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Logical Fallacies in Deductive Reasoning Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011

Red Herring

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?

Premises:

  1. That's part of the problem here.
  2. 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:

  1. What's part of the problem here.
  2. What makes a "melting pot."
  3. 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.

Straw Man

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.

Tip

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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