Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fallacious Arguments Part 1

Well, since I’m about to embark on some political debate and speech-making in my novel, today’s research topic involves Fallacies. These are often found in arguments where, rather than a person providing evidence and debates in a rational and open-minded manner, they use tricks in conversation to win. These fallacies don’t just work in speeches, though, they also can be in operation in a person’s own mind and can underline certain contradictory beliefs that don’t make much sense to anyone who bothers to scrutinize them.

First, let’s discuss the straw man defense. This is particularly useful when I have to win an argument with someone who has more evidence, a better case, or is simply better spoken than I am. Instead of tackling the issue at hand, I create an argument for them (the straw man) that is superficially similar but fundamentally different and then argue against that. So if a woman gives a well-researched argument that starting school an hour later (and letting youths sleep in an extra hour) improves student grades because their body clocks are wired to get up later and stay up later, I could use a straw man defense against her in a number of ways.

For example, I could re-construct her argument by misrepresenting her position. “Oh, so students should be allowed to stay up as late as they want?”

I could quote her words out of context that change the meaning of the words. “As you said, ‘teenagers just don’t go to bed early enough’, so why don’t we focus on getting youths to do just that?” This could also count as an oversimplification of her argument. Yes, teenagers aren’t going to bed early enough but the research in this example has just suggested that their body clocks keep them from doing just that. This counter-argument over-simplifies the matter so that I don’t have to argue with evidence involving body clocks.

Rather than argue with the expert, I could publicly argue with someone who is terrible at debating and then quickly refute that person’s poor arguments, therefore undermining the credibility of the studies without ever clashing with the expert.

The slippery slope argument is another fallacious argument as it states that even a very small change will inevitably lead to a series of increasingly greater changes that will end in some significant impact. It ignores the possibility of middle ground or even that the first step will also be the last step. “If we let teenagers sleep in an extra hour, what then? Soon the School Board will let them sleep in to midday and then where will we be?”

Or I could appeal to a probability that simply because it might happen, then it certainly must happen. “Allowing teenagers to sleep in will make them stay up later at night.” Or the Is-Ought fallacious argument where something is claimed to be better one way because it is that way. “Since the school day has always started at 9 o’clock, then it ought to start at 9 o’clock.” Related to this is the Naturalistic fallacy where goodness and rightness is the same as how pleasant or popular something is. “Every other school starts at 9 o’clock so ours should as well.” I could Appeal to ridicule by making the other person’s argument seem flawed by presenting their argument in a ridiculous light. “Oh, let’s let them sleep in because it’s such hard work getting to sleep, is it? Oh, I’m sure it must be the hardest work any teenager even indulges in!”

If you’re like me, I’m sure you can think of dozens of fun ways these fallacies can be used to frustrate more logically-minded characters, entrap characters in faulty thinking, or confuse an antagonist. They can also be used for humorous effect and thus can be handy dialogue tools, especially since we tend to use them so much in our day to day lives.

So that’s it for Part 1 of Fallacious Research. Stay tuned for Part 2.


  1. Really like this series. I took a class in college about the structure of an argument, kept the textbook all these years because it was so informative. Can't wait to read Part 2!

    Scribbler to Scribe

  2. Yay! I have a fan. Yeah, I've found it pretty interesting thus far just reading up on it. It'll really help me (hopefully) with my dialogue because I'm about to venture into a world of nobility, mages, and politics, and I need to know how folk argue with each other, fail at arguing, and win over the ignorant masses.

  3. Dialogue is rough. The average Joe doesn't talk like an educated politician. Most of my skill with dialogue came from watching TV and movies with quality writing. I spent a lot of time paying attention to how they structure their dialogue. Screenplays are all dialogue, so reading those might help you.

    I found Mad Men, Battlestar Gallactica and anything written by Joss Whedon to have exceptional dialogue.

  4. This bit actually does have politicians in there, though! Which is the painful bit. It's either research it or watch Parliament Question Time and I'm just not that dedicated.... Also, a lot of fallacies are used by everyone. They're just not said in the same way. Like: "If it was meant to be that way, then it'd be that way, since it's not, then it's wrong to do it that way."

    The really fun part of this research is how often I can point out: "Wait, I've seen someone use that against me!" Or worse.... "I've done that one before, haven't I?"

    As for Joss Whedon ... yeah, he is golden.

  5. Andrew here. :)

    Loved reading this, I had no idea you had a blog!

    Always happy to get my debate on if you want to argue about something for the sake of it. ;D

  6. I'll have to take you up on that offer someday soon!