Winning Arguments Through Logical Fallacies

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.

This scene from the movie Thank You For Smoking is where I first encountered logical fallacies years ago. It was love at first sight!

Since then, I did my best to avoid’em, to spot’em in other people’s reasonings, to exploit’em for winning arguments against annoying people – they are just beautiful! All writers can have a lot of fun studying how they work, not to mention the mental clarity, better thinking, rigour and confidence they tend to provide.

So I drew up a list for you.

Below.


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What exactly are fallacies?

When writing something, you almost always have to articulate an argument - that process of systematically reasoning in support of an idea, action or theory. That happens identically when you debate.

Now, when performing these actions, we all inevitably lend ourselves to flawed reasoning and rhetorical errors. Many of these errors are considered logical 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.

The fascinating aspect is that, even if fallacious arguments are technically reasoning mistakes, something negative, if you will, yet they can be very persuasive.

We encounter them in speeches, debates, articles, comments on social media — created unintentionally due to carelessness and ignorance, or intentionally, to deceive and persuade other people.

(Boring and final theoretical 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).

Now it’s time for some nice examples!

Below.


My personal favourite fallacies

There are hundreds of fallacies, and if you want a broad overview, here is a reliable list by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Let’s start with a classic.

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.

Something like:

“Just look at that face, how could anyone vote for that?”

As I’m sure you know, someone’s face doesn’t — and shouldn’t — affect the capacity to run a Country and be voted into that office. This does not detract from the fact that this violent argument is effective: it can heavily undermine a rival’s credibility.

Be aware that merely attacking someone’s character is not an example of an ad hominem fallacy. An insult is not a fallacy. It only becomes one 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 to argue public health with me!

Now, sharing some classic Trump examples would be waaay too easy at this point. Enjoy.

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 it this that you want?

Sally misrepresentation of Jim’s argument allows her to attack him. She implicitly accuses him of always wanting the sun to make it easier to defeat his position.

Let’s see another one:

Me: As you know, I wrote this newsletter about logical fallacies and…

Interviewer: And…you feel manipulative, don't you? What would happen if everyone became manipulative? Do you want everyone to use logical fallacies? That would be a disaster!

The interviewer accuses me of wanting everyone to be manipulative and then proceeds to attack this invented position (the straw man) to undermine my lack of credibility and my lovely newsletter.

Appeal to Ignorance

Originally named “Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam”,  it occurs any time ignorance is used as a major premise in support of an argument. Unfortunately, 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 support multiple contradictory conclusions.

“No one has ever proved extraterrestrials don’t exist, so they must be real.”

What is really certain is that ignorance doesn’t prove anything except you don’t know something. Appealing to ignorance won’t convey any knowledge.

Black-or-White Fallacy

false dilemma fallacy that unfairly limits to only two choices as if you had to choose between black or white — another great classic!

Dear reader, at this point you either love what I am telling you or you hate it: which is it?

This sentence gives you a choice between only two options. But you may well be thinking my newsletter is ok, or simply interesting but not to fall in love with. There are not only two options — there’s no black or white.

It was a simple example, but the black-or-white fallacy can subtly undermine your arguments' validity when approaching complex issues and without making a mark. Writers tend to fall here. It happens for it’s easier to consider only two options when things get complex: 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!

Well, this isn’t a black-or-white fallacy: it is true that writers do or do not commit such a mistake (I’m not unreasonably restricting the cases to two).

Tu Quoque Fallacy

It’s so annoying! Also called “appeal 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 yourself by accusing the other person of the same. But the point is that even hypocrites can have valid arguments!

Let me explain. If your partner says “maybe I left the wardrobe a mess, but you never make the bed!”, they’re trying to diminish their responsibility or defend their action by distributing blame with you. But someone else's fault does not justify their own fault, see? This 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 weren’t defending their position or justifying a behaviour but admitting their part within a larger problem. They pictured you as a hypocrite, but not to win the argument. And here’s a big difference: the Tu quoque only occurs when an arguer uses some apparent hypocrisy to neutralize criticism and distract from the issue.

Appeal to Authority

Originally named Argumentum ad Verecundiam, this fallacy could be hard to spot because, you know, it is a good and responsible thing to cite relevant authorities to support your arguments. Much of our knowledge comes from authorities in different fields.

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 (the reasoner) misquote the authority;

“Jon the butcher told me his cousin's a doctor. He says, I mean, his cousin said that coronavirus comes from copulating bats and rats. Precisely, those living close to 5G antennas, around Bill Gates’s cottage in China.”

Ok, this one was excessive, but you got the idea.

Naturally, 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 cool 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, in order to spot a fallacious appeal to authority, you’re often required to hold some background knowledge about the subject or the specific authority.

(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? Still listen to what they say, please.)

The last one: Red Herring Fallacy

The dialogue I reported at the opening of today’s newsletter is a cool example of the red herring fallacy — 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 all of a sudden, 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; it often supports those who seem to win the argument instead, even when there’s no argument.

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,

Lorenzo Di Brino