3.4 Rhetorical Fallacies

[1] A rhetorical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning. Rhetorical fallacies are like tricks or illusions of thought, and they’re often used by writers, speakers, and the media to fool people. They are not inherently easy to spot, and we may even commit them accidentally. Spotting them in our own arguments and in the arguments of others is a skill that once developed can help strengthen your analytical abilities.

Rhetorical fallacies, or logical fallacies, don’t allow for the open, two-way exchange of ideas upon which meaningful conversations depend. Instead, they distract the reader with various techniques instead of using sound reasoning. They can be divided into three categories:

  1. Emotional fallacies: unfairly appealing to the audience’s emotions
  2. Ethical fallacies: unreasonably advancing the writer’s own authority or character
  3. Logical fallacies: depending on faulty logic to support the claim

Rhetorical fallacies can often overlap. Regardless, we need to develop our skills in recognizing rhetorical fallacies in our work and the work of others and correcting them with clear, fair, and well-supported reasons.

Identify Common Logical Fallacies[2]

In order to build a sound argument, it is critical to steer clear of what are known as logical fallacies. A logical fallacy is a breakdown in reasoning, and it can occur when there is an error in the “facts” or chain of reasoning presented, bias in the information that is used to persuade the audience, or stereotyping of populations. Although we often associate logical fallacies with political rhetoric, we also see flawed reasoning in others’ discourse as well; it is important then to familiarize yourself with what a logical fallacy is and common examples of fallacies to better evaluate others’ arguments as well as develop your own. Below is a list of common logical fallacies along with examples of each.

Logical fallacy

Definition

Example

Ad hominem This Latin word translates to mean “against the person.” In this fallacy, the writer will make remarks against the person’s character rather than the person’s argument. During the debate, the candidate’s comments attacked his opponent’s personal traits rather than the topic being discussed.
Ad populum/Bandwagon This Latin word translates as “to the people” and can be termed as popular with people. It is also known as the bandwagon fallacy. This particular fallacy simply refers to a writer using information to get the reader on board with the majority’s viewpoint of the argument stated. Facebook is used by millions of people to stay connected with various people worldwide. Everyone should get on Facebook.
Appeal to authority This fallacy is used when a writer quotes an authority who is not credible for the situation that is being discussed. Citing an author of a children’s book on how to raise a child is not credible if the author has never raised children of her own.
Appeal to ignorance (Argumentum ad ignorantiam)

 

Appeal to tradition

This fallacy will lead readers into believing that an argument that has no conclusive evidence is to be believed simply by the conclusion stated by the arguer/writer.

 

This fallacy will lead readers to believe that an argument is valid by basing it only on tradition.

 

Democrats and Republicans are quick to react to each other’s stereotypes.

 

 

Senator Bill wants to pass X law. However, that is completely different than what my Grandpa did, so it is wrong.

 

Appeal to pity This fallacy plays on the reader’s emotions. Using an excuse to sway their audience to believe what they want them to believe. A student expresses to his professor that he needs a higher grade because he had to attend a funeral of a family member which prevented him from completing an assignment on time.
Begging the question This fallacy means that the writer is trying to persuade the reader into believing his argument without giving supportive evidence. Therefore, “begging” the reader to be persuaded in the direction of the writer. (A very weak approach). People who use a Fitbit will become healthy.
Cherry Picking/Card Stacking

 

Equivocation

This fallacy means that the writer is trying to persuade the reader into believing his/her argument by only providing data that supports his/her stance while ignoring all evidence that conflicts with it.

 

This fallacy uses words that have a double meaning.

Evidence A and evidence B are available. A supports person 1 and B supports person 2. Therefore, person 1 only provides evidence A to the audience.

 

Comedians often use words that have double meanings to get the audience to laugh. They misdirect the audience on purpose.

False dichotomy/Black-and-white/Either/or This fallacy refers to a writer who presents one or two viewpoints as the only alternatives when many more could be represented. By doing so, this leads the reader into a “false” sense of understanding. Some politicians believe that universal healthcare is the only option that will allow everyone to have access to healthcare.
Guilt by Association

 

Hasty/Sweeping generalization

This fallacy claims something is true/false because it is similar or associated with a “clearly false” idea/person and therefore has to also be incorrect/correct.

 

Is an inaccurate assumption based on an inadequate amount of evidence.

Billy enjoys vandalizing. Suzy hangs out with Billy on Fridays. She must also vandalize things.

 

Four out of five college professors prefer to use blue pens to grade rather than red pens. This study is not quite accurate because only five college professors were asked about their preferences.

Missing the point This fallacy refers to stating an argument in which the conclusion does not relate to the main point of the original argument. Over the past three months, there have been more car thefts on the school campus. In the past three months, the enrollment has increased for those attending our school. Therefore, the increase in enrollment has caused an increase in car thefts.
Post hoc (also called false cause) This fallacy means that one cause relates to another cause. Walmart decreased the wages for their employees. The unemployment rate has increased in the past three months. Walmart caused the unemployment rate to increase.

From this fallacy, you can see that Walmart alone is not the cause of the rise in unemployment. This is a “false cause”. To make this statement stronger, the writer would need to give more reasons that would lead up to this conclusion. More research needs to be included to support this issue presented.

Red herring This fallacy is used to get the reader off track of the main issue that is being discussed. A concerned father asks his child about his declining grades in school and the child is quick to speak of another topic to divert this uncomfortable conversation.
Slippery slope This fallacy means that one idea will ultimately lead to many more ideas that will result in a final outcome. If people continue to smoke and do not adhere to the warning signs that the public addresses, then our human race will ultimately suffer from health issues which will cause a rise in medical care. This will cause people to pay more money for medical care which will lead to more taxes.
Straw man This fallacy is used when the writer misrepresents an argument by an opponent in hopes of persuading the audience to his point of view. Politicians frequently use outlandish statements that undermine their opponent’s viewpoint.
Weak/False analogy This fallacy means that when someone compares two ideas or two situations that do not relate to one another, the argument becomes weak. An apple is red and a tomato is red and both are fruits but both have very different tastes. The apple is sweet and the tomato is savory.

Our use of logical support in arguments is subject to several possible corruptions along the way to a sound argument. Sometimes an arguer will commit these fallacies on purpose with the intent of fooling or manipulating the audience. But more often, we make these mistakes accidentally, with the best of intentions. Regardless, if we are to evaluate and make sound arguments, we need to be able to spot the presence of logical fallacies, in our own arguments and in the arguments of others. The presence of a logical fallacy does not mean the entire argument is invalid, just that the particular reasoning is flawed or lacking in this one place. Finding and correcting logical fallacies can actually lead to making an argument stronger and easier to accept.

 

 


  1. 3.4 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from Critical Thinking by Andrew Gurevich which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
  2. The following paragraph and chart were borrowed with minor edits from Writing & Research in the Disciplines: Advanced Composition at the University of Mississippi

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