Now that you have been introduced (or re-introduced) to the idea of logical fallacies I will, in my limited capacity, attempt to break down some of these logical fallacies. As we break down the various fallacies I would love it if you would watch the news or clips of politicians and public experts to see if you can spot the numerous fallacies used. They employ fallacies because, as mentioned in part 1, humans are wired for story and narrative. So, if I want you, the public, to do or believe a certain thing it is far easier to use fallacies that are misleading or misrepresentative to guide and shape your conclusions, than it is to present the basic facts and hope you come to the conclusion on your own.
In this post I will break down the following 3 Logic Fallacies:
- Straw Man Fallacy
- Begging the Question Fallacy
- Ad Hominem Fallacy
While I discuss each I want you to do some self-reflection. Ask yourself honestly, “have I used these in the last few days, weeks, or months?” You probably have, as these are often used when you lack the language, presence of mind, emotional stability, or facts to make a sound argument in the moment. I will be using examples relative to the time of writing this, including current events or controversial topics.
Straw Man Fallacy
The Strawman may be one of the most frequently used fallacies in the realm of political discourse and commentary. The Straw Man Fallacy occurs when one misrepresents the position of the opponent. This is often done by changing the words used or conclusions presented when refuting a persons argument, usually by reframing the argument to something else instead of addressing their actual position. A simpler way of describing this is the common phrasing, “Putting words into someone else mouth.”
A good current example would be this:
Person A: “Covid-19 disproportionately affects severely, including death, the elderly over a certain age, which is known, thus, though still an issue, I believe that the threat to the younger age groups has been greatly manipulated and exaggerated based on the data.”
Person B: “So what you are saying is you don’t care about the elderly and want to kill grandma by not taking this seriously.”
How many times have you heard this argument during the pandemic?
It is a whopper of a Strawman.
Person A is looking at the data and seeing that the elderly were dramatically affected by Covid-19 and that, based on data, the risk to younger age groups is significantly lower (particularly the severe symptoms and likelihood of death).
Person B is ignoring the base of the argument and reframing it to be an emotional argument creating the fake argument as a “strawman” to attack by implying that Person A doesn’t care about the elderly and then making it an emotional driven argument.
Person A did not say they did not care about the elderly nor did they assert that Covid19 wasn’t a threat. Rather, they stated that age has a dramatic effect on who is at severe risk of death. Thus the two groups, young and old, have very different risk factors.
By ignoring the reference to data and threat levels, and making it about emotions, the casual observer may now make an inference that Person A “doesn’t care about Grandma” even if they are deeply concerned about the elderly in their own life. But, of course, Person B decided not to ask more questions, instead choosing to go on the attack by using a strawman, likely because challenging a data-based argument is far more difficult than challenging an emotion-based argument. This is an all too common occurrence, either because people don’t care about the data, don’t know about the data, or don’t understand the data. Rather than looking for a deeper understanding they simply use a strawman in order to engage in what they think is a meaningful argument or discussion.
Here’s a video with a less controversial example of a strawman.
Begging the Question Fallacy
This one gets a little confusing but is actually rather simple.
Begging the Question is assuming an argument is true with no other evidence than the stated argument itself. This usually comes in the form of restating or reaffirming the initial statement or premise as the conclusion (circular reasoning). Or simply assuming what was said is true and conclusive, then using the initial statement to back up its own claim.
Person A: “My friend Person C always tells the truth”
Person B: “How do you know they always tell the truth?”
Person A: “Because my friend Person C says they do”
In this case Person A actually hasn’t proven that Person C actually tells the truth. They are simply reasserting as a conclusion the fact that Person C claims they tell the truth, therefore the conclusion is that they tell the truth, except that (at least at this point) no corroborating evidence has been presented to suggest one way or the other. Person C could actually be a total pathological liar, prone to Gaslighting and lies all the time, and says they tell the truth even though they don’t at all. Person A is simply taking Person C’s premise of “I tell the truth” and making it the conclusion that “They tell the truth.”
Person B has the right to be skeptical, particularly if they don’t know Person C, because implying or saying something doesn’t make it true or well argued.
The classic “trust me”, “but why?”, “because I’m trustworthy,” is another example but of where the person claiming to be trustworthy has not actually proven this to the person asking “but why?” So the classic assertion in this case is just Begging the Question.
Here’s a current example:
Person A: “You should wear a mask because they make everyone safer.”
Person B: “But why? How do you know that’s how it works or will actually make it safer for everyone?”
Person A: “Because it is safer if everyone wears a mask.”
Person A is begging the question on the premise of “masks are safer.” But the claim that masks will work to protect others has been made without going into detail. Person A accepted the argument without any further information, and is now using that statement or premise as a conclusion in itself when discussing with Person B. This of course doesn’t actually defend the premise that wearing masks will protect everyone because a well-thought-out argument as not been made.
Now Person B is left confused (particularly if they actually know a thing or two about masks) and is possibly ostracized because others who also accept the argument-as-conclusion may look down on them for “asking too many questions and just being difficult…”
Here’s a video with another explanation of Begging the question
Ad Hominem Fallacy
The Ad Hominem (Latin: “to the person”) is another very common fallacy and is one we have all used throughout our lives at some point because it is so easily applied to an argument.
Put simply, it is attacking the person or the character of the person rather than what their actual statement or argument is. There are many subsets of this logical fallacy but for the sake of simplicity I will just cover it generally.
An Ad Hominem can be used prior to a discussion or argument by deciding that the other person is an idiot and therefore you are unwilling to listen to what their actual argument is.
It can be used during a discussion or an argument by shutting down someone’s position by attacking them as a person.
Or it can be done after the argument to discredit the other by saying something like, “Their argument doesn’t matter anyway because they are [insert dismissive insult]”
This type of fallacy is often used because we lack the information or language skills to refute arguments in real time, or when we, due to ego or image, are unable to concede that, at least for a specific topic, they might have actually made a good point and perhaps your own position needs to be re-framed or changed.
Here’s an example:
Person A: “While Vaccines can be generally a good strategy for dealing with a variety of diseases/viruses, they are not without their negative side affects based on the data and we need to be honest about it.”
Person B: “I know you got a C in high-school science so you can’t possibly understand any of this, you are not good at science and are probably too stupid to know.”
Person A “Well, we are not in high-school anymore and I have learned a lot since then and either way here is a scientific paper discussing this with data to back up my claim.”
Person B “You are also not a scientist, so even if I didn’t think you were stupid you couldn’t understand that anyway.”
Person A made a statement and even had some evidence to back up their claim. The claim was not outlandish or without just cause, yet Person B just assumes that because Person A did poorly with science in the past they must still be, and they chose to attack Person A rather than actually address the argument. Even when presented with evidence Person B still chooses to attack Person A, moving from one attack to another in order to avoid the premise.
A simpler, more childish, and less controversial example would be one from our childhood:
Person A: “You are stupid!”
Person B: “I know you are, but what am I?”
Aside from the insane circular logic in this example, Person B is attacking Person A rather than refuting the accusation of stupidity.
Person B could have said “By what basis are you making the claim that I am stupid?” Which would require an actual argument to be made. But, as children (and humans in general) so often do, Person B instead takes personal offense and simply defaults to their own Ad Hominem attack.
Here’s a video with another explanation of Ad Hominem Fallacy.
I hope this has helped you better understand these three logical fallacies and you are starting to understand how they are regularly used in our lives through language, emotion, and the media. Next post we will address the next few in the top 10 list.
Written by Jonathan Fader