Ten of the most sandbagging, red-herring, and effective logical fallacies.
- Many an otherwise-worthwhile argument has been derailed by logical fallacies.
- Sometimes these fallacies are deliberate tricks, and sometimes just bad reasoning.
- Avoiding these traps makes disgreeing so much better.
Logical-fallacy traps are all around us, and we get caught in them all the time. They trap us during discussions — okay, arguments — and make our heads want to burst. Sometimes we get derailed while we're trying to sort out important issues, and sometimes it's simply trying to adjudicate day-to-day nonsense.
Nonetheless, getting thrown off course by one of these fallacies is like becoming ensnared in vines from which escape grows ever thornier. What a superpower it would be then, to be able to smash right though these binds — or even better, to learn how to sidestep them in the first place.
There's a chart floating around online from non-profit School of Thought, and it sums up the most pernicious logical fallacies. (You can buy the chart as a wall poster from their shop.) It's a great way to develop your debating superpowers. We thought we'd share 10 of our favorites.
1. Composition/division fallacies
This is a twofer originally courtesy of Aristotle. The Logical Place describes them this way: "The Fallacy of Composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole. Conversely, the Fallacy of Division occurs when one infers that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts."
An example of the Composition form:
- A is a teacher
- A has a mustache
- All teachers have mustaches
For the Division version, if A has no whiskers, all teachers are clean-lipped.
2. The Tu quoque fallacy
You know this one, the equivalent of, "Oh, yeah? Well, you, too." According to the site Logically Fallacious, it's defined as: "Claiming the argument is flawed by pointing out that the one making the argument is not acting consistently with the claims of the argument." What did your parents say about two wrongs?
3. The Texas sharpshooter fallacy
The validity of your argument appears to be based on evidence, but, as Your Logical Fallacy puts it, "You cherry-picked a data cluster to suit your argument, or found a pattern to fit a presumption." Nice try, though.
4. Ambiguity fallacy
Ambiguity's described on Your Logical Fallacy, thusly: "You used a double meaning or ambiguity of language to mislead or misrepresent the truth." The Fallacy Files has a great breakdown of Bill Clinton's denial of sexual congress with Monica Lewinsky, and why it was less than convincing to anyone really paying attention, even though he didn't exactly lie. The moral: Listen to what's being said by politicians and other salespeople very, very carefully.
5. Personal incredulity fallacy
According to Truly Fallacious, this one involves "Asserting because one finds something difficult to understand it can't be true." It's the raison d'être of climate-change deniers, and, yes, flat-Earthers.
6. Genetic fallacy
The Genetic fallacy is the one that causes you to discard, or accept, the validity of an argument due to its source. As far as the former goes, remember, "Even a broken clock is right twice a day." Consider the premise, not its speaker. As far as the latter goes, check out these examples from Soft Schools.
7. Middle ground fallacy
While middle ground — AKA compromise — can often be the solution to an impasse, it's not to say that it reveals some new, truer truth. In fact, it's just an agreement for both sides to live with being a little unhappy in order to move forward. Don't be bluffed out of your position by someone claiming they're meeting you halfway only in order to move you off a correct position you shouldn't abandon.
8. Anecdotal fallacy
"Everyone think this!" What this statement really means is that, in your limited personal experience, something is true. Fallacy Files has a nice way of putting it: "The Anecdotal Fallacy is committed when a recent memory, a striking anecdote, or a news story of an unusual event leads one to overestimate the probability of that type of event, especially when one has access to better evidence."
9. False cause fallacy
Your Logical Fallacy offers this: "You presumed that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other." This is the old correlation-does-not-equal-causation fallacy that's so easy to fall into.
10. The fallacy fallacy
There's a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons and reason that sound good." — Burton Hillis
The perfect place to conclude this list. Remember, just because someone's argument depends on a fallacy doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. As Fallacy Files drily warns, "Like anything else, the concept of logical fallacy can be misunderstood and misused, and can even become a source of fallacious reasoning." Keep an open mind and think about what the other person is saying — you want to glimpse the truth, or not, behind their mental and verbal parlor tricks.
"With great power comes great responsibility." This advice is not just for Spiderman. Use your new superpower wisely — other people fall for these tricks, too. Which is to say, play nice.
Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding?
Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding? Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson feels that in most cases it's the latter. It might take some getting used to, he posits, as acquiescence by its very nature means admitting that you're wrong in some way. Jordan's latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Author, speaker, and public intellectual Richard Dawkins is a first-class debater on subjects as grand and reaching as the very existence (or lack thereof) of a master creator. But he's got a simple yet highly effective technique to win people over to see his point of view. Find out what it is right here.
Many people would like to have a one-on-one argument with renowned professor, author, and all-around big thinker Richard Dawkins. He's most one of the world's most prominent public intellectuals and has written over a dozen books on matters as wide-ranging as atheism and science. Because he attacks such deeply held beliefs, many people disagree with him. But how is he so effective at what he does? Simple. He imagines his argument from the other side's perspective. That way, Richard Dawkins posits, there's a much higher chance that he can land his point. Richard Dawkins' new book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
Dr. Gottman, a psychologist who studies relationships, explains the 5:1 rule.
Everyone knows couples break up when they fight too much. But what if they don't fight enough?
Dr. John M. Gottman, a psychologist who's studied marital stability and relationships for decades, is known for finding that the "magic ratio" of positive and negative interactions in successful relationships is about 5 to 1. That is, couples who stay together tend to compensate for every negative interaction with five times as many positive ones. Gottman calls this his balance theory of relationships.
So, too much fighting leads to breakups. That's obvious. But what's interesting about the theory is it implies that one sign of a doomed relationship could be not enough negativity. An article on one of Gottman's websites elaborates this idea.
This balance theory implies the unusual point of view that negativity is important in healthy relationships. Negativity plays many prosocial functions — for example, culling out interaction patterns that don't work, renewing courtship over time, etc. Thus, couple therapy should not declare war on negativity. On the contrary, we submit the idea that a relationship without negative affect would be lifeless and boring.
The idea is that because people and environments are always changing, partners must provide one another with enough corrective feedback so they can be "on the same page."
Of course, it's not just about the quantity of fighting in a relationship. The style is also important. Gottman and his colleagues found that couples who remained stoic during conflicts actually tended to fare worse than couples that were more "volatile".
Another negative, dysfunctional pattern that emerged from our longitudinal research was both the absence of escalated negative affect during conflict, and also the absence of any positive affect during conflict. There was a marked lack of affection, shared humor, question-asking, active interest, excitement, joy, support, and empathy.
Conversely, volatile couples who get into lots of heated fights aren't necessarily doomed to split up. These couples exert a healthy amount of influence on one another, both positively and negatively. But as long as their interactions favor the positive, they tend to enjoy relatively stable relationships over the long term.
The 5:1 ratio also seems to ring true in the business world. Past research has examined the ways in which successful business leadership teams deliver criticism. The results showed that the most successful teams made an average of 5.6 positive comments per every negative one, while the average ratio among the lowest performing teams was just 0.36 to 1.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman interpreted the results in the Harvard Business Review
"So, while a little negative feedback apparently goes a long way, it is an essential part of the mix. Why is that? First, because of its ability to grab someone's attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink."
Folkman and Zenger went on to add one final point that could apply to any area of life: Negative feedback can prevent you from driving off a cliff.
For a realistic look at what it takes to stay in love, here's Dr. Helen Fisher: