Productive and Unproductive Argument
Many voices from all along the political spectrum are sickened and discouraged by the loss of civility in public discourse today. We DO have legitimate problems as a society, and there are varieties of approaches to find solutions. There are legitimate, honest, productive ways for persons of various perspectives to work together to seek best solutions that work for the most people. There are three classically accepted criteria for an argument to be good.
- First, the premises must be plausible; that is, there must be good reason to believe that the premises as presented are true.
- Second, the argument must be valid and strong.
- Third, the premises must be more plausible than the conclusion.
Unfortunately, those are not the tactics most often used in our current climate. Instead, what we see most often are false argument tactics. These fifteen argument fallacies have been understood since the Classical Greeks, centuries before the birth of Christ.
In case it has been a while since your last rhetoric class, here are the fifteen fallacies and brief explanations. You could make a game of this for yourself. Armed with this list, listen to political speeches. Check them off as the speakers use these illegitimate methods to discredit the arguments of their opponents.
- Ad Hominem
- Insulting or attacking the person instead of attending to the issue being argued. “Crooked Hillary” or “Cheeto Jesus” are ad hominem attacks. They add nothing to the question being debated. When a disagreement sinks into ad hominem attack, it is no longer a debate about issues, it is a fight.
- Strawman Argument
- Attacking a position the opponent does not actually hold. “Democrats want to disband all Police departments, so helpless little old ladies will be attacked in their homes and no one will be there to answer their 911 calls.” When you construct your opponent’s case out of straw, it is much easier to knock down.
- Appeal to Ignorance
- If you don’t know everything, you must not know anything. “Scientists don’t know anything about this Corona virus. One day they tell you masks don’t matter, the next day they tell you everyone must wear a mask. They don’t know anything.” Since the guy who has spent 50 years studying the science says he doesn’t have all the answers, you should instead listen to your neighbor across the alley who didn’t finish high school.
- False Dilemma, False Dichotomy
- Defining an issue as either-or, or black-white. “Either we spend all our money on missiles, or our enemies will attack us tomorrow.” Issues are almost never this clear-cut or simple. This fallacy is designed to polarize the audience, forcing them to choose between two camps.
- Slippery Slope Fallacy
- A chain of causes that moves from a seemingly benign beginning to an improbable extreme. Think about the monologue/song in Music Man, “Ya Got Trouble (right here in River City)” that links the playing of pool to the total destruction of the youth in the town. The first big step on the road To the depths of deg-ra-Day– I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon, Then beer from a bottle. An’ the next thing ya know, Your son is playin’ for money In a pinch-back suit. And list’nin to some big out-a-town Jasper Here to tell him all about horse-race gamblin’. Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse!
- Circular Argument
- An argument that seeks to prove its truth by repeating what is already assumed. “The Bible is True because it says so in the Bible.”
- Hasty Generalization
- A position stated without sufficient evidence. “Democrats never agree with Republicans.” Words like “Always” and “Never” are clues that a hasty generalization is being put forward.
- Red Herring Fallacy
- A distraction from an argument by inserting a sentiment that is not relevant. Ex: To Person A: “Why did you order federal troops into a city when no official there requested them?” Response: “Well, what about Person B’s emails?”
- Tu Quoque
- A diversionary tactic, distracting from one person by pointing out the hypocrisy of the other. Hypocrites can tell the truth, too. Ex: defending the slave trade in the Americas by arguing that blacks in Africa were also guilty of capturing and selling black people into slavery. More guilty parties does not make any of them less guilty; it attempts to distract from the issue at hand of white involvement in the enslavement of black people.
- Causal Fallacy
- Correlation does not prove causation. “This” happened, then “that” happened does not prove that ‘this’ caused ‘that.’ Walking under a ladder brings bad luck? Letter to the DNR: “You really should move that ‘Deer Crossing’ Sign. That’s a very busy stretch of road. You should put the deer crossing somewhere else where there is less traffic.
- Fallacy of Sunk Costs
- When much time, money, and blood has been spent on a project that turns out to be an error, yet you are reluctant to abandon the project because you have so much invested in it. This was an argument used in Vietnam. “If we pull out now, every American soldier killed there will have been futile.” Another way to look at it: “When you find you have dug yourself a hole, stop digging.”
- Appeal to Authority
- “Four out of five dentists agree…” is an appeal to authority. Just because a person has an M.D. and puts on a white coat does not mean they know anything about epidemiology. A podiatrist is an authority, but don’t ask them for an opinion about psychiatry. A false use of authority argument is using people who are not authorities in the field in question.
- Using words to mislead. “The Democrats want to raise your taxes and spend it on big government, but my party will use revenue enhancement for strategic federal investment in critical programs.”
- Appeal to Pity
- Emotional blackmail “How could you eat that innocent little tomato? It was yanked violently from its plant, scalded with live steam to peel off its skin, boiled alive in a can, and now you are going to eat it? It hasn’t done anything to you. How could you be so cruel and thoughtless?” Truth and falsity are not matters of emotion, they are matters of fact.
- Bandwagon Fallacy
- This fallacy assumes that popularity indicates truth. Consider “The Bench Scene” from the movie “Men in Black © 1997.” (Look it up on Youtube). “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody KNEW the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody KNEW the earth was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you KNEW that people are alone on this planet. Imagine what you will know tomorrow.” Just because EVERYBODY is on this bandwagon doesn’t make it the right bandwagon. And, of course, if it was actually true that 100% of all people were on the same bandwagon of an issue, there would be no argument. The very fact that the debate is happening is evidence that not everyone is on the same bandwagon.