How to Discern Fallacious Arguments

by David Miller Mar 3, 2010
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.

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.

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