How to discern fallacious arguments

Writers working in nonfiction, including travel writing, need to understand and easily identify logical fallacies. You’ll find more tips like these in the Travel Writing program at MatadorU.

Image: RabiD Son

THE ORIGIN of this post began as a comment left at an earlier article, 3 Writing Styles that Kill Your Authenticity .

Basically I was ranting against marketing style language “constructions” as things that (a) obscured the truth, and (b) just “sucked” stylistically, but were nevertheless (c) pervasive, probably as a result of people’s continuous absorption of marketing and advertising via television, radio, computer, movies.

One important point I didn’t make in that article is that the “writing styles” I mentioned are also examples of fallacious arguments, something that writers often miss because many of us (myself included) have never studied rhetoric or logic in school.

Wikipedia’s definition of logical fallacy: writing that

“exploits emotional triggers or takes advantage of social relationships between people.”

So back to the article: one of the constructions that “killed” “authenticity” (using the word “killed,” at least without scare-quotes, is itself a bit fallacious) was the rhetorical question.

I wrote:

.. the narrator asks him or herself a question:

How many people wouldn’t want to live next to a beach like this?

[This] fails because it tries to force the reader into feeling a certain way about the story or question rather than just asking the question or telling the story and letting the reader think / feel for herself.

Then one commenter wrote the following:

#3 sounds a lot like a rhetorical question

Is that really such a writing disaster? I’d like to read more thoughts on this.

I mean, who doesn’t like a rhetorical question?

I wrote back:

Thanks for your question.

Yes, it is essentially a rhetorical question. And the last sentence of your comment illustrates the point exactly.

“I mean, who doesn’t like a rhetorical question?”

Rhetorical questions are constructed in such a way as to point the reader towards a particular answer or response.

For example, the way your sentence above is written implies (a) that you as its author ’speak’ for other people, (b) that this group of people ‘believes’ rhetorical questions are ‘likable’ and (c) this group is the majority–that it’s somehow out of the ordinary to ‘not like’ a rhetorical question.

But you could’ve just as easily written the sentence to work the other way, for example:

“Who hasn’t read enough meaningless rhetorical questions?”

In this case, the sentence is using the same construction, only trying to lead the reader in the opposite direction–to imply that rhetorical questions are somehow ‘not likable.’

Rhetorical questions are one of the classic examples of fallacious arguments or “logical fallacies.”

Today I was reading a recent article at WordHum which seems so full of logical fallacies I remembered this comment and decided to bring up the topic again.

First off, here’s a free resource outlining 89 fallacious arguments.

Now I want to go through several of the statements in the recent WordHum piece, showing how they are examples of logical fallacies.

1. “I doubt if the business, housed in an elegant 16th-century building, could last a month without us. “

This is a form of confusing correlation and causation. Confusing correlations and causation works look this. A person says “1. A occurs in correlation with B., 2. Therefore, A causes B.” This isn’t necessarily true however.

In “all fairness, ” the author’s construction “I doubt if” does mitigate the fallacy somewhat; he’s not “passing it off” as a pure statement of “fact” however, it still seems to be “exploit[ing] emotional triggers or tak[ing] advantage of social relationships between people.”

How could you write that statement non-fallaciously?

“I don’t think they could last a month without us. ”

2. “You know who I mean. Yes, you who wouldn’t be caught dead at Disney World. Or on a Caribbean cruise. Yes, you with the Moleskine notebook and sourpuss expression. You know who you are.”

This is a form of ad hominem known as as hominem abusive. The author is attempting to characterize certain people, however these characterizations are completely irrelevant to the “logic” of his argument. Just because someone has a certain expression or writes in a certain notebook has nothing to do with their “position” on tourism.

How to write that statement non-fallaciously:

I’m not sure if it’s possible.

3. “We tourists provide jobs and, more than that, keep centuries-old traditions alive.”

This is an example of casual reductionism, in which something that is very complex (in this case, the effects of travel on a country’s economy and culture) is reduced to one simple cause / effect relationship.

How to write this non-fallaciously:

“One potential benefit of tourism is helping to ‘fuel’ local tourist economies.”

4. “The moment we step foot in a foreign land we change it irrevocably. We tread heavily, whether we’re wearing sneakers or Birkenstocks. Why not do some good while we’re treading?”

This is an example of two different logical fallacies. The first is Reductive Oversimplification. Is “The moment we step foot in a foreign land we change it irrevocably,” true in all cases? Not necessarily, but it is “passed off” here as truth. Thus it’s fallacious.

The second fallacy is the one I mentioned in the introduction, the fallacy of a rhetorical question. The construction of the question leads you to believe that the argument of “being a tourist” is somehow “doing good.”

There’s probably some other fallacy in there too–something about the relationship set up between the first fallacy (oversimplification) and the second. But I’m not 100% sure.

How to write this non-fallaciously:

“I believe the moment I step into another country I change it irrevocably. ”

“5. The idea is simple: A culture is worth more alive than dead. “

This is the “premise” of the entire story, and the reason why it’s “fundamentally flawed.” This statement is an example of a bad analogy. The author is declaring “culture” analogous with “commodity.”

How to write this non-fallaciously:

attempt 1:

In my albeit conflating view of culture and economics, I believe that preserving certain tourist elements provides financial incentives to local economies greater than the potentially damaging effects vis-a-vis locals’ sense of “decaying morale” as parts of their cultural heritage are subsidized and possibly transformed into a spectacle via the elements’ continued existence as living artifacts, many of which appear to have become jokes among the local people, both in and of themselves, and also extrinsically, in the way they provide entertainment, especially during the high season when large numbers of tourists “flood” the artifacts leading to “blowout proportions” of people behaving in ways that appear to be delusions of massive beneficence and / or “enlightenment.”

I’m also aware that this piece is not FFF (free from fallacy), as, rereading it now, I’m detecting possible prestigious jargon and also the “sensation” that the whole thing may be an argument by gibberish.

Still, it seems truer to me than “a culture is worth more alive than dead.”

*The travel writing course from MatadorU gives you access to freelance leads for paid travel writing, travel jobs, and press trips, as well as connections to travel editors at Matador and beyond.

Related Articles

How writing is “supposed to sound” vs. writing your perceptions 10

Twilight of the Travel Guidebook? 49

Field notes from Elizabeth Eslami 6

  • Michelle

    I feel like I’ve just walked out of a three hour lecture. And I mean that in a positive, complimentary way.

    David, you somehow manage to take things I read that bug me but I can’t put a finger on why, or that I don’t even notice as being a fallacy, and breaking it down perfectly. Casual reductionism – I am going to remember that term, because shit, do I ever see it all the time.

    Just awesome. Thanks for this article.

  • Joshywashington

    You are my superhero, my jiminy-friggin-cricket.
    I can’t say how good it feels to read something and learn about how to read and how to write. Moving toward a goal of authentic, transparent writing, your posts go a long with this humble blogger.
    Thanks D!

    • David Miller

      damn. thanks hermano.

  • Hal Amen

    “Why not do some good while we’re treading?”

    Feel like I’m watching Fox News. “Who doesn’t love America?” It’s impossible to refute the point at face value without coming off as a dick/ingrate/terrorist. Fortunately there’s airtime online for the necessary deconstruction.

    Great piece, David.

  • Candice

    Love these articles, keeps my brain whirring. I can already think of one fallacy I used today, thanks David!

  • Julie

    I experienced logic class in the same way I experienced learning about cognitive behavioral therapy: seriously powerful ideas that made me hyper-aware of myself and others, our thought processes, and the way we communicate. So much of our speech is laden with logical fallacies that we don’t even notice them.


    Thanks for the great lesson on fallacious arguments! This will challenge writers to think about what they write and to re-read what they write before they publish it on their website or pitch it to an editor.

  • Benjamin Vander Steen

    Excellent article. I think it’s appropriate to end with a rhetorical question, but only if you’ve established evidence to support the conclusion you’re trying to draw from readers.

    Overall, I found this article very informative, and applicable beyond just travel writing.

  • Eva

    With reference to Tom’s piece, David, I wonder: Do logical fallacies play a different role in humor pieces than they do in straight non-fiction? Or do you hold jokes to the same standard of “authenticity”?

    • David Miller

      it’s a good point eva.

      perhaps i’m being myopic, reading every line without making distinctions, just running it all through some kind of authenticity filter.

      i know people who are like that in real life–they can instantaneously see through people’s fronts and are really good at calling them out.

      that’s not how i am in real life though. i’m really just kind of quiet / shy.

      but as far as how i read: i’m not aware of filtering the stuff; i just do. i’m constantly looking at every word and sort of unconsciously asking myself ‘what is the narrator intending here? is this real?’

      actually it doesn’t feel like that at all. it’s more like constantly looking for stoke, for truth, which, like really good wave conditions, offshore winds, barrels, seems so damn infrequent.

      the only time i can fully ‘let my guard down’ is when reading pieces that seem written in states of total desperation, written from states where it feels like the author had two choices–either they write it or they kill themselves. ‘notes from underground’ by dostoevsky comes to mind for some reason. a lot of DFW’s stuff, but then he killed himself anyway.

      the irony i think is that these super desperate pieces, by the necessity of their truth seeking–are funny. the truth is always funny. and sad.

      so back to tom’s piece: i didn’t think of it as a ‘humor piece’ because it didn’t make me laugh.

      it didn’t feel like the ‘true tom’. it felt like it was ‘tom trying to be funny.’

      i wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘true tom’ was actually hilarious.

      either way, i feel like maybe the second half of my comment (the ‘famous filtering’ or whatever) was left in a slightly mean-spirited or just ‘smart ass’ way, which isn’t ‘the true dm’ either.

  • Camden Luxford

    Wicked article, thanks Dave. I did take a logic class way back in the day but its excellent to have a refreshed, and applied to travel writing. These things slip through quite easily sometimes.

  • Steve K

    “perhaps i’m being myopic”

    I think perhaps you are. The phrases you deconstruct are constructed in just those ways to entertain, -and- to lead you to conclusions that the author has reached. He could of course have written the article as a series of simple bullet points with no ‘fluff’ around them, but there are many people (myself included, though I’m not pretending to speak here for any kind of fictional ‘majority’) who appreciate the entertaining kind of writing that I believe includes many of these cliched and (in your terms) fallacious sentence constructions.

    You appear to me to be demanding facts without opinion, and/or “only the truth” – neither of which are the (sole) points of writing. If travel writing were to avoid all cliches and all fallaciousness, it would be very boring indeed in my opinion – and almost certainly cater for a smaller segment of the intended audience. If ‘purity’ is your goal, then you are arguing persuasively, but purity can be pretty dull.

    Travel writing may be classified as non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be entertaining, persuasive, tear-jerking, argumentative, manipulative if the writer deems it necessary, and yes, even fallacious. It’s writing – it’s not a logical dissertation where only unadorned facts may be presented.

    “the truth is always funny. and sad.”

    No it isn’t – the truth is quite often boring, and frequently irrelevant. “Truth seeking” is a particular style of travel writing, but it is only one of many styles that may be used with perfect validity. Perception (of truth) is at least as valid, certainly in terms of travel writing.

    As a postscript I’ll add that I’m -not- arguing -for- cliche-ridden pieces that completely ignore all facts – I’m simply arguing against an extremist view of perfectly fair writing.

    • David Miller

      ‘the truth is quite often boring, and frequently irrelevant.’

      when truth becomes irrelevant then writing is meaningless.

      here is the pattern: as rhetoric and abstractions are added, truth begins to disappear.

      for example, labeling the way i read as ‘an extremist view’ obfuscates the truth of your description / sentence / overall writing style.

      instead of examining the language itself, you’re using a rhetorical trick, a way of ‘wrapping up’ your argument using a catchphrase or bit of codified language that may (or may not) resonate with other readers, and then contrasting it to an abstraction, ‘perfectly fair writing.’

      if i were to ‘engage in’ this same ‘tactic’, i might end this response with some catchphrase / rhetorical construction like:

      “but what writer ever wanted to produce perfectly fair writing?”

      but (a) that’s not the way i ‘argue’ (for or against abstractions) and (b) i’m not exactly sure what you really mean by that postscript.

      • Steve K

        What I mean by “irrelevant” in relation to ‘the truth’ is detailed observations of the facts whether interesting or not. The truth is intrinsically never irrelevant (if you’re intending, as your reply suggests to me, to address it philosophically), but truth in writing is often (if not quite correctly so) subserviant to ‘entertainment’ – i.e. if the reader is not entertained then the truth of the writing is irrelevant. I’m using entertained in the wider sense of provoking an emotional reaction, positive or negative.

        What I was labeling as ‘extremist’ (somewhat harshly I will admit) was the opinion you wrote about what I consider a perfectly valid writing style.

        You’re entitled to your opinion of course, as am I and all readers – what I was trying to do by my comment was provide some balance to your article and the commenters praising you by pointing out that not everybody (or even everybody who reads on here) subscribes to your point of view. I think that’s a reasonable thing to do.

        What I meant by my postscript was: writing that resorts to piling cliche on cliche rapidly becomes lacking in any kind of entertainment value (except as ironic pastiche perhaps) and I was trying to clarify that I do not support that kind of writing. However I am arguing that your view of the style of writing you’re critically deconstructing is not a view I subscribe to, in fact that view is one I consider ‘extremist’ – again I apologise for the emotional implication behind the word extremist, I was struggling to find a word that describes a view I find overly critical without adequate reason.

        By the way – in my previous comment (and this reply) I was not *deliberately* using or intending to use any kind of tactic or codified language as you describe – I was simply writing what I thought/believed. Ascribing intention in that respect to me credits me in a way I do not deserve (positive or negative).

        • David Miller

          thanks for the clarifications steve.

          i don’t expect (nor want) everyone else to subscribe to my POV.

          i don’t even expect (or necessarily want) for me to continue subscribing to this same POV.

          it’s just something i’m feeling at this moment in time. it’s a pattern in the overall progression.

          [it's kind of like handplants - i'm working on handplants this season on the snowboard.]

          eventually this will become something that i’m no longer focusing on, but just part of my riding / writing style.

          but in the meantime, the point in making these notes is to raise awareness. i believe that ppl use codified language, as you explain in your response without ‘intending to’ . . .

          i think they become embedded in the ways we communicate.

          i go into a bit more analysis of why and how in this piece:

  • oolung

    I sort of agree with Steve K here… Mostly because of the examples you give. The first one is perfectly valid (the elegant 16-century housing having nothing to do with the business going bankrupt), but the second? It was obviously a stylistic gimmick, meant with a pinch of salt (at least it seems so without any context to it). No wonder you’re hard put to finding a non-fallacious way of rewriting it: it’s not supposed to be objective. As a stylistic device, it’s supposed to be “biased”.

    So I get the feeling you undermine your own premise by this choice of examples: instead of calling for clarity and honesty of writing, you make it sound (IMO) as if you want everything to be written “just so”, like a dry report – when writing is not just giving dry facts, it’s also about giving your opinions and impressions, etc., etc. As long as the reader knows you’re not trying to provide them with an objective account, they should be able to discern what is meant “really” and what is just a writing style, and they can choose if they agree with the meaning or not.

    Having said that, I do appreciate (and very much so) the point you’re making, which is (to me) that we should be careful not to get tricked into being cleverly manipulated by seemingly innocent phrases which sway our point of view (let’s watch out for this while reading news reports!).

    One last point: Wikipedia (wonderful tool as it is) is not necessarily the best source of a definition in this case. Your article is very insightful and “scholarly”, but Wikipedia still lacks scholar credibility… :-)

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  • jacquelinek

    David I love this piece and your other related article. Thanks for going into detail and making it easy to understand and The 89 Fallacious Arguments, right on point for me now!

    I’m brand spanking new to writing, except for years of journaling, and I’m trying to understand which types of courses or classes will help me most in this particular area of writing, where I’m going to have to be very convincing. I’m going to be writing some pieces that focus on the elderly, orphaned children and animal rights. Any suggestions what I should be looking for will help strengthen my argument and keep me from being eaten by sharks? Thanks!

  • kathy

    rhetorical questions remind me of Pippy Longstocking – am always tempted to answer, eg when Pippy sees a sign on a pharmacy window asking “want to get rid of those ugly freckles?” (or such I read it about 40 years ago) she marches in and firmly exclaims, “no!” to the confusion of whoever is behind the counter.

  • darmabum

    David, and all of you who took this issue/article to task – Thank You.

    David: You are for me (well, my ten year-old self, anyway) broccoli on the plate of my meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I LOVE mashed potatoes, I LOVE meatloaf, broccoli(?) . . . I know broccoli is good for me, but why can’t I just eat the potatoes and meatloaf? . . .

    David, thank you for being my broccoli (being older, I LOVE broccoli). I enjoy, truly enjoy, writing that raises more questions (at times) than it answers. Writing that challenges me, makes me look at my own writing in a different light. Whether we agree or not, it is the raising of questions that interests me. Your writing does that. Thank you.

  • Jared Loftus

    Logic has been a favorite subject of mine so it’s fun to see it outside the classroom. And just to be a stickler; the name for “confusing correlation and causation” is “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” (After this therefore because of this).

    One fallacy travelers need to be extra careful to watch out for is Apriorism – The fallacy of the hasty generalization.

    Chronological snobbery is a fun one for people studying cultures and any history to be aware of. This fallacy is committed when someone rejects or affirms a position solely on the basis of how old or new it is.

    Ipse Dixit is an illegitimate appeal to authority. Making arguments based off of the opinion of someone who has no real authority on the matter.

    Bulverism is similar to your Ad Hominem as it’s attacking the man behind the argument instead of the argument itself. It’s attacking a position by pointing out how the arguer came to hold it. Very easy to fall into when we’re talking about people from other countries and cultures.

    Anywhere there’s a small list of fallacies easy enough to find in travel writing today

    • David Miller

      jared, thanks for the insights and clarifications. i look forward to reading more of your writing.

  • Jared Loftus

    Bummer.. I can’t edit my comment. I was going to try and take my words back but they’ve already flown away haha. Being a stickler caused me to be incorrect as well. The other name for Correlation does not imply causation is actually “Cum” (with) hoc ergo propter hoc. Post hoc would be a subdivision of that fallacy