A fallacy is an error in reasoning. It is a weak argument. To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support. By becoming aware of the most common fallacies, you can avoid them in your own speech and detect them when others use them. My goal here is to teach you to identify some of the most common fallacies and to make you a human fallacy detector.
I had someone ask me, “What’s wrong with fallacies, everyone uses them; in fact, it seems to help politicians get elected?” Let me tell you what is wrong with fallacies.
- They distract us from the real issue.
- They “trick” us into faulty reasoning.
- They deceive us into believing bad conclusions.
- They keep us from having a good discussion of the topic at hand.
The venerable tradition of respectful argumentation, based on evidence, conducted with courtesy, and leading to the greater exposition of truth is a precious part of our heritage in this land of freedom.
James Shannon, the youngest college president in the US.
There are many fallacies. Instead of overwhelming you with the large list, I decided to share with you the most common ones that occur in persuasive and political types of speeches.
A red herring fallacy gets its name from the sport of fox hunting. In foxhunting, riders on horses follow their dogs who are chasing a fox. Riders sometimes keep a fish, –a red herring–in their saddlebags. If they are ahead in the chase, they can stop and drag the fish across the fox’s scent and make the trail go a different direction. When the opponents’ dogs encounter the fishy smell, it distracts them from their mission of fox chasing.
A red herring fallacy occurs when a speaker distracts listeners with sensational, irrelevant material. Sometimes it happens when the speaker changes the subject and sometimes it happens when the speaker brings up irrelevant information to the topic. Why is this a problem? It is a problem because it sidetracks the argument at hand. It seeks to “win” an argument by diversion. Take this example, “We admit that voting to support school choice is a popular measure. But we also urge you to note that there are so many issues on this ballot that the whole thing is getting ridiculous.” The argument at hand is whether or not to vote for school choice but the speaker distracts us by bringing up the point that there are too many issues on the ballot. It may be true that there are too many issues on the ballot, but that doesn’t make the school choice something we should vote for or not.
In this video clip, notice how Senator Ted Lamar (R) distracts from the issue of background checks with the topic of video games.
The question: Can you envision a way of supporting the universal background checks bill?
Senator Lamar Alexander’s answer: Video games are a bigger problem than guns because video games affect people.
Yes, it may be true video games affect people but that doesn’t mean we should or should not have universal background checks. Bringing up video games is a way to divert the audience’s attention and to avoid the question. Smells fishy to me.
Here is another example of a red herring. Donald Trump was asked about making inappropriate remarks about women. He replied that “he wasn’t proud” and then quickly diverted the topic to ISIS.
Oftentimes a speaker will argue one bad thing will result in many other bad things. This is done without proving these negative things will happen. A slippery slope causes the discussion to get off track. If you are not careful, you will find yourself arguing the ending claim and miss the real debate. Consider this example. In talking about gay marriage, Republican candidate for Governor, Rebecca Kleefisch went down a slippery slope that led to tables and dogs. “At what point are we going to OK marrying inanimate objects? Can I marry this table, or this, you know, clock? Can we marry dogs?”
DirectTV made fun of the slippery slope fallacy in a commercial.
When talking about the removal of public statues, President Trump went down a slippery slope. “This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder; is it George Washington next week, and is it, Thomas Jefferson, the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
In speaking about the Iraq threat, President George W. Bush said, “I’m not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein. Failure to act would embolden other tyrants, allow terrorists access to new weapons and new resources, and make blackmail a permanent feature of world events. The United Nations would betray the purpose of its founding and prove irrelevant to the problems of our time. And through its inaction, the United States would resign itself to a future of fear.”
“Can people be persuaded?’ is a very different question from ‘Can arguments be won?’ People change their minds about things all the time, but I’m not sure that anybody ever wins an argument. Persuasion is not a zero-sum game. It occurs when somebody moves, even slightly, away from one position and toward another. It is entirely possible for two (or more) people to move closer to each other’s positions during an argument without either one being able to claim victory over the other.
But we like to win, and we hate to lose, so the fact that people don’t usually win arguments doesn’t stop most of us from trying. And we all think we know what winning means: It means crushing opponents and making them cry. It means humiliating them in front of a crowd. And it means displaying our power and our rightness for all the world to see and acknowledge. And this means that we often end up trying to win by employing rhetorical strategies that are fundamentally incapable of persuading anybody of anything. And that looks a lot like losing.”
Austin, M. (2019). We must not be enemies: Restoring America’s civic tradition. Rowman & Littlefield.
- Would you agree, ” I’m not sure that anybody ever wins an argument?” Why or why not?
- How do fallacies interfere with the ability of one person to move closer to another?
- Do you agree “we often end up trying to win by employing rhetorical strategies that are fundamentally incapable of persuading anybody of anything?”
- When people resort to fallacies (attacks, diversions), is it “losing?”
We have a Congress
Mike Huckabee (R)
An Ad Hominem fallacy is one where the speaker attacks the person rather than the point. There are four major forms of attacking the person:
Ad hominem abusive: Instead of attacking a point, the argument attacks the person who made the assertion.
Democrat Alan Grayson described Republicans as “foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who know nothing but ‘no.’”
Charley Reese from the Daily Iberian wrote, “That’s what abortion is – killing innocent humans for money. Abortionists are government licensed hit men.”
Ad hominem circumstantial: Instead of attacking the point, the person attacks the circumstances. They imply guilt by association.
Sara Palin, Republican Vice Presidential hopeful implied that Barak Obama was friends with terrorists. “Our opponent though is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
Ad hominem tu quoque: The attacker suggests the person is a hypocrite and because they are a hypocrite, you can’t believe any point they make.
When Al Gore was traveling to speaking engagement on the topic of global warming, he was criticized for traveling by private jet. As President Obama was talking about gun control, speakers pointed out he was surrounded by secret service agents with guns. The argument itself should be discussed–gun control, climate change–the fact that the speaker may or may not be a hypocrite doesn’t mean the issue is right or wrong.
Poisoning the well: The speaker attacks the credibility of a person before they speak to bias listeners against the speaker. This fallacy is based on the belief that the enemy used to put tainted meat down into the town well so all the water that would come out of the well would be tainted and make people sick. The idea is that if a speaker taints a person’s credibility, then everything that comes out of their mouth is something harmful. Just because a person had poor judgment in one situation, doesn’t mean that they are incorrectly handling the topic at hand.
For a great overview of Ad Hominem, watch this short video.
Sarah Palin, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate ran with a persona of being feisty and tough In a speech, she made this statement to charge up her base: “You know they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull–lipstick. ” Not long after, Obama said in a speech, “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.” Obama claimed it wasn’t a statement directed at Palin, what do you think? Watch these clips and see what you think.
Tedesco, J. C., & Dunn, S. W. (2019). Political Advertising in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Ad Hominem Ad Nauseam. American Behavioral Scientist, 63(7), 935–947. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764218756919
Donald Trump attacked former prisoner of war and politician John McCain: “He’s a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc
Talking to cashiers at fast-food restaurants causes obesity
(the more I talk to fast food cashiers, the heavier I get).
The fallacy here is the assumption that one thing caused another without proof of the link. When you study statistics, you will learn the phrase “correlation does not mean causation” which means just because two things seem to happen together, doesn’t mean that the one actually caused the other. Post hoc ergo propter hoc = after this therefore because of this and is a fallacy of false cause. Just because two things are consecutive, doesn’t mean that one caused the other. I do still believe that it rains every time I wash my car.
Sports fans have a lot of these– “my team lost Friday because I forgot to wear my lucky hat.” Speaking of hats, watch this scene from the West Wing as the “president” educates his staff about cowboy hats and fallacies.
Autism in children is often detected at the same ages as they are getting immunizations leading to the incorrect assumption that one causes the other. “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” Donald Trump
That’s Latin for ’I’m old enough I should see a propterhoctologist”, right?
Comparing things that are dissimilar in some important way
Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee (R) said at a Freedom Summit that he is beginning to believe there’s “More freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States. When I go to the airport, I have to get in the surrender position. People put hands all over me. And I have to provide a photo ID in a couple of different forms and prove that I really am not going to terrorize the airplane. But if I want to go vote, I don’t need a thing.” He was arguing why there needs to be government-required identification when voting but this comparison of airport inspection to a country with severe human rights violations is distracting and not a fair analogy.
“You know Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.” Political candidate Ben Carson (R) at Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.
What do you think? Good metaphor or faulty analogy?
I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,
so when I come to Washington,
I’ll know how to cut pork.
Joni Ernst (R-IA)
Improperly used comparisons can be a problem. Andina Wise in an opinion piece in Scientific American highlights that discussing military metaphors to fight COVID-19 undermines the practice of medicine. She highlights the wartime rhetoric using words that: Doctors are fighting on the frontlines without sufficient ammunition. They are battling the enemy and doctors from every specialty have been redeployed. They are at war. She warns that using wartime rhetoric sends a “precarious message.”.
To adopt a wartime mentality is fundamentally to allow for an all-bets-are-off, anything-goes approach to emerging victorious. And while there may very well be a time for slapdash tactics in the course of weaponized encounters on the physical battlefield, this is never how one should endeavor to practice medicine.
Watch this video, it includes some powerful and relevant examples of false analogies.
Non sequitur is reasoning in which principles and observations are unrelated to each other or to the conclusion drawn. Literally means “it does not follow.” If I mix red paint and green paint will never make blue paint, that’s not logical. Similarly, a non sequitur is not a logical conclusion of the ideas they are combining.
Snow in 50 states does not mean climate change is fake.
“The liberals, the environmentalists, extremists, the Al Gores of the world
Steve Kin, Republican from Iowa speaking at CPAC
The more toppings a man has on his pizza,
I believe the more manly he is.
A manly man doesn’t want it piled high with vegetables.
He would call that a sissy pizza.
Herman Cain, former presidential nominee
and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza
“You know, education–if you make the most of it–you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.” Democratic Senator John Kerry botching a joke about President Bush getting us stuck in Iraq
Newt Gingrich (R), Speaker of the House, in a lecture on Renewing American Civilization argued against women in the military with this quote:
If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don’t have upper body strength. I mean, some do, but they’re relatively rare.
On the other hand, men are basically little piglets, you drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it, doesn’t matter, you know. These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets, a female may be again dramatically better than a male who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time because males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.
(It is not logical that the reason women should not be in combat is because men are pigs who want to go hunt giraffes).
Drawing conclusions based on insufficient or non-representative observations.
People often commit hasty generalizations because of bias or prejudice. For example, someone who is a sexist might conclude that all women are unfit to fly jet fighters because one woman crashed one. People also commonly commit hasty generalizations because of laziness or sloppiness. It is very easy to simply leap to a conclusion and much harder to gather an adequate sample and draw a justified conclusion. Thus, avoiding this fallacy requires minimizing the influence of bias and taking care to select a sample that is large enough. Nizkor Project
Steve King assumes Mexicans are drug dealers: “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa making assumptions about immigrants from Mexico.
Herman Cain assumes Muslims are militants: “I would not be comfortable [with a Muslim in my administration] because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us. And so when I said I wouldn’t be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones that are trying to kill us, number one. Secondly, yes, I do not believe in sharia law in American courts. I believe in American laws in American courts. Period. There have been instances in New Jersey. There was an instance in Oklahoma where Muslims did try to influence court decisions with sharia law. I was simply saying very emphatically American laws in American courts.” Republican Tea Party Candidate, Herman Cain.
Either-or-thinking (Also Called False Dilemma)
Framing choices so that listeners think they have only two options and one of them is obviously preferred. I saw someone with a shirt on the other day that said, “America, love it or leave it.” It set up only two options. What if someone mostly loves America, but doesn’t like the health care system? What if they like America, but see that there is unfair distribution of wealth? What if they think another country has a better political system? Setting it up like there are only two choices when clearly most things have many shades of gray is creating a false dilemma.
”So, it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation. A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our President and we say to him – use these powers wisely and as a last resort. And it is a vote that says clearly to Saddam Hussein – this is your last chance – disarm or be disarmed.” Hillary Clinton (D)
“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” George W. Bush (R) statement to Congress after 9/11.
We can either tax and regulate cannabis for adult use, reduce violence, and enrich our state, or we can continue a policy that enriches the cartels and has always has a racially biased pattern of enforcement. Ben Jealous candidate during a Democratic primary for Governor
“And the reason is because there really are only two alternatives here. Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through a force, through war.” Barack Obama (D)
“Another well known, and much used, device
is to misrepresent my position
and attack things I have never said.”
Strawman fallacy is where a speaker belittles or trivializes an argument to refute them easily. The speaker cannot defeat the real issue so they frame the issue as silly –they make a straw doll–a fake argument that looks a little like the real one that is easily defeated. Often the issue they attack has a semblance of the real issue but is different in significant ways.
Consider this example, President Obama introduced a provision that would allow Medicare to pay for counseling on end-of-life issues if the patient asked for it. Doctors could counsel patients about end-of-life care issues such as living wills and hospice care. Senator Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican said in a town hall meeting. “In the House bill, there is counseling for end of life. You have every right to fear. You shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life, you should have done that 20 years before. Should not have a government-run plan to decide when to pull the plug on grandma.” Notice what happened, he changed counseling about end-of-life issues into pulling the plug on grandma. In this example, Grassly created the issue into something that sounds ridiculous and is easy to defeat.
- So to say we’re going to basically outlaw coal, which is what this administration has done, is so self-defeating. it destroys jobs, it destroys communities, it’s not helping us, and it’s not helping global warming. Carly Fiorina (R) in an interview with Katie Couric. Why is this a strawman? Because this is not what the current administration has done, it is an exaggerated strawman that is easy to knock down. According to an article in VOX on this quote. “US coal has taken a beating from natural gas, renewables, and efficiency — the market, in other words — but it still provides more than a third of US electricity. And EPA expects that under the Clean Power Plan, that share will be at 27 percent in 2030. That estimate is probably high, given how uncompetitive coal has become, but even if it drops to 20 percent, that’s a fifth of US electricity and a long way from outlawed. “
I think it’s terrible if you go with what Hillary is saying in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that’s okay, and Hillary can say that that’s okay, but it’s not okay with me. Because based on what she’s saying and based on where she’s going and where she’s been, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day. And that’s not acceptable. Donald Trump said about Hillary Trump’s position on abortion at the final presidential debate. This mischaracterized her position.
There are few observations that have proven more durable than Godwin’s Law. Created in 1990 by attorney Mike Godwin, it is quite simple:
The more heated a political argument becomes, the higher the likelihood that one side will mention Adolf Hitler. Whoever mentions Hitler first, loses the argument. Danile Elbaum
In fact, comparing someone to Hitler to invalidate their point is so popular it’s been given its own fake Latin name, the reductio ad Hitlerum – a play on the very real logic term reductio ad absurdum. It’s mostly used to point out the fallacy of comparing almost anyone to Hitler.
We’ve been battling this socialist health care, the nationalization of health care, that is going to absolutely kill senior citizens. They’ll put them on lists and force them to die early because they won’t get the treatment as early as they need. […] I would rather stop this socialization of health care because once the government pays for your health care, they have every right to tell you what you eat, what you drink, how you exercise, where you live. […] But if we’re going to pay 700 million dollars like we voted last Friday to put condoms on wild horses, and I know it just says an un-permanent enhanced contraception whatever the heck that is. I guess it follows that they’re eventually get around to doing it to us. This is a statement by Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) from Texas in an interview with Alex Jones.
- “Socialist health care” is a strawman
- “Kill senior citizens” and “force them to die early” is a slippery slope and a Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
- “One the government pays for your healthcare….tell you…eat, drink…live” is a Post hoc ergo propter hoc.
- “Condoms on wild horses” is a red herring and a strawman
- “They will get around to doing that to us” is a slippery slope and post hoc.
Fayetteville, Arkansas proposed to make sure that no one is denied employment, housing, or public accommodations. Michelle Duggar, wife of Jim Bob Duggar from the reality show 19 Kids and Counting read this script and it was sent as a robocall to local citizens.
“Hello, this is Michelle Duggar. I’m calling to inform you of some shocking news that would affect the safety of Northwest Arkansas women and children. The Fayetteville City Council is voting on an ordinance this Tuesday night that would allow men – yes I said men – to use womens and girls restrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping areas and other areas that are designated for females only. I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls. I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space. We should never place the preference of an adult over the safety and innocence of a child. Parents, who do you want undressing next to your daughter at the public swimming pool’s private changing area? I still believe that we are a society that puts women and children first. Women, young ladies and little girls deserve to use the restroom or any other facility in peace and safety.”
Listen to the robocall
- A fallacy is a weak argument in which the premises given do not provide needed support–it is a weak argument
- Red herring fallacy occurs when a speaker distracts listeners with sensational, irrelevant material.
- Slippery slope fallacy occurs when the speaker argues that one bad thing will result in many other bad things. This is done without proving that these negative things will happen.
- Ad Hominem fallacy here the speaker attacks the person rather than the point.
- A post hoc ero propter hoc fallacy is the assumption that one thing caused another without proof of the link.
- A faulty analogy is comparing things that are dissimilar in some important way.
- Non sequitur fallacy is reasoning in which principles and observations are unrelated to each other or to the conclusion drawn.
- Hasty generalization is drawing conclusions based on insufficient or non-representative observations.
- Either-or-thinking is framing choices so that listeners think they have only two options and one of them is obviously preferred.
- Strawman fallacy is where a speaker belittles or trivializes an argument to refute them easily
I want to hear from you.
Do you have an activity to include?
Did you notice a typo that I should correct?
Are you planning to use this as a resource and do you want me to know about it?
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