The Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies


I realized it was time to post the definitive Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies after once again having to point out to an indignant commenter that calling  him a jerk based on a jerkish comment was not an ad hominem attack, and that saying idiotic things on-line carry that risk. Here, at last, is the current list, adapted from multiple sources. As with the Rationalizations List, with which this occasionally overlaps, I invite additions. Participants here should feel free to refer to the various fallacious arguments by number, and to apply critically them to my posts as well as the comments of others. Am I immune from occasionally falling into one or more of these bad debate techniques and rhetorical habits? No. The other reason I wanted to get the list up was to reinforce my own efforts to be persuasive without being manipulative.

1. Ad Hominem Attack

An ad hominem attack means that one is substituting the character or quality of an adversary’s thought for the argument the adversary is presenting. This is unfair, as well as misleading. “Your argument is invalid because you are a crook, a fool, an idiot” is an ad hominem attack. It is not an ad hominem attack to prove an argument idiotic, and conclude, on the basis of signature significance, (which requires that an  argument be so idiotic that no non-idiot would conceive such a thing and dare express it),that the one making the argument is an idiot, since only an idiot would make such an argument. Confusing the true ad hominem attack with the latter is a useful deflection by poor advocates of the fair consequence of their advocacy. Idiots can still hold valid positions, and disproving the position has nothing to do with proving they are idiots.

1 a. The Toxic Introduction.

A more subtle application of the ad hominem attack is The Toxic Introduction, where the argument of another is introduced by noting a negative quality about the individual. The effect is to undermine the argument before it has even been heard, by its association with a less than impressive advocate.

2. Butch’s Stratagem (The Straw Man)

In “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Cassidy wins a fight with a rebellious member of his gang, a huge man whom he could never defeat fairly, by kicking him in the groin right before their fight begins. It’s always easier to win an argument if you weaken the opposing position at the outset by misstating it, or leaving out key aspects of it. This is also called “knocking down a straw man.” It’s cheating, in essence. Example: President Obama saying that opponents of the Affordable Care Act “don’t want people to have health insurance.”

3. “When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?” (The Loaded Question).

This is the tactic of assuming a fact not yet proven in presenting a question. If the adversary answers the question, he or she has given up part or all of the position in dispute.

4. The False Dichotomy.

In this fallacy, two alternative states are presented as the only possible conclusions, so disproving one presumptively means the other is correct. In fact, more options exist, so the effect is to obscure the best answer (or ignore it) so that a flawed solution appears to be correct.

5. The Texas Sharpshooter.

Named for the apocryphal tale of the marksman who shoots at a barn, then draws the target around the bullet holes. In debate, the equivalent is selecting facts that support a predetermined argument while intentionally or mistakenly omitting facts that would tend to disprove it.

6. Proof by Poll, or  “Everybody Agrees” 

The fact that something is widely believed or even universally believed does not make it true. This is the thought fallacy equivalent of the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody does it,” which presumes that popular conduct must be ethical.

7. Appeal to Authority.

The method is to cite a wise, accomplished, famous or popular individual or group who holds a particular belief or opinion rather than to actually show why the belief, position or opinion is correct. While it is true that the position of a majority of smart and educated individuals is likely to have superior merit to the contrary position of fools, that calculation does not tell us anything substantive about the validity of the position itself.

8. The Blind Man’s Trap

The fable about the six blind men who each mistake the character of an elephant because each is touching a different part of the beast illustrates the fallacy. Because an argument is true of part of a position doesn’t necessarily mean it is applicable to the whole, and for a critic to represent the part as the whole hopelessly warps the debate.

9. The Logical Tautology.

Also called a circular argument, this is advocacy in which the conclusion is a presumption of the arguments used to support it. Example: “Global warming is a threat because it causes extreme weather; extreme weather proves that the threat of global warming is real.”

10. The Bad Lawyer.

Because a proposition has had inadequate, unconvincing or foolish advocates in the past does not necessarily mean that the proposition is incorrect, any more than a prisoner inadequately defended in trial must be guilty. The reverse is also true, of course: the fact that a position has won the day due to a skilled advocate does not preclude the fact that the proposition may still be wrong.

11. The Messenger’s Curse

Related to the Ad Hominem Attack, this is the ingrained fallacy of judging something good or bad, right or wrong, well-intentioned or sinister on the basis of where it comes from, or who supports it. Bill Cosby has had  problems with sexual assault allegations—nasty ones—and has faced the accusation that he lacks the moral authority to make his call for better values and role models in the black community. Cosby’s answer is that the validity of his position stands on its own, and should be evaluated without reference to his own personal conduct. The Messenger’s Curse is perhaps the most justifiable of the logical fallacies, because it involves distrust. There is good reason to distrust the arguments of hypocrites, liars and knaves, because their motives are suspect. The fact that they are hypocrites, liars and knaves, however, does not, by itself, invalidate their arguments.

12. Shifting the Goalposts.

This fallacy or tactic consists of adding features or subtracting exceptions from a general argument after the original statement of the proposition it has been successfully disproved. Caveat: The existence of exceptions does not, by themselves, constitute a rebuttal of a rule, system or principal. All rules, systems or principles generate anomalies.

13. Mother Nature’s Conceit.

Something may be natural and still worth changing. The argument that natural phenomena, emotions or substances are superior to what mankind can devise is a rule without origin. Who decided that natural is good, better or best? Only experience can determine what works and what doesn’t, and there are no clear delineations, in many cases, regarding what “natural” is. This fallacy infects left, right and center, giving us extreme libertarians, useless nutritional supplements, opposition to the designated hitter in baseball, animus to homosexuals, and Woody Allen, among other problems.

Presenting one counter example to a proposition creates a rebuttable presumption that there may be more, but that is the most such an example can do. Thus an example of a cancer patient who has lost her insurance due to Obamacare does not, by itself, prove that the law is not working correctly (unless part of the rationale for the law was that this would never and could never happen). Similarly, one consumer announcing satisfaction with his health care options under the same law doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not the law is, on the whole, effective.

14. The Narcissist’s Proof

Personal experience isn’t irrelevant to beliefs, and an individual anecdote can be illustrative or persuasive. It does not, however sufficient weight to outweigh more objective evidence, such as studies, scientific evidence, or accumulated data. Treating a personal observation or experience as if it does is a logical fallacy, and quite possibly a symptom or a personality disorder. It is also important to remember that all rules have exceptions. One verified example that is inconsistent with a rule doesn’t invalidate it.

15. The “No True Scotsman” Fallacy

A position is bolstered in this fallacy by excluding disproof as inherently inapplicable. Thus the assertion that no American supports socialism is beyond disproof, because any American produced who does support socialism is dismissed by saying that “Then he isn’t a true American.” This one has been especially rife in the global warming debate. The assertion is that no legitimate climate scientist disputes man-made global warming, when countered by the name of such a scientist, is met by the assertion that “then he isn’t a legitimate climate scientist.”

16. The Idiot’s Retort.

Just because an argument is difficult for an opponent to understand due to the lack of education, erudition, logic, or intelligence does not mean the argument isn’t correct. Some positions are necessarily complex, and cannot be simplified without weakening or misrepresenting the position. The classic current example is evolution, the “flaws” of which are almost entirely the product of misunderstanding and confusion by opponents.

17. Henry Clay’s Mistake

19th Century statesman and perennial failed Presidential candidate Henry Clay gained fame by carving out compromises in the contentious debate over slavery. While it is true that the correct position often resides between two extreme points, we cannot assume this, because often it is not true. Sometimes a position is invalid and untrue, and a compromise with its correct and virtuous opposite is also untrue. Lincoln, who said that a nation divided on the issue of slavery could not survive, was correct; Clay, who sought middle ground as the perfect solution, was not.

18. Greasing the Slope.

This is the fallacy of the Worst Case Scenario, where an extreme and unlikely hypothetical is used to invalidate what is otherwise a useful and logical general proposition. The gay marriage debate has been scarred by this fallacy, as has the arguments over  cloning. It consists of calling a slope slippery that really isn’t: allowing gay marriage doesn’t have to result in similar approval of polygamy; allowing cloning doesn’t mean that we will allow the horrors of “The Island,” where clones are created and raised for the sole purpose of providing organs to be harvested when their originals have health problems.

19. Equivocation

A classic, one that contains the immortal fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, or “after that, therefore because of it.” The fallacy is presuming that a real or perceived correlation between two things or events must mean that one caused or causes the other. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand did not, in fact, cause the deaths of millions in World War I, and it is absurd to argue, as some have, that if the assassin he had taken a different route that day, both the Great War and W.W. II would never have occurred.

20. Appeal to Emotion.

Avoiding a reasoned and fact-based argument by jumping to an emotional position, supported by emotional-based arguments and guilt. In this despicable category: arguing that a failed war should continue so that those who have perished already “will not have died in vain,” and using the rare attack on children in the Sandy Hook school massacre as the impetus and justification for extreme gun control measures. Children are a common device in appeals to emotion, used as props and mouthpieces.

21. The Hypocrisy Dodge.

This is the tactic of countering criticism by asserting hypocrisy or insufficient virtue on the part of one’s critic or adversary. It is the debate equivalent of the “Tit for Tat” rationalization. “You can’t call me a racist! You’re the racist!” dodges the question of whether, in fact, the speaker has engaged in racist conduct. If he has, the accusation is fair, whether the original accuser is also racist or not.

22. The Impossible Dream Fallacy

The fact that a proposition cannot be conclusively disproved is not, by itself, proof of the validity of the proposition. One usually cannot, for example, conclusively disprove a negative, or show that projections and predictions are false.

23. Bumper Stickers, Mottos and Talking Points

These are formulas and catch phrases substituting as arguments for those not sufficiently analytical, knowledgeable, or articulate to devise their own.  The technique employs snappy, simplistic and facile quotes composed by others, and are generic, market tested retorts designed to end debates rather than enhance them. They often employ one or more other fallacies or rationalizations. Examples: “If guns are illegal, only criminals will have guns;” “Everybody lies about sex;” “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve;” “Bush lied, people died;” “The Affordable Care Act is settled law.”

24. False Credentialing

False Credentialing describes the common debate tactic in which an adversary is pronounced unqualified to hold the position he or she does as an effort to win a debate by default. Ironically, the fallacy often involves assigning virtue to what would really be a disqualifying bias, as in the common argument, “You wouldn’t be in favor of capital punishment if your child were on death row!” or the reverse, “You wouldn’t oppose the death penalty if it had been your child who was brutally murdered!” The most obnoxious version of the fallacy may credential-topping, in which an advocate compares his or her own academic or other credentials to those of an adversary and on the basis of his presumed superiority alone, and announces that his argument must prevail. A close second is presumed wisdom based on status, and the reflex disqualification of all those outside the favored group: men have no standing to have a position on abortion; whites cannot criticize black racism; non-believers have no basis on which to discuss the fairness of church practices; only parents can understand the needs or a child; only veterans and military members can make decisions regarding warfare, parents “don’t understand” what it’s like to be a teenager.

40 thoughts on “The Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies

    • I like Fallacy Files. I think its descriptions are needlessly confusing in some cases, and there are several fallacies that I don’t think belong, like simple deceit. It’s not a fallacy. You might as well include lies. I also have a few that they missed, and I know there are others too.

      • You know, I’ve always wondered why you link to the “ethical spectacle” when that guy unashamedly used your blog to plug his site several times and generally troll…

  1. I hope this list is going to be featured in the left margin, like Franklin’s virtues and the apology scale. Like the scummy apologies, it’s a good ‘what to try to avoid’ list.

  2. “1. Ad Hominem Attack. – It is not an ad hominem attack to prove an argument idiotic, and conclude, on the basis of signature significance, that the one making the argument is an idiot, since only an idiot would make such an argument.”

    I disagree. Just because someone says something idiotic does not make him an idiot. Everyone now and again says something idiotic. An idiot is not someone who says something idiotic occasionally but someone who says something idiotic regularly as a matter of course.

    • Jack should probably further refine this…

      I don’t think he meant all idiotic arguments show a person to be an idiot…

      Rather, with some situations, in which the argument is so idiotic or the topic so important, that someone making an idiotic argument, by *signature significance* is an idiot.

      So it isn’t all idiotic arguments = idiot

      But idiotic arguments rising to the level of signature significance = idiot

    • This presumes that the argument in question is sufficiently idiotic to justify a signature significance conclusion. That requires an extremely idiotic argument. Saying Obama is a great president is idiotic, but does not mark one as an idiot. Saying that Alexander Hamilton was a great president marks you as an idiot.

  3. The problem as I see it with posting this list, is that most people in power believe winning trumps principles. This is one of the reasons why we haven’t had a principled U.S. President since Truman or possibly Eisenhower. One might make an exception for George H.W. Bush except for the “no new taxes” brouhaha. Of course principled Presidents in modern times are seen as wimpy.

  4. I got a kick out of your use of the phrase “debate cheats” in the headline. A lot of people look at these lists and think, “Boy, I can’t wait to use some of these helpful hints in my next internet argument! I’ll be unbeatable!”

  5. I’d really like to see how many of these facets I can encompass with one sentence! However, it’s late, I’m sleepy and the heck with it. You know, TGT accused me of “straw men” so many times, it’s a wonder I don’t have an army of scarecrows in my back yard.

  6. Got a question on number 15. Is it possible to over-generalize the category of “True Scotsman”? For example, say that “No true scientist” questions global warming, rather than “No true climate scientist” does so. Reason I ask, one of the scientists who signed off on the UN report was a gynecologist, and my belief is that this causes him to be shall we say “unqualified” to judge climate change. Or would this fall under # 24?

    • 7, 12, and 24 are related as variations of appeal to authority. A form of “Special Pleading” whereby someone grants themselves an automatic excuse from a rule by an irrelevant characteristic. It certainly helps one’s credibility to be an expert and degrades one’s credibility by not, but by no means does it automatically prove or disprove validity on a particular argument.

      The problem with No True Scotsman, is it CAN be misapplied. Sometimes, a premise “no true X is Y” where Y is actually the definition of X… such as

      No true vegetarian eats meat.
      Johnny is a vegetarian and he occasionally eats meat.
      Johnny is not a true vegetarian.

      That is not a No True Scotsman fallacy… in fact the invalid premise is the 2nd one.

      It gets really gray in instances related to conduct.

      No true Christian commits mass murder.
      Johnny “the Slasher” goes to church all the time.
      Johnny “the Slasher” is no true Christian.

      This may or may not be a no true Scotsman. From a Christian standpoint, the definition of Christian is one who believes and accepts the finished work of Christ on the Cross reconciles them with the Father…. nothing in that definition about not being a mass murderer, other than an eventually derived definition that behavior should change. So it is or it isn’t No True Scotsman.

      From a kneejerk non-Christian standpoint, anyone calling themselves a Christian is one, and this is automatically No True Scotsman.

      The same applies to the “Climate Change” Scientists example… which arguably has become in effect a religion in behavior. So people inside the ‘faith’ can say NTS, but it really isn’t, because the definition of scientist does not isolate skeptics of the Climate Change denomination.

      • Yeah, but the gynecologist, being a physician, is a scientist. He’s just not a climate scientist. And I just answered my own question. Thanks, Tex. It is possible to over think this and I was confusing myself.

  7. I do have a little problem with the “no true Scotsman” category. Some groups are absolutely defined by their characteristics and failing to have those characteristics excludes some people who either think they are in the group and are not or who other people incorrectly identify as being in the group when they are not. In other words some Scotsmen are true and some are not so you can say they are not true Scotsmen because, in fact, they are not.

      • Well, it leaves out “except for those directly authorized by the government”, sure, but aside from that, ANYTHING made illegal will only be possessed by criminals, because possessing the thing makes you a criminal.

        • Which means it IS a tautology in the sense that you can follow that argument in a circle, but it’s tough to use it in the same misleading sense as truly damaging tautologies. It’s like saying “water is wet. You can tell, because when I dip things in water they get wet too. Things get wet in water because it is wet.” Circular but completely obvious.

  8. Brian Dunning at did a 2-part episode of his podcast a while back about basic logical fallacies that does a good job of explaining them and giving examples of how they work, that’s very accessible.

    I do think you have the Texas Sharpshooter wrong. It’s not about leaving out arguments to the contrary of your point, that’s just being dishonest. The Texas Sharpshooter fallacy is taking something that already happened and arguign as though you were predicting it, without having established that is what you were predicting:

    The classic example is the interpretations of Nostradamus’ quatrains, where rather than try to guess what one might predict and see if it comes through, interpreters take an historical event and a quatrain and explain how the quatrain CLEARLY was aiming right there at that historical event.

    • That’s not how I would use the term, and it doesn’t follow with the metaphor of drawing a target after you’ve taken your shot. It means dishonestly fitting your evidence (the bullet holes) to the argument (the target) rather than basing your argument on the evidence. The prediction version is too narrow to be useful.

      • But that’s what it means. The bullet holes are a final conclusion. One would predict a sharpshooter would hit a bullseye, the one in the fallacy makes holes (final conclusions) and then constructs an argument that shows his conclisions were predictable and logical rather than letting the existing position of the facts/bullseye determine where his bullet/conclisions land

          • My understanding is that they’re similar and related but distinct- to continue the “shooting at a barn” analogy, cherry picking is having a set goal (target drawn on the barn) and then blasting away at it until a bullet hits the center, then proudly pointing at that bullet hole as proof that you’re a good shot. The Texas Sharpshooter is deciding what you want to believe and then finding a set of circumstances that you think would have led a person to believe that.

  9. I’d like to propose another fallacy: Belief Armor.

    Belief armor is what some psychics use to explain away their failures, for example: “If there are unbelievers in the room, the spirits won’t talk to me, so my predictions will be bad.” What this does in practise is attempt to mitigate failure of outcome by explaining it before it happens, almost always in a dishonest fashion. A more practical example would be feminists and ‘rape culture’; if rape stats increase, they say it’s proof that we live in a culture that condones rape, if rape stats decrease, they say it’s because women are afraid to report rape, which is proof of rape culture.

    • The formal name for that is “special pleading” and, as you open with, it’s notorious when paranormal abilities are put to the test. If the practitioner does manage to lay out a definable and testable ability they “have,” it always comes out that the presence of an unbeliever spoiled the energy in the room, or a magnetic storm disrupted their crytsal’s resonance- whatever the details, it’s “Well I’m still right, that evidence says otherwise but you just have to understand why we should disregard it.”

  10. #18 is sometimes incorrectly applied as a label for Reductio ad absurdum, although I don’t know if you’d want to note every way these labels can be used. Certain arguments that get used to support gay marriage also support polygamy (Right to Privacy! Anything consenting adults do is OK! etc). Pointing that out doesn’t mean that I think one leads to the other, or that the two are actually related. I only mention it because your specific example is frequently a source for falsely claiming this particular fallacy as well.

    #20 Your “died in vain” examples is also an example of the sunk costs fallacy. Sunk costs is an example of poor thinking rather than poor arguing, so probably doesn’t belong on this list itself. I really wish more people understood it though.

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