20 Logical Fallacies, or How Not to Debate!
“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.” [The sleep of reason produces monsters.]
- Francisco Goya, 1799
Whether the words used are simple or fancy, on one side in nearly every dispute there is a person who is right, and on the other side is a person who is just arguing for no good reason at all.
In my years of practicing the law, I have too often been struck by the ugly brashness with which opposing parties and their lawyers talk, write, act, negotiate, and litigate in the wrong, adding insult to injury. Imagine a situation, for example, where a woman comes up to you as you’re standing on the street talking on your smartphone. She steals your phone out of your hand and walks away with it. You yell, “thief!” She then turns around and scolds you for defaming her good name, yelling at all onlookers for help to defend herself from you! And there you find yourself arguing with her about her stealing your phone while she blatantly denies it and asserts that you must apologize for slandering her with the word “thief”. Next thing you know, even her lawyer shows up to defend her! This is a classic “what the hell” moment, right?
Yet in legal disputes large and small, whether they involve multinational corporations or bickering neighbors, criminal accusations or divorces, regardless of the nature of the debate, there is rarely a situation in which the paint of sin colors the faces of both sides of the argument, at least not at the start of it. While poor legal counsel or ignoble motivations may tempt even the innocent party in a dispute to sway from rectitude as the dispute unfurls and becomes more complicated over time, often in its first dramatic Act the stage of a Debate displays the spotlight on the hero while leaving the villain rightly in the shadows.
From those shadows, the devil speaks in tempting fallacies. It is crucial to demystify those forked magic words for they have the power to topple those who have allowed their sense of reason to sleep. With that, let us briefly study the most common methods of fallacious distraction and deceit to ensure that we not only evade the trap they set for our minds but also to persevere to avoid such dark modes ourselves.
20 Varieties of Logical Fallacies:
Status Quo (Latin: “As it is”): E.g., “Something is so because it’s always been that way.” Just because something has been so for a long time does not make it true. For a long time, people believed that the Earth was the center of the cosmos. We then learned from astronomy that that is false.
Ad Hominem (Latin: Against the Person”): If someone debating you says, “You’re wrong because you’re ugly”, that’s an ad hominem argument - a personal attack. Personal attacks are distractions from the actual argument.
Can’t prove false: E.g., “My assertion is true because you cannot prove that it’s not!” Lots of things cannot be proven false, but that doesn’t mean they’re not able to be proven true. Think of the law of gravity: we can prove that it is an actual physical force, but we cannot prove that it is false. That doesn’t mean that gravity is not a real and verifiable law of physics. The “can’t prove it false” fallacy is another distraction.
A bad argument disproves a point: E.g., “Your particular argument is illogical, so your entire point is mistaken. You say that gravity exists, and it is the force that makes a car’s brakes work. That’s actually friction. Thus, there is no such thing as gravity.” Just because somebody makes a bad argument for a true thing does not lessen the truth of the issue.
Appeal to emotions: E.g., “If you have a heart, you’ll agree with me.” Emotions sometimes have nothing to do with the truth of a matter.
Repetition makes it true: E.g., “2 + 2 = 5. Yes it does! 2 + 2 = 5. See? It does! 2 + 2 = 5.” Repeating a falsehood does not make it true.
Popularity: E.g., “Everyone loves bacon, therefore it’s good for you!” Just because something is popular does not make it true.
Appeal to Authority: E.g., “Cheetoh is the President, therefore he’s right about everything.” Authorities are mistaken as well, so just because they say so doesn’t make it right.
Circular Argument without Substance: E.g., “Broccoli is gross. I don’t like it. Things I don’t like are gross. Therefore, broccoli is gross.” An argument that circles in on itself like this is a common fallacy. It’s a loop that goes nowhere. Any thesis should be based on facts and arguments, not mere repetitions of the main point in various ways.
A statement or question that assumes unproven facts: E.g., “Why are you reading this article through a telescope? You must love telescopes!” Who said I was reading this article through a telescope? Don’t make wild assumptions and rely on them to prove your argument.
Confusing correlation with causation: E.g., “School shootings happen at school. Thus, school causes school shootings. We should do away with school.” Just because something coincides with something else does not mean the one thing actually caused the other to occur. A causal relationship is more complicated than that.
Confusing causation with sequence: E.g., “You were the first person I saw after I awoke from my blackout, therefore you must have caused my blackout!” This is similar to the above-noted fallacy. Just because two things coincide in time and place does not mean one sequentially necessarily followed the other.
Generalizations: E.g., “All trees are green.” We know that generalizations are sometimes false, so let’s not rely on them in sensible argumentation. Use facts to make your arguments.
Appeal to Nature: E.g., “Bacon is from nature, and nature is good for you. Thus, bacon is good for you.” Nature and natural things are not necessarily good for you: think of poison mushrooms or poison ivy!
False Conclusions: E.g., “School increases your knowledge. Therefore everyone should be in school.” Neither statement here is necessarily true. Even if we assume that the first statement is true, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the second statement is also true. The second statement is a false conclusion to make based merely on the first statement.
Non Sequitur (Latin: “It doesn’t follow”): E.g., “Bacon is from nature. Let’s have a BLT!” How did we get to the second sentence from the first?! There’s simply no logical connection between the two statements: that’s what non sequiturs are all about.
“Red herring” or the Irrelevant Distraction: Pointing to a symptom of a problem rather than the root cause of it is one example of a “red herring” logical fallacy. For example, I would argue that it promotes an irrelevant distraction or a “red herring” argument to point to illegal migration over the US-Mexico border as the central problem of our national immigration concerns. The real cause of the issue, and what should be our main focus, is arguably the centuries-long economic abuse by wealthy nations (such as the USA) of an intentionally deregulated legal infrastructure in Central American nations and the logically resultant economic disparity, oligarchy, corruption, civic unrest, and societal violence therein, which in turn causes frightened people from such countries to seek refuge in rich countries like the USA, Canada, and wealthy European nations. If we want illegal migration to stop, we must end our economic, political, and military policies and actions which destabilize Central American and other struggling nations, rather than focusing almost entirely on prosecuting the desperate refugees from such countries.
Slippery Slope: E.g., “If I give you a lollipop, then I have to give all the kids in the neighborhood a lollipop. Then the next thing you know, kids from all over the city will be coming to my house for a lollipop! So, no lollipop for you!” Just because you can point out that a “slippery slope” exists in relation to a particular point-of-view, that doesn’t mean it lacks merit. You can attack so many valid arguments with a Slippery Slope argument, but that doesn’t mean such arguments are false. The Slippery Slope tool is too broad and reckless a tool to use, and thus too often it is a fallacious argument method.
Straw Man, or a Bogeyman Argument: E.g., “That rotten Presidential candidate wants universal healthcare, wants free public college education for all, and wants to implement a hefty tax on the wealthy! He even calls himself a Socialist! Just like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, he’s a lousy Communist who is going to destroy our Democracy, destroy Capitalism, and destroy the American Dream! We don’t want any stickin’ Commies in our country, boy!” The “Straw Man” fallacy makes ridiculous and attention-grabbing assertions that are not necessarily based in fact, and as such they are a distraction rather than a logical argument.
Turn the Tables, or “What About You?!”: A woman steals your smartphone out of your hand, and you call her a “thief”. She turns around and says, “What? Don’t pretend like you’ve never stolen anything!”, and then she walks proudly away with your smartphone. That’s an example of a “What about you?!” fallacy. It distracts from the original logical point of the argument. It doesn’t answer any logical assertions or questions, but rather it throws more questions and blame to distract you from a powerful argument. It’s a very common fallacy, so be aware of it.