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Rhetorical Argument

An introduction to the types of rhetorical arguments and related concepts.


You’d be surprised to find that most interactions you have every single day are filled with logical fallacies. In today’s hyper-connected, politically supercharged culture, you’re likely to encounter a great deal of fallacies tucked away in different types of discourse from academic writing to Facebook arguments.

But what are logical fallacies? Well, more often than not, they’re innocent errors in reasoning that can (and do!) cripple an argument. Logical fallacies are simply ways that people may intentionally or unintentionally make mistakes in logical thinking. For instance, advertising may urge you to buy something because "everyone" has one already, which is an example of the bandwagon logical fallacy. Or a politician may misrepresent his or her opponent's argument to make it seem silly or absurd, which is an example of the strawman logical fallacy. 

There are several types of logical fallacies and though you don't have to know them all, it helps to be familiar with them so that you can train your mind to think critically. Traditional logical fallacies tend to be more simplistic. They could be attacking the speaker, rather than the argument (ad hominem), pretending there are only two possible solutions to a problem when there could be more (false dichotomy), or even putting irrelevant details into an argument to distract from the real issue (red herring). 

There are also cognitive biases, which are harder to spot. Cognitive biases including thinking that because A happened before B, A must have caused B (post hoc, ergo propter hoc or after this, therefore because of this), or that because A and B are linked, A must have caused B (correlation does not equal causation). An example of a cognitive bias is if you cut someone off, it is because you didn't see them while driving and made a mistake. If someone cuts you off in traffic, it's because he must be a terrible driver. This - attributing your own actions to circumstances and other people's to personality - is an example of a cognitive bias called attribution error.

Wherever we go, we can find logical fallacies. A Facebook post may say that because people who eat carrots tend to be healthier, eating carrots will make you healthy. A politician claims that his opponent wants everyone to give up their cars and go vegan because she advocates for the environment. Or an advertisement claims that wearing certain shoes will make you popular. 

Becoming familiar with the types of logical fallacies you may encounter helps you to think critically about arguments of other people, as well as your own. 

A logical fallacy is an error in the internal logic of an argument.

Simply put, a logical fallacy doesn't make logical sense in an argument. Having a logical fallacy does not automatically render an argument invalid, but it doesn't help it, either.

Being familiar with and able to identify logical fallacies help readers to analyze arguments, determine whether or not they make sense, and identify why or why not they agree with the argument. Writers should know logical fallacies so that they can avoid using them when forming their own arguments. 

Traditional logical fallacies tend to be more deliberate and externalized. Some common types of traditional logical fallacies include:

  • Bandwagon
  • Strawman argument
  • Non-sequitur
  • Hasty generalization
  • Slippery slope
  • Etc.

Cognitive logical fallacies tend to be errors in thinking, so often they're unintentional and internalized. Some common types of cognitive logical fallacies include:

  • The gambler's fallacy
  • Attribution error
  • Confirmation bias
  • Etc.

Traditional logical fallacies tend to be easier to spot and easier to overcome, while cognitive logical fallacies are internalized and much harder to identify. However, being aware of the potential for both types can help you write a reasoned, logical argument paper. 

We hear the term "Fake News" a lot these days. One of the reasons fake news is so effective, and can spread so fast, is that it exploits cognitive biases and fallacies to get people to spread the misinformation. For instance, say you hate Politician Jack Yarrow, and your friend loves him. You see an article that says that Jack Yarrow was once arrested for kicking puppies. Be honest: is your first reaction to check if it's true, or to send to your friend to prove you're right? This is an example of confirmation bias. You saw something that vindicated what you already believed, so you were less inclined to evaluate it for credibility. The time when you should be most suspicious of something is when it says what you want to hear.

Common Fallacies

"Tu quoque" is a traditional logical fallacy that literally means "you also." This fallacy is when Person A makes an argument and Person B uses Person A's personal habits to discredit the argument.  Example: 

Person A - Eating meat is wrong. Being vegetarian is better for the planet.
Person B - But you ate a steak last night! 

Now, just because Person A ate a steak for dinner does not mean that being vegetarian is not better for the planet, it just means that he's a bit of a hypocrite. Person B did not actually argue whether or not vegetarianism was or was not better for the planet. 

Confirmation bias is a common type of cognitive bias to see. This is when you instinctively read and believe information that confirms what you already believe, while discounting what you do not. For instance, say you are to write an argument paper picking one side of an argument. You choose to argue that short class times are better for learning. In researching, you ignore 50 articles that say longer class times are better, and instead find three articles that agree with your argument.

We tend to be more skeptical of things that we do not agree with, because it threatens our worldview. This is something that is important to be aware of, particularly in argument papers, because you need to address the other side of the argument fairly and with respect. See also: Fake news.

Correlation does not equal causation is a handy phrase to remember when analysing or building an argument. Let's say that a politician points out that crime has risen in the area ever since the new skate park was put in, and he is arguing that the skate park is attracting seedy people. The implication, of course, is that the rise in crime is because the skate park was put in, when really, it could just be a huge coincidence, there could be a third, hidden factor that is into play, or it could even be reverse causation.

Let's look at those:

  1. The divorce rate in Maine has a 99.26% correlation with per capita consumption of margarine. Clearly, people are spending too much on margarine, which is causing financial troubles in couples, who are then getting divorced. (Coincidence)
  2. Taller children tend to score better on the same standardized tests than short children. Clearly, our society favors tall people over short. (Third factor: Older children, who have been through more schooling, tend to also be taller, so really, older children do better than younger children on standardized tests)
  3. Several serial killers liked watching violent movies. Violent movies must cause people to become violent. (Reverse causation: Serial killers may be drawn to violence because they were already violent people.)

Strawman arguments are where Person A misrepresents Person B's argument by making it seem ridiculous or untenable. In essence, Person A creates a "strawman" - an overly simplistic or misrepresented argument - that is easier to defeat than addressing the real argument.

An interesting example of this is the McDonald's coffee lawsuit case. You may have heard about this case: a woman sued McDonald's because her coffee was too hot. It's often used as an example of a frivolous lawsuit and many people mocked the woman. However, the actual case showed that the coffee was hot enough to cause third-degree burns and required skin grafts; the coffee was 180 - 190 degrees when poured. Additionally, there had been over 700 previous reports of injuries from the coffee prior to the lawsuit.

The story of a woman too stupid to know that coffee was hot was a "strawman" argument: it was a misrepresentation of the situation in order to support the premise that there are too many frivolous lawsuits. Obviously the facts of the case show that it was not frivolous, but a serious issue.

So it's not just individual people who can make strawman arguments, but entire groups

As writers, you must be careful to always accurately represent the other side of the argument, even if you don't agree with it. It's much harder to rebut a good point - and most times the other side has them, otherwise there wouldn't be two sides! - but it's also much more satisfying than beating up a strawman.

PBS Idea Channel: Common Fallacies Playlist