A fallacy is simply a false or mistaken idea. If you can spot logical flaws, you can save yourself from bad information. This includes defending yourself from politicians, sales people, diet books, doctors, and even your own kids. In logical arguments, where logic matters, it’s important to avoid your own logical fallacies, as well as spot them in counter-arguments. In rhetoric, your overall persuasion is more important than logic. While logic plays a role, it’s also about emotion and character (see Character Trumps Emotion Trumps Logic.) The key thing is don’t start trying to spot logic fallacies in all your conversations. Instead, spot fallacies when logic really counts such as a logical debate or when you are making important decisions based on information based on logic.
In Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion , Jay Heinrichs writes about detecting logical fallacies.
Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:
- Distinguish between rhetoric and logic. In logical arguments, it obviously matters whether your logic is right. In rhetoric, logic isn’t as important as persuading. You can even be wrong in your logic.
Bad proofs, wrong number of choices, or a disconnect between the proof and conclusion. To spot logical fallacies, look for bad proof, the wrong number of choices, or a disconnect between the proof and the conclusion.
- Identify bad proofs. A bad proof can be a false comparison. It’s the apples and oranges issue. It can also be a bad example that just isn’t relevant. Another example if using the lack of examples proves something.
- Identify the wrong number of choices. This one is easy to spot. Anytime there’s a number of items you need to question whether it’s the right set. For example, are there only 3 ways to spot logical fallacies? In a logical argument, this could be important. In rhetoric or persuasion, what’s more important is whether anybody cares that you have the right number of options and whether it’s limiting. For example, somebody might only see two ways to do something, but you might have a third alternative.
- Identify disconnects between proof and conclusion. This is the classic, “jumping to conclusions.” The key question is, does the proof really lead to the conclusion? For example, is it simply a correlation or is it causation?
Once you know what to look for, spotting logic flaws is a lot easier. When you don’t know what to look for, it’s easy to get tripped up, or mislead, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Before you start calling fowls though, you should figure out whether debating the logic is worth it, based on the context and your situation.
Why Spot Logical Fallacies
Why should you learn how to spot logical fallacies? On a very practical level, it’s how you can defend yourself from bad information or bad arguments. If you don’t fall for the bad arguments or bad information, it doesn’t matter as much, unless it’s formal logic. In formal logic, the attitude and rules are strict. In rhetoric, there really are no rules. Your audience is responsible for finding the flaws. If they do find flaws in your logic, you lose credibility. Heinrichs says that the ability to find logical fallacies is how you defend yourself from politicians, salespeople, diet books, doctors and even your own children.
3 Ways to Spot Logical Fallacies
There’s 3 simple ways you can spot logical fallacies:
- Bad proofs.
- Wrong number of choices.
- Disconnect between proof and conclusion.
This includes three sins:
- The false comparison, such as lumping examples into the wrong categories.
- bad examples
- ignorance as proof, such as asserting that the lack of examples proves something.
Wrong Number of Choices
This is the case where you simply don’t have the right number of choices. Either you are offered two choices when there’s actually more, or three choices are merged into one.
Disconnect Between Proof and Conclusion
- The proof and conclusion are identical
- The red herring (a distraction)
- The wrong ending (the proof fails to lead to the conclusion)
For more information, check out:
- Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion
- Jay Heinrich’s blog
- Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate
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