Chapter Seven: The Fallacies



I.    Introduction

Fallacies are the focus of the theoretical work in this chapter.  After canvassing a number of different ways of systematizing the mistakes in reasoning known collectively as the "fallacies", I select one that distinguishes between fallacies of form, subject matter, and context and use it to frame my discussion.  After describing and exemplifying a raft of fallacies, I caution against an over-exuberant attitude toward them---they are often signs of weakness, but not always.  In what follows, I serve up some words of advice about teaching the fallacies, along with some ideas for exercises. I close with a brief list of further resources.

II.    Teaching Points  

  1. Fallacies form a part of the analysis section.†† Keep in mind that interaction with the fallacies is a part of analysis.You need to be sure that students have a clear sense of what an argument is and how it is (re)constructed before addressing the identification of weaknesses in form, content, and context, i.e., before evaluating it

  2. Not every argument that you dismiss as bad will be fallacious. There will be arguments you reject because you disagree with their premises, or because they represent a way of looking at the world that does not mesh with your own.Generally, arguments that you reject which are not fallacious will be those that are structurally strong, substantive, and relevant, but contain one or more premises you regard as false. An argument is fallacious if it contains a flaw that vitiates it structurally, or has subject matter that is not substantive or relevantly related to the topic at hand., or is out-of-step with the arguerís goals. 

  3. Not every argument that exhibits one of the fallacies weíve covered will be bad. Students should be familiar with the patterns discussed in the theoretical narrative, as they can indicate that an argument is in distress.However, many of them can be instantiated by good arguments.For example, a causal slippery slope argument could be a solid argument, if the causal connections exist.Also, an argument that appears to affirm the consequent might be taken to supply confirmatory evidence for a conclusion. If one of these patterns is present in an argument, then one should be on guard, taking extra care in evaluating the argument.  Do not dismiss such arguments out of hand. 

  4. Donít feel tied down to a list. It is important to teach the fallacies because it sensitizes students to argument patterns that are often weak, if not downright bad.Further, it provides them with a working understanding of the dimensions along which one evaluates an argument for strength.However, it is less important to know a fallacyís name than to be sensitive to its presence.If they know that an argument is bad but forget the relevant Latin, they are nevertheless in great shape. 

  5. Donít devote too much time to the fallacies. Be sure to spend time talking about what makes an argument good, in addition to the time you spend talking about what makes it bad. On the one hand, while knowledge of the fallacies is especially helpful when evaluating the argument of another, it is less helpful in guiding the process of argument construction. As a competent critical thinker, a student must know how to build strong arguments, and this will require awareness of what makes arguments strong. Since fallacies do not exhaustively represent what can make an argument bad, it will not be enough for the argument to avoid the fallacies. On the other hand, there are many, many more ways in which an argument can be bad than those listed in the Theory section of this chapter or in any list you supply to your students. If they become tied down to a list of fallacies, then they may allow a fallacious argument to stand simply because it does not instantiate one of the patterns on the list. 

  6. Introduce the fallacies on an as-needed basis. If the course is devoted to critical thinking, it will make sense to have a unit on the fallacies; however, if it is not, then it will likely make more sense to introduce them along the way, adding in what theory is needed to make sense out of the fallacy at issue.You will need to be aware of the fallacies as a group so as to spot them when they arise in class, but you neednít teach them to your students in this way.Donít ignore the theory, though---in addition to supplying a framework for thinking about the fallacy of the moment, theory can also help the students relate the various fallacies they meet to one another. 

  7. Be clear about the importance of context. It is all to easy to throw the fallacies out and make them seem like the critical thinking silver bullet; however, as noted above, arguments that exhibit these patterns need not be bad.In these cases, it is often the context that will help one evaluate the argument. 

II.    Instructional Ideas  

  1. Introduce the fallacies with examples. This is generally a good way to get abstract points across to students, and fallacies are in many ways abstract. Since these are repeatable patterns, it is helpful to vary the examples used.Further, it is best if the examples are drawn from available media, since that impresses on the students the prevalence of fallacious reasoning.

  2. If you introduce the fallacies on an as-needed basis, keep track of the fallacies youíve introduced. A master list of the fallacies youíve met---a sort of running tally---will be crucial to retention.This could be kept and updated on line, or it could constitute a semi-regular handout.(Donít worry about repeating the fallacies on these handouts, as this will reinforce what they have learned.)If you want the students to appreciate the relationships between the fallacies, it will be important to keep track of all fallacies theyíve seen.

  3.  Let the media help you teach these.It doesnít take long to find a few of these on talk-radio or political television.Be aware of the arguments that confront you and draw examples from these.Bring those that are relevantly related to course material into class.Alternatively, have a ďbad reasoningĒ contest, where you post to the web (or distribute in a handout) a piece of text that contains a flawed argument once every week or two and then ask for people to send you a diagnosis of the problem.Tie a small amount of extra credit to correct answers, if you are into that sort of thing.† 

  4.  Have students keep a fallacy log.Ask students to keep track of the fallacies they encounter during the course of their days.Ask for, say, at least 10 or 15 by the end of the semester, where each entry would include a short synopsis of the argument (or perhaps a full reconstruction, or both) along with an explanation of the fallacy instantiated by it. Have them organize the fallacies into groups, according to relationships among them that they deem important. 

  5. Use video or audio in class.Bring in videotaped commercials or talk shows (or audiotapes) and critique them in a class discussion.†† Find a show that contains course-related material for this purpose, if you can. 

  6.  Reinforce the fallacies you find by having students find similar ones. If you introduce a fallacy in class, have the students bring a different example of the same fallacy in to the next class meeting. Perhaps have them work on this in groups. You can discuss common locations in which fallacies of this sort might be found, if they need direction.

  7.  Have students commit them in class discussion. Have the students come up with similar examples in discussion of the fallacy in question.Do this in groups, if that helps.This could be integrated into the discussion of the fallacy that surrounds your introduction of it. 

  8.  Commit one yourself.Announce at the beginning of class that you will commit a fallacy of a certain sort, and have the students spot it.Reward the person or persons who spot it with extra credit, or perhaps class discussion credit.Be careful, though---if you do this and it isnít caught, donít let it go by unannounced.Donít wait until the end of class to call attention to it, or students might not be able to recall the details and the instructional opportunity will be lost. 

  9. Use a commercial to discuss the importance of context. Select a commercial that commits an obvious fallacy.For example, you might select one in which a star is hawking some product about which he or she has no knowledge (fallacious appeal to authority).Point out the fallacy, but then ask if this is reason to dismiss the commercial.After all, with commercials the bottom line is the bottom line, at least from the perspective of the productís producer.If the pitch moves the product, then the company whose product is selling will regard the commercial as a good one.This reveals that there are different levels at which arguments can operate, and they can be successful at one even if they are unsuccessful at another.Still, failure at one level may be meaningless if success occurs at another level.Of course, what is good for the company may not be good for the consumer, and so the fallacy should put one on oneís guard.(Still, the commercial may work by selling lifestyle along with the product, in which case its fallacious character may not prove to be relevant to those consumers who desire that lifestyle.This is related to the discussion of passion in Chapter 8.)

III.    Additional Resources

  1. Books

    1. Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 4th ed., by T. Edward Damer, Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 2001, pp. 209 + xiv.  A systematic, book-length review of the fallacies.

    2. Understanding Arguments, 6th ed., by Robert J. Fogelin and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Fort Worth, TX, Harcourt College Publishers, 2001, pp. 582 + xv.  A comprehensive introduction to critical thinking with two detailed and useful chapters on the fallacies.

    3. Books on the fallacies by Douglas Walton:

      1. Slippery Slope Arguments, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 296 + xi. 

      2. The Place of Emotion in Argument, University Park, PA, Penn State Press, 1992, pp. 294 + xiv. 

      3. A Pragmatic Theory of Fallacy (Studies in Rhetoric and Communication Series), Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1995, pp. 324 + xiv. 

      4. Arguments from Ignorance, University Park, PA, Penn State Press, 1996, pp. 313 + xii. 

      5. Fallacies Arising from Ambiguity (Applied Logic Series), Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996, pp. 293 + xiv.

      6. Appeal to Pity : Argumentum ad Misericordiam (SUNY Series in Logic and Language), Albany, SUNY Press, 1997, pp. 225 + xv. 

  2. Websites 

    1.  --- an annotated list of fallacy sites.   Start here.

    2. --- The Fallacy Files, by Gary N. Curtis.  An excellent repository of information and examples about a variety of fallacies.

    3. ---This site includes the text of work done by Michael Lebossiere for his Macintosh tutorial, Fallacy Tutorial Pro 3.0.  It includes an indexed and illustrated list of 42 fallacies

    4. --- Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies.  This site, created and maintained by Stephen Downes of the University of Alberta, includes a lengthy, organized list of fallacies.  Each fallacy is presented in four parts:  name, definition, examples, and proof, where the last step discusses how you can prove that the fallacy in question has been committed.  This is also linked to a Logical Fallacies Discussion List, which can be accessed from here.

    5. --- This forms part of the Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum Project at Longview Community College in Lee's Summit, Missouri.  Each fallacy is described and illustrated.

    6. --- Logical Fallacies in Scientific Writing, by A. Stephen Richardson.  This document begins with a discussion of the fallacies individually, and then turns to their appearance in scientific writing.

    7. --- Beliefs and Fallacies. A lengthy and detailed discussion of fallacious reasoning, grounded in Stephen Downes' work mentioned above.