Thing 9. Logical Fallacies
In the previous Thing, we discussed Critical Thinking, focusing on the steps for improvement. A strong part of thinking critically is understanding when an argument is incorrect or, more likely, burdened by a logical fallacy. This Thing will help you understand what a logical fallacy is, the different types of fallacies you will encounter and how they affect our media browsing, information gathering, and even our understanding of truth.
A logical fallacy is an error or mistake in reasoning. It can be done accidentally or deliberately, aimed at introducing doubt to win an argument. While there are many fallacies in logic and rhetoric, there are 25 that are identified as the most commonly used in speech, debate, politics, advertising, and media. You can click on the name of any of them to get a brief description.
- Ad hominem
- Appeal to authority
- Appeal to emotion
- Appeal to nature
- Begging the question
- Black or white
- Burden of proof
- False cause
- Loaded question
- Middle ground
- No true Scotsman
- Personal incredulity
- Red Herring
- Slippery slope
- Special pleading (or moving the goalposts)
- The fallacy fallacy
- The gambler’s fallacy
- The Texas sharpshooter
- Tu quoque (or look who’s talking)
You are not expected to memorize every one of these fallacies. If you read all the links, we’re sure several were already familiar to you, perhaps you just didn’t recognize them by name. The point of learning about these fallacies is to recognize them as an impediment to critical thinking. When you are presented with an argument, you should think about the logic behind that argument, not just accept what’s said at face value. With a little knowledge and focus you can quickly identify faulty reasoning and avoid getting fooled.
Recognizing and Avoiding Logical Fallacies
Once you are aware of the various fallacies, you’ll find they are everywhere. Since logical fallacies are an impediment to critical thinking, we need to know how to avoid them in our thinking, writing, and arguing. To help with that, create your own argument full of them!
Let’s try an example; read the paragraph below.
What’s the point of having two different classification systems in libraries, anyway? Any librarian worth their salt knows that Dewey is better than LoC when it comes to classifying books. The patrons in my library don’t even need the online catalog because they all know the DDC numbers for what they want. Besides, almost every library uses DDC, don’t they? You people just don’t care about patrons’ comfort in the library. Don’t we want people to want to use the library? A lot of libraries aren’t even open now.
Can you identify the logical fallacies used in the above paragraph? Each sentence is designed to demonstrate a different fallacy, to show how easy it is to slip these into an argument. Read through it again and see how many you can identify, the answers are below.
- What’s the point of having two different classification systems in libraries, anyway?
- Loaded Question
- Any librarian worth their salt knows that Dewey is better than LoC when it comes to classifying books.
- No True Scotsman
- The patrons in my library don’t even need the online catalog because they all know the DDC numbers for what they want.
- You people just don’t care about patrons’ comfort in the library.
- Ad hominem
- Besides, almost every library uses DDC, don’t they?
- Don’t we want people to want to use the library?
- Appeal to emotion
- A lot of libraries aren’t even open now.
- Red herring
Fallacies interfere with the open, two-way exchange of ideas that is required for meaningful conversations. Fallacies distract with an overload of rhetorical appeals instead of using thorough reasoning. Fallacies appear in both written and verbal communication.
Responding to Logical Fallacies
Logical fallacies can appear anywhere and around any topic. Suppose you are eating lunch at work and a colleague says the following:
Oranges are the best fruit. I eat them every day and I’m healthy. I used to eat them as a kid so I grew up healthy. You have a terrible diet. Don’t you think if you ate better your opinion on oranges would improve? If you want me to believe that oranges aren’t the best you’re going to have to show me a study that proves it’s another fruit.
You recognize that there are fallacies in the argument, but what do you do?
First, understand that often fallacies are born from a place of emotion. People feel strongly about an issue and reach for any means necessary to defend their position. This can present a barrier to disproving a fallacy. Often, explaining their errors in logic is not the point. Victory can be achieved simply by your understanding and awareness of the flaw in the reasoning. However, there are times when it requires a response and here are some steps you can take to counter a fallacious argument. When responding to the use of a logical fallacy, it’s important to make sure that it is a fallacy. Keep in mind that the use of the fallacy might be intentional. (Steps adapted from Effectivology)
- Stay calm, because the arguments can be emotional; to disprove them, you must be dispassionate
- Identify the fallacy used and point out its mistake
- Provide an example to counter the fallacy
- Ask them to clarify the point (in other words….) to ensure that they are, in fact using a fallacy
- Listen to the entire argument; just because a fallacy is used, does not automatically mean the conclusion is false
- Make certain that your rebuttal does not include further fallacies to muddy the waters
There will be some variation in how you counter different fallacies under different circumstances. An approach that will work well in one situation may fail in another.
We practice critical thinking everyday, often without ‘thinking’ about it. Now that you know a bit more about logical fallacies, you can put together more persuasive arguments that avoid logical fallacies. Even more important, when you hear a statement such as, ‘everyone says this book should be banned,’ you’ll know that something isn’t right. When you do hear a statement like this, you will be prepared to think critically about the statement, and will be in a position to make a more educated decision about the information and to counter it with questions, facts, and informed opinions.
PBS Idea Channel compiled brief explanatory videos for what they feel are the 8 most common fallacies from the above list. You can click here to view the playlist, or select from the individual videos below.
Moving the Goalposts Fallacy (2:05) | PBS Idea Channel
The Fallacy Fallacy (2:13) | PBS Idea Channel
The Texas Sharpshooter (2:40) | PBS Idea Channel
The Strawman Fallacy (2 :12) | PBS Idea Channel
Ad Hominem Fallacy (2:23) |PBS Idea Channel
Black and White Fallacy (2:05) | PBS Idea Channel
The Authority Fallacy (2:02) | PBS Idea Channel
The No True Scotsman Fallacy (2:22) | PBS Idea Channel
Introduction to Fallacies (12:45) | The Critical Thinker, Kevin deLaPlante
Logical fallacies pop up everywhere, of course, but you may encounter them frequently on social media or in the news. You should be able to recognize them when you read or hear them so that you can think critically about the information you are receiving. You should also understand what to do when you’re faced with one in the wild.
8 Critical Thinking Fallacies You’re Likely Falling for on Social Media | Zarvana
Recognizing Fallacies in the Daily News | Macmillan Learning
How to Argue Against Common Fallacies | Future Learn https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/logical-and-critical-thinking/0/steps/9131
Here are some activities to ensure your understanding of logical fallacies and help you put theory into practice.
Take this quiz by McGraw Hill to see what you’ve learned about logical fallacies.
Create your own paragraph on the topic of your choice and include as many logical fallacies as you can, then paste your paragraph in the Comments section to allow people to guess which fallacies you used.
Purely for fun watch this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to see how many fallacious arguments you can spot.
‘How do you know she’s a witch?’ | YouTube https://youtu.be/yp_l5ntikaU?t=51
This activity was taken from https://www.tokresource.org/logical-fallacy, which contains other resources and lesson ideas. Scroll down on that page for the answers.
This Thing has described a few situations where logical fallacies occur–at work, in conversations, for example–where else might you observe logical fallacies being used? Advertising, a political speech, sign, or TV show? When you find some examples, post them in the Comment section.
Take a look at some newspapers–your local/regional paper, the NYT, The Guardian, tabloids, and others. Are there logical fallacies in news stories? Editorials? Advertisements? When you find some examples, post them in the Comment section.
Think about the different fallacies you’ve learned. Which ones do you think you use most often? And how can you avoid them in the future?
5 Fallacies (13:37) | PBS Idea Channel
Master List of Logical Fallacies | University of Texas El Paso
Teaching Digital Information Literacy with Logical Fallacy Instruction | University of North Alabama
Bias, Critical Doubt, and Fallacies | Research Gate
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments | Ali Almossawi