On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s discover some of the most common mistakes people make when arguing or debating!
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Today we are going to talk about logical fallacies. These are some of the most common mistakes people make when arguing or debating. I think it is really useful and important to learn and understand some of these fallacies, so you can avoid and recognise them in the future.
Some people love to argue and debate – and I am one of those people. Growing up as a lover of history and politics, two subjects over which people always are divided, I have had to learn how to make an argument: how to find evidence, use that evidence to justify my opinion, and then use the same evidence to show the weaknesses in other arguments!
Most people are not very good at arguing or debating. Spend a few minutes looking through YouTube comment sections, Twitter, Facebook, or even listen to your own family’s arguments – you will quickly notice that rather than argue well, people often just insult each other.
Learning how to argue effectively and debate well is actually a really important skill in the modern world. Not only does it help in your own personal life, but learning to debate is a highly useful skill in the business and academic worlds.
Last week I looked at How to Think Critically in English, and tried to introduce you all to some tips and tricks on how to become more critical in your daily life. This episode is kind of a follow up episode – arguing, debating and critical thinking are all really related. I recommend you all to listen to last week’s episode (I’ll link it in the description and on the blog)!
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What is a Logical Fallacy
Everyone has argued before – children argue about what time to go to bed or how long they can play games, some people argue over sports teams, businesses argue over prices or services, and I tend to argue over politics. But, NOT EVERY ARGUMENT IS PERFECT.
This is important. Not every argument is perfect. Not every argument is good. Not every argument is equal. Some arguments are flawed, they have mistakes, they are deceptive, or they are false.
This is what we call a “logical fallacy”: a flawed, false, or deceptive argument. It is an error in reasoning that makes your argument weaker, less effective, and less convincing. A “logical fallacy” is not necessarily an error in your belief, but an error in your reasoning. It is a weak argument.
What do I mean? Let’s imagine you are arguing with your friend over which restaurant you are going to eat at tonight. You want to eat Indian food, but your friend wants to try a new pizza restaurant. In this argument there isn’t a correct answer – both are good options.
However, imagine your friend said this – “We have to eat pizza tonight because you always choose terrible restaurants so that Indian restaurant is definitely bad.” The argument here – that you always choose terrible restaurants so whatever restaurant you choose will be bad – is an example of a logical fallacy.
There is no logic or reason to your friend’s argument. Just because you chose a bad restaurant last time does not mean you will choose a bad one this time. Rather than justifying his choice of pizza, your friend rejected your choice, your argument, for no real reason.
Logical fallacies are incredibly common – you will see them everywhere: on TV, in newspapers, online, in classrooms, and political debates. And we’ve all used them before – however it is really important to be able to identify logical fallacies and avoid using them.
So, in the rest of this episode I’m going to introduce 8 of the most common “Logical fallacies.” I’ll give you a definition, explanation, and some examples of each fallacy!
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Eight Common Logical Fallacies
Perhaps the most famous logical fallacy is called ad hominem. Ad hominem is the use of insults and personal attacks rather than using logic or evidence. This mistake occurs when you reject someone’s point of view due to personal characteristics like age, appearance, ethnicity, or education.
Instead of using logic to criticise an argument, ad hominem attacks the person arguing. Rather than focusing on the evidence, merits, and flaws in an argument, ad hominem arguments use “irrelevant” information. In essence, ad hominem is when you attack the person arguing rather than the argument.
Here are some examples of ad hominem…
A: “My dad said it is important that America protect democracy around the world”
B: “Your dad voted for Donald Trump, so his opinion on democracy is not valid”
A: “Sarah said I need to lose a little weight because I’m unhealthy”
B: “Sarah smokes cigarettes so you shouldn’t listen to her point of view on health issues”
Straw Man Argument
The next logical fallacy is the straw man argument. This is the common mistake where you argue a different topic than the one being discussed. Often, the straw man argument occurs by changing to a more extreme version of the issue being discussed, exaggerating, and then attacking this more extreme or exaggerated point of view.
The straw man argument replaces the real issue with one that makes someone seem correct, but doesn’t address the real topic. The USA is famous for straw man arguments over gun control. Occasionally an American politician will suggest regulating assault weapons or hand guns, perhaps by increasing age limits or licences.
The response from the pro-gun Americans is always the same – “banning guns is against the US constitution and a threat to democracy”! However, this was not the argument – the argument was not about banning guns entirely, but increasing some small regulations. The straw man fallacy changed the topic of the argument (from regulation to complete ban) and made the pro-gun side stronger!
Here is another example,
A: “I think pollution from humans contributes to climate change”
B: “So, you think humans are directly responsible for droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires? These all happened before humans existed, so you must be wrong”
“You either support the government or you hate our country.”
This is an example of the false dilemma, false dichotomy, or either-or fallacy. As much as newspapers, TV shows, and politicians might think the world is split into just 2 different sides (usually conservative and liberal) this is not accurately true. Often there are many different possibilities.
Think about the example I gave: “You either support the government or you hate our country.” This is not true – you can love your country but dislike the government. The false dilemma argument is used to manipulate, polarise, and convince people. It makes it appear as though there are only 2 possibilities, but this is not always the case.
Here are some more examples,
Politicians will often say something like: “vote for me or live through more years of high taxes.”
“If you want to become fluent in English, you need to give me all your money.”
The slippery slope fallacy is the name given to an argument that assumes an action you do now will lead to a chain of other actions. It assumes your decision now (which is often not very controversial) will lead to an unlikely, ridiculous, or extreme outcome. And, of course, there is no evidence for this.
I used this kind of argument all of the time when I was younger: “Mum! You have to let me watch that movie! If I don’t watch that movie, I won’t be able to talk about it at school tomorrow, then everyone will laugh at me and I’ll have no friends.” Assuming that the initial action (not watching a movie) will eventually lead to an extreme situation (having no friends) is the slippery slope.
Here is another example…
“If you vote for the liberal party, they will raise taxes and introduce more social policies. Eventually, these policies will make our country a socialist country and we will start to look like the Soviet Union or China. We will have no freedom, our democracy will crumble, and millions of people will be arrested and die. That is what will happen if you vote for the liberals”
If you ever hear people making arguments about teenagers, millennials, French people, conservatives, or politicians, you can probably assume that they are making a hasty generalisation. This is when you make a claim based on only a few examples, rather than real substantive evidence.
When we take the actions of a small group of people, then use this to generalise about a large class of people, this is a generalisation. If one teenager says something rude to you, it doesn’t mean that “teenagers nowadays are so rude!” If a French person doesn’t like to speak English, it doesn’t mean “French people don’t like speaking English.” You need to be careful about taking one example, and using it to argue about a whole group of people.
Here is another example of a hasty generalisation
“People today are not as hard working as previous generations”
Appeal to Ignorance
The appeal to ignorance is used to describe the situation when you argue something must be true (or must be false) because it has not been proven yet or there is no evidence to suggest you are wrong.
This is the kind of fallacy conspiracy theorists often use: scientists can’t prove aliens have never visited our planet, so it makes sense to believe they have. Or religious debates use this fallacy as well – if you can’t disprove the existence of god, it makes sense to believe in god. Not being able to disprove something, doesn’t prove the argument.
Here is another example,
During the aftermath of the 2020 US election, Donald Trump tweeted “you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud”
Appeal to Authority
When you argue or debate, it is good to use experts’ opinions or research as evidence. However, if you misuse the opinion of an expert, we call this the appeal to authority fallacy. An authority’s opinion becomes a fallacy when it is overstated, irrelevant, or illegitimate.
The podcaster Joe Rogan is famous for using appeal to authority. He will always use the guests on his podcasts’ opinions as evidence in future episodes – even if they are not actually experts on an issue. Especially when it came to COVID-19, Joe Rogan would quote nutritionists, physiotherapists, and his friends, instead of doctors focusing on more relevant issues like viruses and public health.
Don’t assume something is true just because an authority says it is – check who that authority is! Often celebrities and public figures are paid to say things.
Here is an example,
“The actor Brad Pitt criticised the President’s foreign policy”
Appeal to Pity
The final fallacy I’ll talk about today is the appeal to pity. This is where you make an emotional argument to win the debate, rather than using factual evidence. The idea is to influence and distract everyone with emotions, so they don’t listen to the real evidence.
Here are some examples,
“My grandma just died and I lost my job last week, so please give me a better grade on the assignment!”
“We should go to the pizza restaurant for dinner tonight, because I’ll be sad if we don’t”
On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have introduced 8 of the most common logical fallacies that people make when arguing. These are mistakes that weaken your debate and are not based on relevant or strong evidence. Politicians, newspapers, and internet users constantly use these ways of arguing, so it is important you are aware and recognise them!
Have you ever had an argument with someone using one of these fallacies? Have you ever used one? Can you think of any examples of these different fallacies? If you can, leave a comment on the blog!
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