How to recognize logical fallacies and editorializing in the media you consume
✅ Get out of your bubble.
✅ Read news articles from the opposing viewpoint.
✅ Stop ‘unfriending’ people who disagree with you.
The civic duty to-do list for the average American is long following the election. Many people are calling for Facebook to take a more active stand in preventing people from insulating themselves in their own political bubbles. Others are calling on voters to cultivate political empathy.
This is all good advice, but advice that will be difficult to put into action without a primer on logical fallacies. In just the past 15 days I have read at least 400 news articles, blogs, and opinion pieces as I prepared for and tried to recover from the election.
A common theme has stood out: when emotions run high, so do logical fallacies.
A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning that undermines your argument, and typically alienates any in your audience who disagree with you. It’s a way of reinforcing your bias, and ensuring that your message will be received only by the choir of like-minded individuals. It’s a smug nod to the people who agree with you: Look at how clever and piercing my prose is, don’t look at how I have failed to substantiate any of my claims.
The readers of the news must hold the writers accountable. Bias is inevitable in journalism. Anyone claiming to be unbiased lacks self awareness. However, people with a bias can still respect the rules of logic in presenting an argument, and uphold the principles of solid journalism. If you like and share blogs and news articles that use the following logical fallacies — or if you use them yourself — to rip on the other side, you will not contribute to helping to bridge the political divide in this country.
The timeless advice of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird sums it up:
“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” — Chapter 7 of To Kill a Mockingbird
But if you’re not sure when you’ve fallen for a logical fallacy, read on.
I’ve found these examples of logical fallacies from passionate voices on both sides of the spectrum: (Words in bold are the words that should be removed to improve the validity of the argument, strictly from a logic perspective. Also, this article contains profanity, and some really graphic descriptions.)
First, calling someone who voted for Trump racist, just because Trump is racist (a fact proven by his never retracted statements), is a logical fallacy. The supporters may be racist, but it cannot be proven that they are just because they voted for Trump.
Arguing that any of Trump’s characteristics necessarily apply to his supporters is the “genetic fallacy, ” defined here (as with all of the fallacies listed in this post) by the Purdue Online Writing Lab:
Genetic Fallacy: This conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth.
Example: The Volkswagen Beetle is an evil car because it was originally designed by Hitler’s army.
You may not have called any Trump supporters racist, but plenty of people have made that claim in the past week — even the past year. When given a chance to defend themselves, as this woman did in an LA Times article that I recommend for anyone else struggling to understand the opposite perspective, most people feel insulted or wrongly judged.
Even now when people hear she supported Trump, said the 28-year-old Wright, “They think, ‘Oh, so you must be a racist,’ and that isn’t fair or true.”
I read on to find the following:
“I don’t look outside and think my neighbors are going to bomb me,” Wright said — though she welcomed the notion of a wall along the border with Mexico, an hour drive from her parents’ home in Tucson.
Wright definitely does not identify as racist, although I personally think that supporting a border wall is inherently nativist, and therefore racist, but still, all that tells me is that one supporter of Trump holds beliefs that contradict mine about racism. How can I judge when I know my own views on the topic have been constantly evolving in my life?
The rampant name-calling of this election is not just a distasteful use of a grade-school intimidation tactic, it’s a logical fallacy.
Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments.
Example: Green Peace’s strategies aren’t effective because they are all dirty, lazy hippies.
This Medium article by writer Kiva Bay provides a salient example:
Bannon has grown most of his influence in the fetid pile of human fertilizer that is the “alt-right”, 2016’s more fashionable and up-to-date version of a neo-nazi.
As does this article by Medium writer “Holly Wood.” I’m not sure if that’s a pseudonym, if not, that’s got to be a fun name to have.
I totally 100% agree white men are butthurt babies.
The masculinity and tribalist writer Jack Donovan — calling him those things is not a logical fallacy because this is how he identifies himself — uses the same technique to undermine his opponents:
“Generally, people claim to “abhor” the use of violence, and violence is viewed negatively by most folks. Many fail to differentiate between just and unjust violence. Some especially vain, self-righteous types like to think they have risen above the nasty, violent cultures of their ancestors.”
Lena Dunham, whose work I sometimes like and sometimes hate, fell for the ad hominem attack in one of her latest Lenny Letter introductions (Lenny Letter №59):
Ever since Donald Trump — a human fondue fountain of racist epithets and misogynistic behavior — became the Republican nominee, I have been experiencing a hum of anxiety about what reality the polls will bring to fruition, one that makes me want to take a bunch of Tylenol PM and conk out for a while.
Sometimes the ad hominem attack takes on a subtler form, known in journalism as editorializing. Here’s an example from Breitbart.com:
More than 50 percent of the anti-Trump protesters arrested in Portland, Oregon, in the days following the election did not bother to vote.
Begging the Claim:
When you introduce a subject by using adjectives attached to the concept you are arguing against that reinforce your side, you have committed the logical fallacy of begging the claim.
Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim.
Example: Filthy and polluting coal should be banned.
Arguing that coal pollutes the earth and thus should be banned would be logical. But the very conclusion that should be proved, that coal causes enough pollution to warrant banning its use, is already assumed in the claim by referring to it as “filthy and polluting.”
Here are two examples from alt-right bloggers, although they are certainly not the only offenders:
Despite having been around for a little over a year, TRS has quickly grown to become one of the largest and loudest voices in the the alt-right following the cuckservative brouhaha.
Another alt-right blog, Atlantic Centurion uses the begging the claim in an off-hand mention of the news media, without providing any evidence to prove that the press lies:
But in practice that is largely what he is doing, and moreover what he is perceived as doing by the manufacturers of high-status opinion in this country, the lying press.
If you’ve made it this far, let me say both thanks, and I’m sorry. You now have a small window into the color of my soul right now after spending all morning wading through posts like these. Some I had to go out of my way to find. Others were linked directly from my Facebook feed. They all paint an ugly picture of humanity. I urge you to hold yourself and those around you accountable to eliminating logical fallacies from political speech.
Olivia Barrow is a blogger and freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin. Sign up for her weekly email variety show: Lesbehonest Weekly.