Episode 40: A Flock of Fallacies


Since posting about some of the most common fallacies back in November, I’ve been striking upon a few more in some papers that I’ve edited. The problem with fallacies is that we are—to be honest—accustomed to them. We hear them all the time from editorials, politicians, and books, and we don’t always pay attention. You really have to train your brain to catch them. So, let’s take a look at a few more.

Argument from authority: This one grates on my nerves (just being honest). Western culture celebrates citations and references (“This study says that jalapenos make you smarter; I must be a genius”). It seems that a formal claim isn’t a claim unless it has a footnote. There’s nothing wrong with looking to experts for their thoughts, since there’s no way for each of us to study everything. But if you really think about it, any argument from authority breaks down to this: it’s true because he/she says so.

This doesn’t mean you should eschew all sources; just make sure that you’re aware of what you’re arguing. If your argument depends solely upon what authorities say, then your point is weakened. Some of it needs to be you.

Most people would define the argument from authority specifically as relying on a supposed authority who is not really an authority (either at all or in the field you’re quoting them about). However, everyone strays outside of the strict limits of their field at some point (except me, of course); so, it’s easy to quote them on a topic where they aren’t a strict authority.

Simon Cowell said that the stock market will plunge this year. Therefore, the stock market will plunge. [He’s not an expert in the area, no matter the accuracy of his claim].

The bottom line is that any argument you make should not depend solely on the thoughts of others as the justification for why the argument is right. Authorities can only take you so far.

Bandwagon fallacy: In a democratic society, this fallacy is an easy trap to fall into. Namely, if the majority thinks the argument is valid or the argument is gaining supporters quickly, then it must be the truth. As you know, majorities and trends can be wrong. If a paper depends upon growing popularity or majority support as the justifying claim, then keep in mind the weakness of this. The writer could be right, but fallacy blunts the main conclusion.

Fallacy fallacy: Now that I’ve pointed out some general fallacies in arguments, this one is important to keep in mind (and rather ironic). It is also a fallacy to reject a conclusion simply because someone’s argument for that conclusion is flawed. In other words, the person may have the right answer, but she or he got to it in the wrong way. For example:

Sam relied on an argument from authority and the bandwagon fallacy to make his case that the moon orbits the earth. Therefore, the moon does not orbit the earth.

Sam’s argument left much to be desired, but he did have the right conclusion.

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One thought on “Episode 40: A Flock of Fallacies

  1. Pingback: Episode 50: That Which Kills Good Writing « More Novel by the Week

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