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Common Logical Fallacies Study Guide (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Tip

To assure that you don't have any red herrings in your arguments, write your premises and conclusion in outline form. Make sure you can explain how each premise supports the conclusion.

Ad Hominem

Another common distraction fallacy is ad hominem (Latin for "against the person"). It refers to an attack on the person making an argument rather than on the argument itself. Instead of arguing against a topic, a speaker rejects that topic and throws in some unrelated fact about the opponent. By shifting the focus to the person, the original topic is forgotten, and the person under attack is forced to go on the defensive.

If you're not thinking critically, you might be persuaded by an ad hominem argument, especially if you agree with what is being said about the person. For example, picture a celebrity athlete doing a car ad on TV, talking about the car's great gas mileage and service record. Suddenly your friend announces, "Who'd believe anything that jerk says? He can't throw a ball to save his life!" Now, imagine that you actually agree about the athlete's lousy ability. That might make it tougher for you to spot your friend's illogical distracter. The athlete's ability isn't important here; what he's saying about the car is.

Ad hominem arguments are made in three ways, all of which attempt to direct attention away from the argument being made and onto the person making it.

  1. Abusive: an attack on the character or personal traits of the opposition. These attacks can work well if the person being attacked defends himself or herself and gets distracted from the issue at hand.
  2. Examples

    • Your professor may have given a great lecture on the expansion of the universe, but the word around campus is that he is an unfair grader.
    • She is giving you stock tips? I would not listen to her advice; just look at that horrible outfit she is wearing.
  3. Circumstantial: irrelevant personal circumstances of the person making the argument are used to distract attention from the argument and used as evidence against it. This often includes phrases like "that is what you would expect him to do."
  4. Examples

    • Representative Murray's speech about getting rid of the estate tax is ridiculous. Obviously, he is going to benefit from it!
    • Don't pay attention to what the power company is saying; they get their funding from the nuclear energy industry.
  5. Tu quoque:argues that the argument is irrelevant, because the person presenting it does not practice what he or she preaches or is in some other way inconsistent. Like the abusive ad hominem fallacy, tu quoque can be effective because the person being attacked often drops his or her argument in order to defend him- or herself.
  6. Examples

    • Why should I listen to you? You tell me to stop buying lottery tickets, but you go to Atlantic City and gamble away thousands in just one night!
    • His speech about the new prison reforms was pretty convincing, if you can forget that he is an ex-con.
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