy is often used to bolster multiple contradictory conclusions at once. Consider the following two claims: “No one has ever been able to prove definitively that extra-terrestrials exist, so they must not be real.” “No one has ever been able to prove definitively that extra-terrestrials do not exist, so they must be real.” If the same argument strategy can support mutually exclusive claims, then it’s not a good argument strategy.
Ignorance isn’t proof of anything except that one doesn’t know something. If no one has proven the non-existence of ghosts or flying saucers, that’s hardly proof that those things exist or don’t exist. If we don’t know whether they exist, then we don’t know that they exist or that they don’t exist. Ignorance doesn’t prove any claim to knowledge.
Consider the following examples:
Example 1: “We have no evidence that the Illuminati ever existed. They must have been so clever they destroyed all the evidence.”
Example 2: “I know nothing about Tank Johnson except that he has a criminal record as long as your leg, but I’ll bet he’s really just misunderstood.”
4. False Dilemma/False Dichotomy
This fallacy has a few other names: “black-and-white fallacy,” “either-or fallacy,” “false dichotomy,” and “bifurcation fallacy.” This line of reasoning fails by limiting the options to two when there are in fact more options to choose from. Sometimes the choices are between one thing, the other thing, or both things together (they don’t exclude each other). Sometimes there are a whole range of options, three, four, five, or a hundred and forty-five. However it may happen, the false dichotomy fallacy errs by oversimplifying the range of options.
Dilemma-based arguments are only fallacious when, in fact, there are more than the stated options. It’s not a fallacy however if there really are only two options. For example, “either Led Zeppelin is the greatest band of all time, or they are not.” That’s a true dilemma, since there really are only two options there: A or non-A. It would be fallacious however to say, “there are only two kinds of people in the world, people who love Led Zeppelin, and people who hate music.” Some people are indifferent about that music. Some sort of like it, or sort of dislike it, but don’t have strong feelings either way.Dilemma-based arguments are only fallacious when, in fact, there are more than the stated options.
The false dilemma fallacy is often a manipulative tool designed to polarize the audience, heroicizing one side and demonizing the other. It’s common in political discourse as a way of strong-arming the public into supporting controversial legislation or policies.
See if you can identify a third option these politicians failed to mention.
Example 1: “Either we go to war or we appear weak.”
Example 2: “Either you love me, or you hate me.”
5. Slippery Slope
You may have used this fallacy on your parents as a teenager: “But, you have to let me go to the party! If I don’t go to the party, I’ll be a loser with no friends. Next thing you know I’ll end up alone and jobless living in your basement when I’m 30!” The slippery slope fallacy works by moving from a seemingly benign premise or starting point and working through a number of small steps to an improbable extreme.
This fallacy is not just a long series of causes. Some causal chains are perfectly reasonable. There could be a complicated series of causes which are all related, and we have good reason for expecting the first cause to generate the last outcome. The slippery slope fallacy, however, suggests that unlikely or ridiculous outcomes are likely when there’s just not enough evidence to think so.The slippery slope fallacy, however, suggests that unlikely or ridiculous outcomes are likely when there’s just not enough evidence to think so.
Certain ad campaigns from Dodge, Taco Bell, and notably a recent one for Direct TV, commit this fallacy to great comic effect.
It’s hard enough to prove one thing is happening or has happened; it’s even harder to prove a whole series of events will happen. That’s a claim about the future, and we haven’t arrived there yet. We, generally, don’t know the future with that kind of certainty. The slippery slope fallacy slides right over that difficulty by assuming that chain of future events without really proving their likelihood.
Which of these examples is a slippery slope fallacy and which is not?
Example 1: “Your coach’s policy is that no one can be a starter on game day if they miss practice. So, if you miss basketball practice today, you won’t be a starter in Friday’s game. Then you won’t be the first freshman to start on the Varsity basketball team at our school.”
Example 2: “If America doesn’t send weapons to the Syrian rebels, they won’t be able to defend themselves against their warring dictator. They’ll lose their civil war, and that dictator will oppress them, and the Soviets will consequently carve out a sphere of influence that spreads across the entire Middle East.”
6. Circular Argument (petitio principii)
When a person’s argument is just repeating what they already assumed beforehand, it’s not arriving at any new conclusion. We call this a circular argument or circular reasoning. If someone says, “the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true”—that’s a circular argument. One is assuming that the Bible only speaks truth, and so they trust it to truthfully report that it speaks the truth. Another example of circular reasoning is, “According to my brain, my brain is reliable.” Well, yes, of course we would think our brains are in fact reliable if our brains are the one’s telling us that our brains are reliable.
Circular arguments are also called Petitio principii meaning “Assuming the initial [thing]” (commonly mistranslated as “begging the question”). This fallacy is a kind of presumptuous argument where it only appears to be an argument. It’s really just restating one’s assumptions in a way that looks like an argument. You can recognize a circular argument when the conclusion also appears as one of the premises in the argument.
Another way to explain circular arguments is that they start where they finish, and finish where they started. See if you can identify which of these is a circular argument.
Example 1: “Abstract art isn’t even art. Those pictures and sculptures don’t represent anything, and that’s how you know its not even art.”
Exmaple 2: “We should be tolerant even of people who believe intolerant ideas. Their ideas matter too, and we can still learn different things from them even if their particular intolerant idea is wrong.”
7. Hasty Generalization
Hasty generalizations are general statements without sufficient evidence to support them. They are general claims too hastily made, hence they commit some sort of illicit assumption, stereotyping, unwarranted conclusion, overstatement, or exaggeration.
Normally we generalize without any problem. We make general statements all the time: “I like going to the park,” “Democrats disagree with Republicans,” “It’s faster to drive to work than to walk,” or “Everyone mourned the loss of Harambe, the Gorilla.”Hasty generalization may be the most common logical fallacy because there’s no single agreed-upon measure for “sufficient” evidence.
Indeed, the above phrase “all the time” is a generalization—we aren’t all the time making these statements. We take breaks to do other things like eat, sleep, and inhale. These general statements aren’t addressing every case every time. They are speaking generally, and, generally speaking, they are true. Sometimes you don’t enjoy going to the park. Sometimes Democrats and Republicans agree. Sometimes driving to work can be slower than walking if the roads are all shut down for a Harambe procession.
Hasty generalization may be the most common logical fallacy because there’s no single agreed-upon measure for “sufficient” evidence. Is one example enough to prove the claim that “Apple computers are the most expensive computer brand?” What about 12 examples? What about if 37 out of 50 apple computers were more expensive than comparable models from other brands?
There’s no set rule for what constitutes “enough” evidence. In this case, it might be possible to find reasonable comparison and prove that claim is true or false. But in other cases, there’s no clear way to support the claim without resorting to guesswork. The means of measuring evidence can change according to the kind of claim you are making, whether it’s in philosophy, or in the sciences, or in a political debate, or in discussing house rules for using the kitchen. A much safer claim is that “Apple computers are more expensive than many other computer brands.”
Meanwhile, we do well to avoid treating general statements like they are anything more than generalizations. Even if it were generally true that women are bad drivers—and I’m not saying they are—there are still plenty of women who are good drivers. And those “cases” just aren’t covered with that general statement even if it were true. In my case, my wife is a better driver than I am. So I do well not to generalize too widely.
A simple way to avoid hasty generalizations is to add qualifiers like “sometimes,” “maybe,” “often,” or “it seems to be the case that . . . “. When we don’t guard against hasty generalization, we risk stereotyping, sexism, racism, or simple incorrectness. But with the right qualifiers, we can often make a hasty generalization into a responsible and credible claim.
Which of the following is a hasty generalization
Example 1: “Some people vote without seriously weighing the merits of the candidate.”
Example 2: “People nowadays only vote with their emotions instead of their brains.”
8. Red Herring (ignoratio elenchi)
A “red herring” is a distraction from the argument typically with some sentiment that seems to be relevant but isn’t really on-topic. Typically, the distraction sounds relevant but isn’t quite on-topic. This tactic is common when someone doesn’t like the current topic and wants to detour into something else instead, something easier or safer to address. Red herrings are typically related to the issue in question but aren’t quite relevant enough to be helpful. Instead of clarifying and focusing they confuse and distract.Red herrings can be difficult to identify because it’s not always clear how different topics relate.
The phrase “red herring” refers to a kippered herring (salted herring-fish) which was reddish brown in color and quite pungent. According to legend, this aroma was so strong and delectable to dogs that it served as a good training device for testing how well a hunting dog could track a scent without getting distracted. Dogs aren’t generally used for hunting fish so a red herring is a distraction from what he is supposed to be hunting.
Red herrings can be difficult to identify because it’s not always clear how different topics relate. A “side” topic may be used in a relevant way, or in an irrelevant way. In the big meaty disagreements of our day, there are usually a lot of layers involved, with different subtopics weaving into them. We can guard against the red herring fallacy by clarifying how our part of the conversation is relevant to the core topic.
Which of the following examples is a red herring fallacy?
Example 1: “My wife wants to talk about cleaning out the garage, so I asked her what she wants to do with our patio furniture? Now she’s shopping for new patio furniture and not bothering me about the garage.”
Example 2: “My wife wants to talk about cleaning out the garage, so I asked her what she wants to do with the patio furniture? It’s just sitting in the garage taking up space.”
9. Tu Quoque Fallacy
The “tu quoque,” Latin for “you too,” is also called the “appeal to hypocrisy” because it distracts from the argument by pointing out hypocrisy in the opponent. This tactic doesn’t solve the problem, or prove one’s point, because even hypocrites can tell the truth. Focusing on the other person’s hypocrisy is a diversionary tactic. In this way, the tu quoque typically deflects criticism away from one’s self by accusing the other person of the same problem or something comparable. If Jack says, “Maybe I committed a little adultery, but so did you Jason!” Jack is trying to diminish his responsibility or defend his actions by distributing blame to other people. But no one else’s guilt excuses his own guilt. No matter who else is guilty, Jack is still an adulterer.
The tu quoque fallacy is an attempt to divert blame, but it really only distracts from the initial problem. To be clear, however, it isn’t a fallacy to simply point out hypocrisy where it occurs. For example, Jack may say, “yes, I committed adultery. Jill committed adultery. Lots of us did, but I’m still responsible for my mistakes.” In this example, Jack isn’t defending himself or excusing his behavior. He’s admitting his part within a larger problem. The hypocrisy claim becomes a fallacy only when the arguer uses some (apparent) hypocrisy to neutralize criticism and distract from the issue.
Which of the following is a tu quoque fallacy
Example 1: “But, Dad, I know you smoked when you were my age, so how can you tell me not to do it?”
Example 2: “Son, yes, I smoked when I was your age, it was dumb then. And it’s dumb now. That’s why I forbid you to smoke, chew, or vape, or use nicotine gum, or whatever you kids do with tobacco these days.”
10. Causal Fallacy
The Causal Fallacy is any logical breakdown when identifying a cause. You can think of the Causal Fallacy as a parent category for several different fallacies about unproven causes.
One causal fallacy is the False Cause or non causa pro causa (“not the-cause for a cause”) fallacy, which is when you conclude about a cause without enough evidence to do so. Consider, for example, “Since your parents named you ‘Harvest,’ they must be farmers.” It’s possible that the parents are farmers, but that name alone is not enough evidence to draw that conclusion. That name doesn’t tell us much of anything about the parents. This claim commits the False Cause Fallacy.
Another causal fallacy is the Post Hoc fallacy. Post hoc is short for post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefor because of this”). This fallacy happens when you mistake something for the cause just because it came first. The key words here are “Post” and “propter” meaning “before” and “cause.” Just because this came before that doesn’t mean this caused that. Post doesn’t prove propter. A lot of superstitions are susceptible to this fallacy. For example:
“Yesterday, I walked under a ladder with an open umbrella indoors while spilling salt in front of a black cat. And I forgot to knock on wood with my lucky dice. That must be why I’m having such a bad day today. It’s bad luck.”
Now, it’s theoretically possible that those things cause bad luck. But since those superstitions have no known or demonstrated causal power, and “luck” isn’t exactly the most scientifically reliable category, it’s more reasonable to assume that those events, by themselves, didn’t cause bad luck. Perhaps that person’s “bad luck” is just his own interpretation because he was expecting to have bad luck. He might be having a genuinely bad day, but we cannot assume some non-natural relation between those events caused today to go bad. That’s a Post Hoc fallacy. Now, if you fell off a ladder onto an angry black cat and got tangled in an umbrella, that will guarantee you one bad day.
Another kind of causal fallacy is the correlational fallacy also known as cum hoc ergo property hoc (Lat., “with this therefore because of this”). This fallacy happens when you mistakenly interpret two things found together as being causally related. Two things may correlate without a causal relation, or they may have some third factor causing both of them to occur. Or perhaps both things just, coincidentally, happened together. Correlation doesn’t prove causation.
Consider for example, “Every time Joe goes swimming he is wearing his Speedos. Something about wearing that Speedo must make him want to go swimming.” That statement is a correlational fallacy. Sure it’s theoretically possible that he spontaneously sports his euro-style swim trunks, with no thought of where that may lead, and surprisingly he’s now motivated to dive and swim in cold, wet nature. That’s possible. But it makes more sense that he put on his trunks because he already planned to go swimming.
Which kind of causal fallacy is at work in these examples?
Example 1: “Jimmy isn’t at school today. He must be on a family trip.”
Example 2: “Jimmy has a fever, sinus congestion, a cough, and can’t come to school, so he probably has a test later today.”
Example 3: “Someone really should move this ‘Deer Crossing’ sign. This is a dangerous stretch of highway and the deer really should be crossing somewhere else.”
11. Fallacy of Sunk Costs
Sometimes we invest ourselves so thoroughly in a project that we’re reluctant to ever abandon it, even when it turns out to be fruitless and futile. It’s natural, and usually not a fallacy to want to carry on with something we find important, not least because of all the resources we’ve put into it. However, this kind of thinking becomes a fallacy when we start to think that we should continue with a task or project because of all that we’ve put into it, without considering the future costs we’re likely to incur by doing so. There may be a sense of accomplishment when finishing, and the project might have other values, but it’s not enough to justify the cost invested in it.We are susceptible to this errant behavior when we crave that sense of completion or a sense of accomplishment
“Sunk cost” is an economic term for any past expenses that can no longer be recovered. For example, after watching the first 6 episodes of Battlestar Galactica, you decide the show isn’t for you. Those six episodes are your “sunk cost.” But, because you’ve already invested roughly 6 hours of your life into it, you rationalize that you might as well finish it. All apologies to Edward James Olmos, but this isn’t “good economics” so to speak. It’s more cost than benefit.
Psychologically, we are susceptible to this errant behavior when we crave that sense of completion or a sense of accomplishment, or we are too comfortable or too familiar with this unwieldy project. Sometimes, we become too emotionally committed to an ‘investment,’ burning money, wasting time, and mismanaging resources to do it.
Consider the following examples. Which of these is a sunk cost fallacy and which is not?
Example 1: “I know this relationship isn’t working anymore and that we’re both miserable. No marriage. No kids. No steady job. But I’ve been with him for 7 years, so I better stay with him.”
Example 2: “I’m halfway done with college. This is so tough, and It’s not nearly as fun as I thought it would be, but I don’t know. I guess I’ll finish it and get my degree.”
12. Appeal to Authority (argumentum ad verecundiam)
This fallacy happens when we misuse an authority. This misuse of authority can occur in a number of ways. We can cite only authorities—steering conveniently away from other testable and concrete evidence as if expert opinion is always correct. Or we can cite irrelevant authorities, poor authorities, or false authorities.
Like many of the other fallacies in this list, the argumentum ad verecundiam (“argument from respect”) can be hard to spot. It’s tough to see, sometimes, because its normally a good responsible move to cite relevant authorities supporting your claim. It can’t hurt. But if all you have are authorities, and everyone just has to “take their word for it” without any other evidence to show that those authorities are correct, well then you have a problem.
Often this fallacy refers to irrelevant authorities—like citing a foot doctor when trying to prove something about Psychiatry; his or her expertise is in an irrelevant field. When citing authorities to make your case, you need to cite relevant authorities, but you also need to represent them correctly, and make sure their authority is legitimate.
Suppose someone says, “I buy Fruit of the Loom™ underwear because Michael Jordan says it’s the best.” But Michael Jordan isn’t a relevant authority when it comes to underwear. This is a fallacy of irrelevant authority.
Now consider this logical leap: “4 out of 5 dentists agree that brushing your teeth makes your life meaningful.” Dentists generally have expert knowledge about dental hygiene, but they aren’t qualified to draw far-reaching conclusions about its meaningfulness. This is a fallacy of misused authority. For all we know, their beliefs about the “meaning of life” are just opinions, not expert advice.
Or take the assumption that “I’m the most handsome man in the world because my Mommy says so.” Now, while I might be stunningly handsome, my Mom’s opinion doesn’t prove it. She’s biased. She’s practically required to tell me I’m handsome because it’s her job as a mother to see the best in me and to encourage me to be the best I can be. She’s also liable to see me through “rose-colored glasses.” And, in this case, she’s not an expert in fashion, modeling, or anything dealing in refined judgments of human beauty. She’s in no position to judge whether I’m the most handsome man in the world. Her authority there is illusory. (Sorry Mom.)
There’s another problem with relying too heavily on authorities. Even the authorities can be wrong sometimes. The science experts in the 16th century thought the earth was the center of the solar system (Geocentrism). Turns out they were wrong. The leading scientists, in the 19th century, thought the universe as we know it always existed (Steady State theory). They too were wrong. For these reasons, it’s a good general rule to treat authorities as helpful guides with suggestive evidence. But even authorities deserve a fair share of skepticism since they can make mistakes, overstep their expertise, and otherwise mislead you.
Consider the following examples. How do these statements mishandle authorities?
Example 1: “Because Martin Sheen played the president on Television, he’d probably make a great president in real life.”
Example 2: “One day robots will enslave us all. It’s true. My computer science teacher says so.”
Example 3: “This internet news site said that the candidate punches babies. We know that’s true because it’s on the internet.”
13. Equivocation (ambiguity)
Equivocation happens when a word, phrase, or sentence is used deliberately to confuse, deceive, or mislead by sounding like it’s saying one thing but actually saying something else. Equivocation comes from the roots “equal” and “voice” and refers to two-voices; a single word can “say” two different things. Another word for this is ambiguity.
When it’s poetic or comical, we call it a “play on words.” But when it’s done in a political speech, an ethics debate, or in an economics report, for example, and it’s done to make the audience think you’re saying something you’re not, that’s when it becomes a fallacy. Sometimes, this is not a “fallacy” per se, but just a miscommunication. The equivocation fallacy, however, has a tone of deception instead of just a simple misunderstanding. Often this deception shows up in the form of euphemisms, replacing unpleasant words with “nicer” terminology. For example, a euphemism might be replacing “lying” with the phrase “creative license,” or replacing my “criminal background” with my “youthful indiscretions,” or replacing “fired from my job” with “early retirement.” A romantically involved couple might discuss their relationship to others as “just friends” so they appear like they have no other romantic relations. When these replacement words are used to mislead people they become an equivocation fallacy.
Which of these examples is an equivocation fallacy?
Example 1: “His political party wants to spend your precious tax dollars on big government. But my political party is planning strategic federal investment in critical programs.”
Example 2: “I don’t understand why you’re saying I broke a promise. I said I’d never speak again to my ex-girlfriend. And I didn’t. I just sent her some pictures and text messages.”
14. Appeal to Pity (argumentum ad misericordiam)
Argumentum ad misericordiam is Latin for “argument to compassion”. Like the ad hominem fallacy above, it is a fallacy of relevance. Personal attacks, and emotional appeals, aren’t strictly relevant to whether something is true or false. In this case, the fallacy appeals to the compassion and emotional sensitivity of others when these factors are not strictly relevant to the argument. Appeals to pity often appear as emotional manipulation. For example,
“How can you eat that innocent little carrot? He was plucked from his home in the ground at a young age, and violently skinned, chemically treated, and packaged, and shipped to your local grocer and now you are going to eat him into oblivion when he did nothing to you. You really should reconsider what you put into your body.”
Obviously, this characterization of carrot-eating is plying the emotions by personifying a baby carrot like it’s a conscious animal. So, by the time the conclusion appears, it’s not well-supported. If you are to be logically persuaded to agree that “you should reconsider what you put into your body,” then it would have been better evidence to hear about unethical farming practices or unfair trading practices such as slave labor, toxic runoffs from fields, and so on.
Truth and falsity aren’t emotional categories, they are factual categories. They deal in what is and is not, regardless of how one feels about the matter. Another way to say it is that this fallacy happens when we mistake feelings for facts. Our feelings aren’t disciplined truth-detectors unless we’ve trained them that way. So, as a general rule, it’s problematic to treat emotions as if they were (by themselves) infallible proof that something is true or false. Children may be scared of the dark for fear there are monsters under their bed, but that’s hardly proof of monsters.Truth and falsity aren’t emotional categories, they are factual categories.
To be fair, emotions can sometimes be relevant. Often, the emotional aspect is a key insight into whether something is morally repugnant or praiseworthy, or whether a governmental policy will be winsome or repulsive. People’s feelings about something can be critically important data when planning a campaign, advertising a product, or rallying a group together for a charitable cause. But it becomes a fallacious appeal to pity when the emotions are used in substitution for facts or as a distraction from the facts of the matter.
It’s not a fallacy for jewelry and car companies to appeal to your emotions to persuade you into purchasing their product. That’s an action, not a claim, so it’s can’t be true or false. It would however be a fallacy if they used emotional appeals to prove that you need this car, or that this diamond bracelet will reclaim your youth, beauty, and social status from the cold clammy clutches of Father Time. The fact of the matter is, you probably don’t need those things, and they won’t rescue your fleeting youth.
Which of these is a fallacious appeal to emotion, and which one is not?
Example 1: “The government needs to hear our cry because we are scared. We are scared that this candidate will not respect us or protect us. We are scared about our future. There’s no hope for people like us with these candidates in office.”
Example 2: “These candidates stated that they would close down the education department and that has many teachers worried about their jobs in 2017.”
15. Bandwagon Fallacy
The bandwagon fallacy assumes something is true (or right, or good) because other people agree with it. A couple different fallacies can be included under this label, since they are often indistinguishable in practice. The ad populum fallacy (Lat., “to the populous/popularity”) is when something is accepted because it’s popular. The concensus gentium (Lat., “consensus of the people”) is when something is accepted because the relevant authorities or people all agree on it. And the status appeal fallacy is when something is considered true, right, or good because it has the reputation of lending status, making you look “popular,” “important,” or “successful.”
For our purposes, we’ll treat all of these fallacies together as the Bandwagon Fallacy. According to legend, politicians would parade through the streets of their district trying to draw a crowd and gain attention so people would vote for them. And whoever supported that candidate was invited to literally jump on board the bandwagon. Hence the nickname “Bandwagon Fallacy.”
This tactic is common among advertisers. “If you want to be like Mike (Jordan), you’d better eat your Wheaties.” “Drink Gatorade because that’s what all the professional athletes do to stay hydrated.” “McDonald’s has served over 99 billion, so you should let them serve you too.” The form of this argument often looks like this: “Many people do or think X, so you ought to do or think X too.”
One problem with this kind of reasoning is that the broad acceptance of some claim or action is not always a good indication that the acceptance is justified. People can be mistaken, confused, deceived, or even willfully irrational. And when people act together, sometimes they become even more foolish—i.e., “mob mentality.” People can be quite gullible, and this fact doesn’t suddenly change when applied to large groups. Which of these is a bandwagon fallacy?
Example 1: “Almost everyone at my school will be at the party Friday night. It must be a popular thing to do.”
Example 2: “Almost everyone at my school will be at the party Friday night. It must be the right thing to do.”
We hope this little primer on logical fallacies helps you to navigate future disputes with friends, family and unhinged online acquaintances without descending into vitriol or childish name-calling. Or at least if it does descend into vitriol and childish name-calling, you’ll be in a great position to rhetorically trounce your opponent with sound reasoning and airtight logic.
Did we miss any commonplace logical fallacies? Let us know in the comments section below!
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Three Critical Questions
The goals of rational criticism can be formulated by three more or less distinct questions.
(1) Is the reasoning well-formulated?
(2) Is the reasoning well-connected?
(3) Is the reasoning well-established?
Questions of formulation relate to the attempt to understand exactly what the person is saying and the background against which he or she is saying it. It is here that we sometimes find that a person has gotten off on the wrong foot by misrepresenting a person's views, or conflating different kinds of statements, or misconstruing the nature of the problem at issue.
Questions of connection relate to the attempt to understand how what a person is saying is relevant to the conclusion s/he appears to be drawing. It is here that we sometimes find that a person has said things that are logically irrelevant to the question at issue, but which might nevertheless persuade people on non logical grounds (e.g. by confusing them, or appealing to their emotions or self-interest.)
The question whether a person's reasoning is well-established raises issues of confirmation and credibility. It is here that we sometimes find that the reasoning being offered rests on weak principles or reasons that have not been adequately supported.
What Is a Fallacy?
Some errors in reasoning are simply the result of the fact that people aren't perfect. Sometimes we hit the wrong letter on the keyboard, sometimes we get on the wrong bus, sometimes we swing at the ball and miss, and sometimes we draw the wrong conclusion. Stuff like this just happens. Sometimes, however, our errors are the result of a fundamental problem that will cause us to repeat the same mistakes over and over. E.g., you may not know how to type; you may not understand how to read the bus schedule, or you may have a bad batting stance. In logic, mistakes due to some fundamental problem are called fallacies. A fallacy is a systematic error, as opposed to a random error. We usually say that fallacies are a systematic error in reasoning , which is true, but only if you understand reasoning very broadly as the process of formulating, connecting, and establishing the reasons for your conclusions. (Some people think of reasoning as just the process of connecting reasons to conclusions, and only some of the fallacies relate to this.) We are going to begin developing the tools of rational criticism by discussing some basic fallacies relevant to the categories introduced above. Later on we will discuss more specific sorts of fallacies and other problems that are not simple enough to be defined as fallacies at all.
Two Fallacies of Formulation: Straw Person, False Alternatives
Two of the most common mistakes people make in formulating their reasoning are: (1) misrepresenting views they want to refute; (2) misrepresenting the nature of the problem they are addressing. The first mistake is traditionally called the Straw Person Fallacy. An important form of the second mistake is called False Alternatives (or False Dilemma).
Def.: Attempting to discredit a view by criticizing a weak version of it or the reason given in support of it.
The idea behind Straw Person is that if you can get people to think that a "straw" version (think of a scarecrow) of what a person is saying is the real version, then you can appear to be refuting what the person has said without actually addressing it at all. This sounds like it takes a lot of cunning and deceit, but the fact is that we all do it spontaneously. It takes a great deal of discipline and intellectual honesty to listen carefully to what someone is saying and represent it accurately before going on to criticize it. If you feel from the beginning that a person is wrong, you will naturally think that it isn't worth your time to listen very carefully to what they are saying.
E.g. 1: Barb feels ill one morning and asks Butch to inform the instructor that this is the reason why she will not be in class. Butch carries out Barb's request as follows: "Barb isn't here today because she didn't feel like coming." Obviously, Barb would not be happy with this version of her absence because Butch has stated in a way that is easy to criticize. Now it sounds more like an unexcused absence than an excused one.
E.g. 2.: Butch claims that, generally speaking, women are far more concerned about their personal appearances than men, pointing out that most make-up is sold to women and that popular women's clothing is often very uncomfortable, but women buy it because it is attractive to men.. Barb replies: "That's totally ridiculous, not all women wear that kind of stuff and lots of men are using make-up these days, too." This is a straw person because Butch didn't make a claim about all women or men. Understood in this way, Butch's statements are obviously false.
E.g 3: Butch is beside himself with anger because the construction workers across the street have been shouting lewd comments at him all week. Barbs says, "Well, if you don't like it maybe you should stop running around in your Speedo." Butch responds, "That is just so unfair! I have a right to be comfortable in my own yard." Here, Butch has interpreted Barb's remark as an implicit criticism of his Speedo outfit, rather than simply a piece of advise about how to avoid being teased. (This example has an interesting connection to Innunendo.)
E.g. 4: A defense attorney argues that, even though expert testimony has established that the defendant knew that she was breaking the law when she bombed the abortion clinic, she should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. The attorney reminds the jury that a person is legally insane when they do not know the difference between right and wrong. The fact that she knew the difference between what is legal and illegal does not mean she knew the difference between right and wrong, for the two issues are distinct. If it were always wrong to do things that are illegal, then civil disobedience (disobeying the law for a higher moral cause) would be impossible. The prosecuting attorney responds to this line of reasoning as follows: "The defense has asked us to find the defendant not guilty on the grounds that bombing an abortion clinic is essentially like an act of civil disobedience. It is difficult to think of anything more preposterous than to compare this act of sheer violence with peaceful acts of civil disobedience." Again, in this example, the defense attorney would object to the prosecutions characterization of her reasoning. This version does sound preposterous, though the original reasoning was not.
Def.: Misformulating a problem as a choice between two (or more) alternatives, when there exist other alternatives that have not been considered.
False Alternatives is essentially a problem of oversimplification. Its usual form is: "You have a choice between A and B. A is obviously unacceptable, therefore you must do B." This is actually a perfectly acceptable form of inference known as the Disjunctive Syllogism. The problem is that the choice itself may be misrepresented; i.e., the real choice might be between A, B, C &D. Also, sometimes more than one option can be available to you at the same time. It is worth pointing out that choices are not always expressed as "Either...or." Sometimes people will say "If you don't do B, then A is going to happen." If you think about it, you'll see that this is just another way of saying that you have a choice between A and B.
E.g. 1: "I don't want to hear anything more about your mother being black and your father being white. Sooner or later you are going to have to admit that you are a black man and accept the responsibilities that go along with that." A statement like this rests on characterizing the problem of understanding ones true nature as a choice between two simple alternatives, black and non black. It does not allow that a person may regard neither category as an accurate reflection of who they are.
E.g. 2: In response to the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico someone might argue that the only way to deal with the problem of illegal immigration is to massively increase our border controls, and vigorously pursue and deport all illegal aliens. This characterizes the situation as a choice between two alternatives; viz., increased law enforcement or an unacceptably high level of illegal immigrants. However, these may not be the only alternatives. For example, one might suggest that the problem would be better addressed by increasing trade with Mexico, thereby improving the economy and reducing people's incentive to immigrate.
Two Fallacies of Connection: Red Herring, Ad Hominem
Under certain situations it is possible to say things that are logically irrelevant to the issue at hand, but which nevertheless succeed in having some effect on the way in which people understand it. There are two standard ways of doing this. (1) Introduce an issue that is superficially similar to the one being discussed; (2) Focus attention on the speaker rather than what the speaker is saying. The first of these fallacies is called Red Herring. The second is called Ad Hominem. (These, by the way, are not totally distinct fallacies; technically, an Ad Hominem is a Red Herring.)
Def.: Distracting attention from an issue by introducing an irrelevant issue or one that is only superficially related to the one being discussed. The mechanism of this fallacy is similar to that of Straw Person. Both depend on creating something that has a deceptive resemblance to the genuine article. Also, like Straw Person, Red Herring does not depend on intentionally deceiving someone. More often than not people commit Red Herring because they don't know or can't keep their minds focused on the real issue.
E.g. 1: Suppose people in our community are drawing graffiti on public buildings. I point out that it is an illegal activity and suggest that we should make a more concerted effort to apprehend and prosecute the offenders. You respond as follows: "But graffiti is art and the people who do it are artists." This is a Red Herring, because the artistic value of graffiti is unrelated to the question of its legality. However, because you are still talking about graffiti and saying something that I might disagree with, you may succeed in distracting my attention from the real issue.
E.g., 2: Suppose I claim that homosexuality is a disease and that the proper approach is to try to cure it rather than to integrate it into our society. To this you respond "That's outrageous. People don't choose to be homosexuals, they are born that way." This, too, may succeed in distracting me from my point, but it is irrelevant to the question whether homosexuality is a disease. Many people are born with diseases.
E.g., 3: Suppose we are members of a jury trying to determine whether the evidence we have just heard is sufficient to convict the defendant of robbing a bank. In his defense, you point out that the defendant is destitute, that his family was hungry, and that he was wrongly fired from his previous job. This is a specific kind of Red Herring called Appeal to Emotion. What you have said is irrelevant to the question whether he committed the crime, but it may influence the decision by making us feel sorry for him.
Def.: Any attempt to discredit a view by calling attention to the character, actions or personal circumstances of those who hold it rather than the reasoning they provide in support of it.
"Ad hominem" is Latin for "against the person." Anything that involves an attack on a person's character we call an Abusive Ad Hominem. Anything that appeals to a person's unique circumstances we call a Circumstantial ad Hominem. These are both fallacious for the simple reason that the personal character and circumstances of the individual reasoner are logically irrelevant to the question whether the reasoning itself is any good.
E.g. 1: Suppose a very rich person like Ross Perot gives a speech in which he argues that it is not such a great thing to be rich and that, in fact, people who are poor are likely to live better lives on the whole. Of course, we want to respond: "Oh, sure, that's easy for you to say, but I don't see you giving away all your money." This is an abusive Ad Hominem, because we are attacking Perot as a hypocrite rather than examining the argument itself. It is also known at the fallacy of Tu Quoque, which is Latin for "You do it, too."
E.g. 2: Suppose I am a member of an ethnic minority and I am arguing against affirmative action. You may be inclined to give me the following advice: "You are foolish to adopt this view. Don't you realize that as a member of an ethnic minority you stand to benefit from affirmative actions programs?" This is a Circumstantial Ad Hominem because you are using my personal circumstances in order to try to discredit my view or encourage me to adopt a different one. You do not actually examine the reasoning I have produced.
Two Fallacies of Establishment: Appeal to Questionable Authority and Questionable Analogy
There are many ways to make it seem as if our claims are more credible than they actually are. Two of the most common are: (1) Appealing to a questionable source of authoritative information; (2) Making superficial comparisons. The first of these is called Appeal to Questionable Authority. The second is called Questionable Analogy.
Appeal to Questionable Authority
Def.: Accepting or recommending a claim on the basis of an appeal to an authoritative source of information when there are reasons for doubting the source in question. This fallacy has many forms. We sometimes make inappropriate appeals to the authority of common opinion and tradition. We also sometimes appeal to individual organizations and people as authoritative sources even though we are uncertain who they are, what their claim to authority is, or whether they should be trusted. Questionable authority is a fallacy that is often misused, however, as our first example shows.
E.g. 1: Suppose you explain to me why the Federal Reserve Board is going to raise interest rates. You tell me that the Feds are concerned about rising inflation, and that raising interest rates tend to reduce consume borrowing, which reduces consumer demand, which reduces the amount that manufacturers can charge for their products, which reduces inflation. Now, suppose I respond as follows: "Are you some sort of authority on economics or something? Why should I listen to you?" Now, this would not be a legitimate thing for me to say. You never claimed to be an authority. You gave me some reasoning and I have ignored it, preferring to talk about your personal qualifications instead. In fact, I have just committed an Abusive Ad Hominem. The moral of this example is: An appeal to Questionable Authority occurs only when somebody uses authority in order to legitimate something they say. If they do not use authority, then it is illegitimate to raise the issue.
E.g. 2: Suppose I own a music store and am also an accomplished musician on several instruments. I sell pianos but no string instruments like guitars or cellos. You ask me what's the best instrument to start out learning on and I say, unequivocally, a piano. When you ask me why, I say that you can trust me on this. I play all sorts of instruments and the piano is by far the best one to start out on. In fact, I explain, that's why I only sell pianos. Notice that in this situation I haven't given you a single reason for believing the piano is the best instrument to learn on except my authority. But, knowing that my livelihood depends on the sale of pianos, it would be wrong to accept my appeal to authority. I have what is commonly called a "conflict of interest."
E.g. 3: Suppose the issue is whether we should allow prayer in public schools. You argue that we should because disallowing prayer is a violation of religious freedom, and that individual freedom is what the United States stands for. I say we should not because everybody who understands the Constitution realizes that the separation of church and state is fundamental. I have made an appeal to Questionable Authority because the sole reason I give is that "everybody who understands the Constitution" agrees with me. I have not identified who these people are. Also I have made an appeal to the Constitution as a kind of time-honored document that should not be tampered with. This an appeal to the authority of tradition. I haven't given any actual reason for thinking the Constitution can not be amended which, of course, it can.
Def.: Any reasoning based on the assumption that two or more things that are alike in one respect must be alike in other respects when there are independent grounds for doubting this. We draw an analogy whenever we claim that two different things are similar in significant respects. However, sometimes we draw an analogy when there is, in fact, an important difference that may undermine the conclusion the analogy is meant to support. For example, it would be ridiculous for me to say "Gina and Lisa are both girls. Gina is five feet tall, so I guess Lisa is probably five feet tall, too." Here, you would want to point out that there is no principle that say "If X is a girl, then X is five feet tall." Another way of making this point is to accuse me of a questionable analogy by observing that just because Gina and Lisa are similar in one physical respect (viz., sex) doesn't mean they are similar in other physical respects (viz., height). This depends on other factors like age and genetic makeup.
However, there are other examples that are not quite as easy to deal with. Sometimes we feel that someone has drawn a questionable analogy, but it takes some effort and careful thinking to say why. Consider the following example:
E.g. 1 "I think people who use the toilet stall designed for people with physical disabilities should be fined. After all, that's what we do to people who use their parking spaces." This sounds ridiculous, and what you want to say is that parking facilities are one thing and toilet facilities are another. But why? What's the real difference between them such that it makes sense to fine non disabled people for using one, but not the other? The answer here might be that it is a much more serious inconvenience to disabled people to use their parking facilities than to use their bathroom facilities. But until you make this point clearly, your claim that there is a false or questionable analogy has not been adequately supported.
Sometimes we might think that someone has drawn a questionable analogy when in fact it is a perfectly good analogy. Suppose you heard the following argument
E.g. 2 "The right way for people to get things from others is to pay for them. So, if what we want is from the people of Brazil is for them not to destroy their rain forests, we should pay them not to do it." This sounds a little bit peculiar, but does it rest on a false analogy? Are these different kinds of wants, such that it makes sense to pay for one and not the other? You might say that they are because ordinarily when you pay for something you get ownership of it, but in fact that's not actually true. What about renting? Or you might say that it just doesn't make any sense to pay people not to destroy their own property. But that's only true given that you have no personal interest in it being maintained. This analogy is, in fact, not an obviously bad one at all. Many economists take it very seriously.
Questionable analogies are very common, but it is also common to accuse people of drawing a questionable analogy when they are actually pointing out an interesting similarity between two otherwise very different things. So whenever you charge someone with drawing a questionable analogy, be sure that the problem is not just a failure of intellect or imagination on your part.