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Common Fallacies

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.

Critical thinking 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 and others.

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 Argument

  1. 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.
  2. 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?"
  3. 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 being endorsed.
  4. Appeal to experience.  This implies personal experience, even if the experience may, in truth, be limited.  "I've tried it, and it works."
  5. Appeal to fear.  This trick causes your audience to fear others and seek your protection.  "Politician X will take away your welfare checks!"
  6. 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 something.
  7. 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 gentlemen."  
  8. 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.)
  9. Assume a posture of righteousness.  "I know I keep hurting you, but my heart is pure."  This allows a person to justify impure actions.
  10. 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 extremist."
  11. 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."
  12. 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 it!"
  13. Create a false dilemma (the great either/or). "Either you agree with me or you hate me."  This assumes that only two options exist.
  14. 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 seem right.
  15. 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.
  16. 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 "disinformation."
  17. 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 the criminals?"
  18. 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!"
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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 guy's argument."
  22. 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 will rain.'"
  23. 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 wrong."
  24. 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."
  25. 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."
  26. 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? . . ."
  27. 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."
  28. 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 known!"
  29. 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.
  30. Make your opponent look rediculous ("lost in the laugh").  Tricksters sometimes rely on humor to deter an audience from taking an opponent seriously.
  31. Oversimplify the issue.  "Never mind his rights. He was caught lying and should be punished!"  This move ignores ideas that could complicate a situation.
  32. 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 _____ . . . ."
  33. 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."
  34. Seek your vested interests.  Manipulators hide their own impure motivations, even as they suspect their opponents of hiding theirs.
  35. 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 loopholes.
  36. 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."
  37. 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.
  38. 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.
  39. 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."
  40. 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.
  41. 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.
  42. 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."
  43. 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.
  44. Use double standards (whenever you can).  These arguments hold others accountable to different standards.  "We condemn aggression (except when we are the aggressors)."

 

Reference

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.

 

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