1213: Logical Fallacies
Your writer has committed the Strawman Fallacy when he ignores his opposition’s actual position and constructs an exaggerated version of that position to argue with instead – as if, instead of arguing with his real opponent, he were to argue with a strawman version.
Alison: I think school children ought to be given healthier meals at school.
Jack: You health nuts! You won’t be happy until we’re feeding kids nothing but tofu and and bran! What kid is even going to want to eat that junk, I ask you?
Alison: Well, what do you want to give them? A bowl of sugar and a spoon? That would be fine with you?
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc (or False Cause)
Your writer has committed this fallacy when they confuse correlation with cause. Simply because one thing follows another thing or occurs around the time another thing occurs does not necessarily mean that A caused B. That is, just because the leaves fall on the sidewalk in the autumn and shortly thereafter cracks appear in the sidewalks does not mean that falling leaves make the sidewalks crack. Some other force may be at work.
Hank the Cow Dog Fallacy: Hank the Cow Dog believes that he barks the sun up each morning. (Well, he barks, right? And the sun comes up? What more do you want?)
Or: “Allowing citizens to carry handguns reduces violent crime. In the 31 states that have passed right-to-carry laws since the mid-1980’s, the number of multiple-victim public shootings have other violent crimes has dropped dramatically. ” The Phyllis Schlafly Report, 2000
Your writer has committed the ad hominem fallacy when he attacks the person making the argument rather than arguing with the facts or with the argument itself. Whenever someone is reduced to calling names or making personal attacks, you want to be nervous the value of their work as a source.
The only legitimate attack upon a person is to call into question their credentials – that is, to say that this person is not qualified to be writing upon this topic. That’s not ad hominem: that’s to the point.
Ad hominem: “Who cares what Ann Coulter says? She’s just a scrawny old bulimic.”
Or: “Michael Moore should shut up and go on a diet.”
Your writer commits this one when he makes a conclusion based on a very small body of evidence. For instance, does watching too much TV make kids fat? Heavens no! My twin nephews watch TV ten to twelve hours a day, and they’re skinny as rails!
That’s a hasty generalization. You can’t conclude anything from a sample based on my twin nephews, who are (in fact) little hyperactive speed demons. One data point is not enough. Even fifteen is enough. Fifty might be, depending on how representative they are. Always check where your writer got his data and how general it is.
Argument from Authority
This one is tricky. It’s when people assert that something is true because an Authority says it’s true. Well, okay. But check carefully into that authority. Do you accept the authority?
For instance, in the scholarly community, we tend to accept the authority of the peer-reviewed journal, but not like they were, for instance, handed down by God Almighty. That is, we accept that authority, but we question it. We argue with it. We understand it can be wrong.
And speaking of God Almighty, we only cite the Bible as an authority in papers when we are writing for an audience that also accepts that Bible as an authority. Some people accept the Christian Bible as an authority. Others don’t – some people are Buddhists. Some believe in the Koran. Others are atheists. So citing the Bible as an authority in a text only works when you are certain your audience is composed of fellow Christians – and only then when you were certain those Christians were of the same sect you come from, since various sects of Christianity interpret that text in different ways.
Then there’s using anecdotal evidence – this is evidence where you are the authority. The trouble with this evidence is that you can only cite yourself and your experience, and your experience is only your own. Your reader is in no position to test it – has no way to check your source. It’s worth something, but you should use it sparingly and carefully.
False Dilemma (Either /Or)
This is when your writer pretends we have only two choices. Either we put fluoride in our water supply or everyone’s teeth will fall out! Well, there’s almost always more than two choices, and anytime anyone says “either….or…” to you your alarms should go off.
Appeal to Pity
This is when your writer plays on your heart-strings. Now any decent writer will appeal to your pity – will give you human details in an attempt to appeal to your heart – it’s when the writer gives you nothing but sob-story, or nothing but demagoguery (i.e. does nothing but attempt to outrage you with vicious attacks on his opposition) that you want to start doubting his use as a source.
Example: If you’ve seen the videos that demonstrate the horrible conditions under which pigs and other animals are kept and under which they are slaughtered – these are effective appeals to pity. They don’t, however, add much to the debate about whether animals should have legal rights.
Begging the Question
This is not what it sounds like. This is when, instead of proving his point, your writer simply assumes his point, and goes on from there. So, let’s say your writer wants to prove that spanking kids makes them behave better. If he was begging the question, his argument might go like this:
Kids who don’t get spanked are brats. If you don’t want brats around, you need to spank early and often. Every time I’m at the Wal-Mart, I’m surrounded by wailing brats. Whale on them, I say. Enough with the brats!
No attempt here is made to prove that smacking a kid will de-brattify it. The writer simply asserts his point, and then re-asserts it. That’s begging the question --otherwise known as arguing in a circle. That doesn’t prove anything, and won’t convince anyone who isn’t already convinced.
Suppose you wanted to find out the percentage of folk in Fort Smith who wanted to repeal the blue laws that make selling alcohol illegal on Sunday. And suppose you did your survey in a bar on Saturday night.
That there’s a biased sample fallacy. Watch our for your writer’s sources. Look for biased samples.