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How to Recognize a Logical Fallacy – Part 2

In Part I, we discussed several methods used to try to win an argument. These efforts may sound authoritative, but a closer examination reveals them to be logical fallacies. Today we conclude this analysis with these commonly used but misguided debate techniques.

Fallacy of Sunk Costs

You’ve been trying to get something done for so long that you can barely remember when you started. Countless deadlines have passed. Endless promises have been broken. If only you had chosen a different path from the beginning, but it’s too late to change plans now. After all, all of the time, money, and energy that have been invested thus far will have been wasted.

This is the logical fallacy of sunk costs. It happens when we invest so thoroughly in a project that we are reluctant to ever abandon it, even when it turns out to be fruitless. While this thinking is natural, it leads to bad outcomes when we focus on all that has been invested without considering the likely future costs.

“Sunk cost” is an economic term for any past expenses that can no longer be recovered. Psychologically, we are prone to this behavior when we crave a sense of completion or a sense of accomplishment or are too emotionally invested in a project to admit that there is a better way to move forward.

False Dilemma

This fallacy has a few other names: “black-and-white fallacy,” “either-or fallacy,” “false dichotomy,” and “bifurcation fallacy.” It happens by incorrectly limiting the available options.

The statement, “Pizza with pineapple topping is either the worst abomination in culinary arts, or it isn’t” is correct. There are only two possibilities: pineapple pizza is the worst thing or it isn’t. Editor’s Note: The answer, by the way, is that pineapple pizza is, indeed, a horrible curse that is a result of the Fall.

A false dilemma occurs by oversimplifying the options. “There are two kinds of people: those who love dogs and those who abuse disabled nuns.” This line of reasoning incorrectly assumes that if you don’t love dogs, you are the worst kind of person imaginable. Granted, we are automatically suspicious of people who aren’t enamored by man’s best friend. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those folks are automatically nun abusers, however.

The false dilemma fallacy is often used to polarize the audience. You frequently see it in political debates. “My opponent voted against legislation that would have added MP3 players on all fighter jets, therefore he is a North Korean sympathizer.”

Hasty Generalization

A hasty generalization is a general statement without sufficient evidence to support it. A hasty generalization is made out of a rush to have a conclusion, leading the arguer to commit some sort of illicit assumption, stereotyping, unwarranted conclusion, overstatement, or exaggeration.

Normally we generalize without any problem; it is a necessary, regular part of the language. We make general statements all the time: “I like going to the park,” “Democrats disagree with Republicans,” “It’s faster to drive to work than to walk,” or “Everyone hates waiting in line at the cash register.”

Hasty generalization may be the most common logical fallacy because there’s no single agreed-upon measure for “sufficient” evidence.

Indeed, the above phrase “all the time” is a generalization — we aren’t literally making these statements all the time. We take breaks to do other things like eat, sleep, etc. The statements refer to general conditions that tend to be true. There are times, however, when I don’t want to go to the park. Occasionally Democrats and Republicans agree with each other. During times of heavy traffic, it may be faster to walk to work than to drive. Sadly, we all know some people seem to glory in all the extra socialization they can soak in while standing next to you in the check-out line.

Hasty generalization may be the most common logical fallacy because there’s no single agreed-upon measure for “sufficient” evidence. How many examples do you need to support your conclusion that it’s faster to drive to work? Is that based on your own experience? Is it true for 90% of the people on the planet? Where do you draw the line in concluding that you have sampled enough of humanity’s commuting habits to support your statement?

An easy way to avoid falling into the trap of hasty generalizations is to include qualifiers such as “sometimes,” “maybe,” “often,” or “it seems to be the case that…”

Red Herring Fallacy (ignoratio elenchi)

The phrase “red herring” refers to a kippered herring (salted herring-fish) that is reddish-brown and rather smelly. According to tradition, the fish’s smell was so powerful that it made an excellent training tool for hunting dogs to see how easily they could be distracted from the scent of their prey. If a dog was on the trail of an animal, a red herring would be thrown in the area. A good hunting dog would stay focused on its objective. Easily distracted dogs went after the fish, instead.

A “red herring fallacy” is a means of creating a distraction from the premise of an argument with a statement or sentiment that is off-topic. This method is commonly employed when the speaker doesn’t want to discuss the issue at hand and tries to bend the discussion toward a more comfortable topic.

We see this fallacy employed in political press conferences in ways such as the following:

Reporter: There are several reports this morning that the President showed up at the Oval Office today without pants and required everyone to address his elbow as Emperor Elbowese II. Is the President showing signs of mental illness that could impair his ability to perform the duties of the presidency?

Press Secretary: You know what’s really concerning and sad? It’s the fact that the media consistently refuses to acknowledge the remarkable accomplishments of this Administration in providing affordable health care and expanded access to public education. Millions of people are suffering in this country because the media isn’t doing its job.

You will notice that the Press Secretary never answered the reporter’s question. It may very well be that the Administration did all the things the Press Secretary claimed, but that has nothing to do with the premise of the reporter’s question. The “red herring” was the combined effect of putting the reporter on the defensive and touting the accomplishments in health and education in hopes that no one will remember the question about the crazy, pantless President.

Slippery Slope Fallacy

“But Mom! I HAVE to have a new phone! My phone is so out of date that I can’t load the latest social media apps. If I can’t have those apps, then I won’t be able to maintain connections with my 773 friends, and then we’ll lose touch, and when it comes time to apply to college, I won’t have any good references to include on my applications, and then I won’t get accepted to the college of my choice, and then I’ll be forced to live a life of poverty, begging for crusts of bread on the street corner.”

The above is a prime example of the slippery slope fallacy. It works by starting with a simple premise and working through a series of steps to an extreme conclusion.

The slippery slope fallacy can be difficult to spot at times. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting reasonable causal chains. It is acceptable, for example, to say, “The weather forecast for today calls for rain, so you should take an umbrella with you or you will be likely to get wet when you are walking home.” That statement draws reasonable conclusions about foreseeable events.

Where the slippery slope fallacy comes in is when we take those conclusions to unforeseeable or extreme conclusions: “You’d better take your umbrella because it’s probably going to rain. If you get wet, your clothes will shrink, and when the weather reporters show up to report on the flooding in the area and point their cameras at you, you will look ridiculous. Your friends will mock you and you will be shunned from your social circle and spend the rest of your days living in a leper colony in Valparaiso, Indiana.”

Strawman Argument

A strawman argument gets its name from the fact that it’s easier to defeat an opponent made of straw than one who is flesh and blood. The strawman argument is the act of putting your opponent on the defensive by creating a position that the opponent never intended. Instead of contending with the actual argument, you end up combatting an easily-defeated lifeless bundle of straw.

Watch the strawman argument develop in the following scenario:

BOB: If elected, I will create a Council for the Arts to help encourage young artists to develop their gifts.

ALICE: I would have expected nothing less from you, Bob. You clearly have a thing for art. Most totalitarian dictators do. Hitler was a painter before he killed millions of innocent people.

Regardless of what we know about the political strengths of Bob or Alice, we can confidently say that Alice will have a much easier time showing her superiority to a Hitler wannabe than to Bob. Bob is suddenly in the position of having to prove that he is not a genocidal maniac. Lost in all of this is whether it is a good idea to create a Council for the Arts to help encourage young artists with their gifts.

The strawman argument is often very similar to the ad hominem fallacy since it works by demonizing opponents and discrediting their views.

Tu Quoque

Tu quoque is Latin for “you too.” It is also called the “appeal to hypocrisy.” It distracts from the premise of the argument by pointing out the hypocrisy of the opponent.

The problem with this tactic is that it doesn’t address the issue. The fact that a person is guilty of doing the very thing he or she is speaking against does little to address the worthiness of the cause. Let’s say, for example, that Carl and Edith are debating the best way to reduce the risk of a heart attack. Carl says that a healthy diet and regular exercise are the best approaches. Edith prefers the pharmaceutical approach. Rather than point to empirical evidence to support her position, Edith attacks Carl’s argument by pointing out that he is an obese slob whose only exercise consists of pulling himself up to the table three times a day.

Edith’s tactic doesn’t prove anything, because even hypocrites can tell the truth. It would be one thing if Carl claimed to have achieved the pinnacle of physical perfection through his tireless regimen of daily exercise and uncompromising adherence to a balanced diet. In that case, Edith would be justified in pointing to her opponent and saying, “Look at what all of that has gotten him.” Carl has made no such claim, however.

If someone declares that it is wrong to take a life, that statement is no less true because it is made by a murderer. It may be appropriate to call someone out as a hypocrite if that person’s character is at issue, such as in an election for public office. Calling out your opponent as a hypocrite for the sole purpose of discrediting his or her position, however, is merely a distraction from the real issue.


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