A few years ago, I wrote about a Facebook exchange among two friends of mine that upset me, because one of my friends resorted to name-calling instead of addressing the other friend’s arguments. In retrospect, that was mild. More recently I’ve been shocked by some disturbingly excessive name-calling — in the comment sections of articles I’ve read — that was directed at other commenters. The name-calling is bad enough, but the number of people who find that to be an acceptable method for engaging in debate is appalling. No one is going to be motivated or persuaded by vitriol.
Recently, I wrote an article on the importance of critical thinking in our age of information overload (see “A Survival Guide for the Era of Fake News”). Developing the ability to judge the veracity of the information we receive is important, because there are many people — seeking power or profit — who will say anything in order to push their agenda. We must protect ourselves from the lies, propaganda, and fake news, that we get from politicians, government, corporations, and the media.
People seeking power and influence will use verbal trickery in order to convince you to accept their point of view. They will speak confidently with tones of authority, so that you won’t scrutinize their words too carefully. But, you can protect yourself by learning to recognize their logical and rhetorical fallacies.
Here are 11 of the most common.
Common Fallacy #1: Ad Hominem Attack or Name-Calling
The proponent attacks their opponent by attaching a negative label to them rather than support their argument or opinion with facts.
Common Fallacy #2: Ad Populum or Bandwagon
The proponent argues that you should agree, because everyone is doing it. They want you to feel left out or encourage you to try to “keep up with the Jones.” I’ll never forget my mother shutting this argument down by asking me: “If all your friends jump off a cliff, are you going to follow?”
Common Fallacy #3: Appeal to the Stone
The proponent dismisses an argument as absurd (or unworthy of serious consideration) without giving any proof or reason for believing it is absurd.
Common Fallacy #4: Cherry Picking or Card Stacking
The proponent omits key information in order to slant a position in his favor. In this case, you are receiving a partial truth, and you will have to do your own research to find out the rest.
Common Fallacy #5: False Analogy
The proponent presents 2 things as being similar even though they are not.
Common Fallacy #6: False Dilemma
The proponent presents only 2 options as if these were the only choices. Also called an Either/Or argument because it offers no middle ground and disregards compromises, alternatives, or new ideas.
Common Fallacy #7: Straw Man
The proponent distorts or misrepresents their opponent’s position then proceed to attack this false and fabricated viewpoint instead. This fallacy creates the illusion that the opponent’s argument has been refuted, when only a straw man has been knocked down.
Common Fallacy #8: Red Herring
The proponent ignores a question, topic, or argument, and attempts to shift the discussion/debate to a separate issue which he or she is more comfortable addressing.
Common Fallacy #9: False Cause
The proponent suggests that because 2 events are related that one caused the other to happen. It’s important to remember that correlation and/or coincidence do not prove causation.
Common Fallacy #10: Hasty Generalization
The proponent uses a sample size that is too small to support an overriding conclusion or to declare a universal principle.
Common Fallacy #11: Appeal to Authority
The proponent uses a famous person to endorse his position. You must ask yourself what this celebrity knows about the issue, and what they have to gain from it.
It’s one thing to attempt to persuade someone with facts, but it’s fraudulent when someone starts twisting them. Arm yourself against these fallacies by knowing and understanding how they work. Many times, you won’t know that a fallacy has been used until you do your own research and verify the information for yourself.
Once you have mastered these, there are many more fallacies you can learn about by searching online.
Print a copy of this article and keep these fallacies handy; you’ll be able to use them every day. You can also use them for a fun drinking game during political debates. Every time you catch one, you get to take a shot!