Informal Fallacies

When does a reasoned discussion become a shouting match? The text points out the way politics can become a shouting match between one political party and another. I’m sure many of you have seen this happen with friends or even siblings.

The problem with shouting matches is that they often don’t make use of good reasoning. People in shouting matches use different rhetorical devices (whether they are aware of doing it or not) often simply for an emotional reaction. This is not reasoning or argument. (For an example of this, see the video to the right from the Detroit City Council.)

The rhetorical devices we’ll be covering here are a bit more tricky than the ones we’ve already covered from the previous lecture. For example, the rhetorical devices from chaper six sometimes seem to be good reasoning at first glance. Even an outspoken ultra-conservative or ultra-liberal will seem to be using arguments when attacking the political left or right, but on a careful examination it (most often) turns out that the premises presented are not sufficient to support the conclusion. Often these attempts at argumentation will aim to persuade you psychologically or emotionally.

These mistakes in reasoning are called “fallacies.” You’ve likely heard that word before. Sometimes it is defined differently, but the definition in the previous sentence (also from the text) is the way we’ll be using it in this class.

Warning! Before we go any further, I must set down a word of caution. As you gradually learn these fallacies, you will likely start to notice them in other areas of your life. You’ll notice them when you are browsing the net, reading articles or advertisements, talking to friends, etc. This is good because it allows you to see a direct relation between what you’re learning and your everyday life. However, don’t let it get to your head. There’s no reason to point out to your friends every little fallacy they may commit. Furthermore, often people make arguments that are more complex and cannot be categorized according to a single fallacy. As the text puts it, these arguments contain some reasonable points in addition to some fallacies.

This chapter will cover what are often referred to as fallacies of relevance. These are what they sound like: would-be arguments in which one or more of the premises is irrelevant to the conclusion.

For example, if I were to say that you should listen to what I say about politics because I play more basketball than you, you would probably tell me that my ability at basketball has nothing to do with my knowledge of politics. My argument would look like this:

  1. I play more basketball than you.
  2. Therefore, you should listen to what I say about politics.

It’s clear that the premise (me playing basketball) is irrelevant to the conclusion (you listening to me about politics).

This is an easy example. Unfortunately, this sort of bad reasoning gets trickier to recognize. It’s sometimes not as clear that a premise is irrelevant to a conclusion. The rest of the lecture is devoted to the specific fallacies.

“Argument” from Outrage

Many of us get angry. Some more than others. Sometimes we have a reason for being angry. If we find, for example, that our significant other has been cheating on us with one of our friends, it seems safe to say that we are justified in our anger toward our significant other, and our friend.

But sometimes we get angry without really having a reason, even if we think we have a reason. Let’s say you’re a heterosexual male, and you see your girlfriend talking to another guy. Immediately, you become angry. This anger seems unjustified. What if the other guy is just a friend from your girlfriend’s work? Or a friend from the past? In order to entertain the idea that your girlfriend might be being unfaithful, you have to have more evidence than a simple conversation. Thus, you do not seem to have a reason for your anger in this situation.

There are other ways anger seems unjustified. People often make us mad. Let’s say you try to make a sandwich and find that your roommate has eaten your last piece of bread. You get really angry. In fact, you are angry the rest of the night about it. Later when your roommate starts talking about her views on the recent presidential election, you automatically think she’s wrong because you are still mad about the bread. You have let your anger cloud your judgment (and you may not even be conscious of it). Your anger at your roommate and her knowledge of politics are two separate things.

All this so far has served as an introduction to the argument from outrage fallacy. Let’s get more specific. The argument from outrage is a fallacy where the speaker substitutes anger for reason and judgment on an issue. As the text points out, this fallacy is common among die-hard proponents of various political parties. To take the example of the bread above, you might say something like this about your roommate: “Everything you say about the election is wrong, you ate my last piece of bread!” Clearly, you are substituting anger for reason.

Scare Tactics

Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, argues that Governments quickly push policies when citizens are in a state of shock as a result of a natural disaster or terrorism of some kind. The idea is that governments use citizens’ shock as a means of getting them to accept new legislation and reform. If Klein is right, what governments do is an example of the fallacy called “scare tactics.”

Below is a video from the Detroit City Council, reminding us that people at any level of government can behave like two children in a sandbox fighting over a toy shovel.



Rush Limbaugh (below): an outspoken conservative who hosts the infamous Rush Limbaugh Show.


Al Franken (below): an outspoken liberal who was recently named to the US senate.


In the video below, Naomi Klein lays out her idea of the shock doctrine.



The Boulder Glacier: same glacier at different times (before is above, after is below). Do these images alone persuade you that global warming is a serious concern? Hopefully you need more than images...


This is a fallacy that tries to scare people into accepting something or doing something; it replaces reason with fear. If you make people afraid, they are more likely to look for solutions, and perhaps listen to your solution.

Like anger, fear can prevent us from seeing the reasoning (if any) behind an issue. It can prevent us from seeing what’s really going on. Let’s take another example: global warming. Most of us are familiar with the idea that there seems to quite a bit of scientific evidence and consensus among scientists that global warming is occurring. Much of this was brought to our attention by Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. But let’s forget about the evidence and consensus for a moment.

What if someone were to hold up to you two pictures, one of a snow-capped mountain, and one of that same snow-capped mountain several years later, now without any snow? It's very likely that these two images would have the capacity to scare you into believing that we have to do something about global warming now. (As a matter of fact, many people do seem to have been swayed by such images from Gore’s movie. Often, those images are cited to support the case for global warming over the scientific evidence and consensus. As always in this class, I’ll let you be the judge.)

It’s worthwhile to point out that sometimes there are legitimate reasons for being scared. Not everyone who presents scary information is committing a scare tactics fallacy. If you are, let’s say, a programmer for a software company and someone cites a statistic that programmers are losing their jobs left and right (and you have reason to believe this statistic is accurate), this is a legitimate reason for being scared that you might lose your job.

“Argument” from Pity

The argument from pity is a fallacy where we feel pity for someone, but as a result we are driven to some conclusion on an unrelated matter. Professors get this all the time (and I should know). For example, at the end of the semester students will often email me to say that they need an A to get into some internship, or some program. The expectation is that I will feel pity for them, then give them the A. The problem is that there are clear requirements for earning an A, and a student must meet those requirements to get it. The fact that I might feel pity on a student does not change the fact that he or she didn’t meet the requirements. (For the record, I do sometimes bump a student’s grade up, but this is based on considerations unrelated to pity.)

“Argument” from Envy

This is basically a fallacy that happens when we exaggerate a person’s bad points because we are jealous or envious of them in other ways. Let’s say that you have a friend who is dating a very attractive person. You might say something like, “Yeah, he’s dating a gorgeous woman, but he can’t keep a job.” We all have problems, but our envy of other people can sometimes cause us to exaggerate their bad points.

Apple Polishing

This fallacy is exactly what is sounds like, and is derived from the teacher’s pet stereotype. When someone praises someone else to substitute for the truth of a claim, they are committing the apple polishing fallacy. A more base way to say it is “ass kissing.” If a student tells me how great a teacher I am, and I let this influence the grade I give him, then I have committed the apple-polishing fallacy. A student’s accomplishments in the class should speak for themselves.

Guilt Trip

This one’s pretty obvious. Most of us are familiar with the concept of “guilt-tripping” someone. This is a fallacy. If you try to make someone feel guilty to get them to do, or not do, something, then you are committing this fallacy. Let’s say you are out to eat and someone with you doesn’t finish her food. If you say, “You know there are starving children in Africa so you should finish your food” you are trying to guilt-trip the person into eating the food. Guilt alone shouldn’t be responsible for making someone accept a claim or course of action.

Wishful Thinking

This is a common fallacy. This happens when we accept, or fail to accept, a claim simply because it would be pleasant or unpleasant if it were true. Many self-help books commit this fallacy. One common theme that runs through self help is the idea that you can “be whatever you want to be.” This may prompt you to believe that you can be a basketball star, even if you are under 5 feet tall. Probably the most common example of wishful thinking is believing in an all-loving God because it is more pleasant to think that such a God is watching over you. This isn’t to say that people don’t believe in God for other reasons (or through faith, which implies a lack of reason).

Peer-Pressure “Argument”

People want to fit in. When we accept a claim simply to gain the approval of a group of people, we are committing the peer-pressure fallacy. Let’s say you’re a sophomore in high school. You’re hanging out with a new group of friends and they’re talking about how great the Yankees are. The clear leader of the group then looks at you and asks, “You like the Yankees, right?” Let’s say that you say “yes” because you are afraid of being kicked out of the group, or made fun of. In other words, you seek the approval of the group. You’ve committed the peer-pressure fallacy.

Group-Think Fallacy

This is similar to peer-pressure, except in this case you use the pride you feel in being the member of some group as a substitute for coming to a reasoned conclusion about some issue. Let’s use nationalism as the example here. Nationalism is the feeling that, no matter what your country does, it is right. It’s not a bad thing to feel pride in the nation you are a part of, but when that pride becomes a substitute for reasoning about some issue, it becomes a fallacy. Governments are made of people, and in a free society we have the right to question their actions when we feel they are out of line. It is a fallacy to simply go along with every action a government makes because it is the government of your nation. Sometimes this is hard to see with your own nation. But consider a paradigm example: Nazi Germany undoubtedly had many citizens who were very proud. In many cases, this pride justified the atrocities the Nazis committed. Nationalism is just one example. Group-think can occur with members of any group, from baseball teams to school boards.


We often deceive ourselves. We tell ourselves we are doing something for one reason when in fact we’re doing them for an entirely different reason. We usually do this to satisfy our own desires. This is known as rationalizing, and it’s a fallacy. Sometimes you hear parents say that they beat their kid “for his own good.” This seems to be an example of rationalizing. There is likely some deeper reason that the parent is beating their kid. Maybe they have anger issues or other emotional problems. Simply saying that it is for the kid’s own good seems to be a rationalization.

“Argument” from popularity

Many of us are familiar with the phrase: “If everyone jumped off of a bridge, would you?” Typically, parents give this line to their kids when their kids say things like, “Everyone else at school has got Playstation 3, so why can’t I have it?” With the bridge statement, the parent is saying that the fact that everyone does something doesn’t mean you should do it. This is essentially the popularity fallacy, which happens when we accept a claim just because everyone else accepts it. It’s pretty clear why this is a fallacy. It was once widely accepted that the earth is the center of the solar system. The fact that many people believed it did not make it true. We can even return to global warming here. I'm not taking a stand for or against (mostly because I'm a philosopher) but I do have to point out that consensus is not truth.

The book also deals with two other variations of the popularity fallacy (common practice and tradition), but I won’t address them here. You should still know them and read over them in the book.

The Relativist Fallacy

Relativism is an interesting idea that gets an awful lot of attention and adherence from beginning students. Being a relativist is often seen as a tolerant way of viewing the world. Relativism is basically the belief that what is true or right/wrong differs from society to society or culture to culture. While our society generally stands up for equal rights for women, other societies do not. There are examples in the book, but the one I’m going to use here is homosexuality. In my previous courses, we’ve discussed gay marriage. Often, I heard students say something like this: “I think homosexuality is unnatural and morally wrong, but people can do whatever they want with their lives. It’s not wrong if they want to do it.”                

As the book points out, this quote is essentially saying that homosexuality is wrong and it isn’t wrong. Saying something is wrong implies a universal claim—something that applies to everyone. You can believe what is right or wrong depends on the culture, or you can believe that something is just wrong. It is logically inconsistent to believe both, and that’s why it’s a fallacy.

Two Wrongs Make a Right

You’ve probably heard the expression “two wrongs don’t make a right”—most likely from your parents. The basic idea behind the expression is the subject of this fallacy. Let’s say that you find out a good friend of yours has stolen the ten dollars you left on your desk. You decide to steal his favorite CD instead of taking another course of action, like confronting him about the ten bucks. You reason that “if he steals from me, I’m going to steal from him.” This is the two wrongs make a right fallacy. The fact that some wrong has occurred does not imply that it can be fixed or corrected by another wrong. However, as the book points out, some methods of retaliation do not qualify as the two wrongs make a right fallacy.

Red Herring/Smoke Screen

This fallacy occurs when someone introduces a distraction from the original point of a discussion, then goes on to conclude something irrelevant about that separate point. This fallacy is very common and often occurs in a conversation without either party being aware. In a heated debate, this fallacy is usually implemented because the parties involved don’t want to be wrong about something, so they introduce a separate point to lead the conversation in another direction.

Let’s say you’re having a discussion with a friend and she is discussing the injustices of the world, saying that there has been genocide in more countries than she can name. You are skeptical about how she’s using that term, so you ask her to define it so her point is clearer. She responds by asking you to define a complex term (say, imperialism) on the spot—presumably her point is that it’s difficult to define terms outright. But this is a red herring because the issue was her discussion of genocide, not your ability or inability to define imperialism.

Nationalism is a powerful force. It's not a bad thing to be proud of your country (this is called "patriotism"), but when you let pride substitute for reasoning, you're committing the groupthink fallacy. Obviously, comparing Nazi Germany to the US is a stretch, but the case of Hitler is a good reminder that, when governments get out of control, pride needs to be put on the backburner.


Below is a modern rendition of Aristotle's model of the universe. It was widely believed to be accurate until the 1500s. This shows that the popularity of a belief does not alone make it true.

Copyright © Luke Cuddy 2009