Have you ever noticed how hard it is to have a grown-up debate these days? How most arguments seem to descend into mud-slinging & farce?
I have a theory that’s it’s because few people have any formal training in debating and logical argumentation, leading to the widespread misuse of logical fallacies in place of reasoned argument. In this post, as a way to learn by teaching, I’ll list some of the most common fallacies, so you can spot them in future and call people out instead of getting bogged down in frustration.
Do you disagree with my theory? If so, why?
If you agree, which important fallacies did I miss? Which of those listed do you think are most common, or most problematic?
Share your comments at the bottom 🙂
As an aside, this is exactly what my startup, Future Builders is working on. You can sign up for our Beta :) #ShamelessPlug
Don’t let the fancy latin name fool you (it means ‘against the man’) — ad hominem attacks are incredibly common these days… So common, we see them almost daily in the timeline of the world’s ‘Tweeter in Chief’.
Put simply, an ad hominem is a ‘fallacy of relevance’ where, instead of engaging with the argument itself, the interlocutor is attacked for personal reasons that are unrelated to the argument at hand, often using deeply personal themes such as personality, private life, past errors, speech patterns, or anything else that might deflect the focus of the conversation from the argument itself. It aims to undermine the opponent themself, thereby undermining the argument through association.
Tu Quoque Fallacy
Last one with a fancy latin name, promise! Also known as the “appeal to hypocrisy” fallacy, the latin literally translates to “you too”. Its goal is to distract from the argument by pointing out hypocrisy in the opponent — and it’s a very effective diversionary tactic as, like ad hominem attacks, it seeks to undermine the argument by undermining its proponent. It’s a very popular tactic with a certain, rather opinionated British talk show host.
Slippery Slope Fallacy
Popular with Baby Boomers the world over, the slippery slope fallacy works by starting from an apparently benign premise and working through a number of small, seemingly innocent steps, to get to an extreme conclusion. It is a way of suggesting that a ridiculous outcome is likely, when no evidence exists to suggest that the stated outcome is likely at all, as it assumes a chain of events in the future without any requirement to prove the causal chain itself. A good example is the anti-cannabis legalisation lobby, claiming that legalising the drug will inevitably lead to societal collapse, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
A nice easy one, this amounts to a ‘general statement without sufficient evidence to support the generalisation’. The proponent of the generalisation, in their bid to find a strong conclusion to their argument, often resorts to overstatement, exaggeration or stereotyping to make their point. As fallacies go, this is one that can create endless debate. Since generalisation and abstraction require the subtraction of unique characteristics, any generalisation is at risk of being deemed hasty or insufficient. Nowadays, in American politics especially, both sides of the isle are prone to making hasty generalisations about the other, often relying on the use of Strawman Arguments (which we’ll come to later!)
Causal fallacy really refers to a family of fallacies that involve a logical breakdown when identifying a cause. It’s in response to this fallacy that you often hear scientists say that “correlation doesn’t equal causation”. The three main sub-fallacies in this group are: the correlational fallacy, as mentioned previously, the ‘false cause’, where we wrongly assume a causal connection where there is none (eg assuming someone called April must have been born in that month), and the ‘post hoc’ fallacy, when someone wrongly assumes that because A is always followed by B, A must be a cause for B (eg I didn’t kiss my lucky egg before the race, which I always do, so that must be why our bobsled crashed)
A popular complaint of contrarians, and a terribly overused tool of advertisers, the bandwagon fallacy claims that something must be true simply because so many people agree that it’s true. It assumes that broad acceptance of a claim is a valid argument in support of its validity, despite countless historical examples proving the opposite. According to legend, ancient policiticians would parade the streets of their district trying to drum up attention for their cause. Anyone who agreed with the politician was encouraged to literally jump onto their bandwagon, hence the term. Being essentially social, herd animals, humans are surprisingly prone to marketing messages that make use of this fallacy, even though we know damn well that not all “Mums shop at Iceland.”
An argument is circular when it uses its conclusion as a premise, or its premise as a conclusion. It was exceptionally popular with medieval theologians… St Anselm’s proof of the existence of God may serve as a good example:
- It’s possible to imagine an all powerful, supremely perfect being which is the highest of all possible conceptions
- Existing in reality is greater than simply existing in the mind
- If this being is imaginary, then by definition it is not ’the highest of all conception’
- Therefore a being ’than which no greater can be conceived’ must exist, since failure to exist would make such an entity inferior to one that could be conceived to actually exist
Feels icky, right?? Circular arguments are notoriously difficult to disprove, as it’s rare for the proponent to use the same language in both the premises and the conclusion, so careful logical enquiry is required to refute such arguments.
Appeal to Pity
Similar to the ad hominem, the appeal to pity is another fallacy of relevance. It appeals to emotion instead of facts, as a tactic to undermine an argument. It’s the reason why you often hear bullish cultural commentators arguing that “reality doesn’t care about your feelings” — since our emotions often deceive us, an emotion isn’t by itself able to offer infallible proof that something is true or false.
Fallacy of Sunk Cost
Sunk cost is a term used by economists to describe past expenses that can no longer be recovered. The sunk cost fallacy is common in projects where team members argue that “we’ve started, so we might as well finish”. I’ll let the meme explain this one to you — they put it better than I ever could 🙂
Red Herring Fallacy
Red herring is another distraction tactic that aims to change the direction of the conversation to something that often *seems* relevant but in fact is off topic. It’s one you often find towards the end of a debate, when the losing team begins to see that they’re losing and throws out a red herring to try to avoid the impending defeat. Bill Burr argues, rather hilariously, that this tactic is popular with women… But really (in my opinion at least!) it’s common across all groups, not just women!
Appeal to Authority
This fallacy occurs when a person’s authority is assumed to support the strength of a belief, in place of of facts, evidence and argumentation. This can be notoriously difficult to spot, since the real problem isn to appealing to authority per se, but appealing to irrelevant, false or fake authority. Nowadays, with the proliferation of opinion on the internet, any appeal to authority can be accused of committing this fallacy, no matter their credentials. It’s been used with exceptional skill by Brexiteers, by appealing to the authority of the people themselves, over educated experts.
Appeal to Ignorance
As a rule of thumb, any time ignorance is used as a premise in an argument, you can assume it to be an example of this fallacy. Ignorance is universal, and it should never form part of a well-formed argument. It’s often used as a sort of antonym for the causal fallacy, where people will claim that “since no-one’s disproven the thing, the thing must be true”, when in fact, not having disproven something doesn’t at all imply it can be accepted as proven.
Another fancy word that really explains a simple concept, equivocation (also called ‘ambiguity’), is when intentionally vague, ambiguous or misleading language is used, although fans of this fallacy often refer to it as ‘creative license’. It’s this strategy that’s used by politicians and military leaders when they describe innocent civilian deaths in conflict regions as ‘collateral damage’ — cos saying “we got the guy, but killed a few dozen innocent civilians too” doesn’t exactly support the idea that we’re the good guys, and ’they’ are the bad guys.
In the strawman argument, the debater will attack a weaker position that their opponent doesn’t really hold, rather than tackle the stronger position that they do in fact hold. Often strawman arguments are made accidentally, and innocently, when the debater oversimplifies a nuanced position, or misrepresents a narrow, cautious claim as if it were broad and all encompassing, like when glib activists claim that “all our problems would go away if we just started being a little nicer to each other”.
This line of reasoning aims to falsely minimise the options to solve a problem when in fact there may be numerous options available. It sets up a two sided choice where in fact there is no logical reason why those choices are the only ones available. It oversimplifies the potential solutions to a problem, with the aim of pushing the conclusion in the direction the proponent wishes. It’s often used to polarise an audience, portraying one option as heroic while simultaneously demonising the opposition. It’s very common in political discourse, and one that the people of Britain have been struggling with since the vote to leave the EU in 2016, as the vote was set up as a dichotomy, while any solution is, almost by definition, significantly more complex than the referendum portrayed.
OK! That’s it for now…
What do you think of my theory, that’s the current climate is largely caused by overuse of poor logical reasoning? And if you agree, did I miss any important ones? Which of these do you think are most common? Share your comments below — I look forward to hearing from y’all 🙂