10 Logical Fallacies (And How People Misuse Them)


Logical fallacies are something we all learned about in high school at least a little bit, and we have all heard teenagers throw them around (often wrongly) in internet arguments in a vain attempt to “win” something — they of course haven’t yet learned the crucial lesson that no one ever wins an argument on the internet. While many of us are familiar with some of the same famous fallacies, there are other lesser known ones that it’s important to not fall prey too, and many more well known ones that are often wrongly applied, or just not properly understood. In today’s article, we will go over 10 examples of this phenomenon…

10. Correlation Does Not Equal Causation, But It Can Be A Connection

One of the most well known fallacies is the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, which translates from Latin to “after this, therefore because of this.” Post hoc fallacies refer to when someone argues that something is caused by something else, simply because it happened after. A rather absurd example to get the point across would be to do a dance to try to make it rain, see it happen sometime roughly in the future after the dance, and assume that the dance caused the rain to occur.

However, it is important to keep in mind that it is only a post hoc fallacy when it is the sole basis for your argument, or when the association is pretty much completely off the wall and doesn’t really logically have anything to do with whatever you’re applying it to. For example, it would be fallacious to simply argue that serial killers have turned to being mass killers instead, because the graphs correlate a drop off in serial killers with a rise in mass killers. But it could be part of a larger argument. If something is at least a logical association, it cannot be dismissed on its own — it just can’t be the only piece of evidence you present. It has to be backed up.

9. Red Herring’s Are Not Always Intentional, And Are More Than Just Rhetoric

The red herring is a classic logical fallacy that basically concerns misleading people by distraction. If you ever watched the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby Doo, you would be familiar with a character named Red Herring, who is constantly blamed early on for the crime by the gang, but never turns out to be the bad guy. He seems rough around the edges, like the type of kid who would do bad stuff, but despite being gruff and a little on the meaner side, it’s never actually him. This is the literary form of the red herring, used to distract people from the real bad guy so they don’t figure it out early. But there is another form as well.

The red herring is also used as a rhetorical device in an argument in order to distract from the main point. This can be done more subtly (or more obviously), and may not even be done intentionally. See, the thing about a red herring in an argument is that it entails saying something that isn’t actually relevant in order to sort of save yourself from a troublesome part of the argument and get yourself on less shaky ground. But, like we said, there are levels to the red herring. When done less obviously, it might not even be intentional at all, as the person may not realize that what they are saying is not really relevant to the subject at hand.

8. The Slippery Slope Fallacy Can be Misidentified, As It Concerns Minor Consequences

The Slippery Slope fallacy is often used in politics, and consists of taking an argument to the very extreme in order to make something fairly banal sound really, really bad. For example, when the United States was arguing over the status of gay marriage, there were those that argued that if gay marriage were allowed we would soon have people marrying multiple wives, children, animals, and even inanimate objects. As far as we can tell, we are not yet in any danger of any of those things occurring, even though gay marriage has generally been the law of the land for several years now.

However, it is important to understand that the fallacy usually consists of large consequences coming because of one small one. It doesn’t mean that a “slippery slope” effect couldn’t be a true concern if the change were big enough. For example, if a United States President were allowed even once to get away with openly flouting the Constitution and declaring a national emergency just to get his way, it is almost certain that it would pave the way for that President or others to abuse that particular power more in the future, and could lead to worse abuses over time.

7. Yelling out “Ad Hominem” Is Not A Get Out Of Jail Free Card From Fair Criticism

On the internet, you will often see young people arguing with each other (or just straight up brawling), and someone will yell out “ad hominem” in order to gain some kind of ground. However, ad hominem, which means “to the person,” applies when you are attacking the person himself instead of his argument. This doesn’t mean, however, that every time someone is attacked or criticized it’s ad hominem. If two people think they are being mature but are actually just throwing e-hands and not even debating anything, shouting “ad hominem” doesn’t make either person look any less immature.

Furthermore, ad hominem is not a get out of jail free card from criticism that fairly comes your way. If you have truly done things wrong — whether in politics, in business, or online — crying that somehow people are not being logical because they are “attacking you” or “being mean” (or what have you) is a fallacy in itself, as you are trying to appeal to emotion to distract people from the awful things you have done and what an awful, horrendous human being you actually are. Sometimes an insult is just an insult and fair criticism is just that — it only counts as ad hominem if it is used in lieu of an argument, during an actual debate.

6. To Avoid Strife, Keep In Mind People May Not Realize They Are Using A Strawman Fallacy

The straw man fallacy is one often thrown around on the internet when someone is trying to sound cool during an argument, and consists of creating an incredibly exaggerated version of someone else’s argument in order to try to make their position look much stupider than it sounds. For example, someone could make an argument about the benefits, or at least lack of harm, of legalizing marijuana, and someone attacking a strawman might criticize them for their desire to allow people to smoke while driving and walk around puffing out of bongs on the street corner completely unchecked. The first person certainly didn’t suggest any such ludicrous things, and the second person would have done better to go at the issue from a public health aspect of some sort.

However, sometimes someone attacks a straw man because your position was not entirely clear to them, and they are thus making assumptions because they couldn’t figure out what you meant. In this case, it might not even be intentional. Especially if someone is your friend, it may be better to try to clarify your position further before you accuse them of intentionally exaggerating what you said to make it look stupid. It is also sometimes an accepted rhetorical device in logic to attack a straw man in order to force some form of clarity on someone’s position, when repeated attempts for clarity in other forms have already failed you.

5. The Sunk Cost Fallacy Can Be Misidentified And Cause You To Lose Time And Work

The sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy that involves wasting one’s time and money on a project long past when you should have just called it quits. Many people struggle to notice they are doing this, continuing a business venture long past when it was losing money and longer going to be turned around without a miracle, or working on an invention (or other project) that they long ago should have realized they are wasting their time and money on. When they start to realize the project is actually futile, they tell themselves that they already spent so much time and money on it that they must see it through. This is a fallacy because either way that time and money is now gone, and if it isn’t going to work, continuing to work on it is just throwing good money after bad.

However, one should be careful to not zealously over-apply this fallacy and make a decision you will regret later. If you feel some kind of project or idea has reached that stage where maybe it’s just not working, and you are really falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy, that doesn’t mean you should forget everything you already did. Depending on the project you may actually benefit from coming back to it from a new perspective, and you can always learn just from going over old creative projects. You should always be careful, as the expression says, not to “throw out the baby with the bath water” just because you are afraid to fall prey to a logical fallacy.

4. The “If-By-Whiskey” Fallacy Is An Important One That Politicians Like Obama Use Often

The “if-by-whiskey” fallacy is something that you will often hear from the mouths of politicians. The name was first popularized in 1952, when a young lawmaker from Mississippi named Noah S. Sweat Jr. gave a speech where he responded to the states’ current crisis of whether to keep an alcohol ban, by trying to make it sounded like he agreed with everyone at the same time. His mealy mouthed, wishy-washy speech was so ridiculous that it was lampooned on a national level by the New York Times, and soon became famous for all the wrong reasons.

The best modern day example of someone who gives a lot of speeches like this is President Barack Obama. This is not to particularly criticize him for any sort of policy — we aren’t getting into that here — it is just an observation of the way he often spoke in public, in the hopes of uniting people together. Obama may have been more interested in trying to get people to see each others’ points of view than he was at trying to appear as all things to all people, but the overall backbone of many of his speeches would fit pretty well into the “if-by-whiskey” fallacy. He always explains both sides of every issue, and why he can understand that they both feel the way they do, but he never really comes down hard on one side or the other. If you don’t have anything against him, and you are hoping to hear what you want, you will.  

3. “Moving The Goalposts” Can Be A Fallacy, But It Can Easily Be Misapplied Overzealously

One fallacy many people have heard is the moving the goalposts fallacy. This is a fallacy where someone asks for proof of something you say, you prove it to satisfaction, and it is still not enough. Now, they suddenly need you to prove some entirely different point in order to convince them of your original point, and so on and on, until it drives you completely crazy. However, this is a fallacy that can be misidentified by the arguer, and could actually be because you are either not explaining it well enough, or they are actually listening to you, trying to learn something, and are building up knowledge.

What to you seems like moving the goalposts and continuing to demand more and more to prove your point could actually be because they are mostly a novice on the subject, and don’t want to believe anything without understanding the foundations better. If someone is not trying to just “disprove you,” but actually seems receptive, before you accuse them of moving the goalposts (and possibly turn them off from listening if they were), consider that they may just be building a foundation of knowledge, and building their way through your argument so they can understand it fully. If someone doesn’t have the knowledge base you do about a subject, they may need you to build your way to a point before they accept it. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are trying to “beat you” in an argument.

2. The Psychologist’s Fallacy Is Something A Lot Of Us Could Stand To Look Inwardly On

The psychologist’s fallacy was coined by the Psychologist and philosopher William James back in the late 1800s, and concerned the way researchers often viewed events in their research. He noticed that the researchers often had a bias that caused them to tend toward looking at the experience of the subject through their own subjective lens, instead of looking at it from the perspective of the person, and their own experiences. In other words, instead of relying solely on observation and careful questioning of the subject, they would look at the results, and consider them based on how they would feel if they were the subject instead of thinking more about how the subject would be thinking or reacting in that situation.

In a way, this is something that literally everyone falls prey too. Far too often, when we don’t have enough information about someone, or about some event that occurred, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes but forget that what we really need to do to truly understand is to figure out what it would be like to truly feel like them. Most people don’t go to this effort, but it would make it far easier for everyone to understand each other and not make dangerous assumptions. Everyone experiences everything differently.

1. The False Equivalence Fallacy Is Incredibly Dangerous, And Causes Us A World Of Trouble

The false equivalence has two main forms. The first is something journalists and political media often fall prey to, which is giving credence to two arguments, even if one is obviously almost completely false, or absurd; this is common in the political arena, to avoid offending party sensibilities and be “fair” to “both sides.” The other main side of it is the false comparison, where two things are attempted to be compared that really don’t fit, in an effort to take heat off one, make the other look bad, or both. This is, again, really common in politics.

The main way this is often used is when a politician is caught in a scandal. They will point out some minor crimes political rivals have done and either gotten away with, or even been punished for, and try to make people feel like the two of them are, at the least, “just as bad” even if the scandal was far, far worse, and not really comparable. A made up example: imagine a politician gets caught for hundreds of thousands or more in tax evasion, and he tries to deflect public anger by pointing out that time one of his political rivals dodged a parking ticket a year back, and that therefore they are, if nothing else, just as bad as each other.

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