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Columns

Waubonsee Voices: Spotting a Bad Argument

Jon Nichols
Jon Nichols

“Well you’re just wrong.”

How many times have you heard that lately? Given our current climate of contention and spirited discussion…to put it mildly…you may have found yourself debating opinions with a family member, a coworker, or perhaps with someone you don’t even know in that most bedeviling venue of them all: the social media comments section.

Despite how noble the spirit of someone’s intent might be, they can often base their claims on what are called “logical fallacies.” These are concepts we sometimes learn about in high school or college, but such lessons can easily fade in memory. Flawed reasoning is everywhere, from our neighbors to the sometimes “fake news” story, so it’s good to review a few fallacies so you can spot when either a friend or a media pundit is making a shaky claim.

Bandwagon appeal: Also known as argumentum ad populum in Latin, this is an argument contending that something is true or worthwhile in quality just because it’s popular. Let’s say I put on an exhibition of finger paintings I’ve made and 75 people attend. I could say, “Look at all the people! See how many people I have here? That means I’m a great artist!” The number of people in attendance does not automatically mean I produced quality art. If this were true, then Justin Bieber and the Spice Girls would be considered among the greatest musicians in the history of popular music, and there is probably more than one school of thought on such a contention.

Either-Or: Also known as “the false dilemma”, this is an argument that many of us may, sadly, be familiar with on a personal level. Ever had a friend or family member say to you, “You’re either on my side or you’re not”? That question is an oversimplification, implying there are only two possible points of view. You can be friends with or even love someone while not agreeing with all of their decisions. History is replete with world leaders swaying the masses to ill ends with arguments of “if you don’t support this action, then you are against our national ideals.” It also affords the arguer the ability to sort people into “us and them” categories, truly dangerous territory for any society.

Faulty causality: Good old post hoc, ergo propter hoc. That’s Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.” Ice cream causes murder. Did you know that? It’s true. Go ahead and look it up. You will see that the rate of ice cream consumption rises in parallel to the murder rate. While that may be true, an increase in temperature likely has much more to do with both lethal crimes and the sale of milkshakes. My statement about ice cream and murder contains no evidence to show that the first event caused the other. Correlation does not always equal causation.

Slippery Slope: This kind of argument wants you to think that the consequence of one action will automatically lead to another, and it’s often a “doomsday” scenario, without offering any evidence that such a chain of events would occur. “I want to get new windows,” my wife says to me. “Great,” I reply. “Then next you’ll want to redo the bathroom. Then you’ll want to install a Jacuzzi. Then you’ll want to fill that Jacuzzi with champagne. What makes you think we have that kind of cash?” At no point is there evidence for me to reasonably arrive at the notion of a champagne-filled Jacuzzi from the request for new windows. My response is illogical. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s told me that, but I digress…

Whataboutism: Sometimes when there isn’t a good rhetorical retort, someone will attempt to deflect the argument by attempting to discredit someone with a charge of hypocrisy. “I don’t think you calculated my test grade correctly,” a student says to a teacher. “Yeah? What about that day you missed last month?” the teacher retorts. While the student may have once had an unexcused absence, it has nothing to do with the error in computing the test grade. The counterclaim is a clumsy attempt at finding flaws in the arguer without addressing the actual claim. “You do it too,” is another example of whataboutism for as we’ve been told since childhood, two wrongs never make a right.

Argumentum ad baculum: This is Latin for “argument to the cudgel”, or in other words, the threat of force. Imagine telling a store manager you were charged twice for an item. The manager denies it. You show them the receipt, clearly displaying a double charge. “People who question me get knocked down,” he responds. In addition to likely getting a visit from local law enforcement, the manager has committed a logical fallacy by attempting to shut down any debate via threat of force. If his argument were solid to begin with, then he would have no need of force.

Ad homimen: Latin meaning “to the man” or as we might better think of it for our purposes, “to the person.” It’s basically an insult instead of an argument. Imagine making an argumentative claim and the person you’re debating responds, “Well, you’re just a dumbo” (yes, I’m aware I’m using one of the most benign and contemporarily unlikely insults I could, but let’s keep in mind this is a family show.) The point is that the response does not refute your argument. Instead, it attacks you as a person. If an arguer must resort to name calling, then they have already lost the argument.

Above all, stay calm in an argument or debate. It makes it easier to detect logical fallacy. Additionally, be aware of when you yourself may be tending towards one of these fallacies as none of us are perfect.

Jon Nichols is an instructor of English at Waubonsee Community College.

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