Fallacies In Arguments

Think back to the time you turned sixteen and were anxious to get your driver’s license. Somehow, that little plastic card held out to you a promise of freedom from dependence upon others, as well as acceptance into the adult world. In your sub-conscious, you were probably sure it would authorize you to come and go as you pleased and ease you into a life where youth’s desires would reign supreme. Is it possible that some of your thinking regarding that license was erroneous? If so, you were guilty of faulty logic or fallacious reasoning. It’s likely that your parents or other adults attempted to disabuse you of your fantasies at the time, but you attempted to present arguments to the contrary.

Now, as an adult, it is much easier to see that the license was not a golden passport into a new life, and your attempts to make it seem that way at sixteen exhibited a false line of reasoning. You used fallacious argument, or argument that revealed errors in reasoning, when you attempted to convince yourself and others about the fulfillment of the promise the license held for you. Fallacies are not falsehoods, although they can lead to falsehoods. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that are based on the form of the claim instead of the content of the claim.

At your present stage of life, you can still fall victim to fallacious reasoning if you do not critically examine what you read and/or hear. Since arguments that contain fallacies are not really logical arguments, their conclusions, therefore, are not proven; the problem is that these arguments sound reasonable. If you learn to recognize some common fallacy forms, you will improve your ability to build logical arguments yourself and to detect errors in logic when you read or listen to others’ attempts to persuade you. This is a vital skill for any type of research.

Types of Fallacies In Arguments

Some Common Types of Fallacies

· Hasty Generalizations: A generalization must be based on a great deal of evidence or on many personal observations—not just one or two examples. If you make such a generalization based on insufficient evidence, you are doing so too hastily. (Example: Last month I was forced off the road by a young driver in one of those souped-up cars. From now on I’ll know that anytime I see one of “those cars” I can expect to be in danger.)

· Stereotype: This is a belief that all members of a particular group share certain characteristics just because they are members of the group. Such thoughts lead to prejudice. (Example: Englishmen are stiff and formal all the time.)

· Cause-and-Effect Fallacy or “Post hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” (Latin meaning “after this, because of this”): This type of fallacy makes the mistake of assuming that just because one event preceded another, the first event caused the second event. (Example: I ate a cheeseburger and got a horrible stomachache. Therefore, cheeseburgers must not be good for me.)

· False Analogy: While an analogy is a comparison used effectively in persuasive and expository writing to clarify a point, a false analogy is a weak or far-fetched comparison. The items are so dissimilar in so many ways that the comparison is not effective. (Example: Well, this type of car did well in the crash tests, so I should not need to fear the results of any accident while I’m driving it.)

· Attacking the Person, or “Ad Hominem” (Latin meaning “to the person”): When you call your opponent a liar or attack the character of the individual rather than the argument, you are guilty of this type of fallacy. Sometimes such an attack comes out as an accusation of prejudice (Example: Instead of responding to the merits of an argument, a person accuses the other of being a bigot, a hater, or of having some kind of phobia.) or guilt by association (Example: His uncle was a Communist sympathizer in the sixties, so you know he must be a liberal.).

· Either-or Fallacy: Thinking of a problem or a solution as having only two possible extremes, causes, courses of action, etc. is either-or thinking. A person engaged in this type of thinking sees situations as either good or bad, right or wrong, black or white, and ignores all possibilities between these extremes. (Example: If you marry him, your life will be ruined.)

· Non Sequitur (Latin meaning “It does not follow”): The writer or speaker engages in non sequitur thinking when a conclusion does not logically follow from a premise or premises. (Example: He really keeps a nice lawn; therefore, he must be an avid golfer.)