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RocketReader newsletter - Critical Thinking: Fallacy Traps (Part II)


Critical Thinking: Fallacy Traps (Part II)

In this issue of our Critical Thinking in Reading newsletter series we continue discussing most common fallacies traps and ways of identifying them. In the previous issue, we discussed the fallacies of:

  • hasty generalization (reaching a conclusion on the basis of insufficient reasons, i.e. " Nissans are terribly unreliable - I once owned a Nissan that broke down on me!")
  • loaded questions (complex questions formulated as yes/no questions, i.e. "Have you stopped stealing?")
  • post-hoc reasoning (concluding that, because one event comes before another event, the first event must have caused the second, i.e. "If you wash your car, it will rain - so washing your car causes rain").

Today we look at fallacies commonly found in written sources, and ways of detecting them and dealing with them.

Fallacious appeals

Fallacious appeals occur whenever an author makes an unjustified appeal in support of their argument. Sometimes an otherwise legitimate appeal is used to support an unrelated claim. This is called a misdirected appeal.

hands holding a book The most common - and probably easiest to spot - of misdirected appeals is an appeal to questionable authority. For example, we often see celebrities endorse all kinds of products. However, there is a fine line between using a famous person to attract attention to a product, and creating the impression that the celebrity is indeed an expert in the field. Often, advertisers overstep that line, which results in misdirected appeals to authority.

Such appeals are misdirected because celebrities can be knowledgeable in their own area of expertise, e.g. sports or music. However, the opinion of a rock star on which guitar brand is the best should carry much more weight than their political views or their opinion of the aftershave they use.

Some other commonly found misdirected appeals are:

  • Appeals to common practices, traditions or beliefs. These are many variations of the well known "everyone is doing it" fallacy, e.g.

    "nobody observes the speed limit anyway", and

    "this industry has traditionally employed mostly male workers, so we are just continuing with the tradition".

  • Appeals to indirect consequences (also known a domino theory, or slippery slope). This fallacy occurs when remotely possible but negative effects are presented as inevitable consequences of a course of action. This is done to persuade the audience to reject the course of action based on the awfulness of the possible consequences without regard to the likelihood of them happening. Consider the following example.

    "If the proposed Montana tax cuts are passed, this will inevitably result in reduced funding for our health and education system, and, ultimately, in reduced quality of life for everyone".

    Decreased funding for health and education system does not automatically follow from reducing income tax - there has to be some additional evidence to suggest that. There maybe a large budget surplus that allows for both the cuts and even an increase in funding in these areas. Also, the statement disregards that putting more money in people's pockets can have a stimulating effect on the economy - which might possibly lead to more company tax being paid, and ultimately better funding for health and education and better quality of life for everyone.

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  • Appeal to wishful thinking. This is a fallacy opposite to slippery slope. For example, "If the proposed income tax cuts are passed, this will definitely result in economic growth and, ultimately, in improved quality of life for everyone". Note that this time the perceived consequences are positive - even though they are as remote as in the previous example. Income tax cuts alone do not guarantee economic growth, which in turn does not necessarily result in "improved quality of life for everyone".

    Misdirected appeals are often found in newspaper and magazine articles, advertisement and political flyers.

    How to deal with it: If you suspect a misdirected appeal to authority, ask yourself whether the authority is an expert on the matter in question. Is the authority likely to be biased? Also, you may be able to make the decision on the matter without having to appeal to expert opinion. If you think this is the case, you may choose this course of action.

    When suspecting a slippery slope or wishful thinking, try to focus on evaluating the likelihood of a certain chain of events happening as a result of a course of action, rather then on how negative (or positive) these events are.

    Which of the following are misdirected appeals?

    "My friend prefers this facial cream, and I value her opinion very highly because she is a member of Mensa!"

    "My friend recommended this book, so I am going to read it, as we normally like the same books."

    "If hot dog stands are banned by the Department of Health in New York, eventually they will have to ban all food stalls - and then we'll have nowhere cheap to eat!"

    The first and third statements are examples of misdirected appeals.

    The first statement is an example of a misdirected appeal to authority. Your friend's high IQ does not make her an authority on cosmetics. The third statement is an example of a slippery slope. It is pure speculation that the banning of hot dog stands would lead to a city-wide cheap food crisis.

    The second statement contains a sound argument. Since your friend's tastes in books are similar to yours, you can reasonably expect to like this particular book.

    Emotional appeals

    books stackedAs you can tell from the name, emotional appeals are commonly used in an attempt to exploit the emotions of an audience, rather than offering a logical support of the author's statements. While misdirected appeals are legitimate appeals used in support of the wrong argument, emotional appeals are never legitimate, as they are used as a substitute for a logical argument.
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