How to find logical fallacies in opponents’ arguments

Posted on April 13, 2016

Since Aristotle in the 4th century B.C., educated people learned the rules of rhetoric and how to identify opponents’ fallacies. Although Americans don’t often learn the intricacies of rhetoric today, political organizations and individuals routinely employ fallacious arguments.

Let us consider just a few of the many informal logical fallacies—the most common debaters’ tricks that sound convincing but are based on a flaw in logic.

(1) Red Herring Fallacy
Also known as: misdirection, smokescreen, clouding the issue, beside the point, and the Chewbacca defense.

A Red Herring argument is one that changes the subject, distracting the audience from the real issue to focus on something else where the speaker feels more comfortable and confident.

EXAMPLE: It may be true that the minimum wage should be adjusted, but the real solution is to eliminate burdensome government regulations so businesses can grow and are able to pay their employees higher salaries.

Your response should be: It’s not an either-or question. Right now we’re debating specific legislation before the legislature/council to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. I’m saying it provides hard-working families with income to spend on their basic needs. Let’s focus on that.

(2) Strawman Fallacy
Also known in the U.K. as Aunt Sally.

A Strawman argument is an intentional misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. It sets up an easy (and false) target for the speaker to knock down.

EXAMPLE: The pro-abortion lobbyists oppose a waiting period and sonogram requirement because they favor abortion on demand. And abortion on demand means eliminating all consideration of the unborn child as well as what’s best for women’s health.

Your response should be: You are misrepresenting the issue before this legislature. This issue is whether politicians should interfere in a woman’s most important and personal life decisions. I’m saying our job is to promote people’s health and well-being, not impose our beliefs on others.

(3) Slippery Slope Fallacy
Also known as absurd extrapolation, thin edge of the wedge, and camel’s nose under the tent.

A Slippery Slope argument is a version of a Red Herring. Specifically, it’s a claim that a policy which takes a small step in one direction will lead to a chain of events that will result in drastic change.

EXAMPLE: If we require background checks for the sale of all guns, including private sales at gun shows, it will lead to the federal government obtaining the information to create a list of who owns guns which, in time, will lead to the confiscation of privately-owned firearms.

Your response should be: We are debating a specific proposal before the legislature. Neither a list nor confiscation are in the bill. If I argue for driver’s licenses are you going to say it will lead to bicycle licenses? If I argue for cleaner drinking water are you going to say it will lead to a shutoff of all water? Let’s debate the issue of background checks—why do you think we should sell all these guns to anybody, no questions asked?

(The gun lobby uses Slippery Slope more than anyone. But it was also fairly common in the marriage debate, e.g., If we legalize same sex marriage, what will stop us from legalizing marriage between people and animals?)

(4) Begging the Question Fallacy
Also known as: assuming the initial point, chicken and the egg, and circular reasoning.

In an argument that Begs the Question, the conclusion is assumed in one of the argument’s premises, and that premise is not supported by independent evidence. Often called circular reasoning, it begins and ends at the same place. [Sorry, it has nothing to do with prompting someone to ask a question.]

EXAMPLE: Our Second Amendment rights are absolute, so gun control laws are illegal.

Your response should be: You are offering a circular argument and nothing more. Background checks for gun purchases have been required by state and federal laws for decades, the only question is whether we’re going to apply the law to everyone or continue to allow a nonsensical loophole. 

(5) Post Hoc Fallacy
From the Latin phrase “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” which means “after this, therefore because of this.” Also known as false cause.

A Post Hoc argument is one where the speaker confuses correlation with causation, specifically, that because one event followed another, the first event caused the second. There are so many “education reform” arguments based on Post Hoc!

EXAMPLE: Schools that teach Latin have higher test scores, therefore we should require schools to teach Latin and that will improve student achievement.

Your response should be: You are confusing correlation with causation. There is no proof that teaching Latin causes children to score higher but there is every reason to believe that high-scoring children take Latin. Let us get back to the real point: Our families and our communities need our public schools to provide each and every child the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential in life. There are no standardized children, every one has their own challenges and needs. The question is, how are we going to ensure the opportunity to learn?