To understand fallacies, we first need to
understand the basics of argument. When you think of an
argument, you might first picture a quarrel or debate between two
opposing sides. But an argument in academic writing is,
basically, a conclusion with one or more premises. A
conclusion is a claim, and a premise is a reason or assumption that
is meant to support that claim. For example, "Religion is
harmful because it promotes inequality" is an argument because it
makes a claim and offers support for it.
A fallacy is an illogical
step in reasoning. Whether a claim we make is true or false,
we might be using reasons that either do not logically support that
claim or are not logically supported themselves. For example,
the argument above might be considered fallacious by someone who
separates the teachings of religion from the behavior of people who
look down on others.
Fallacies occur everywhere in society and
within every mind. We take these illogical steps in reasoning
all the time by mistake and often deceive ourselves in doing so.
And because fallacies can cause illogical arguments to appear
logically sound, people often use them to persuade their audiences
to believe illogical claims.
experts Richard Paul and Linda Elder (2008) have written, "Students
need seminal insights and intellectual tools that enable
them to protect themselves from becoming intellectual victims in a
world of swarming media piranhas, or, just as bad, from joining the
swarm . . . ." (p. i). Paul and Elder believe that a study of
fallacies should be "grounded in intellectual integrity" and enable
"the acquisition of lifelong insights into how the mind -- every
mind -- uses unsound arguments and intellectual 'tricks' to further
its ends" (p. i). By learning to recognize fallacious
reasoning, we can avoid deceiving, and being deceived by, ourselves
It would be impossible to compile an all-inclusive list of
fallacies, since we limitlessly invent them. Popular lists of
common fallacies can be found on the Internet and in textbooks, and
here are some links to a few of these lists (please feel free to
suggest a list you have found useful!):
What we provide on this page, however, is a brief list
adapted from Paul and Elder's (2008) "44 Foul Ways to Win
an Argument," which can be found in The Thinker's Guide to
Fallacies: The Art of Mental Trickery and Manipulation.
44 Foul Ways to Win an
- Accuse your opponent of doing what he is accusing you
of (or worse). Traditionally called Tu
Quoque, or "you also." "You say I hate animals, but I
think you hate humans!" This can turn the tables and
unnecessarily put somone else on the defensive.
- Accuse him of sliding down a slippery slope (that leads
to disaster). This implies that the end result
of today's actions could be something terrible. "If we allow
prayer in schools, then what happens when your son or daughter goes
off and joins a crazy religious cult?"
- Appeal to authority. Traditionally
called Argumentum ad Verecundiam. "It's the brand
Oprah uses." People often listen to someone famous or
powerful, even to a celebrity who has no connection with what's
- Appeal to experience. This implies
personal experience, even if the experience may, in truth, be
limited. "I've tried it, and it works."
- Appeal to fear. This trick causes your
audience to fear others and seek your protection. "Politician
X will take away your welfare checks!"
- Appeal to pity (or sympathy). "I know I
made a poor decision. But let's just look at how hard my job
is." This allows manipulators to avoid responsibility for
- Appeal to popular passions.
Traditionally called Argumentum ad Populum. This
trick implies that the manipulator shares the same views as the
audience. "I know you'll all agree with this, ladies and
- Appeal to tradition or faith ("the tried and
true"). Arguments of this nature cite the authority
of customs or beliefs that have persisted through time and
challenge. "I've tried to understand it too, but that's just
the way it is." (Note: many sources define appeals to
tradition and faith separately, recognizing tradition as an
external influence and faith as internal.)
- Assume a posture of righteousness. "I
know I keep hurting you, but my heart is pure." This allows a
person to justify impure actions.
- Attack the person (and not the
argument). Traditionally called Argumentum ad
Hominem or "poisoning the well." This
trick subtly or overtly distorts a person's character, destroying
their credibility no matter how valid their argument is. "I
was surprised you agreed with her. She's kind of an
- Beg the question. Traditionally called
Petitio Principii. This trick leans on an argument
that may not be true in the first place. "I don't attend
those meetings because I don't want to be brainwashed."
- Call for perfection (demand impossible
conditions). The manipulator has no intention of
giving in, and so he or she gives a condition that cannot be met.
"I'll give you the benefit of the doubt after you've earned
- Create a false dilemma (the great either/or).
"Either you agree with me or you hate me." This assumes that
only two options exist.
- Devise analogies (and metaphors) that support your view
(even if they are misleading or false). "All I did
was take a candy bar. Stop looking at me as if I started a
war." This trick uses comparisons to make the manipulator
- Question your opponent's conclusions.
"The fact that I was in the vicinity at 3:30 a.m., wearing
black, and carrying a pillow case does not mean I stole your
jewelry." The trickster here cites gaps in his opponent's
logic, no matter how small.
- Create misgivings: Where there's smoke, there's
fire. "Well we don't know for sure whether she votes
that way, but she does hang out with people who do."
Manipulators know that merely launching a rumor is sometimes
enough to discredit a person. This is also referred to as
- Create a straw man. We do this all the
time: take an argument we disagree with and mischaracterize it so
it looks as wrong as possible. "You say you want to reform
the criminal justice system. What, do you want to free all
- Deny or defend inconsistencies. When
caught with a contradiction, manipulators often seek to cover their
tracks rather than admit inconsistency. "I didn't really say
that! Well, I did, but the world is changing and we must
change with it!"
- Demonize his side, sanitize
yours. "I do this not to manipulate them but to
teach them a lesson." A person with impure motives will often
pretend, and claim, purity.
- Evade questions, gracefully. There are
limitless ways to sidestep questions when the answers could get us
into trouble: jokes, vague answers, long and detailed responses
meant to bore and distract.
- Flatter your audience. As long as it's
not too obvious, flattery can unfairly lower an audience's
defenses. "Smart people like you can see right through this
- Hedge what you say. Manipulators often
hide behind their words to avoid committing themselves or taking
responsibility. "No no, what I said was 'I think it
- Ignore the evidence. Traditionally
called apiorism. We often ignore things we don't
want to consider for fear they will produce more work or further
confusion. "Well, I don't care why she did it. It was
- Ignore the main point. Traditionally
called ignoratio elenchu. This trick diverts
attention away from the main point to a point the manipulator might
more easily win. "Well, I can see now that she's right.
But that doesn't mean it's okay to shout."
- Attack evidence (that undermines your case).
If manipulators can't successfully ignore evidence they don't
want considered, they might instead look for ways to invalidate it.
"Yes, and I'm sure the scientists who performed that study
were paid to get those results and no others."
- Insist loudly on a minor
point. Manipulators in the media and elsewhere
will often bury one idea by diverting their audience's attention to
another. "Tonight on News 6: A misunderstanding bruises
the President's image. That story in a minute. But
first, just how offensive is public breatfeeding? . . ."
- Use the hard-cruel-world argument (to justify doing
what is usually considered unethical). If it comes
out that a trickster is using unethical means to accomplish a
purpose, he or she might rely on this defense. "Deception
unfortunately becomes necessary when all other available means for
obtaining a just and peaceful society have failed."
- Make sweeping glittering generalizations.
This trick relies on generalizations that coincide with the
thinking of the audience, generalizations about "our" or "their"
devotions or best interests. "They will never know
what it's like to struggle. But we have always
- Make much of any inconsistencies in your opponent's
position. "I can see that your proposal offers
theoretically feasible solutions. It's just that this
editorial error on page six calls into question your abilities as a
teacher." We all make mistakes. Manipulators exploit
them to further their agendas.
- Make your opponent look rediculous ("lost in the
laugh"). Tricksters sometimes rely on humor to deter
an audience from taking an opponent seriously.
- Oversimplify the issue. "Never mind his
rights. He was caught lying and should be punished!" This
move ignores ideas that could complicate a situation.
- Raise nothing but objections. If a
person just doesn't want to concede, he or she might look for
objection after objection. "Well that makes sense, but what
about _____? . . . I understand, but what makes you think_____? . .
. Fine, but you haven't told us _____ . . . ."
- Rewrite history (have it your way). The
human mind is always looking in the past for a way to justify
itself. "By now, everyone knows that president was just a
playboy with no diplomatic experience."
- Seek your vested interests. Manipulators
hide their own impure motivations, even as they suspect their
opponents of hiding theirs.
- Shift the ground. For someone looking to
get his or her way at all costs, subtly switching to use a
different reason or definition will sometimes win the advantage.
Swtches like these are often prompted by legal
- Shift the burden of proof. Manipulator's
know that having to prove an argument true makes their job more
difficult. So they try to shift that burden to their
opponent. "You say she didn't do it. But there is no
hard evidence to support that idea."
- Spin, spin, spin. Spindoctors use the
media to positively represent their own viewpoints and encourage
criticism of others. For example, after a political debate,
each side rallies to declare their version of the outcome, hoping
to spin the desired perception their way.
- Talk in vague generalities. This means
avoiding specifics that might commit the manipulator to something
or cause people to question what he or she is doing.
- Talk double talk. Tricksters do this by
using a negative word to describe an action taken by someone else
and a positive word for the same action if taken by the trickster.
"That's crazy. Mike cheats all the time
without getting punished. You're hanging me out to dry after
messing up once."
- Tell big lies. Manipulators focus on
what they can get people to believe rather than on what it true or
false. These individuals and organizations sometimes have the
resources to launch elaborate coverups, duping the populus and
putting down outspoken objectors.
- Treat abstract words and symbols as if they were real
things. Traditionally called reification.
"The science says they're wrong, and justice demands that we
retaliate." There's nothing unethical about personifying
science or justice, or with using figurative language for that
matter, except when these things are done to distract people.
- Throw in a red herring. A red herring is
an emotionally charged issue brought up to divert attention from
something the manipulator wants to avoid. "You asked me why
the unemployment rate has risen again, but I'll tell you what's
affecting this country's morale in even worse ways than that."
- Throw in some statistics. This involves
manipulating numbers or quoting statistics from questionable
sources to gain the perception of validity. "A clinical study
showed kids who had a filling breakfast of _____ cereal improved
their attentiveness by nearly 20 percent!" What we're not
told, however, is that this unpublished study was paid for by the
company that makes the cereal, and that the attentiveness of the
kids who ate the cereal was measured against that of kids given
nothing but water.
- Use double standards (whenever you can).
These arguments hold others accountable to different
standards. "We condemn aggression (except when we are the
Paul, R. and Elder, L. (2008). The thinker's guide to fallacies:
The art of mental trickery and manipulation. Dillon Beach, CA:
Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.