6 logical fallacies politicians often use—and how to guard yourself against them

Logical fallacies will be everywhere this election season. Here's how to find the bad arguments and beat them.

Election season in the United States brings many things, some good and some bad. Among the things which we citizens must endure each time are poor arguments using logical fallacies. While bad arguments are far too common, many of them are easy to identify. With just a little knowledge and effort you can sniff out the faulty reasoning and avoid getting fooled.

Here are six logical fallacies that are commonly used in politics. Included are examples of how these fallacies are used and suggestions on how to avoid being taken in.


Ad Hominem

One of the most common and pettiest fallacies known to humanity. This fallacy occurs when the traits of the person holding a position are attacked rather than the merits of the argument they make. It can also be used against organizations or institutions.

Example

 Mr. Jones’ tax plan isn’t worth considering. What could a person who works for the government know about taxes?   

As you can see, no argument against the tax plan is given. All we have been told is something about one person who supports the idea. This says nothing about the merits or failings of the proposal. 

How do I not get tricked?

The best way to get around this is to remain focused on the issues and not on the personalities of the people running for office. While some personality traits might be more desirable than others, the fact that a person has them or not has little bearing on the merits of the arguments they make.  

dan-ariely-on-how-to-be-more-rational


Slippery Slope


A very slippery slope. (Getty Images)

A pervasive fallacy that regularly fools millions. This is the argument that if one action is taken another, absurd or undesirable, action will inevitably follow. Therefore, we ought to not take that first step.

Example

If we let women vote, the next thing you know we’ll let animals vote!

This argument can be hard to spot but always relies on the idea that one event will necessarily follow from another. The fallacy lies in that some actions are not connected by necessity but are presented as such.

How do I avoid getting tricked?

When you hear this setup, be sure to check that the second event is necessary. If it isn’t, the speaker is trying to fool you. 

Remember, there has to be a logical reason that the next step must follow the first. In the above case, there is nothing that forces legislators to enfranchize dogs just because they enfranchize women; making it a fallacious argument.

Strawman Argument


A strawman (MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images)

Some arguments are so bad that nobody makes them. They could be pointed out as absurd just by saying what they are. The Strawman fallacy takes advantage of this. This fallacy occurs when another argument is exaggerated or presented bizarrely in an attempt to discredit it. Other times, a position that nobody holds will be presented as the one held by an opponent, and that position will be attacked in place of their actual one.


Example

Person One: I think people should eat fewer fatty hamburgers. 

Person two: You don’t think people should eat meat? Are you trying to put farmers out of work? Trying to disrespect the culture and work of barbeque chiefs everywhere? You vegetarians and your moralizing, soon you’ll complain when people drink water!

As you can see, the second person misrepresented the point person one made and then attacked that point. By exaggerating the first person's position, they have created a strawman which is easier to attack than the first person's real stances. The original argument is ignored and not disproven.

How can I avoid getting fooled?

This fallacy relies on misrepresenting one argument and replacing it with another one. The simplest way to not be taken in is to study the first argument yourself, without the chance of an opposing candidate scrambling it.

False Dilemma


There are always more than two options. This fellow, for example, could choose to turn around and go back where they started.

We’ve all heard this fallacy before. We are given two options, one much worse than the other. It is then said or heavily implied that we must select the option that is the lesser evil. Potential third options are left out.


Example

The choice is simple; either we let dogs vote, or we’ll slide into a dictatorship!

As you might suppose, there are plenty of other options. Perhaps we can retain democracy without enfranchising animals, for example. The speaker, however, is trying to railroad you towards supporting a position they hold by only presenting two options.

How can I avoid getting tricked?

The simplest method for dealing with this fallacy is always to make sure that the options on the table are your only options. You should also pay attention when people say that the choice is simple, a false dilemma is probably close at hand.

Ad Populum

Also known as the bandwagon appeal, this is the false claim that what is popular is good. This fallacy is widespread and sometimes blatant. The famous “I like Ike” television commercials were nothing but this fallacy set to a snappy jingle.

Example 

Everybody likes Mr. Jones! You should vote for him too!

This appeal to popularity suggests that the popular choice is the good one. When you hear this argument, you’re likely to hear more about how popular they are than what their qualifications are.

How do I avoid getting tricked?

The best defense against this trick is to focus on the qualifications of a candidate. An unqualified candidate who is popular is still a lousy candidate.

False Equivalence


These two both have noses, does that make them morally equivalent? (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images/BigThink)

This fallacy is when two stances are presented as equivalent when they are not. During campaigns, you will often hear people comparing two candidates using this fallacy. 

Example

Yes, Mr. Smith is a serial embezzler, but Mr. Jones once littered in the park. They’re practically the same!

Embezzlement is a serious crime while littering, while wrong, is poor manners at worst. The argument in the example, however, is that both offenses make the perpetrators equally bad. While this does mean that both people have done things they should not have, they are far from equally bad; especially if they are trying to be in charge of public funds. 

How to avoid getting taken in

This fallacy is tricky, as it can only be used when there is a superficial similarity between two stances. However, as with the above example, looking a little more closely reveals that the positions are far from identical.  

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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