7 Logical Fallacies That Helped Me Write Better
I encountered logical fallacies for the first time in this scene from the film ‘Thank You For Smoking’, and it was love at first sight.
Joey: So what happens when you’re wrong?
Nick: Whoa, Joey I’m never wrong.
J: But you can’t always be right...
N: Well, if it's your job to be right, then you're never wrong.
J: But what if you are wrong?
N: Ok, let’s say that you’re defending chocolate, and I’m defending vanilla. Now if I were to say to you: “Vanilla is the best flavour ice-cream”, you’d say...
J: No, chocolate is.
N: Exactly, but you can’t win that argument...so, I’ll ask you: “so you think chocolate is the end all and the all of ice-cream, do you?”
J: It's the best ice-cream, I wouldn't order any other.
N: Oh! So it's all chocolate for you, is it?
J: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
N: Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.
J: But that's not what we're talking about.
N: Ah! But that's what I'm talking about.
J: ...but you didn't prove that vanilla was the best...
N: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.
J: But you still didn't convince me.
N: It's that I'm not after you. I'm after them.
It is such a pleasure to avoid them in your reasoning, to spot them in the speech of others, and - above all! - to use them for winning discussions with annoying people.
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What Are Fallacies?
According to Mother Wiki, a fallacy is
“the use of invalid or other faulty reasoning, or “wrong moves” in the construction of an argument.”
When writing, you articulate a series of arguments with systematic reasoning supporting your ideas, actions or theories. It’s a complex process, and it can inevitably lead to flawed reasoning or rhetorical mistakes. Well, many of these are considered logical fallacies.
The fascinating aspect of fallacious arguments is that, even if technically incorrect, they can be highly persuasive. You encounter them in speeches, debates, articles, and comments on social media, used both unintentionally (due to negligence or ignorance) and intentionally (to deceive or persuade).
[Extra theory note: we divide fallacies into two types, formal and informal. A formal fallacy concerns the logical form of the reasoning, whereas an informal fallacy depends on the content of the reasoning and possibly on the purpose of the reasoning.]
Everything is going to get clearer with some examples.
My Top Seven
There are hundreds of fallacies. If you’re looking for a broad overview, I’d recommend looking at this reliable list by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Find my 7 personal favourites below-er.
1 - Argumentum Ad Hominem
It’s Latin for ‘to the person’ (‘directed at the person’), and it’s a fallacy that occurs when, instead of responding to your opponents’ arguments, you attack their personal characteristics in order to undermine those arguments.
“Just look at that face, how could anyone vote for that?”
Someone’s face doesn’t and shouldn’t affect the ability to run a country and be voted into that office. This said you could imagine how such a violent argument can heavily undermine a rival’s credibility in an open debate, right?
Merely attacking someone’s character is not an example of an ad hominem fallacy: an insult is not a fallacy. It only becomes so when the insult is intended to undermine the opponent’s argument.
Insult: “You’re bloody fat!”
Ad hominem: “You’re bloody fat: don’t you dare argue public health with me!”
[Now, sharing some classic Trump examples would be waaay too easy at this point…enjoy.]
2 - Straw Man
This fallacy occurs when someone takes an argument and misrepresents it so that it’s easier to attack. It is an informal fallacy since its logical invalidity occurs because of the content of the argument (not the structure).
Jim: Sunny days are good!
Sally: If it never rained we’d all starve to death, Jim. Is that what you want?
Sally misrepresentation of Jim’s argument allows her to attack it. She implicitly accuses Jim of always wanting the sun in order to have an easy argument to defeat him.
Let’s see another one:
Me: As you know, I wrote this newsletter about logical fallacies and…
You: And therefore you are a manipulator! What would happen if everyone became manipulative? Do you want everyone to use logical fallacies? That would be a disaster!
You (in this example) accuse me of wanting everyone to be manipulative and then proceed to attack this invented/false position (the straw man!) to undermine my credibility and my humble newsletter with almost 1000 subscribers!!!.
3 - Appeal To Ignorance
Originally named ‘Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam’, it occurs any time ignorance is used as a major premise in support of an argument. We encounter it very often.
“No one has ever seen an extraterrestrial and proved its existence, so they must not exist at all.”
Appealing to ignorance is such a poor way of reasoning that it supports multiple contradictory conclusions simultaneously.
“No one has ever proved extraterrestrials don’t exist, so they must be real.”
What is certain here is that ignorance can’t prove anything except that you don’t know something.
4 - Black-Or-White Fallacy
It’s a ‘false dilemma fallacy’ that unfairly limits to only two choices as if you had to choose between black or white. It’s a classic.
“Dear reader, at this point you either love what I am telling you or you hate it: which one?”
Such a claim makes you choose between two options. However, you might also think my newsletter is ‘just ok’, or ‘interesting but not to fall in love with’. There are not only two options — no black or white.
Yet this fallacy can subtly undermine your arguments’ validity when approaching complex topics (and without making a mark). Writers tend to fall here: it’s easier to consider only two options when things become complicated. Our brain likes to simplify the world in this way.
“There are two types of writers in the world: those who make this mistake and those who don’t!”
What do you think?
Ok, I’m not helpful: this last one wasn’t a black-or-white fallacy. It’s true that writers do or do not commit such a mistake. I’m not unreasonably restricting the cases to two.
See the difference with the example above?
5 - Tu Quoque Fallacy
Also called ‘appealing to hypocrisy’, it distracts from the argument by pointing out the opponent’s hypocrisy.
“Dad, I know you smoked when you were my age, so how can you tell me not to do that?”
This fallacy typically deflects criticism away from ourselves by accusing others of the same. But even hypocrites can have valid arguments.
Let’s see another example. If your partner, when you pointed out that they didn’t tidy the wardrobe, says, ‘maybe I left the wardrobe a mess, but you never make the bed’, well, they’re trying to diminish their responsibility or defend their action by distributing blame with you.
Wrong! Someone else’s fault does not justify their fault. The Tu Quoque Fallacy is basically an attempt to divert blame distracting from the initial problem.
Mind that it’s not a fallacy to ‘simply’ point out hypocrisy where it occurs. Imagine if they’d have said, ‘yes, I left the wardrobe a mess. I’m responsible for that, and I’ll make some space for your clothes. Anyway, you’re a mess too. We should try to reorder the entire flat’.
In this case, they don’t defend their position or justify a behaviour but admit their part within a larger problem. They picture you as a hypocrite, yes, but not to win the argument.
The tu quoque only occurs when an arguer uses some apparent hypocrisy to neutralize criticism and distract from the issue.
6 - Appeal To Authority
Originally named ‘Argumentum ad Verecundiam’, this fallacy may be hard to spot as it is generally a good and responsible thing to cite relevant authorities in support of our arguments. Much of our knowledge comes from authorities in different fields.
So, appealing to authority occurs when you misuse an authority, like when, for example:
the authority is not actually an authority in the relevant subject;
the authority cannot be trusted to tell the truth;
different authorities disagree on the subject;
you misquote the authority.
“John the butcher told me his cousin is a doctor. Well, his cousin said coronavirus comes from copulating bats and rats. Precisely, those living close to 5G antennas around Bill Gates’s cottage in China.”
Excessive, but you got the idea.
On the other side, claims such as ‘stop talking about what scientists say, that’s an argument from authority!’ make no sense (as pointed out in this video). When there’s scientific consensus about something, it means there are proofs to sustain and justify that consensus.
The difficulty here lies in the fact that to spot a fallacious ‘appeal to authority’, you’re often required to hold some background knowledge about the subject or the specific authority: ignorance is what makes this fallacy possible.
[Extra thought: it makes sense not to rely excessively on authorities as they can sometimes be wrong. The science experts in the 16th century thought the Earth was the centre of the solar system. It turns out they were wrong. It’s a wise attitude to treat authorities as helpful guides. Just a fair share of scepticism, you know? But listen to what they say, please.]
7 - Red Herring Fallacy
At the beginning of today’s newsletter, the dialogue I’ve quoted is a fine example of a red herring fallacy. By definition, it’s a digression that takes the reasoner off the path of considering only relevant information.
In the argument above, Joey and Nick were defending their positions, respectively, chocolate and vanilla. But at some point, Nick digressed:
“Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.”
Nick teaches young Joey a lesson: in debates, the audience doesn’t necessarily like those who are right but often supports those who seem to win the argument instead, even when there’s no argument at all.
Joey: ...but you didn't prove that vanilla was the best...
Nick: I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong I'm right.
Joey: But you still didn't convince me.
Nick: It's that I'm not after you. I'm after them.
See you next Wednesday,