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RocketReader newsletter - Critical Thinking in Reading - Understanding Fallacies

Detecting Fallacies in Arguments

The ability to evaluate arguments presented in a text is one of the necessary skills that a critical reader should develop.

In a previous issue of our Critical Thinking in Reading newsletter we have discussed arguments and listed some important techniques for identifying and evaluating arguments in a written text. We have defined an argument as a collection of some supporting statements (premises) being used to justify another statement (conclusion). We also identified two basic kinds of argument - inductive and deductive. fingers in a book

Now, we discuss another vital component in evaluating arguments - identifying fallacies. A fallacy can be simply defined of as an incorrect pattern of reasoning in an otherwise logical argument. It means that an argument can be valid (i.e. one where the conclusion follows from the premises), have true premises, and even have the true conclusion - but still one of the many known fallacies may have appeared along the way! Consider the following example:

Example of a fallacy

How many times have you heard one of your friends say

"Nissans (Chevrolets, Fords etc.) are terribly unreliable! I owned one and it broke down on me at the worst possible moment . I am never buying one again!"

man reading a document

Let us analyze this argument. The emotional component of your friend's willingness not to buy a car that arouses negative associations is quite understandable. However, you are invited to conclude that millions of cars of a certain manufacturer are .terribly unreliable. just because your friend had one bad experience. Obviously, this is unreasonable for such a conclusion. Also, by providing the information that the car broke down "at the worst possible moment" the speaker hints that he or she might be overreacting because of the inconvenience.

So, after all this, are Nissans unreliable? We can only conclude that we do not have enough information to make a judgment in this case. The fallacy is one of 'hasty generalization' - reaching a conclusion on the basis of insufficient reasons.

As you can see from the above example, fallacies do not mean that the conclusion made was either true or false. But, even if the conclusion is true, the danger of not recognizing a fallacy is in believing that an argument carries more weight than it should. Here is another example of a fallacy.

"During our road trip, we stopped three times in Kentucky to fill up with gas. On every occasion, the service station attendant had lots of missing teeth. One of them refused to accept my Amex and insisted that only cash was good enough. I was so angry! I tell you, we need to do something about these toothless yokels that infest Kentucky!"

The fallacy above is that out of the scanty evidence of a few people with missing teeth, and one person who refused a credit card, we hear the conclusion that 'toothless yokels infest Kentucky'. Well, here is another dental argument about Kentucky, but avoids the fallacy of hasty generalization. by using a more credible source of information. "According the world health organization, an extensive survey of all states in the USA found that Kentucky scored the highest percentage of missing teeth. In fact, over 43% were completely toothless. It is clear that Kentucky is afflicted by poor oral hygiene."

Exploring some common fallacies

Let us consider some common fallacies found in written sources, and look at ways of detecting them and dealing with them.
Loaded Questions (also known as "complex questions")

Example: One example of this fallacy is the question, "Have you stopped stealing?" The question is formulated as a yes/no question, and any direct answer implies that you have indeed been stealing!

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How to deal with it: Remember that complex questions cannot be answered in a simple yes/no way, but require a complex answer. So, a reasonable way of denying the fact that you have been stealing in our example is: "I wasn't stealing, so I can't stop something I wasn't doing".

In written sources, loaded questions can often be found in interviews, polls and surveys. As a respondent or interviewee, you should always aim to recognize and expose these types of questions. It is also important to recognize how loaded questions that go unnoticed could taint a report or survey and lead to inaccurate conclusions.

Post-hoc Reasoning

Example: The current government is renowned for its sound economic management. After just two years under their direction, unprecedented economic growth has been recorded.

This fallacy assumes that just because one event comes before another event, the first event must have caused the second. Just because the government took control two years before the growth, it doesn.t necessarily mean that the government caused the growth. Many factors, such as the state of the global economy, political situation or even the long-term economic policies of the previous government could have influenced the economic growth.

The following two Murphy's laws provide a simple and humorous explanation of why post-hoc reasoning is faulty:

  • If you wash your car, it will rain.
  • Washing your car to make it rain doesn't work.
How to deal with it: When you suspect post-hoc reasoning, ask yourself these questions:
  • Is there evidence that the effect would have occurred even if the cause did not occur?
  • Could it be that the effect was caused by other causes and not the suggested cause?
Which of these sentences has post-hoc reasoning?
  • It's no wonder your car got burgled, you were visiting Dallas. Dallas has the highest crime rate in the USA..
  • In 1964 in Alaska, an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale devastated Prince William Sound. A giant tsunami ripped through Canada and the USA, a green killer wave measuring 67 meters in height. This enormous event changed the geology of the USA. The USA has not been the same since; we are still feeling the ill after effects of this giant quake; earthquakes, tornados, and global warming. And there.s more to come!.

Both of the sentences above have post-hoc reasoning. A car can be burgled even in the city with the lowest crime rate in the world. The second example discusses a giant earthquake, and suggests that as a result of this event, follow-on events are happening 40 years later including tornados and global warming. It doesn't provide any arguments as to why the earthquake in 1964 has caused the follow on events.

hands holding a document

This type of fallacy often occurs in newspaper and magazine articles, advertisement, election campaign materials, as well as various reports and studies. Because cause does come before the effect, this fallacy is often difficult to spot. That is why it is important to make a conscious effort to carefully consider all available facts whenever a "cause-effect" relationship is suggested.

It is important to train yourself to identify fallacies when you do your daily reading. Apart from being a great brain workout, this exercise has an immense practical value in making you a better critical reader. We will discuss some other common fallacies in a future issue of this newsletter.

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