Understanding Fallacies

by Frank

Understanding Fallacies

Arguments do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they participate in ongoing discussions. If I make a claim in my field and provide reasons to support it, others, wondering if they should accept my claim or not, are free to analyze my claim for weaknesses. Such weaknesses in arguments are called fallacies. Understanding and using the fallacies allows you to hold sway in these ongoing discussions. You might begin recognizing weaknesses in your own or others’ arguments, allowing you to form your stance on an issue based on an argument’s strengths.

Below, you’ll see some common fallacies writers are likely to encounter. You don’t need to memorize all the different terms to write proficiently, but understanding the concepts helps you see what makes arguments convincing or weak.



Missing the Point

Missing the point occurs when the evidence doesn’t actually support the claim it’s supposed to support.

Example: “Hunting shouldn’t be considered cruel because it gives tremendous pleasure to many people and employment to even more.”

Here the speaker claims that hunting shouldn’t be considered cruel. However, the support seems to be making a claim about hunter’s pleasures and benefits, not a claim that supports reasons why hunting isn’t cruel. Someone who wanted to claim that hunting isn’t cruel might match this claim with the following support: state governments regulate hunting according to species overpopulation which harms hunted and non-hunted animals alike. Also, methods of hunting are quick and painless…etc.

Strong arguments omit the superfluous. Make sure everything in your paper relates back to your claim.


Hasty Generalization
A hasty generalization occurs when a writer introduces a wide ranging assumption based on a few specific cases.

Example: “All writers should begin a paper by outlining, because I do so, and I earn high grades on my writing projects.”

This example ignores the possibility of different approaches to paper writing such as freewriting, brainstorming, concept mapping, etc. based on only one person’s success with outlines. If there were multiple studies on the benefits of outlining for all types of writing with very large sample sizes, I might be inclined to listen. However, what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone else. Cues to look out for are words that suggest no alternatives such as “all” “always” and “never.”

In your writing, keep a keen eye on the reliability of your sources. If a source makes too broad a claim only citing a few instances that support it, see if you can find a better source.


Slippery Slope

The name of this fallacy suggests an inevitable snowballing effect where one choice usually ends up leading a sequence of events to some kind of dire consequence. It’s basically a scare tactic that hypes up the consequences to an absurd degree.

Example: If the government allows background checks on gun buyers then they might feel inclined to start putting more restrictions on arms. Soon it will become harder and harder to buy guns and ultimately the second amendment will be stripped off the constitution.

While there can be reasonable chains of events, slippery slopes tend to exaggerate consequences rapidly. Here a valid precaution has warped into a sort of gun-less amendment-violating Armageddon scenario.


Straw Man

A straw man occurs when an opponent does not attack the issue at hand, but rather attacks an exaggerated or watered-down misrepresentation. It’s a way to make one’s position look stronger by knocking down a weak version of an opponent’s argument.

Example: “People want tuition kept low so students have more money for entertainment.”

This example misrepresents people who want tuition to be kept low by simplifying the issue to students seeking entertainment. Someone advocating for lower tuition would disagree with how this statement represents their stance because there are stronger reasons for lower tuition this statement undercuts and ignores: higher tuition slows the economy, benefits of an educated society, better educational quality, minimizing student debt, etc.

As a writer, you are obligated to represent issues fairly—even when you disagree with them. Straw man arguments aren’t only unimpressive, they mislead by misrepresenting the arguments on an issue, and they fail to advance the debate on an issue. If you’re not evaluating and critiquing the strongest form of an argument, then your critique is itself weak and easy to criticize. Ultimately, this fallacy can damage your credibility and prevent you from persuading fair-minded audiences. If you expect other writers to take your points seriously, you ought to deal with others’ arguments thoroughly and judiciously.

If you want help identifying or capitalizing on strong and/or brittle arguments, schedule an appointment at the Writing Center. More information on Fallacies can be found at https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/659/03/