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.
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.