Logical fallacy analogies
First published: Friday April 16th, 2021
Logical fallacies are truly intriguing, they have been studied since the time of Aristotle. Logic in general is a fascinating thing, and, if used appropriately, can be a powerful tool for good. But equally, if used inappropriately, can be a powerful weapon against good.
Logical fallacies are intriguing, and understanding how they work can help us tremendously in understanding the nature of logic. Such knowledge can be applied to help us identify logical fallacies used in real life scenarios, and, in turn, help us combat them. Identifying logical fallacies is a vital step in counteracting them, and fighting against the misuse of logic is itself vital in many situations.
Logical fallacies can be broadly defined as:
Reasoning which is logically incorrect and that which undermines the validity and soundness of an argument.
If you really think about it, the consequences of using logical fallacies can be very serious:
-Scientists and researchers must avoid logical fallacies in order to ensure a balanced and fair outcome of their studies. Flawed science and pseudoscience can be seriously damaging to scientific progress and to mankind.
-Many politicians and influential people are widely known to use logical fallacies to push their agendas, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes quite deliberately.
-And logical fallacies are often weapons used in arguing and harassment in everyday life, increasingly so on the internet. Ignorance is a cornerstone of bullying, which in turn leads to suffering and misery.
So it is clear that logical fallacies are bad news, and depending on the nature, severity, and context, they can even be downright dangerous. But fret ye not, together we are going to arm ourselves with the knowledge of how to identify and refute a logical fallacy when we are faced with one.Continue reading if you care to learn more.
Main types of logical fallacy
There are different kinds of logical fallacies. We won't go into too much detail here, but here is a general overview of them.
A formal fallacy is when an argument is incorrect because of its structure.
An informal fallacy is when an argument is incorrect because of its premise or content.
Formal fallacies are flawed in their structure. The premise may seem reasonable, and the conclusion may be right, but the way the argument itself is constructed is invalid.
1- Food is fuel.
2- Kerosene is fuel.
3- Kerosene is food.
At first this may sound logical. The conclusion may even be true, but it does not follow the premise. (By the way, never drink kerosene).
A thorough and clear explanation of formal fallacies can be found here: Formal fallacy - Wikipedia.
By contrast an informal fallacy may have a valid structure, but its premise and/or content is flawed in some way.
There are many different categories and sub-categories of informal fallacies, which typically pertain to the relevance of particular aspects of an argument.
A comprehensive list of informal fallacies can be found here: Informal fallacy - Wikipedia
Both formal and informal fallacies can be broken down into sub-categories. There can also be fallacies which are both flawed in their structure and content.
Now let us have a look in more detail at some of the most common and destructive examples of logical fallacies, nicely illustrated by clever analogies.
Cherry Picking 🍒
Imagine having a bowl of cherries, some are fresh and delicious, others are rotten and unappealing. Of course you only want the nice ones, so you pick them out and leave the undesirable cherries.
The first lesson here is: don't keep fresh and rotten cherries in the same bowl. But more importantly cherries are a lot like evidence. Some may suit your agenda, others may not, and some may even harm your agenda.
If you want to make a compelling argument, you back it up with evidence. The more evidence the better, and the validity of the evidence is important too. But if you firmly believe something before reviewing the evidence, then you may be prone to finding and using only evidence that supports your agenda, even if the evidence is weak or exceptional.
Let's say that 20 scientific studies have been conducted to test whether smoking increases risk of cancer. 19 of the studies say yes, 1 of them says no. The study that differs from the others is anomalous. But if you wanted to argue that there is no link between smoking and increased risk of cancer, you may cherry pick the one anomalous study to support your point. You may over-emphasise this evidence, while also trying to conceal the contrary evidence.
If you tried to use cherry picking in an argument to persuade a group of experts who had already done their own research, you will most likely fail. But you may have more luck using cherry picked evidence to convince people who aren't experts in a particular field.
Cherry picking is bad because it goes against the principle of fairness, and can undermine substantial evidence that researchers have worked hard to provide. It is commonly used in the promotion of pseudoscience. Consider that most people are not experts in any one field, let alone several, so cherry picked evidence can seem very compelling to large numbers of people.
On issues which have compelling evidence on both sides, rather than doggedly pursuing the evidence on one side and ignoring or refuting the other, it is better to take all evidence into account and finding a balance.
If someone puts forward an argument to you and provides evidence for their argument, make sure to do your own research, and obtain as much evidence as possible to deduce if their argument is cherry picked. If it seems like their argument is cherry picked, present them with counter evidence. You may not be able to convince them, but you will have at least analysed the evidence fairly.
There's nothing wrong with being selective about cherries, there's everything wrong with being selective about evidence.
The Strawman 🥤🧍
Ah, the strawman fallacy, one of the most common and contemptible of all logical fallacies, and that's saying something.
The essence of the strawman fallacy is to ignore your opponent's argument and then substitute it with a different argument, then refute that argument instead. In other words if your opponent makes an argument, rather than beat up your opponent, you create a strawman to replace your opponent, then beat up the strawman, and then act as if you've defeated your opponent.
"Darling I think the kids should have fewer treats"
"Oh so you want to starve the children then??"
"Which hat do you think I should wear today?"
"I think the blue one"
"Why? Do you hate my yellow hat?"
"What? I didn't say that"
"So you're saying I have terrible taste in hats?"
"No I didn't"
"NOW you're saying I'm a liar too??"
There are different kinds of strawmen. Your opponent could make a point, and you could replace it with a strawman fallacy ranging from somewhat dubious to completely irrelevant.
"I think fox hunting is cruel and should be banned""More foxes are killed every year by cars, are you saying we should ban cars?"
"I think the gaping wealth inequality in this country is obscene"
"So you'd rather live under socialism then? "
Either way, by using a strawman you would be putting words into your opponent's mouth, claiming they said something which they never actually said. Sometimes it is very obvious that one is using a strawman fallacy, but it is often possible to twist someone's words to make it seem like they've said something they haven't. At best this can be the ignorant misinterpretation of someone's argument, and at worst can be a devious way to discredit or slander someone.
To avoid encountering a strawman fallacy, always articulate your points clearly and precisely, and avoid vague or ambiguous language which might be misconstrued or contorted. And if you find you are presented with a strawman, be firm and confident in yourself, stick by your argument, expose your opponent's strawman for what it is, and watch it get blown away.
No True Scotsman 🧄🧂
"No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
"But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge."
"But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
The no true Scotsman fallacy is when you counter a counterargument by redefining a part of your original argument to exclude it from criticism. A similar fallacy is 'moving the goalposts', basically changing the rules of a game halfway through playing.
In a way the no true Scotsman can be valid if the 'truth' in question is clearly defined. But in practice it is a common fallacy used to deflect counterarguments with emotive yet subjective and contextual language/rhetoric.
(Supposedly a true Scotsman has salt with his porridge, and not just any salt, but garlic salt!)
Motte and Bailey 🏰
A 'Motte and Bailey' is a type of Medieval fortification. The Bailey is a courtyard encircled by a wall or fence, while within it stands the Motte, a more sturdily fortified tower atop a raised mound.
The Motte and Bailey fallacy is an analogy which describes when you make two arguments that are related to each other. One of the arguments is modest and hard to argue with. The other argument is much more controversial and contentious. If you are aware your argument might incur a backlash, the idea is you attempt to conflate the controversial argument with the modest argument.
The less well defended Bailey represents your controversial argument, and if anyone does try to refute it, you can retreat to the more well defended Motte (your modest argument) for safety.
There aren't many good specific examples of the Motte and Bailey fallacy, but let's imagine a generic instance where a politician has retweeted a controversial statement (the Bailey argument). This has resulted in a backlash online. So he retreats to a Motte argument by saying something like:
"We live in a democracy where I'm entitled to my opinion, and you are free to disagree with me. So maybe we should just be thankful we live in a country where we are allowed to have opinions."
Thus he attempts to both distract from the real issue and defend himself with a point that can scarcely be argued with.
In practice the Motte and Bailey is a tactic often used by people or groups with political agendas to put forward arguments which they know may not be very popular. The innocuousness of the Motte argument exists to reinforce or shroud the more controversial Bailey argument, in the hopes it will make it appear more palatable. If not, the anodyne Motte argument may at least afford the arguer some kind of apparent legitimacy.
If you are able to recognise when someone is using this fallacy, call them into question. Make it clear you won't be fooled by them, and that you can discern different points based on their merit. If you disagree with their radical views, challenge them with evidence.
Texas Sharpshooter 🤠🎯
This fallacy is based on an analogy:
A Texan shoots at a barn wall, and then paints a target over the spot with the most bullet-holes.
This is a good analogy for illustrating confirmation bias, which is where people favour information which supports their pre-existing beliefs, and tend to give more credence to data which corroborate their beliefs, whilst rejecting data which contradict them.
There are many examples of confirmation bias. Let's say there's someone you strongly dislike. Then they get in trouble for something, and you might be inclined to say something like "I always knew they'd end up in trouble". This is a case where you create your theory after you've obtained the evidence, exemplified by the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.
A good sharpshooter paints the target on the barn wall before shooting it.
The Slippery Slope 🏂
The slippery slope is a classic fallacy whereby one claims that one initial and seemingly harmless step will inevitably trigger a chain reaction of increasingly disastrous events, similar to the domino effect.
In the episode of Recess called "The Great Jungle Gym Standoff", the children of Third Street School protest school proposals to tear down their beloved jungle gym. The school staff have a meeting to discuss the matter. When the mild-mannered Miss Grotke suggests giving in to the children's demands, the fearsome Miss Finster retorts:
"Give in to the jungle gym today and they'll want better food tomorrow. Soon they'll demand a longer recess and then more free reading time. Eventually rock and roll will take over the world! Society will crumble and western civilization as we know it will come to and end!!"
Of course making accurate and evidence based predictions is important in foreseeing and avoiding catastrophes, but the slippery slope fallacy is characterised by a few traits:
-The predictions are usually based on weak evidence or no evidence at all,
-It assumes that you are already at the top of the slope,
-And, crucially, that the supposed consequences are inevitable.
In theory the slippery slope can work the other way, where one predicts overly optimistic consequences of an action. However, it is much more commonly used in a negative context, and is often employed as a tactic in fearmongering and alarmism.
The best way to counteract a slippery slope fallacy is to rule out any seemingly potential disastrous consequences of an action with carefully obtained and reliable evidence.
Circular reasoning 🌀
The fallacy of circular reasoning is when you make an argument whose premise hinges on its conclusion, and vice versa. In this sort of case, the evidence put forward to support the argument is self-evident. So while the argument itself may appear logically sound, in reality it is at best meaningless.
"It's 1 o'clock because the clock says so. And the clock says so because it's 1 o'clock".
A more believable example:
"I don't have time to get organised, because I'm not organised enough to find the time".
A very similar type of fallacy is begging the question, where a statement relies on presupposition, and therefore fails to prove anything new.
This type of logic can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, when a prediction comes true as a result of the prediction itself.
Red Herring 🐠
Supposedly trainers of hunting dogs would use red herrings, very strong smelling smoked kippers, to distract their dogs from the scent of animals, in order to teach them to learn to ignore the scent of the red herring and enhance their focus on the scent of the animals they were hunting. Now the term 'red herring' is widely used to refer to any instance which aims to distract from the main issue.
In logic this is a form of distraction similar to a false flag, but one which is tenuously related to the core issue, so as to appear relevant to it. This often makes for a good plot device in mystery and crime themed books and movies.
The red herring fallacy can actually serve as an umbrella term for many sub-categories of logical fallacy, including the strawman and Texas sharpshooter, and a whole range of fallacies called 'appeal to' fallacies.
'Appeal to' fallacies 💰👴🏻💓
Quite often when someone wants to make a point they will appeal to various concepts and people to try and substantiate their argument. There are many different types of 'appeal to' fallacies:
-Appeal to authority, where the weight of a particular person's viewpoint, no matter how legitimate, is in itself used as valid evidence for an argument.
Ex: "So and so said it, so it must be true".
-Appeal to wealth, where a person's financial status is used to reinforce their argument.
Ex: "He's a billionaire, that means he's smart, so I trust whatever he says".
-Appeal to tradition, where a conclusion is reached purely because it has been long-held as accurate.
Ex: "We've always done it like this, so we should keep doing it like this".
-Appeal to novelty, opposite of the above, where something is touted as superior purely because it seems new or modern.
Ex: "If you want lots of friends, always keep up with the latest trends".
-Appeal to nature, when the merit of an argument is based on the premise that anything that is 'natural' is good, and anything that is 'unnatural' is bad, with these terms actually being highly subjective rather than based in nature.
Ex: "Boy's shouldn't play with dolls, it ain't natural".
-Appeal to age, when someone's age is used to affect the merit of their viewpoint. This can work in either direction.
Ex: "He's old so he must be wise", or "He's old so he's losing it", or "She's young so has fresh ideas", or "She's young and immature".
-Appeal to popularity, also known as the bandwagon fallacy, where an opinion is seen as more valid purely because it is popular.
Ex: "Why were you playing in the radioactive waste, Billy?" "All the other kids were doing it, I just wanted to fit in".
-Appeal to worse problems, or the fallacy of relative privation, dismissing or downplaying an issue because it's "not as bad as" something else.
Ex; "You're sad you can't afford a car? Think of all the starving people in Africa!".
-Appeal to emotions, when you invoke emotions to affect someone's judgement on an opinion including fear, flattery, ridicule, even the tone of voice of the arguer. You can also appeal to your right to an opinion.
Ex: "I'm entitled to my opinion", or "Let's agree to disagree", are really just defensive/meaningless platitudes usually used to staunch the argument if there's no foreseeably amicable conclusion.
There are lots of other forms of 'appeal to' fallacies. They are all forms of red herrings because the aspect of what is being appealed to is actually irrelevant to the merits of the main argument, or to the evidence in question.
This can be taken to a very nasty extreme, and can manifest in the form of possibly the worst kind of logical fallacy of all, the ad hominem.
Ad hominem 👹
'Ad hominem' is Latin, and means 'to the person'. It's when, rather than criticising the merit of a person's point of view, you attack the person themselves. This type of fallacy is usually used as a last resort for when you've run out of any other logical fallacies (or indeed credible arguments) to counter your opponent.
An ad hominem may be insulting, slanderous, deeply hurtful, and a form of character assassination, but they are distinct from just being plain insulting. Crucially, an ad hominem attempts to discredit someone by linking the supposed fault with their argument to the supposed fault with their character.
"I think logical fallacies are useful to learn about."
"Are we really going to trust the opinions of someone who wears clothes like that!?"
Use of an ad hominem will hopefully cause the merit of your opponent's argument to be drawn into the orbit of the criticism of their character. If not, it may at least demoralise them and make them back down.
And, in case you needed it clarified, these are forms of bullying. But what distinguishes them as logical fallacies from mere insults is the absurdity of the logic behind them. Believe it or not, it is, in fact, possible to separate a person's character from their viewpoints, and it is even possible to agree with people that you don't necessarily like.
Let's assume there is someone you seriously dislike, you can't stand to be in the same room as them. Somehow you discover that they have the same taste in music as you. Are you going to stop listening to your favourite music just because the person you don't like listens to it? Of course not, that would be silly.
The sad reality is that many people do base their opinions of people on superficial traits. A further tragedy is that this is very much exploited by demagogues to influence peoples' opinions on issues.
An ad hominem can range from an ignorant and gratuitous jibe;
"Don't trust him, he's stupid. Don't believe her, she's ugly."
To a dangerous vehicle for fomenting prejudice and bigotry;
"Don't trust him, he's Jewish. Don't believe her, she's mental."
There are different kinds of ad hominem, including;
-Tu quoque/'you too', or whataboutism, where you dismiss a person's argument by highlighting their supposed hypocrisy on the matter.
-Appeal to motive, where you discredit your opponent's argument by criticising the motives behind their argument.
-Bulverism, a combination of circular reasoning and ad hominem, where you "assume your opponent is wrong, and explain his error".
Ex: "You would think that because... etc."
You can also just dismiss your opponent's argument by dismissing your opponent altogether by saying something like; "Nobody cares what you think".
If you are ever faced with an ad hominem, it can be very tempting to bite back, and give as good as you get. But just remember this;
-If your opponent is using an ad hominem it shows that they have run out of any worthwhile points to make.
-Fighting back will likely just enflame the situation and will make you feel even worse.
-If you fight back you will be stooping to their level. They may have started it but that's not an excuse.
The ad hominem is a logical fallacy most cowardly. No logical fallacies are good, but surely the ad hominem is the very worst. Don't use them.
Using analogies such as cherry picking and red herrings, as well as humorous examples of them, can be very useful in elucidating how they work, and thus highlighting how absurd they can be: check out this playlist of logical fallacies used in the Simpsons by Colburn Classroom: Simpsons Logical Fallacies.
Nonetheless logical fallacies are still prevalent in everyday life. Politicians, news and media outlets, businesses and corporations, lawyers, charlatans, scaremongers, and everyday people use them. Sometimes this is through calculated use, sometimes it's just through plain ignorance.
There are many more logical fallacies to learn about. To avoid being misled by them, learn how to identify them, and be sure to refute them with objectivity and evidence, and always with courtesy and respect. But it is also worth remembering that human beings aren't robots, they aren't super-computers. Sometimes even the most lucid and substantiated arguments aren't enough to convince some people. If you find yourself in an argument with someone who is intransigent, best thing to do is usually just walk away.
May your arguments and discussions always be healthy and productive.
Thank you for reading, have a splendid day. Try my Logical Fallacies Picture Quiz.