Academic Argument

Fallacies: Failures in Argument

Just because we use ethos, pathos and logos in an argument does not mean that the argument is necessarily sound. In academia, especially, we care a lot about making our arguments logically sound.

We seek to avoid logical fallacies, which are flaws in our reasoning. Such logical fallacies are seen as failures in thinking – that which makes an argument a failure.

Fallacy :: Falseness :: Incorrect :: Mistaken :: Problematic

What makes thinking about fallacies confusing is that we see them all the time. In advertising, in conversation, in political discourse — fallacies are everywhere. But as students of rhetoric (the art of persuasion), part of our job is to spend time identifying these fallacies, calling them what they are, and attempting to avoid them in our own reasoning.

Logical Fallacies – What to Avoid in our Arguments

This is merely a quick and easy list — many, many more fallacies exist (sadly). 

  1. Generalization : A conclusion or judgement made from insufficient evidence. We call these “hasty generalizations” — when one piece of evidence or information is used to make a broad conclusion or statement (or only one piece of evidence is used to support a reason).
  2. Straw Man – An oversimplification of an opposing perspective so that it becomes easy to attack. This is unfair and illogical because when one oversimplifies or inaccurately represents an argument and refutes that oversimplified version, one is not actually addressing the argument.
  3. Red Herring – Changing topics to avoid the point being discussed. A bait and switch. This is an argument tactic in which one attempts to change the conversation – bringing up information that is not relevant or the claim or point being debated  – in order to try to control the conversation. This can be a way to avoid  having to address or answer the question at hand – and it harms the quality of an argument.
  4. Ad Hominem – “You are an idiot! That’s why you’re wrong!” This type of logical fallacy occurs when an arguer attacks or insults the person making opposing arguments instead of attacking the ideas, the logic or the evidence within the opposing argument itself. It is a personal attack rather than a way of engaging with someone’s ideas.
  5. Ad Populum – “This is about freedom and righteousness, and if you believe in those things, then you should believe my argument”. This is an example of misused ethos – when the author is referencing the values that the audience cares about so that they think only about the values, not about the content of the argument (or, likely, the fact that there is little intellectual substance in what is being said).
  6. Either/or – “Either we intervene or we are basically no better than the Nazis”.  This is an argument that attempts to create a situation of absolutes, with no options in between. This thinking is fallacious because it assumes that there are only two options, with nothing in between.
  7. Slippery Slope: “If we let this happen, then that will happen and then the worst possible thing will happen”.  This is a fallacy that assumes that one thing is going to have a series of consequences or effects — often leading to a worst case scenario. It is false reasoning because 1) it’s impossible to predict the future, 2) it is illogical to suggest that one action will always necessarily lead to the worst possible outcome, and 3) it assumes a very specific chain of future events. This “if we let this happen there will be some horrible end” is misuse of cause/effect reasoning, often with some pathos (fear) sprinkled in.