Common Logical Fallacies Study Guide (page 3)
The first point of wisdom is to discern that which is false; the second, to know that which is true.
Lactantius, North-African author and rhetoric teacher (c. 250–325 b.c.e.)
You read and hear arguments every day, in magazine and newspaper ds and articles, and in ads and political speeches on TV. Some arguments are logically sound, and some contain logical fallacies that make them invalid. Some fallacies might show up accidentally, but in this lesson, you'll learn about red herring, ad hominem, and straw man fallacies, the kind that deliberately aim to distract you from the real issue in an argument.
After you've watched a debate between political candidates, do you ever wonder "what just happened"? Many people do—so many that right after a debate, TV station pundits have to rehash what was said so the average person can understand the debate! Debates should be about the real issues facing voters, and how each candidate plans to solve them. Instead, candidates' remarks are often filled with distracting techniques designed to shift focus from the real issues and put opponents on the defensive.
Three often-used focus-shifting techniques are red herring, ad hominem, and straw man fallacies. Although relatively easy to spot, these logical fallacies can be challenging to deflect—if one is aimed at you, it's critical to know how it works so you can refocus your attention on the real issue.
This may seem like an odd name for a common logical fallacy. The term comes from an archaic practice of using strong-smelling fish to distract hounds from a fainter scent during their training. A red herring fallacy is simply any unrelated topic brought into an argument to divert attention from the subject at hand. A person on the defensive end of an argument changes the subject from one that he or she feels uncomfortable with to one he or she knows more about. A red herring fallacy looks like this:
- There is discussion of issue A.
- There is an introduction of issue B (irrelevant to issue A, but pretending to be relevant).
- Issue A is forgotten and issue B becomes the focal point.
"Nuclear power is a necessity, even though it has the potential to be dangerous. You know what is really dangerous, though? Bathtubs. More people die in accidents in their bathtubs every year than you can imagine."
Where's the red herring? Quite simply, the speaker changed the subject from issue A, the danger of nuclear power, to the irrelevant issue B, bathtub dangers. Then, the speaker goes on with a statistic about issue B, and issue A is forgotten!
Red herrings work well if the distracter is something many people will agree with or seems to be closely related to the original issue. For example, someone might throw in a comment about how no one likes paying higher taxes or working longer hours. Who would disagree? Here's an example:
"Okay, since the new boss came on board, he seems to be getting the job done, but how about the longer hours? Are you happy about your new work schedule? You have less time with your family, and you're not making any more money than before!"
The speaker diverted attention from the new boss doing a good job to the topic of working more hours and not being paid more. The red herring might have worked, as listeners probably would be more interested in evaluating their own circumstances rather than hear how great the boss is.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
It's important to know the difference between an insult and an ad hominem fallacy. An insult just tries to belittle someone; an ad hominem fallacy tries to attack an argument based on the person making it.
This fallacy got its name from an old question, "Which is easier to fight, a real man or one made of straw?" If given the choice, most people pick the straw man, because it's so weak that it could be toppled by a breeze. Thus straw man fallacies deliberately distort an opponent's view on an issue in order to create an argument that's easier to win . . . it'll be a breeze!
The weaker position, or straw man, is usually an exaggerated or distorted version of the real position. Suppose a couple is having an argument about money. The wife is upset because her husband has been charging expensive items on their charge card. "You have to be more careful with our money," she tells him. Her husband retorts, "Why should I listen to you? You don't want me to spend a penny!"
Where is the straw man? Instead of acknowledging the issue his wife brought up, the husband distorts it by exaggeration. By changing his wife's claim to something ridiculous, he dismisses it. She didn't say he should spend nothing (an extreme view), but just that he should be more careful.
Note that the straw man fallacy attacks a position that isn't actually held by the opponent. A conclusion is drawn that ignores the real issue, so the person defending him- or herself has to bypass the real issue, too. In the previous scenario, the husband dismisses his wife's real argument—that he should be more careful with their money—by creating a new and unreasonable position for his wife to argue against. She's forced to counter his argument with something like, "I never said you shouldn't spend any money. Of course you should, you helped to earn it!" He never takes responsibility for the original issue.
It's difficult to defend against a straw man fallacy because you're forced to refute an extreme position you weren't taking in the first place, while trying to bring the focus back to the original argument. For example, it's a straw man fallacy to say that all Republicans care only for the rich or all Democrats want to create and defend a welfare state. Imagine a Democrat who does support welfare faced with such a remark. First, the person would have to try to show that the remark is excessive, then try to bring the discussion back to a reasonable view of the benefits of welfare.
- We are all being asked to take a pay cut until the economy picks up. I can't believe they expect us to live on nothing!
- You want me to vacuum the family room? I just cleaned it up two days ago. I can't spend my life cleaning, you know.
- Congress is voting on reducing military spending. What do they want us to do, defend ourselves with paper airplanes?
Why would someone want to use a distracting technique? Perhaps they are faced with an argument they feel they can't win or they are uncomfortable discussing a certain topic. Whatever the reason, techniques such as red herrings, ad hominem attacks, and straw man are commonly used, not only by politicians and pundits, but by schoolchildren, business people, and friends. Learning how these fallacies work will hone your critical-thinking skills and help keep you from falling victim to their faulty reasoning.
Skill Building Until Next Time
- Think of an issue you feel strongly about. Now, come up with an argument against that issue that includes an ad hominem attack. Make it as effective as you can. How would you argue against it, without getting defensive?
- Listen for a few minutes to a radio program known for its controversial host. As the host discusses his or her opponents, note how many times straw man is used. How extreme are these arguments, and what are the real issues they are distracting the audience from?
Exercises for this concept can be found at Common Logical Fallacies Practice Exercises.
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