Fallacies to Avoid
Following are some common logical and emotional fallacies. As you edit your writing, check to make sure you have constructed your argument clearly, logically and without these sorts of problems in your reasoning.
- Ignoring the burden of proof
Don't just make a claim without supporting it. You can't expect people to believe it just because you say it. Treat the audience the way a lawyer treats the jury: prove that every fact is true. It's your job to prove your argument, not just put something out there for your reader to disprove.
Example: Writing "The most important service our agency can offer abused spouses is parenting classes" without explaining why that service is more important than any others.
- Begging the question
Avoid circular arguments. Watch for phrases like "Everyone knows.." or "The fact is..."
Example: Starting an argument by saying, "Everyone knows that government programs attempting to move people from welfare to work are just wastes of taxpayers' money" and then describing statistics from previous programs, arguing that we should reject a proposed program and not waste tax dollars without actually proving what makes this particular new program a waste of money.
- Argument ad hominem
Attacking a person rather than the person's ideas; also called name calling, mud slinging.
Example: just watch any political ad showing the Democrat as a tax and spend liberal who wants to give the country up to its enemies, the Republican as a war-mongering bigot.
- Straw man
Distorting an argument by exaggerating it and then showing why this exaggerated form of the argument isn't valid.
Example: You telll your son he has to work harder on his homework because his last report card wasn't as good as the previous one. He says you never find anything that he does good enough and you think he's never going to amount to anything so why is he even bothering going to school. Before you know it, you're assuring him that he really is intelligent and saying that you know he's going to do well, and that bad report card lies forgotten on the table.
- Red herring
Throwing a false issue, usually an emotional one, into an argument to get people to think about something other than the actual facts of the argument.
Example: Barack Obama's middle name.
- Unjustifiable emotional appeal
Emotion is important as a part of an argument, but not as a substitute for logic.
Example: Describing a woman who has lost her child to gang violence is a good way to start a presentation on a new afterschool program, perhaps, but it cannot hold the entire weight of the argument.
- Hasty generalization/stereotyping
Drawing a conclusion from a small or an atypical sample. Watch that your claims don't go farther than the data support.
Example: The results of this questionnaire administered to the seven women in our Women's Support Group clearly show that sexism is a serious problem in treatment centers today.
Also called "glittering generalities." Trying to keep audience from examining the true complexity of a complicated issue by making a few general statements. It's built on the fact that we all like to feel we know more than we do and can understand even complex issues, so we get arguments in sound bites that we can easily digest rather than arguments with detailed facts that are harder to evaluate.
Example: Pretty much any discussion of a complicated issue presented on the Evening News.
Reducing a complex problem to two overly simple alternatives: An argument built on this either/or fallacy can easily be refuted simply by showing an alternative solution.
Example: Our agency is losing money; either we cut the staff in half or we close.
- Faulty Analogies
Arguing something is true because it is like something else that is true. You can suggest truth but never prove truth by analogy.
Example: "We can send a man to the moon so we can stop the evils of prejudice." The first is a technical problem, solvable by a commitment of knowledge and money. The second is a social problem that is unlikely to be solved simply by making that same kind of commitment.
Arguing that you should agree because everyone else does. Sadly, often "everyone else" is wrong.
Example: The other daycare centers in this neighborhood have already adopted [...} We need to join them.
- In-crowd appeal
Arguing by trying to convince the reader to be one of the people who "really know what's what", the high status people.
Example: Sure, if you buy those sneakers you're going to be just as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan!
- Post hoc/propter hoc
Latin for "after this, therefore because of this." Arguing that something caused an event simply because one thing preceded the other.
Example: If you started a new aftercare program and client recidivism rates fell, you might argue correlation but you can't argue necessarily that the new program caused the rate drop, since it could have been a factor of the particular clients or some economic change or many other possible causes.