Category Archives: Fallacious Argument of the Month

Fallacious Argument of the Month: appeal to the bandwagon

Marching in step with the bandwagonIn my continuing battle for the improvement of public discourse, each month I discuss an example of a Fallacious Argument. This month’s Fallacious Argument is perhaps one of the most frequently invoked: the appeal to the bandwagon, which leans the mighty weight of the many against the intractable few.

Anyone who has ever been a child can no doubt recall futile negotiations with one’s parents to gain new privileges or permission. The negotiations typically go something like this:

Kid: “But all the other kids get to [forbidden activity]!”  (This seems perfectly reasonable to kids. After all, if the other kids get to, then it’s only fair that you get to as well.)

Parent: “So let me get this straight. If your friends decided to [a different forbidden activity likely to shame the family, violate the laws of physics, and result in personal injury or death], then you’d just go along with them? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make something right.”

This scene gets played out, generation after generation, between parents and children all over the world. Parents everywhere are familiar with the bandwagon appeal – an argument in which the speaker seeks to persuade the hearer of the wisdom of a course of action because of the popular support it enjoys.

Although this argument has little power to sway parents (at least in my family), it seems to work on everyone else. Purveyors of consumer goods use this propaganda device to hawk toothpaste (“9 out of 10 dentists”) and motor vehicles (“America’s best-selling truck”). Meanwhile purveyors of political ideas hitch their plans to the bandwagon to win backing for their cause, whether a public law school for Massachusetts (“one of only 5 states without a public law school“) or support for or against health care reform (“every developed nation in the world has universal health care” from one side, “a majority of Americans oppose health care reform” from the other). The bandwagon ensures that political ideas, regardless of how worthy (or worthless) they may be, will be judged by their emotional appeal and not on the merits.

According to Robert Gula, author of the logic lover’s bible, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows, the bandwagon takes advantage of the human imperative to follow the herd:

…it suggests that the judgment of the masses is sound: If so many people are doing it, then it must be right. Second, and more important, the bandwagon is an emotional appeal to our need for belonging. We don’t want to be left out.

Our parents, it seems, were right after all: just because an idea enjoys popular support doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good one. It might well be, of course. But let’s not allow ourselves to be overly impressed by the size of the crowd.

This concludes this month’s installment of my Fallacious Argument series. Allow me to express my sincere hope that you’ve been enjoying it; after all, 9 out of 10 readers do.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the fallacy of the fallacy of the ad hominem

In my ongoing one-woman effort to contribute to the improvement of public discourse, each month I discuss an example of a Fallacious Argument. In December I chose a particular favorite of mine, the ad hominem.

This month I revisit it. Why? Because accusing someone of committing a fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem can itself be a fallacy. Let us consider it.

As the saying goes, there’s an app for everything. Some enterprising soul, capitalizing on the American fondness for the gratuitous insult, has created the political insult generator app, one for conservatives and one for progressives.

Thanks to these digital innovations, iphone and ipod Touch owners need no longer be at a loss for words in any political debate. Confident that a witty retort is always handy, they can hurl at their opponents ready-made epithets such as “crunchy business-bashing libtards” or “puritanical Bible-banging bullies”. It’s all in har-har good fun.

It’s harder to laugh though when a visit to any online forum or the letters page of your daily paper shows how ready to hand the insult is, like a rock to be hurled. But who’s surprised? Marshaling evidence to demonstrate the flaws in an opponent’s reasoning takes hard mental work. It’s much more fun and requires less effort to simply heap verbal abuse upon your adversary to attack their patriotism, ancestry, food preferences, or taste in ties.

There are of course ways to respond to such tactics. Often, however, in response to the jeering, people mistakenly accuse their opponents of engaging in ad hominem attacks. This is the fallacy of the fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem.

In a true argumentum ad hominem, an individual uses an attack on the speaker to undermine the speaker’s argument. Declaring your opponent a “Nazi”, “socialist”, or other insult du jour doesn’t cut it. It may be childish, uncalled for, and do nothing to further discussion, but it is not an ad hominem. Sorry.

If you’re confused about the difference, one writer, Stephen Bond, offers guidance, parsing numerous examples of correct and incorrect uses of ad hominems (warning: some language not safe for kids). Here’s one :

A: “All politicians are liars, and you’re just another politician. Therefore, you’re a liar and your arguments are not to be trusted.”
B: “Yet another ad hominem argument.”

If you accept the premises, A’s argument is sound; but I think most of us would sympathise with B and class it as fallacious, and ad hominem. This is because we do not accept the premise that all politicians are liars. There is a false premise that lies behind all ad hominem arguments: the notion that all people of type X make bad arguments. A has just made this premise explicit.

When debaters throw mud, everyone gets splattered. Too bad that a good clean fight has never been in fashion.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the Appeal to Authority

Fallacious Argument of the Month - the Appeal to AuthorityEach month, in pursuit of better arguments and improved public discourse, I highlight a different logical fallacy. This month I invite you to consider the irrelevant appeal to authority.

People of a certain generation perhaps recall advertisements for Sanka decaffeinated coffee in which actor Robert Young, known for playing a doctor on a popular seventies television drama, Marcus Welby, M.D., warns against the health risks caffeine poses and recommends Sanka to TV viewers.

In Chapter 6 of his popular work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the influence this particular ad wielded in shaping the coffee purchasing decisions of its audience:

From the first time I saw it, the most intriguing feature for me in the Robert Young Sanka commercial was its ability to use the influence of the authority principle without ever providing a real authority. The appearance of authority was enough. This tells me something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures. When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.

The well-worn, now comic phrase “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” has its provenance in ads such as this one. But our automatic reaction to authority is no laughing matter.

Clever speakers understand how easy it is to manipulate the public’s deference to perceived experts, using the appeal to authority to disarm our reason in their efforts to persuade us to their point of view. The appeal to authority may assume several forms, including its best known, the irrelevant appeal to authority (invoking an authority figure on a subject on which the authority figure is no expert, such as the Sanka ad). To gird ourselves against such manipulations of our reason, we should perhaps heed the advice of sixties-era protest signs: Question Authority.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed this series on fallacious arguments and want to learn more about the application of logic in everyday life, there is no better resource than Robert J. Gula’s Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. It’s available in print and also for free downloading in PDF.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: argumentum ad hominem

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the ad hominemWelcome to December’s installment of my ongoing series, Fallacious Argument of the Month.

Driving in my car on my way to a meeting on Friday, I happened to catch a popular NPR news analysis program, On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook was talking with political commentator and Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter on his newly published book, Judaism: A Way of Being.

Gelernter, a proponent of Zionism, provoked strong responses from some callers who disputed his conclusions and offered spirited counterarguments. Toward the end of the program, one Jewish caller criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, pointing to her experiences traveling in Israel and the gulf she perceived there between biblical values and practice. Instead of responding to the issues she raised, Gelernter dismissed her with the epithet invoked all too often in debates over Israel. He condemned her as a self-loathing Jew, sneering that “the most vicious haters of the Jewish community are Jews themselves”.

In this on-air interview Gelernter committed perhaps one of the most common of fallacies: the argumentum ad hominem, which is an attack on the speaker, rather than on the substance of the speaker’s statements, for the purpose of discrediting the speaker and undermining the speaker’s arguments. The ad hominem takes many forms; in this case Gelernter used the technique known as “poisoning the well“. To poison the well, you present negative information about your opponent to damage his credibility in the eyes of your audience. (Incidentally, earning Fallacious Argument bonus points, Gelernter also utilized the false analogy, comparing the caller’s criticisms of Israel to blood libel and Nazism.)

Highly explosive, the ad hominem inflames passions and prejudices. When it detonates, it leaves a scarred chasm that cannot be bridged, making speakers and audience members into bitter partisans, with discourse and civility collateral damage. When the shouting at last dies down, all that’s left to smolder in the rubble is ill will.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: in pursuit of the red herring

Red herringsEach month I dedicate a post to the discussion of a different fallacious argument. It’s part of my ongoing effort to help the world bicker better.

Here, friends, is this month’s installment.


That diverting entertainment, magic, depends upon distraction to delight and mystify an audience. Magicians play their tricks not primarily with hats and rabbits but instead with our perception, directing our attention elsewhere as they nimbly palm the coin or make the assistant vanish into air.

In the hands of the skilled illusionist, magic is artistry. But in the theatre of argument, misdirection is nothing but a cheap trick. Allow me, reader, to introduce you to November’s Fallacious Argument, the distractingly odorous red herring.

A red herring is a device used in discourse to sidetrack attention from the original subject to another topic, preferably one that has no bearing on the discussion at hand and designed to inflame the emotions of the audience. Although the red herring flourishes wherever enemies of rational discourse may be found, it prefers to spawn during political election seasons. When large issues loom, the red herring is ready to divert attention from energy, health care, or social security to a $400 haircut or a candidate’s wardrobe. Handle with care: its smell is notoriously long-lasting.

(With thanks to Philip J. Loree, Jr., a fierce defender of rational discourse and a highly insightful ADR blogger.)

In search of a better argument

Better argumentsConflict.

There’s certainly plenty of it to go around. Daily life is made up of discord, debate and disagreement. I for one would hate to see conflict vanish. Not only would it put me and all the other mediators out of work, but life would be far less interesting. No doubt quality of life would suffer, since conflict after all famously provokes improvements. (Besides, in a world without argument imagine how erotic love might suffer without make-up sex to spark things up.)

What we need is not fewer arguments in the world. It’s not the quantity that’s at issue, it’s the quality. Friends, we need to bicker better.

Regular readers are familiar with a recently added feature on this blog, the Fallacious Argument of the Month. With the goal of promoting clearheaded and reasoned debate and improving discourse, each month I skewer a different fallacy. One consequence of creating that feature is that it has sharpened my eye for real-world instances of mistakes in arguing. Hence this post: I found a whopper.

One common mistake when arguing is to make cheap appeals to emotion through an old playground trick: name calling. The intent is to arouse the disgust of one’s audience against the target of one’s attack. Using words designed to inflame the prejudices of your audience can certainly be effective. Unfortunately, this ruse can backfire. Your audience may turn on you and not your intended target.

I spotted an example of this in the pages of the local paper, the Boston Globe. One particularly touchy subject these days is a proposal concerning a public law school for Massachusetts, one of a handful of states without one. Under this proposal, the state higher education system would take over private Southern New England School of Law. The Globe has run several opinion pieces on the subject, pro and con, including one, “Bailing out a failing law school,” penned by two University of Massachusetts trustees.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I oppose this plan myself.  But I winced when I read the UMass trustees’ opinion. Instead of focusing on relevant facts to sway the undecided or the committed, the writers vitiated their argument by throwing in deliberately demeaning language, lobbing phrases such as “fourth rate”, “raw political pork”, and “‘Lawsuits ‘R’ Us’ justice”. Not surprisingly, it provoked angry letters from insulted readers.

How much more effective this op-ed piece would have been had its authors  stuck with facts and reasons, leaving the sneering provocation behind in the first draft.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the confusion of cause and effect

Fallacious Argument of the Month for OctoberTo do my part to improve argument and discourse everywhere, each month I feature a different fallacious argument.  I launched the series in July with the straw man; discussed the false analogy in August; and in September explored the misused ellipsis.

Today I take great pleasure in introducing you to October’s Fallacious Argument of the Month, the confusion of cause and effect.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: A guy walks into a bar, sits down, and orders a beer. As he waits for his beer, he claps his hands together again and again, loudly and insistently. Annoyed, the bartender asks, “Hey, pal, what’s up with the hand clapping?” The guy says, “It scares the elephants away.” “But,” says the bartender, “there aren’t any elephants around here.” The guy replies, “See? It’s working!”

It’s easy enough to snicker at the beer drinker’s logic. But unfortunately this confusion between cause and effect is no laughing matter. It’s a persistently occurring phenomenon. All too often, people readily assume that when Event B follows Event A, it must be because A caused B.

The confusion of cause and effect is often used for political purposes to manipulate public opinion by exploiting prejudice or fear. It has been used to attribute blame for a host of social ills to purported causes that have included feminism, video games, atheism, and the internet. But it is also often the product of careless or exploitative journalism.  For example, when British schoolgirl Natalie Morton died unexpectedly from an undiagnosed malignant tumor shortly after she had received a vaccination to prevent cervical cancer, some media rushed to report that it was the vaccine that killed her, fueling public anxiety.

These false connections flourish best in the presence of closed minds and foregone conclusions.  They persist only because countering them demands hard work – a willingness to discard assumptions and dig deep for the facts.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: misusing the ellipsis

fallacyTo contribute to the improvement of public discourse and debate, I feature a different fallacious argument each month.  I kicked off the series in July by spotlighting the straw man, a perennial favorite of lazy minds, and in August discussed the false analogy, including its most popular and persistent form, the Hitler/Nazi comparison.

It is my great pleasure to introduce you to September’s Fallacious Argument of the Month, the misused ellipsis, also known as the fallacy of exclusion and suppressed evidence.

What is an ellipsis? An ellipsis is an omission of words, usually indicated by a series of periods. We use ellipses all the time as a matter of convenience or emphasis — to  shorten text or oral statements when space or time is limited, drawing a reader or listener’s attention to what is relevant to the discussion at hand. When used properly, an ellipsis brings focus  or brevity without sacrificing meaning. But, like a kitchen knife, it can be twisted in service to a darker purpose.

In his satirical classic, Devil’s Dictionary, a work that maliciously mocks hypocrisy and the misuse of language, American author and journalist Ambrose Bierce defined “quotation” as  “[t]he act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” Bierce perhaps had the misused ellipsis in mind; in the hands of a rogue, the ellipsis can turn a speaker’s original meaning on its head. Simply take a quotation, neatly trim away the words that don’t support your argument while leaving in place those that do, and you have embarrassed your opponent and misled your audience. Sadly, the ellipsis, misused, can leave lasting effects; studies from psychology tell us that false statements are notoriously persistent and difficult to counter. Fortunately the misused ellipsis is easy to reveal; one need only consult the original material to reveal the truth.

Years ago when I practiced law, after filing a motion for summary judgment, I received my opponent’s response. To support his opposition to my motion, he quoted from a decision that I was not familiar with. Noticing the ” . . . ”  in the middle of the text he quoted, I immediately looked up the case and saw that he had conveniently omitted the critical word “not”.  In that moment, I found myself feeling sorry for his client.

I offer thanks for the inspiration for this month’s Fallacious Argument to that champion of straight talk and clear thinking, David Giacalone, who reminds me of an important piece of advice to leave you with, attributable to the man some call the Great Communicator:

Trust, but verify.

Remember that the next time you find yourself face to face with an ellipsis.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the false analogy

false analogies just don't add upWith the aim of improving public discourse and combating sloppy thinking, I continue with the next installment of my series, Fallacious Argument of the Month.

This month’s fallacious argument is a particular favorite of mine: the false analogy.  A false analogy is an effort to claim similarity between two items that even a desultory glance will reveal to be dissimilar. Those who wield the false analogy in its most noxious form don’t bother to compare apples and oranges; that’s for amateurs. Shameless masters of the false analogy appreciate that the more outrageous the comparison, the greater its shock value.  This makes the false analogy a favored weapon of demagogues.

Among the best known, most virulent, and most widely deployed of the false analogies are comparisons with Nazis: to compare someone we dislike to Hitler, things we disapprove of to the Holocaust, or negotiation with our opponents to Chamberlain’s appeasement.

The best defense against the false analogy is a vigilant and discerning mind. In fact, an op-ed column by Adam Cohen, “An SAT without analogies is like: (A) a confused citizenry,” should be compulsory reading for every citizen. That’s according to my friend David Giacalone, a retired mediator and lawyer with a tremendous talent for reasoning and writing, and I agree. Observing that “more lawyers ‘should think like lawyers’”, David wrote,

Adam Cohen’s op/ed piece in today’s NYT should be required reading for all educators and all who wish to fulfill the role of lawyer, pundit, politician or citizen competently.

Lamenting the decision of the College Board to drop analogies from the SAT – an admissions test administered to high school students – Cohen warned,

Nowhere are analogies more central than in politics. When Karl Marx wanted to arouse the workers of the world, he compared the proletariat’s condition to slavery and, in “The Communist Manifesto,” urged them to throw off their figurative chains. When Roosevelt argued for a balanced budget, he put it in homespun terms. “Any government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns,” he said. “But you and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”

The power of an analogy is that it can persuade people to transfer the feeling of certainty they have about one subject to another subject about which they may not have formed an opinion. But analogies are often undependable. Their weakness is that they rely on the dubious principle that, as one logic textbook puts it, “because two things are similar in some respects they are similar in some other respects.” An error-producing “fallacy of weak analogy” results when relevant differences outweigh relevant similarities. On [the NPR program] “Fresh Air,” Mr. [Grover] Norquist seized on a small similarity between the estate tax and Nazism and ignored the big difference: that the Holocaust, but not the estate tax, involved the murder of millions of people…

Since the SAT no longer contains analogy questions, here is one: A nation whose citizens cannot tell a true analogy from a false one is like – fill in your own image for precipitous decline.

Be a good citizen, friends: be ready to tell the difference.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: meet the straw man

fallacy of the monthThere’s nothing like a good argument, as any fan of Monty Python knows.

Having a good argument, however, demands diligence, attention to detail, self-awareness, and practice; it’s all too easy to have a bad one. The bad kind, alas, abounds in political discussion, particularly during an election season, makes frequent appearances in conference rooms and at family dining room tables, and of course proliferates like rabbits on the internet. With the aim of bettering public discourse and combating the viral spread of fallacy everywhere, I propose to launch a regular feature: the Fallacious Argument of the Month.

Each month I will spotlight a different fallacious argument. This month please welcome July’s fallacy, the straw man argument.

For the lazy thinker, nothing could be more fun or easier than the straw man argument. Simply set up your straw man by distorting or exaggerating your opponent’s position, and then set it ablaze or knock it down. This lets you disregard what your opponent actually said and unburdens you from inconvenient facts. (The down side of course is that no one gets to debate and discuss the issue on the merits, although that of course is the point.) Examples of straw man arguments include these two, taken, for the sake of fairness, from each side of the American political aisle:

If you have a favorite fallacious argument that you’d like to see featured here at Mediation Channel, please let me know. And don’t forget to tune in on August 3 for next month’s Fallacious Argument.