The many ways in which we pepper our arguments with fallacies and get away with it.
Debate coaches will tell you that the best place to start if you want to poke holes in an opponent’s argument is to go after the fallacies in it. That means scouring it for faulty assumptions, ﬂawed logic, and more.
In his treatise on the subject titled ‘Sophistical Refutations’, Aristotle listed thirteen types of material and verbal fallacies prevalent in arguments. More than 1,600 years after he laid them out in this manner, many of these still muddy our premises and render our conclusions shaky.
We continue to use them with fervor because they can actually be very eﬀective. In fact, fallacy is often the hook on which many arguments are hung and won – and convincingly, at that.
The most pervasive one may be ad hominem – a strategy under which one attacks the character or credibility of a person in order to undermine their story.
If the movies are to be believed, this is a common tactic in legal or criminal defense. In many a riveting courtroom drama, a star prosecution witness is dragged through diﬃcult questioning regarding her lifestyle, past run-ins with the law and more, all with a view to destroying her credibility and diluting her testimony.
A closely related fallacy is called ‘tu quoque’, Latin for ‘you too’, and apparently inspired by Julius Caesar’s dying reprimand of Brutus. It exists in responding to an attack by accusing the attacker of similar missteps or errors. Politicians use this all the time. A party usually counters the opposition’s critique of its record by bringing up all the ways that the latter has also stumbled.
In fact, political debate the world over is riddled with examples of fallacies. Pinning down a politician for a straight answer is never easy even in normal times. But during election season, when the stakes are raised, the air rings with all manner of logical fallacies from straw men to red herrings, creating a slippery atmosphere designed for dodging the real question.
Often, these sound bites are recognized for the necessary noise and din that accompany election campaigns. For example, the BJP’s charges against the incumbent government follow the classic ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy which, in essence translates into: If something happens after something else, the previous event must be responsible for the more recent one.
The crux of the BJP‘s argument then is that the country’s recent economic woes are necessarily a result of the government’s policies merely because the former followed the latter in the chronology of events. Under this reasoning, other factors that could also have contributed to this state of aﬀairs, including global economic developments, are completely discounted. It is a fallacious stance in the technical sense but it is one that every political challenger employs, often with good results.
Politicians also often resort to the ‘straw man’, a slightly more question-able tactic in which the opponent’s statement is deliberately twisted or re-interpreted in order to push them against a wall. Mitt Romney did this, during the 2012 US presidential campaign when he said at a rally: “[President Obama] said something … which really reveals what he thinks about our country, about our people…he said this, ‘If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen.’ ”
That, of course, was not a completely accurate representation of Obama’s remark but by separating it from context, the Romney camp gained some ammunition to hurl at the other side in the weeks that followed.
Appeals – whether to emotion, tradition, or authority – are liberally used in the world of advertising. Ads that tug at the heartstrings are used to sell everything from soap to credit card services. Throw in a reunion of long separated friends, a prodigal son making his way home, a baby taking her ﬁrst steps and ad makers know that they will have their audience hooked, tissues and all.
Tradition is often evoked in advertising as it is in other forms of media communication. The logic that something is sacrosanct and unquestion-able because it has stood the test of time is an argument that we see in many ads. And, of course, celebrity endorsements are really a way to use a form of authority to establish the worth of a product or service, regardless of how tenuous this connection may be.
If these examples prove anything, it is that fallacy is closely woven into everyday statements and arguments. We can no more purge it from our lives than we can tell people to refer to a textbook before speaking. The positive aspect of all this is that the mere presence of a fallacy doesn’t falsify the premise or negate the conclusion of an argument. It merely means that there are weaknesses in it that a watchful opponent can exploit. His or her ability to do that will determine the nature of the debate.