Lesson #2: Avoid Informal Fallacies

In my philosophy class this week, we talked about informal fallacies. I find that being able to pinpoint fallacies can aid you in being more precise in your own writing and speech, so I thought I’d jot down a post about some of the things I learned.

The basic definition of an informal fallacy is where a logical argument is incorrect even though its form is technically correct. These are some of the most common ones, taken from pages 19-20 in my class textbook, Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult. (The definitions below are written in my own words although the examples are taken from either my book or from my professor’s lecture.)

Begging the Question: This means that your argument invites more questions because it’s circular.

Example: “‘I’m all for women having equal rights,” said pro wrestler Mad Mountain, ‘but I repeat: a woman shouldn’t be a pro wrestler, since pro wrestlers are men!’”

Equivocation: This occurs when you use a term twice in your argument but use it in different ways without explanation.

Example: “Nothing is better than a steak dinner! (later) Oh well, I suppose a crust of bread is better than nothing.”

Appeal to Pity: This fallacy runs rampant in justice-oriented arguments. It means that you are referencing the emotions of the argument rather than the bald facts.

Example: “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you must find it in your hearts to acquit my client of killing his parents. Remember, he is a poor orphan!”

Ad Hominem: Similar to the appeal to pity, this fallacy happens when you begin looking at the personal side of the argument rather than its logical side. The phrase means “to the man” and seems to occur most often in politics.

Example: “It’s too bad that Senator Bullmoose cannot see that his bill will steal from the poor and pay the rich. His holier-than-thou attitude toward labor unions smacks of bigotry and condescension.”

Appeal to the People: I’ve heard this fallacy called the “bandwagon appeal.” Basically, this fallacy tries to convince you that everyone believes the argument, so you should too.

Example: “82% of voters believe Senator Bullmoose is a bigoted thief.”

Appeal from Ignorance: This argument would tell you that because there is a lack of evidence for something, that something must be incorrect. However, as the book puts it, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” (pg. 20).

Example: “In spite of 150 years of searching, no ‘missing link’ fossil has been found. Therefore, Darwinism is false.”

Straw Man: Like a scarecrow in a field, a straw man is meant to distract you from the real argument at hand. The debater will put up a false argument, destroy it, and then claim to have proven your side false.

Example: “Jones claims that the war in Iraq does not meet the criteria for a just war. Does Jones want us to believe that the terrorists care about just war theory? Does he expect us to stop checking for weapons at airports, to bring home all our military forces and to wait, cringing, for the next attack?”

These are only a handful of informal fallacies. If you’re curious to learn more, these websites may be helpful:

Informal Fallacies Definitions

Informal Fallacies

Common Informal Fallacies

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