Logical Fallacies: See 'em, Know 'em, Avoid 'em
Despite constant encouragement from friends, clients, readers, newsletter subscribers and podcast listeners to comment on current political events I selfishly avoid it like the proverbial plague. Nuance and sound bites don’t go well together in our current media landscape. So as a compromise I’ve decided to take a current event -- the literal plague of our time -- and apply both sides of a negotiated, data-driven argument to expose five common (and avoidable) logical fallacies in the process.
Latin for “against the man,” instead of advancing good sound reasoning, ad hominem replaces logical argumentation with a personal attack to put the opponent on the emotional defensive: “you may be an epidemiologist, but you went to public school.”
If you feel tempted to use this strategy, don’t. It’s punching below the belt.
If this has been leveraged against you, ignore it and get on with the objective facts of the interaction.
This is commonly observed in major debates, even from moderators trying to incite the debaters. The result, more often than not, is awkwardness and an ongoing refusal to engage. Stick to the facts and what’s relevant to the issue at hand to encourage ongoing engagement.
Straw Man Argument
Countering a strawman argument is like trying to find a key in a haystack when you already have the spare in your pocket. It’s superfluous and misses the point entirely. The intent of a Straw Man is to draw you away from your position to defend what’s NOT your position. It tosses out a position the opponent doesn’t really hold to draw the focus away from the issue at hand. For example, in response to mandated mask use in public settings: “So you think I should suffocate?” Or, when facing concerns about wearing a mask: “So you want to be responsible for killing someone?”
Straw Men are weak and flawed beings, and so is the tactic.
If you’re tempted to use this tactic, try at your own risk. If you’re working a deal, this can bring the negotiation to a screeching halt as the other side either tries to backpedal to defend themselves or decides you’re not worth doing business with.
If this tactic has been used against you, call it what it is, don’t try to find the keys you already have in your pocket, and re-state what your position actually is.
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam
Based on insufficient information, argumentum ad ignorantiam argues your position is the right one because there’s no support for the other side:
Example 1: “No scientific study proves mask-wearing contains the virus, therefore, masks don’t work.”
Example 2: “No scientific study proves mask-wearing doesn't work, therefore masks work.”
The first amendment in the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution blessedly ensures the right of everyone in the United States to speak up, loud and proud, about things they know nothing about. Which allows for colorful holidays and political rhetoric of every color and shade, not to mention highly entertaining social media feeds.
We’re all ignorant of much more than we know, and until we get the God gene figured out, no human will possess the entire objective knowledge of the universe. Negotiate what you know now, and let available objective evidence support or undermine your argument.
If you use this strategy, call it what it is: you only know what you know, and based on that knowledge, x, y, and z make sense.
If this strategy is used on you, call it what it is: you (and the opposition) only know what you know, and there’s probably more research to be done.
This fallacy sets up two bad options, both of which are false. Politicians and activists often use extreme dualisms. For example, “You can either wear a mask, or kill elderly folks,” or “you can either let me shop in your store without a mask, or violate my civil rights like a facist dictator.”
Reality: there are many options, considerations, and nuances. This line of reasoning fails by limiting options and considerations based on objective evidence in favor of subjective comfort. As a gross oversimplification, it also assumes people can’t think for themselves.
If you’re tempted to use this strategy, ask yourself if you’re dealing with children. If not, pull out the nuance and see what the full array of options looks like.
If this strategy has been used on you, voice some other available choices and call out the nuance of the situation.
Slippery Slope Fallacy
A darling of attorneys, economists, union leaders, and teenagers, this argument says if you let one thing happen, obviously catastrophe will strike! For example, “if we don’t wear masks all the time, everywhere, until the end of time, the virus will spread, mutate to untreatable virulence, and then we’ll be living The Stand or Oryx and Crake, and only several thousand humans will live”; or, “if we shut down the economy, the unemployed will riot, people will go starve to death, shoot people for food and gas, the thunderdome will be constructed in reality to fully outfit our Mad Max hellscape.”
The fallacy is that one thing necessarily triggers a more horrifying event (or events, depending on how good you are at catastrophizing) based on no objective evidence. Or future telling ability. While any outcome is possible, we simply can’t know until it’s happened.
If you’re tempted to use this strategy, check yourself. What are you afraid of? Why? What’s the objective probability of this outcome? Come back to the conversation after you’ve sorted yourself out.
If this strategy has been used on you, have a list of great therapists for your opponent. No, just kidding. Take a step back and name the fact that we simply cannot know the future until it’s happened.
Negotiate to the best of your ability by being yourself, use truth and eschew the drama. Fallacies are drama. To learn how to negotiate like a boss by being yourself, check this out.