Logical Fallacies in Deductive Reasoning Help (page 2)
Exercises for this lesson can be found at Ad Hominem, Red Herring, and Straw Man: Reasoning Skills Success Practice Exercises.
Introduction to Logical Fallacies in Deductive Reasoning
"Logic is the anatomy of thought."
–John Locke, English philosopher (1632–1704)
In this lesson about logical fallacies in deductive reasoning, you'll learn about fallacies that try to divert your attention from the main issue or to distort the issue so you're more likely to accept the argument. These fallacies include ad hominem, the red herring, and the straw man.
Imagine the following scenario: You have been renting your apartment for one year, and your landlord tells you that she is going to raise the rent $500 a month. One day, you run into another building tenant, Tina, in the hall. You tell her of your problem with the landlord. Tina gives you some advice. Later that week, you run into another tenant, Frank, who has heard about your predicament from Tina. Frank says to you, "Listen, I know this is none of my business, but if I were you, I wouldn't take Tina's advice about housing issues. She was evicted from her last apartment!"
Should you listen to Frank and ignore Tina's advice?
Since you haven't lived in the building for very long and don't know your neighbors very well, you have somewhat of a dilemma on your hands. Who do you trust? Who is more credible? You can't answer these questions because you are a fairly new tenant, but it is important that you realize that Frank has committed a logical fallacy. In this last lesson about logical fallacies in deductive reasoning, you'll learn about distracters and distorters—fallacies that aim to confuse the issues so that you more easily accept the conclusion of the argument. Ad hominem will be discussed first, followed by red herrings and the straw man.
What has Frank done wrong? Indeed, since Tina was evicted from her last apartment, how can she give you good advice? It would appear as if what Frank says makes a lot of sense.
Frank's argument may seem logical, but it's not. That's because Frank is not attacking Tina's advice; instead, he's simply attacking Tina. This kind of false reasoning is called ad hominem, which in Latin means, "to the man." Ad hominem fallacies attack the person making the claim rather than the claim itself.
An ad hominem fallacy can take a variety of forms. You can attack a person, as Frank does, for his or her personality or actions. You can also attack a person for his or her beliefs or affiliations. For example, you might say, "Don't listen to him. He's a liberal." Or you can attack a person for his or her nationality, ethnicity, appearance, occupation, or any other categorization. For example, imagine someone says to you:
"Of course he's wrong. Someone who dresses like that obviously doesn't have a clue about anything."
This is a clear-cut case of ad hominem.
Ad hominem aims to distract you from looking at the validity of the claim by destroying the credibility of the person making the claim. But the trouble with ad hominem is that it doesn't really take into account the issue of credibility. Just because Tina was evicted from her last apartment doesn't mean she can't give you good advice about how to deal with your landlord. In fact, because she's dealt with a fairly serious housing issue, she might be considered more of an expert than most. It all depends on what kind of advice you're looking for. Maybe Tina was a victim of circumstance. Whatever the case, Tina may still be in a position to give you good advice. If Frank wants to prove his point, he needs to attack Tina's actual argument about how to handle your landlord rather than to attack Tina herself.
To clarify when something is and isn't an ad hominem, read the following example:
- Don't listen to what Bob says about investments. That guy is the most money-grubbing creep I've ever met.
- I wouldn't listen to what Bob says about investments if I were you. He recently made his own investment decisions and lost all of his money in the stock market.
Are either of these ad hominem fallacies? Both? Neither?
You probably saw that argument A uses ad hominem quite shamelessly. So what if Bob is a "money-grubber"? That doesn't mean he can't have good advice about investments. In fact, if he's greedy, he may be quite knowledgeable about the kinds of investments that make the most money. Whether you like him or not is a separate matter from whether he has good advice or not. His "money-grubbing" nature should not really affect the credibility of his argument. Remember, credibility is based on freedom from bias and on expertise—not on appearance, personality, past behavior, or beliefs.
If, on the other hand, Bob has recently made investments and lost his money, his expertise in the matter of investments should be called into question. He has experience in investing, yes—but his experience shows that he may not be too knowledgeable about the subject. You should probably investigate further before deciding whether or not to listen to his advice. At any rate, at least argument B avoids the ad hominem fallacy.
Ad hominem fallacies can also work in reverse. That is, the argument can urge you to accept someone's argument based on who or what the person is rather than on the validity of the premises. For example:
Len says, "I agree with Rich. After all, he's a Lithuanian, too."
Does the fact that Len and Rich share the same nationality mean that Rich's argument—whatever it may be—is valid? Of course not.
Have you ever "assumed" something about a person just because he or she belonged to a certain group, listened to a certain type of music, or wore a certain type of clothes? It's easy to assume things about people that aren't true. Don't fall into that trap because not only does stereotyping lead to illogical thinking in arguments—but in daily life as well.
Just what is a red herring? Strange name for a logical fallacy, isn't it? But the name makes sense. Cured red herrings were previously used to throw dogs off the track of an animal they were chasing. And that's exactly what a red herring does in an argument: It takes you off the track of the argument by bringing in an unrelated topic to divert your attention from the real issue. Here's an example:
Making English the official language of this country is wrong, and that's part of the problem here. A country can't claim to be a "melting pot" when it doesn't try to reach out to all nationalities.
First, break down the argument. What's the conclusion?
Conclusion: Making English the official language is wrong.
Now, what are the premises?
- That's part of the problem here.
- A country can't claim to be a "melting pot" when it doesn't try to reach out to all nationalities.
Do the premises have anything to do with the conclusion? In fact, do these premises have anything to do with each other? No. Instead of supporting the conclusion, the premises aim to sidetrack you by bringing up at least three different issues:
- What's part of the problem here.
- What makes a "melting pot."
- Why the country doesn't reach out to all nationalities.
Red herrings like these can be so distracting that you forget to look for support for the conclusion that the arguer presents. Instead of wondering why making English the official language is wrong, you may be wondering what does make a "melting pot" or why the country doesn't reach out to all nationalities—that is, if you accept the claim that the country doesn't reach out to all nationalities.
Red herrings are a favorite of politicians and people who want to turn potential negative attention away from them and onto others. Watch how it works:
Senator Wolf: "Yes, I support Social Security reform. I know that Senator Fox is against it, but he's just trying to get the liberal vote."
Notice how Senator Wolf avoids having to explain or defend his position by shifting the attention away from his claim and onto Senator Fox. Instead of supporting his claim, he leaves the listener wondering if Senator Fox is just out to get more votes. Once again, the red herring tactic throws the argument off track.
Have you ever gotten in a fight with a scarecrow? It's pretty easy to win, isn't it, when you're fighting a man made of straw. After all, he's not a real man—he falls apart easily and he can't fight back. You're safe and your opponent is a goner. It probably doesn't surprise you that there's a logical fallacy that uses this principle: It sets up the opponent as a straw man, making it easy to knock him down.
Specifically, the straw man fallacy takes the opponent's position and distorts it. The position can be oversimplified, exaggerated, or otherwise misrepresented. For example, if someone were arguing against tax reform, he or she might distort the reformers' position by saying:
"The people who support tax reform are only out to get a break in their own capital gains taxes."
Even if getting a tax break is one of the reasons people support tax reform, it can't be the only one—after all, tax reform is a pretty complicated issue. Furthermore, the arguer, using the straw man tactic, presents the reformers as selfish and greedy—in it only for themselves—which makes it easier for the listeners not to want to support their position.
Similarly, if someone were arguing for tax reform, he or she might set up a straw man like the following:
"The folks who oppose tax reform simply don't want to go to the trouble of restructuring the IRS."
True, restructuring the IRS may be one concern of the opponents, but is it their main concern? Is that the real reason they don't support it? Chances are, their opposition stems from a number of issues, of which reforming the IRS is only one. Once again, the straw man has misrepresented and oversimplified, making the opponent easy to knock down. In both cases, the reasons for support or opposition are difficult to approve of. One argument claims that the supporters are selfish and the other claims that the opponents are protecting the bureaucracy of the IRS—and neither of these is an admirable position.
Straw men are very commonly used in arguments because people often don't take the time to consider all sides of an issue or because they don't have the courage or counterarguments to address the complete issue. For example, imagine that someone says:
"Those environmentalists! They're all trying to make us spend more money on electric automobiles instead of letting us continue to drive gas-powered ones."
Clearly, this is a misinterpreted "definition" of environmentalists. Indeed, it's difficult to sum up what environmentalists—or any group—believe in just one sentence. But if you present environmentalists this way, it becomes very easy to avoid coming up with effective counterarguments, and it certainly becomes difficult to say that environmentalism is a positive thing.
The trouble is, how do you know if you're being presented with a straw man? What if you've never studied environmentalism or don't know much about the environmentalist movement? What if you haven't paid much attention to the news about tax reform? In short, how do you know when an opponent is being misrepresented?
Your best bet is to be as informed and educated as possible. And you can do that by reading and listening as much as possible. Watch the news, read the paper, listen to the radio, read magazines—pay attention to things like politics and social issues. The more informed you are, the better you'll be able to see if and when someone is trying to "pull the wool over your eyes" with a straw man.
If you remember, the scarecrow—or straw man—in "The Wizard of Oz"—is the one without the brain. Expanding and educating your brain by paying attention to current events will help prevent you from this fallacy—and from being like the scarecrow.
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