Being argumentative is a trait that is much desired among the millennials, as it helps people understand how clear-headed your line of reasoning is, and how capable you are of elaborating your points in group discussions or debates. There are, however, a series of defective arguments, commonly known as ‘fallacies’, where the line of reasoning or premise provided does not support the conclusion. We all should be aware of such fallacies and consciously avoid them in verbal or written English. With an explosion of social media chatter online, you can easily identify these fallacious arguments in everyday conversations:
- Hasty Generalization: When you draw conclusions or overreact on the basis of insufficient, exceptional or non-representative observations. This can happen a lot due to bias or prejudice. For instance:
You have a bad experience with an Uber ride, in which you have charged extra fare than usual. You exclaim: “Shit man! Uber a worthless app and all the drivers are useless!”
Note that you are making a sweeping statement just on the basis of your solitary bad incident. Things would be different if it were a repeated occurrence, but here, defining the app and the drivers as useless is tantamount to making a hasty generalization.
- Red Herring: This is a kind of fallacy in which irrelevant or sensational topics are introduced in an argument to distract the attention of listeners. It gets its origin from the sport of fox hunting in which a red-colored dried, smoked herring is used to lay a false trail in order to train hunting dogs. The same way, a red herring argument distracts the listeners to a false trail, diverting them from the main topic. Example:
PM Narendra Modi in a speech, responding to critics of demonetization: “I have worked hard and sacrificed a lot for this country. Please work hard with me so that we can together eliminate the issue of black money.”
Instead of responding to the criticism with objective points, stating his own personal sacrifices becomes a red herring- Modi is distracting the people from the main topic.
- Poisoning the Well: This fallacy is commonly used by politicians, mainly to turn the public against their rivals. In this, the speaker tries to discredit any claim by a particular person by presenting information against him or her. This can be considered similar to ad hominem, in which invectives are used against an opponent to discredit them. Example:
Any claims by Hillary Clinton in the US Presidential elections of showing an eagerness to work for the American people were discredited by Donald Trump who cited her leaked emails. A large part of the American public was convinced that Hillary Clinton was a criminal and had only interests of the lobbyists at her heart, despite the CIA stating it did not have a strong case against her.
- False Analogy: This is a fallacy in which different things or situations are compared in a matter that seems alike but actually they are substantially different and no actual logical conclusion can be drawn. Example:
The western media saying that Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines, is equivalent to Hitler because of his ongoing crackdown against drug peddlers. This is a false analogy since the two people are quite different- Hitler was responsible for the systematic genocide of Jews while Duterte intends to end the scourge of drug abuse in the crime.
- Appeal to Numbers, Appeal to Popularity: These fallacies attempt to show that a particular thing is true or correct by referring to the numbers or popularity of that thing. Example-
A politician saying that 80% of the Indian population supports demonetization so that means demonetization is a good thing. But even if 80% of the population actually supports it, demonetization can still not be considered a good exercise since it has led to many job losses and badly affected the lives of the rural populace.
- Confirmation Bias: Many a times, individuals tend to look for information to confirm their pre-conceived notions and beliefs, while giving considerably less attention to alternative evidence. Such a fallacy is known as confirmation bias. Example:
Consider the burning issue of gun control in the US. Those in favor of gun control will look at all the shootings reported in the media and interpret it as pressing evidence to limit the use of guns. Facts can be different, with isolated incidents and problems of mental health being posited as a trigger-happy population.
- Chronological Snobbery: It is a fallacy under which one has the notion that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inferior to that of the present, simply because of beliefs that were commonly thought to be held at that time. For instance:
There are many paintings and works of art from them medieval period. There is also a commonly held notion that people were inherently more savage and burned people on the stake and indulged in torture and would do the same today. Chronological snobbery means to dismiss any work of value from the medieval period just because of supposed negative notions of the behavior of people during that period.
- Weasel Wording: This refers to the use of words that are ambiguous and not supported by facts. They are intended to subtly create an illusion of clear and direct communication in order to mislead listeners into believing statements that are not supported by credible sources. Example:
Get up to 50% off or more! You must have seen this a lot during the shopping sale season. This cleverly-worded sentence is a marketing technique that flatters to deceive. You won’t save more than 50% or even 50%. You might only save 20% or even less than that.
- Myth of the Mean: When people use an average to hide a problem and lead people to believe faulty conclusions. For example:
A particular state in India doesn’t need any aid since the average income there is Rs 35,000 per individual. But the fact is that there are a few families with very high incomes that have skewed the number and the reality is that most are living below the poverty line.
- Moving the goalposts: Moving the goalposts or shifting the goalposts is a logical fallacy that seems to have been mastered by crony politicians in Indian. It means when a particular argument is put forth and a satisfactory answer is provided, then asking more and more questions in a refusal to concede the argument. Example-
The journalist quizzed Virat Kohli whether the bad weather conditions affected the team’s performance in away matches. After Kohli replied that it was not so, the journalist asked whether in-fighting in the team had led to the bad performance. Kohli replies and says there is nothing of that sort, the team just had a bad day in the field. But the adamant journalist insisted that Kohli reveal whether there were any personal issues within the team that had affected their performance. Despite answering all questions, the refusal of the journalist to concede that the team merely had one bad day in the field shows he wanted to move the goalposts from one point to another needlessly.