If you are looking to progress, suggest new ideas and learn about the world, arguing – or at least, debating – is something you will have to feel comfortable with. In an ideal world, we could be rest assured that both parties arguing are rational, objective and looking for the best answer, however, if you have recently watched any televised political debate, you’ll soon see the irony in that statement. An unfortunate truth is that, even if you have the best points, if you are up against somebody who flouts the virtues of debating, you’re unlikely going to get anywhere.
I’ve compiled a list of the 10 most common debating fallacies and problems people face when arguing others for you to be able to recognize when it is happening to you – and, I hope, let you recognize when you are doing it to others.
Many of these points were inspired by “A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston” so make sure to read the full version of that book. I’ve wrote a snappy “A Rulebook for Arguments: Summary” if you want to get a quick overview of it!
This literally translates to “to the man” and refers to attacking the source of the information, rather than the qualifications or reliability of the actual argument made.
“I am not surprised you don’t think life on Mars exists – after all, you’re a devout atheist – and because of that, I don’t believe you for a minute”.
Even though the individual in question has certain beliefs regarding religion, there is no reason to think that these views would greatly influence their scientific judgement about there being life on Mars.
To avoid this fallacy: Look at the argument, not the person!
This is an argument which appeals to ignorance. It argues that if something has not been proven to be false, it must be true.
John: “That other person must support Brexit”
Mary: “Why’s that?”
John: “Because they haven’t said they don’t support it!”
Just because there is no evidence appearing to falsify something, does not mean that the claim automatically becomes true.
To avoid this fallacy: Ignorance is not strength – just because there’s no evidence does not make it true.
This looks to use “herd-mentality” to influence others into a different way of thinking.
John: “Why should I take this class I’m not interested in?”
Mary: “Well … Everybody else is doing it!”
These arguments are usually bad arguments from authority. Although there may be some wisdom in crowds, there is certainly also madness too. Unless there is further evidence, there is no reason to suggest that “everybody” is a reliable and trustworthy source of information to base your decisions on.
To avoid this fallacy: Try to avoid convincing others by using the “crowd mentality”
4. Begging the question
This looks to begin with your conclusion as your premise and then use that to confirm your conclusion…
“God exists because it says so in the Bible – which I know is true because God wrote it after all!”
To defend the claim the bible is true, the arguer claims that God wrote it. But, if God did write the Bible, then God clearly exists. Thus, the argument already assumes what it is trying to prove.
To avoid this fallacy: Understand what a premise and conclusion is and don’t mix them up!
5. Complex questions
This is a sneaky and unethical way of posing a question so that people cannot either agree or disagree without committing themselves to a claim that you are looking to promote.
John: “Are you still as selfish as you used to be?”
These questions are better off being ignored. If you answer yes, then you’re declaring that you are selfish, whereas, if you answer no, then you are still indicating that you were selfish.
To avoid this fallacy: Read the example and just avoid it … It doesn’t prove anything, and it is very combative.
This is where you look to move the goalposts halfway through an argument and slide the meaning of a term around.
“Women and men are both physically and emotionally different. Because of this, the sexes aren’t equal. Therefore, the law should represent that”
This is the wrong way of looking at it. Between the premise of men and women being different and the conclusion that the laws should be different, the argument shifts the meaning of “equal”. Although the sexes may not be biologically identical, equality under the eyes of the law means something completely different and instead relates to equal rights and opportunities.
When you rephrase the original argument to how it should be, you can see how flawed it is.
“Women and men are both physically and emotionally different. Because of this, the sexes aren’t equal. As a result, they are not entitled to the same rights and opportunities.”
Now you can see that the conclusion is neither supported nor related to the original premise. No reasons are shown to support the conclusion either. Therefore, it’s a pretty terrible argument with no legitimate evidence.
To avoid this fallacy: Read my Think Smarter Summary (Inspection Method Chapter) – Break down an arguments meaning before arguing it and make sure it’s accurate and fair!
7. False dilemma
Arguments about ethics are most prone to this dilemma. This is when you usually polarize an argument and make the options complete opposites and unfair to the people the dilemma is posed to.
“Great Britain – you either love it, or leave it…”
These arguments tend to overlook alternatives and simplify an already emotional, complicated and not-so-straightforward problem.
“Either the use of animal products is wrong, and if you use them you are a terrible person – or the current use is acceptable, and we should continue to promote it heavily”
With the above examples, there are many more possibilities available. The argument should not be reduced to only two options.
To avoid this fallacy: Try to avoid becoming emotionally involved in arguments, it will distort your thinking.
8. Mere re-description
You are looking to just rephrase a conclusion, rather than offering specific and objective reasoning when you make this fallacy.
John: “Steve is a decent guitarist”
Mary: “What makes you say that?”
John: “Steve is a capable guitar player”
Being a decent guitarist and capable guitarist is effectively the same thing. There is no specific evidence to support the conclusion, the conclusion is just rephrased and restated.
To avoid this fallacy: Backing up your answers with evidence is always useful!
9. Over generalization
As the name suggests, you are looking to take a few close examples and make it the rule.
“All my friends who are business majors love sports. That means that every business major probably likes sports too”
Just because your friends who take business like sports, doesn’t mean that every business major will like sports, it’s unfair to generalize that significantly.
You need to take great care when generalizing, even if you have a large sample. If the methodology behind your sampling is not sound and demonstrably representative, then you could still be falling for this fallacy.
To avoid this fallacy: The world is so big and complicated that you can never be sure of anything, instead pay attention to how you phrase your points instead of making broad points.
10. Straw person
This is when an argument or point is taken, and distorted exaggerated or mis-represented and then attacked as if it was the claim the person was really making.
John: “We need to give students free study guides to help them learn”
Mary: “Well, we might as well give everybody an A too if that helps?”
You can see that the original point is not trying to make any suggestions regarding grading students, it’s just looking to talk about revision help. Mary has taken the argument and sarcastically countered it by using another unrelated and controversial point to attempt to argue it.
This fallacy happens everywhere and can be pretty effective when looking to silence an opponents argument. The cost of this, however, is that it reduces discourse and is greatly destructive.
To avoid this fallacy: Actually listen to the other person’s argument – if you don’t understand, gain clarity!
If you liked the points made here, make sure to check out my “A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston: Summary” to see why debating is important, and how to do it properly – I’d also recommend purchasing the book too!