Most of the criticism directed at Donald Trump and others running for president has focused on the factual errors and lofty promises they have made. But little attention has been paid to their fallacious arguments, and it is time to correct these abuses of logic.
An argument is an attempt to establish the truth about a belief; fallacious arguments appear to do this but don’t. Since all of the political candidates claim to be making truthful statements, it’s crucial that we voters understand when their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny.
While there are dozens of types of fallacies, we have room to highlight only a few here. And to show that I’m not playing favorites, I’ll give examples of fallacies each of the leading candidates has made and, in some cases, continues to make.
Argumentum ad hominem
Ad hominem arguments are personal attacks that have nothing to do with the truth of the target’s statements. Donald Trump uses this technique in practically every speech he gives. Senator Marco Rubio’s height is irrelevant to his assertion that Trump’s clothing business hires workers outside of the U.S. That claim would be just as true or false if Rubio towered over Trump in a game of one-on-one basketball (which, truth be told, might be a healthier way of settling their disagreements).
Since he has been on the receiving end of Trump’s insults and knows their irrelevancy firsthand, one would expect Rubio to avoid making such attacks himself. But he has given in to the urge to use them, too. As long as he remains in the race, it would behoove Rubio to make the strongest possible case for why his knowledge and skills make him the best person to lead our country. Personal swipes at Trump don’t do that.
Appeal to authority
In this fallacy, one attempts to justify one’s beliefs by appealing to a powerful figure. On the March 6 edition of Face the Nation, Hillary Clinton spoke about the retroactive classification of more than 2,000 emails she sent on her personal server while Secretary of State. “Colin Powell summed it up well,” she told host John Dickerson. “He was told that some of his emails from more than 10 years ago were going to be retroactively classified, and he called it ‘an absurdity.’”
If reclassifying old emails is wrong, it’s because it’s unconstitutional, or because it’s a violation of FBI policies, or something else intrinsic to the activity itself, not because a respected person has so declared it.
Here, a word or concept with two meanings is used one way in one context and another way in another context. Philosopher Gregory Sadler notes that Senator Ted Cruz uses this type of fallacy when he criticizes Trump’s position on Planned Parenthood.
This organization, according to a Cruz TV advertisement, “treats the unborn like another form of currency.” The ad then states that “Donald Trump defends Planned Parenthood,” and to support this claim, we see a clip of Trump telling Sean Hannity, “Planned Parenthood serves a good function… We have to look at the positives.”
It would be easy to conclude from this ad that Trump is pro-choice, and this appears to be Cruz’s intent. But abortion is only one of the services that Planned Parenthood provides. Trump has stated numerous times that what he supports about Planned Parenthood are the services other than abortion that they provide for women.
There are many legitimate ways for Ted Cruz to criticize Donald Trump, but equivocation isn’t a logical or ethical way to do it.
Another fallacious argument is the so-called Straw Man, in which an opponent’s position is exaggerated and thus made easy to knock down. On the issue of gun control, here is what Senator Bernie Sanders said about Hillary Clinton and other critics during MSNBC’s Democratic Presidential Candidates Forum:
Sanders gave a great sound bite and a vivid image. But no one is seriously arguing for the right to have a backyard missile launcher. Sticking to the facts may make for boring television, but grand entertainment is not what political debates should be about.
There are other abuses of logic that strictly speaking aren’t fallacious but should be avoided nevertheless. One such abuse is inconsistency. For example, during the Republican debate on March 2, Ted Cruz addressed the issue of same-sex marriage and adoption this way:
By using the phrase “five unelected judges,” Cruz is indicting the U.S. Supreme Court as an institution with undeserved power to interpret the law. But if you’re going to take such a position, it’s inconsistent to defer to the same body on other occasions. On his official website, for example, Cruz notes that he has written 70 Supreme Court briefs and made nine arguments there.
Either the Supreme is a legitimate institution or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.
There are several ways in which leaders can get their points across. They can use brute force, as the heads of ISIS, Boko Haram, and other fascist states do.
Less extreme but still problematic are politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen who use fear appeals and other abuses of logic to advance their agendas.
At the other end of the moral spectrum sit democracies like ours, which are founded on the idea that rational discourse—not violence, bullying, or name-calling—is the best way to solve problems.
If the people seeking the most powerful office in our country really believe that the way we tackle challenges is superior, then they ought to use the essential tools of democracy—reason and logic—and eschew fallacious arguments like the ones we’ve discussed here. In the words of Mr. Spock, to do it any other way would be highly illogical.
What are some other fallacies you’ve observed in the news? Leave a comment below, and I may cite you in a follow-up column on the topic of fallacies.
2. Categorizing Fallacies: Pros and Cons
Fallacies are often categorized into different groups or families. We’ve already seen one type of categorization, between formal or structural fallacies and content fallacies.
If you search online it’s not hard to find long lists of fallacies grouped into hierarchies, like a biological classification scheme. Here’s one example. This is Gary Curtis’s website: FallacyFiles.org. It’s a great resource, tons of information on different types of fallacies.
Now if you click on the link titled “Taxonomy” then you go to a page that has over a hundred different fallacies organized into a hierarchy. I’m going to grab some images to show you parts of the hierarchy:
As you move from left to right you have general fallacy types, then sub-types of that type, that sub-sub types of that type, and so on.
So, within the category of formal fallacies there are a variety of sub-types, including fallacies of propositional logic. Within this category you can see some that you should recognize if you’ve followed the lectures on common valid and invalid argument forms. In particular we looked at affirming a disjunct, affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent.
As you can see, you could spend a lot of time just looking at formal fallacies.
Now let’s shift down a bit. This is a section of the hierarchy rooted in the category of informal fallacies:
"Informal fallacy" is another way of identifying fallacies where the problem with the argument doesn’t come down to an issue of logical form. The problem has to do with the content of what’s actually being asserted, or with other aspects of argumentation.
Notice here you can find the bandwagon fallacy that I mentioned in the previous lecture. It’s been categorized as sub-type of the category of red herrings.
Pros and Cons of Studying Fallacy Types
Now, why am I showing you this?
It’s to make a point about the pros and cons of learning logic and argumentation by studying fallacy types.
There’s no doubt that you can learn a lot about logic and critical thinking by studying and memorizing fallacy types. And when you’re given a classification scheme like this it can help you to understand how different types of fallacies relate to one another.
There are some downsides, however.
- First, it’s easy to get lost in all of this. There are so many fallacies, it’s hard to remember their names, it’s easy to get confused.
- Second, it’s easy to lose sight of the basic principles of argument evaluation if your focus is entirely on memorizing fallacy types.
Every fallacy is just a bad argument, and arguments are bad either because they have weak logic, or they rely on a false premise, or they violate some other basic principle of argumentation. In principle you should be able to analyze any argument in terms of a small handful of basic principles. But you can lose sight of these basic principles if you start thinking of argument analysis as essentially an exercise in pigeon-holing arguments into fallacy types.
But there are some important up-sides to studying fallacy types.
1. Critical Thinking Literacy
Some fallacy types are very well-known and commonly referred to by their names, like “straw man” and “red herring” and “ad hominem”. It’s important for basic critical thinking literacy to know some of these more common fallacy types.
2. Pattern Recognition Skills
A fallacy type is a kind of pattern. At first, learning to categorize arguments into fallacies can be hard, because you haven’t yet internalized the logical patterns, you find yourself needing to check and re-check the definitions to make sure you’ve got the right one.
But after a while you do start to internalize the patterns, and then something cool happens. You can be given an argument and you’ll be able to recognize a fallacy in it without doing a lot of conscious analysis in your head —you can just “see” it, because your brain has learned to recognize and respond to the pattern.
I think it’s harder to develop this pattern recognition skill if you’re always starting your argument analysis from first principles. So this is another reason, and I think the best reason, why studying fallacy types is important for developing critical thinking skills.
* * *
So, we’ll be looking at few of the more common fallacy types in this tutorial course.
I’m not going to make a big deal about categorizing fallacies into a hierarchy of types. Why not? Well, first, because we’re not doing a comprehensive survey of fallacy types.
And second, because there isn’t a universal consensus on how to categorize fallacies. If you look at different online sources or at different textbooks, you’ll find a range of classification schemes. Some categories are universally used, but others aren’t, and I don’t want to waste time arguing about classification schemes.
One thing I will try to do is show how each fallacy type can be analyzed using basic principles of argument analysis, to make it clear where and how each fallacy violates the basic definition of a good argument.
I think this helps avoid the problem of focusing too much on definitions of fallacies and losing touch with the basic logical principles that underly them.
Once you see this, you see that identifying fallacies by name isn’t really what’s important. What’s important is being able to recognize a bad argument and understand why it’s bad.