If Jennifer Anniston tells us that she uses Aveeno skin care products, the expectation is that if we use it, we, too, can be beautiful like her. When a politician calls his or her opponent names, the purpose is to discredit the person AND his/her proposals. Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary” and “nasty woman,” and she called him “unfit for President” and his followers a “basket of deplorables.” Governments like North Korea regularly fling slogans at its people, such as “Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland by the joint operation of the army and people!” (Newsweek). These slogans are frequently repeated with the hope that people will start believing them. All of these are arguments based on fallacies in reasoning. We find many examples in advertising, in politics, and in propaganda, but we can find them in so much of what we read or in discussions and arguments that we hear.
Wikipedia lists dozens of fallacies in its “List of Fallacies.” And it is a worthy venture to read about and try to understand these pitfalls in arguments. The following ten types of fallacies are typical and easy to spot.
Personal Attack (Argumentum Ad Hominem – against the person)
Ad Hominem is also called Damning the Source or Genetic Fallacy. It occurs when there is an attack on a person or entity rather than on issues and frequently happens in politics. In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch calls out the prosecution for “the evil assumption—that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.” His black client Tom Robinson was attacked for being black, not by given evidence of his guilt.
Ad Nauseum Fallacy (argument from nagging, proof by assertion)
When something is repeated so much that people may begin to believe it (or feel nauseated and irritated), it is an Ad Nauseum fallacy. The Nazis told the German people, “We must always remember that the Jew is our absolute enemy who will shrink at nothing. He knows but a single goal: our complete destruction” (The Jew as a World Parasite, 1943). This message was repeated in posters, flyers, news, and books.
Argument to the People (Argumentum Ad Populum)
- Wheeler, Carson-Newman University, describes three different types of Ad Populum fallacies:
- Bandwagon Approach (also known as peer pressure)– something is true because lots of people believe it or everybody’s doing it. Example: “The Steak Escape. Americas Favorite Cheesesteak” – if everybody in America likes it, you should, too. Or, “Don’t be the only one in your neighborhood who doesn’t have <whatever it is>.”
- Patriotic Approach – something is true because it’s patriotic and those that disagree are unpatriotic
- Snob Approach – something is true because all the best people are doing it
Begging the Question (Petitio Principii), Circular Argument
Using the conclusion that one is trying to prove as evidence for the argument is called Begging the Question. It happens when people use evidence that is just restating their initial claim, for example, “Freedom of speech is important because people should be able to speak freely.”
Drawing a conclusion on too small a sample is called a Hasty Generalization.
Example: “My grandfather smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and died at the ripe old age of 89.” One grandfather’s long life does not lead to the conclusion that regular smoking is okay for your health.
Appeal to Fear
Scare tactics are used to get people to cooperate or act upon an order. For many people, they are very effective. Consider this example: “This company expects a high level of commitment; be here in the office finishing the proposal through the weekend. Don’t forget your employee review is Monday” (Butte College).
Faulty Cause (Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc – after this therefore because of this)
Just because something occurs after an event does not mean it caused the event. The anti-vaxxers use the argument that children have been diagnosed with autism after receiving vaccinations, so, therefore, parents should not vaccinate their children.
Appeal to Authority (Ipse Dixit or Ad Verecundiam)
Trying to gain agreement because someone famous, and not an expert, has given an opinion or taken a stand. This is common in many advertisements. So, when David Beckham, soccer star, tells us that his underwear is comfortable, the suggestion is that we should buy his underwear, too.
Red Herring (Smokescreen Fallacy)
Diverting attention from one topic to a new topic is a red herring. Listening to politicians being interviewed, the listener often hears the interviewee moving from the question to another topic altogether to avoid answering the original question.
Appeal to a Lack of Evidence (Argumentum Ad Ignorantium)
When something is said to be true because it hasn’t been disproven or that something is untrue because of a lack of proof, it is an example of Argumentum Ad Ignorantium. For example, if a person says that scientists cannot prove that the earth will continue to warm and, therefore, it is not true that it will, that person is guilty of this fallacy.
To avoid fallacies, here are a few suggestions from University of North Carolina Writing Center:
- Pretend that you disagree with the conclusion you’re defending—does any argument seem fishy or easy to attack?
- List your main points, then list the evidence.
- Learn which types of fallacies to which you’re
- Be aware that broad claims need more proof than narrow ones.
- Double check your characterizations of others.
It is a worthy endeavor to learn about fallacies and check your work for errors.
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.