Part 2: Got Arguments? Avoid These Common Fallacies

I couldn't believe what I was reading. I re-read the Facebook comment trying to determine if the writer was joking. A friend of mine (I'll call him Fred) had written (what I thought to be) a harmless Facebook post about taxes. Unfortunately, one of Fred's Facebook friends became "personally enraged" and lectured Fred about learning "when to keep silent" about certain topics. Furthermore, if possible, he would challenge Fred "to a duel" by "slapping" him. To his credit, Fred responded calmly and respectfully, but his friend continued to sling insults. Still, Fred remained calm--and I respected him for that.

Oh, the joys of social media! It's so easy to get sucked into these modern-day bar room brawls. We all know the futility of engaging in online or face-to-face arguments that lead down the rabbit hole to insults and useless power struggles. Still, I love the Internet's endless possibilities for learning and engaging in global conversations. Constructive argumentation is essential for a free and open society. Destructive power struggles or attempts at domination are often disguised as argumentation. In our increasingly divisive society, we must learn the difference.

In this post, I will continue my discussion of argumentation and how to avoid combative pitfalls and entrapments of faulty logic or reasoning. Because argumentation is my profession, I'm drawn to arguments like a moth to a flame. I'm paid to teach college students how to argue, so it's especially challenging for me to resist arbitrating even innocuous arguments. Using the lyrics from the old Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler," I remind myself and also caution my students:

You've got to know when to hold them. Know when to fold them. Know when to walk away. Know when to run. You never count your money while you're sitting at the table. There's time enough for counting... when the dealing's done.

I don't claim to be perfect in my social interactions. That's impossible for anyone. Still, I'm pretty good at the "know when to hold them, fold them, and when to run" part. Even more, I've learned when to decline a seat at the debate table whether online or in person.

Aside from social media, we will always be engaged in some form of persuasion or argumentation--nearly every day of our lives and with nearly every person we encounter. Jesus Christ was the ultimate in constructing meaningful and powerful arguments against the sophists of His day: the Sadducees and Pharisees. He recognized their manipulative arguments and discerned their attempts to entrap Him. I've studied Christ's methods of argument and refutation and have tried to utilize them in my own communication--for the purpose of truth seeking, not domination.

So, do you want to protect yourself from others' negative persuasive tactics? Do you want to recognize bad arguments when you hear or read them? Do you want to effectively defend your beliefs and values with dignity while avoiding foolish pitfalls? Then read on...

Let's begin with the definition: Fallacies are flaws in the way reasoning and evidence are used in an argument. Sometimes, people are intentionally fallacious in order to dominate, but sometimes they are unaware of their own fallacies. Weak arguments contain formal fallacies (used in deductive reasoning) and informal fallacies. Arguments using informal fallacies are flawed because of the arguer's mistaken assumptions in the premises or claims, errors in language, misuse of evidence, or violation of argument principles. This post will focus on informal fallacies used in inductive, causal, and analogical reasoning. Remember, knowing how to recognize fallacies is a priceless skill that will save you, dear readers, a lot of needless anxiety!

The list below is taken from one of my class lectures. There are many types of fallacies, but my list contains the most common. (Some are Latin terms.) I will also include links of examples and videos to help illustrate while including quotes from author Dr. David Ferrer from his article, "Fifteen Logical Fallacies You Should Know Before Getting Into a Debate," from The Quad website. (To access the entire article see this link: )

My list is too large for one post, so I will include additional fallacies in my next post.

1. Ad Hominem Fallacy: 

This is Latin for "against the man." It relies on personal character attacks rather than actual argument--and it's the most common and destructive fallacy. People with weak arguments rely on insults and name calling to put their opponents on the defensive. Thus, the argument is no longer about the topic; instead it's all about the attacked person attempting to defend his or her character. Dr. Ferrer states:

Personal attacks run contrary to rational arguments...where someone rejects or criticizes another person's view on the basis of personal characteristics, background, physical appearance, race [and that includes attacking any ethnicity--including white people] 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 evidence in support of the conclusion. In politics...instead of addressing the candidate's stance on the issues, or his or her effectiveness, ad hominems focus on personality issues, speech patterns, wardrobe, style, and other things that affect popularity but have no bearing on their competence. Ad hominems 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 insult aim at discrediting the other person ("Fifteen Logical Fallacies You Should Know Before Getting Into a Debate," The Quad).

So, how do you know when you've "won" an argument? When your opponent has nothing left but to insult your intelligence, your looks, your family, etc. Rather than defend yourself, put your opponent on the defensive by pointing out her reliance on personal insults and that her method of argument is weak. Politicians--and even the media--often rely on ad hominem. Below is an example:

2. Straw Man (or Straw Figure) Fallacy:

Remember the Three Little Pigs and their straw house? The wolf came along and easily blew it down. This concept applies to argumentation: When your opponent attempts to reframe your argument as weak and straw like, you are easily defeated. In other words, instead of attacking the actual argument, your opponent creates a "scarecrow," as an irrelevant and distracting issue which she easily knocks down to make herself look good while making you look stupid. Dr. Ferrer says,

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.

Below is an example of an interviewer consistently using a straw man fallacy. Last January, BBC's Kathy Newman interviewed Canadian professor, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. Ms. Newman repeatedly creates a straw man by attempting to make Dr. Peterson's opinions look outrageous and foolish. Every time she says, "So what you're saying...," Ms. Newman creates a straw man. She's completely out of her league in her attempts to argue with Dr. Peterson rather than interviewing him. The video went viral and shot Dr. Peterson into super-stardom. His book, "Twelve Rules for Life" is currently a bestseller.

3. Red Herring Fallacy:

This is a diversionary tactic because it transfers relevancy to another topic. Your opponent deliberately diverts the attention from one topic to another. Married couples are especially prone to this type of fallacy. If you ask your spouse to take out the garbage and end up arguing over something that happened 10 years ago, then your argument has gone down the red herring rabbit hole. Dr. Ferrer observes.

Typically, the distraction sounds relevant but isn't quite on-topic. This tact 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.

Remember, next time you're in an argument and you think, "What does this have to do with the subject at hand?" that's the red herring signal. Below is an example: 

4. False Dichotomy (also goes by the name of Either/Or Proposition and Horns of Dilemma):

When your opponent offers you only two alternatives and demands that you choose. Conveniently, your opponent gets to decide the alternatives and frame the argument. The most effective response is this: "You're only giving me two alternatives when there are many other alternatives I can choose from. Furthermore, I don't have to choose." This type of response disarms your opponent while revealing the weakness of her reasoning. Politicians and political activists purposely push false dichotomies in the quest for power. I refer to Dr. Ferrer:

This line of reasoning fails by limiting the options to two when there are, in fact, more option to chose 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. However it may happen, the false dichotomy fallacy errs by oversimplifying the range of options.  The false dilemma is often a manipulative tool designed to polarize the audience, heroicizing one side and demonizing the other. 

5. Hasty Generalization:

This happens when the arguer draws a conclusion about an entire group based on an inadequate sample number of the group. Dr. Ferrer observes:

Hasty generalization may be the most common 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? There's no set rule for what constitutes 'enough' evidence. The means of measuring evidence can change according to the kind of claim you are making... Avoid treating general statements like they are anything more than generalizations. A simple way to avoid this fallacy is to add qualifiers like 'sometimes,' 'maybe,' often,' or 'it seems to be the case...' With the right qualifiers, we can often make a hast generalization into a responsible and credible claim.

In other words, if your opponent says something like, "I don't see a problem, so what's the big deal?," they are using themselves as the only sample and drawing a conclusion based upon their own experience. Additionally, if you hear a claim begin with the phrase, "Me and my friends...," that's a clue that a fallacious conclusion is drawn based on the small sample of "me and my friends."

6. False Analogy and Hyperbole

This faulty logic occurs when comparing individuals, groups, or principles. I see this all the time in political rhetoric. Unfairly comparing one's opponents to Nazis, monsters, and other malevolent beings--simply because of a difference of opinion--is bad form and unethical. Furthermore, outrageous comparisons are harmful because they shut down any ability for constructive dialogue. The lines of this type of reasoning look like this:

Even though two or more things have no similarities, they must have forced similarities put upon them in order to reach the conclusion that Z has property Y.


Because two or more things are similar in a few respects, they must be similar in some further respect. X has property Y. Z is like X. Therefore, Z has property Y.

The photo below exemplifies this hyperbole. Antifa protestors showed up at UC Berkeley because a conservative man was invited to speak on campus. Ironically, the speaker was Jewish, but protestors still compared him to Nazis. Unfortunately, ridiculous hyperbole and intentionally misleading comparisons are now dominating public discourse.

Moreover, increasing numbers of my students breezily compare all white Christian males to domestic terrorists. When George W. Bush was president, students routinely called him "Hitler." Now, Donald Trump is held in the same regard. Regardless of one's opinion of these two presidents, I believe this hyperbole minimizes the Holocaust and does nothing to promote productive arguments.

7. The Opposition Fallacy

Defining your opposition as "the enemy" creates the impression that whatever "the enemy" believes must be wrong or evil--simply because you consider this person or group to be the enemy. The emphasis is not on the idea, but on where or who the idea is coming from. This fallacy also plays on group-think and stereotypes. 

I'm including the controversial headline below because it's from a mainstream news source. The Washington Post also published this headline. Again, regardless of what people think of Trump, demonizing half of the American population who voted for him is, in my opinion, a divisive, counterproductive approach to effective and worthwhile arguments.

8. Slippery Slope

This fallacy consists of making the false assumption that taking the first step in any direction will inevitably lead to dangerous lengths in that direction. Dr. Ferrer details:

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. 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 the difficulty of assuming that chain of future events without really proving their likelihood.

I show the videos below to my students as examples of the slippery slope:

9. Fallacy of Sunk Costs:

People often fall into this trap. They have invested so much time and emotional energy into their opinions, arguments, relationships, etc., that they have too much pride to admit their mistake. Dr. Ferrer explains:

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.

'Sunk cost' is an economic term for any past expenses that can no longer be recovered. Psychologically, we are susceptible to this errant behavior when we crave that sense of completion, or we are too comfortable or too familiar with this unwieldy project. Sometimes, we become too emotionally committed to an 'investment.'

There's a huge component of pride attached to this particular fallacy--especially when it comes to challenging our personal belief systems regarding politics, religion, public policy-making, etc. Below is an example of this fallacy in specific relation to speech codes and identity politics in universities:

10. Appeal to Pity (argumentum ad misericordiam)

The Latin term means "argument to compassion." These appeals (even when they're fallacious) are effective because we all want to be considered kind and compassionate people. Still, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation and forms of tyranny. 

My students love to use this fallacy:

Dr. Ferrer states:

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. 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.

I often remind my students that facts don't care about their feelings.

Identity politics tend to rely upon feelings over facts. Critics of identitarian movements are calling them anti-science because adults' personal feelings about their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or whatever, override biological scientific facts. For example, Rachel Dolezal was born white but considers herself to be an African-American:

I've decided that I can still be a good person even if a person or group accuses me of not being "compassionate or caring" enough about their political or social causes. I also don't allow others to entrap me with unwarranted accusations of bigotry or any kind of "phobia" because I happen to have a differing opinion. I believe our nation (along with Europe) is descending into civil war. For now, the war is playing out in government, media, and in education. Whether we like it or not, the time is quickly approaching when we will be forced to choose a side. We must be able to discern which side promotes righteous arguments while using ethical reasoning. In my next post, I will list a few more relevant fallacies. 

Don't fall for fallacies,