With all the ridiculous reasoning being thrown around the news, internet, and more, I’m constantly reminded that people don’t recognize logical fallacies. With each reminder, I’d start thinking, maybe, if more people knew how to recognize logical fallacies (& resist), there’d be less bad reasoning in the world.
So I thought I’d write an article about a handful of extremely important logical fallacies. I’ve done it before for work, so why not?
Then, I started researching (I didn’t want to miss a really important logical fallacy simply because I didn’t think of it right off the top of my head). And I found out that there are waaaay too many logical fallacies for me to try to cover in an article! Seriously. I wrote down 104 that I might want to cover (not including duplicates with different names), and I skipped quite a few from each site I looked at (such as “The Master List of Logical Fallacies,” “The Skeptics Guide to Logical Fallacies,” “The Logical Fallacies Handlist,” and even the Purdue OWL article on Logical Fallacies).
The more I read, the more I started to see patterns – links between different logic errors. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe instead of encouraging people to memorize or even learn to recognize ALL logical fallacies (or even the main ones), what if I talked about those commonalties. Seeing the underlying motives of the fallacies might be just as helpful as being able to call out each error by name.
Plus, it could be useful for characterization and plotting, so win-win, right?
Recognize Logical Fallacies by What They Do
After looking at a lot of logic errors back-to-back, it seems like they all have one of two purposes: to distract from the facts or cause commotions with your emotions (or both).
Distraction & Redirection
When a magician doesn’t want you to see his trick, he directs your focus elsewhere. These logic problems do the same thing – they move your attention away from the facts that might make you disagree. They can do this by subtly switching the topic, distracting you with emotion, skipping a step (or 3), or playing with words.
Topic Changes You Never Even Notice
There are a lot of logical fallacies that allow people to change the topic while pretending that they’re not changing the topic. Yeah. It’s really infuriating if you catch them at it, but, unfortunately, it happens all the time.
Here are just a few examples:
- Red Herring: responding with a fact that seems important but isn’t really related to the argument
- Straw Man: oversimplifying the opponent’s argument to defeat it makes you seem like you’ve won, but you weren’t actually defeating their argument – you were defeating the oversimplified version.
- Faulty Analogy: a good analogy helps explain something. A faulty analogy works about the same way as a Straw Man argument because it makes you think you’re arguing against one thing when really you’re arguing against something else.
- Overgeneralization: Like the others, this statement can be true, but it’s usually too general to justify making a decision based off of it or to defeat the opposition. Since it is true, however, sometimes it’s seen as a winning statement regardless of those other pesky details (*sigh*). Interestingly, it’s also known as a cognitive distortion (thinking errors that can effect your world view and emotional health).
- Calling “Cards”: this is like saying that someone is playing the “race card” or “gender card,” which suddenly changes the argument to whether the person is pretending there’s an issue to get his/her way rather than the argument of the issue itself.
There are many, many more. To catch them, though, pay attention to whether the statement is actually 100% relevant to the argument or has the strength to prove the point. Looking for examples where the argument isn’t true or scale differences (like 1 side arguing that disabled vets should have ways to get help through government aid, and the other side arguing that people should work for a living – the second side is arguing a much larger scale, so it’s not directly arguing against the specific situation).
Making It a Personal or Emotional Issue
Yes, this could fall under the “playing with your emotions group”; however, there are times when the subject is changed through an unrelated point that pulls on people’s heart strings enough that it feels both related and significant.
- Patriotic Ad Populem: linking an action with patriotism or being against patriotism when patriotic feeling is not actually part of the equation
- Ad Hominem: attacking the person instead of the topic (and suddenly they’re trying to defend themselves instead of their position)
- Appeal to Tradition: although “It worked before,” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way, it can feel like it does. In reality, the argument about whether it worked before is a different argument than whether there is a better way for the future.
- Measurability: This changes the topic of the argument by saying that something isn’t measurable; therefore, it is not important (which is not grounded in fact but emotion).
- Tone Policing: “You’re being emotional.” Yes, and? That doesn’t devalue the points the person has made. It’s also not always/often true.
These are particularly hard to counter because they can feel important even though they’re not motivated by logic.
Skipping facts that argue against you, jumping straight to say a conclusion when you don’t have the facts to back it up, etc. If you’re not paying close attention or don’t know a topic very well, it can be really easy to miss the fact that someone glossed over a few steps to make an argument.
- Card Stacking: only mentioning facts that agree with your argument
- Non Sequitur: this is literally a term for skipping steps in an argument (like jumping from “The Earth is round” to “so global warming is real.” You skipped some steps there…)
- A Priori/Dogmatism/Deliberate Ignorance/Confirmation Bias: ignoring facts that disagree with you
- Hasty Generalization: making a judgment before having all the facts
- Either Or / False Dilemma: there are only two options. At least, everyone will think that if everyone only talks about two options (Like the either or mentality in writing).
Sometimes, people think the step is so obvious that they don’t have to say it (but they really do need to). Other times, people drop the facts on purpose.
Doubletalk and Trickery
Then, there’s when people play with the words and the word meaning to confuse the issue and trick people into believing something. This is stereotypically thought of with lawyers and politicians, yet anyone can use it.
- Equivocation: using a different definition of a word than the other person did to make the original argument seem flawed
- Loaded Question: closely related to passive aggressiveness, this asks a person a seemingly-simple question that assumes something negative about them. Like, “Have you stopped drinking too much?”
- Circular Reasoning: when the support for your argument is really the same as the argument – it just uses different words. Some people do this and don’t even know, especially school kids. “Drugs are bad because illegal substances have negative effects,” is basically saying the same thing twice. There’s no support.
- Passive Voice Fallacy: using passive voice to shift attention. Like talking about “the book was stolen” rather than “he stole the book.” One shifts the attention to the theft, the other to the thief (also associated with victim shaming).
- Moving the Goalpost: “I’ll admit your product is better if it can do x.” The product does x. “Oh, well, it really needs to do y to be better.”
These tactics bother me more than many because they feel more deliberate – let’s be sneaky and change the topic with my language skills because I know I can’t defeat your points. It’s also the annoying habit of some of my teenage students, so that could be part of my dislike, as well.
Playing with Your Emotions
In addition to the distraction tactic above that tugs on your heart strings, there are plenty of logical fallacies that use emotional appeals to try to override facts and logic. The most common reasons are to alarm, excuse an action, or rile the emotions so much that reason is virtually impossible.
Yes, “scare tactics” is a specific fallacy. At the same time, it’s a really good way to describe this general tactic of alarming people into belief.
Here are some other examples:
- Slippery Slope: a small negative act will soon and inevitably lead to a much worse, end-of-the-world-as-you-know-it type action
- Misleading Statistic: this has a bit of distraction in it – it’s using a statistic to scare someone through their ignorance or lack of context (Over half of the people in this study died within weeks! Granted, there were only three people…)
- Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.
- Argument ad baculum: using a threat of force to get your way (like threatening to fire someone if they don’t do x, y, or z unreasonable demand)
Unfortunately, scaring people into belief works. Equally unfortunately, people either don’t feel there’s anything wrong with using these or don’t recognize them as incorrect (because they get forwarded around the internet a lot).
You know how kids always have excuses for their behavior even when they know (or knew to start with) that the behavior is wrong? Yeah. Apparently, people don’t really grow out of this. They just find new, more socially acceptable ways to try to falsely justify their behavior.
- Appeal to Heaven: “It’s God’s will.” (Always followed in my mind with “He told me so. Yesterday. At lunch.”)
- Appeal to Nature: “It’s unnatural.”
- Default Bias: we can’t change anything, so there’s no reason to try.
- Fundamental Attribution Error: “It’s ok when I don’t do the chores because I’m tired, but when you don’t do them, you’re just being lazy” (also known as hypocrisy).
- Moral Licensing: “It’s ok to do this bad thing because I did a good thing earlier.”
- Moral Superiority: “He deserved it.” OR “She deserved it.”
- Appeal to Privacy: “what I do in private is my business” (even if it involves, say, murder).
- Sending the Wrong Message: “We can’t do that because it would send the wrong message to ____.”
- Silent Majority Fallacy: a lot of people agree with me even if they don’t say so (and they don’t)
- Venting/Locker-Room Talk: “He didn’t really mean it. It was just locker-room talk.”
- Diminished Responsibility: “I was really tired, or I wouldn’t have done it.”
Yep. Lots and lots of excuses that don’t actually justify the behavior at all. Beware these errors!
I know that people have heard a lot about trigger words and safe environments lately (a discussion that’s sadly included too many logically fallacies), so let me clarify what I mean when I use “trigger words.” Basically, I’m talking about words that bring on such a strong emotional response for a group or individual that emotion overrides logic, and any chance of debating a topic with reason is lost.
Do you have any friends that become completely irrational when a certain word or phrase is brought up? For example, maybe, an ex-girlfriend’s name makes Leroy so angry that he can’t stand to hear about any possible reasons behind her behavior (let alone any possibility that he shared any of the blame).
That’s a trigger. Here’s some ways they’re used:
- Blind Loyalty: x says it, so it must be true (questioning is disrespectful/disloyal/sacrilege).
- Dog-Whistle Politics: throwing out a keyword phrase deliberately to work people into a frenzy
- Prosopology: listing the names of the fallen to get an emotional impact
- The Save the Children Fallacy
- The Romantic Rebel: they must be right because they’re against “the Man.”
All these amount to is knowing how to push someone’s buttons at the right moment (which, honestly, counts as a different kind of distraction IMHO).
Long story short? Watch out for emotional appeals and logic gaps or tangents. That’s what most logical fallacies are trying to do.
Is it really that simple? No. Probably not. But if you keep in mind that it isn’t really that simple, the two tactics may work out. As far as I’m concerned, recognizing more logical fallacies is a good thing. Falling for fewer of them is even better.