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Common Crooked Arguments
And how to meet them head on

Crooked arguments are simply bad arguments. They evade or distort the issue, and nearly everyone uses them at some time or another. Here are the Top Ten Crooked Arguments chosen by a leading textbook, the Top Twenty chosen by the New England Skeptical Society, and a simple way of meeting them head on by the author of The Art of Clear Thinking. For simplicity the technical distinction between rhetorical ploys (words without evidence or reasons) and logical fallacies (based on bogus reasons) is ignored. All are crooked arguments.

The Top Ten Crooked Arguments of All Time
Critical Thinking 7th edition by Brooke Noel Moore and Richard Parker (McGraw Hill, New York 2004), is a thick book regarded as one of the best easy-to-read college textbooks on critical thinking. The authors list what they call The Top Ten Fallacies of All Time based on their "experience during the previous six editions gathering real-life examples of fallacies to use for text illustrations and exercises". Some of their fallacies are crooked ways of arguing rather than genuine fallacies, but all are taken from real life. Where necessary the explanations and examples have been modified for non-American readers.

1. Ad hominem. Literally "to the man". Attacking a claim by attacking its source. He's a liberal so you cannot believe what he says about welfare reform.

2. Straw Man. Attacking a claim by misrepresenting it. Senator X says we should not fund the attack submarine programme, but I can't see why he wants to leave us defenceless like that.

3. Outrage. Trying to win by acting outraged. As in the Australian federal parliament when politicians compete for the loudest volume and sharpest insults. (And notice how they don't answer the question, see 7.)

4. Scare Tactics. Scaring people into believing something. Remember Saddam's "Weapons of Mass Destruction"? Don't let truth get in the way of a good scare. If you don't eat your greens your hair will fall out.

5. Hasty Conclusion. Overgeneralising, as when conclusions about Moslems in general are based on fanatics who fly airplanes into buildings. Or when conclusions about car safety are based on drunk driving.

6. Group Think. Putting group loyalty before logic. We agree that levitation is possible so we must be right. Why do referees always penalise our team?

7. Red Herring. Raising irrelevant issues. For people unable to notice that the question answered was not the question asked. Many politicians use it automatically. Q: Does the honourable member admit that increasing the school leaving age will result in a teacher shortage? A: By keeping students at school longer, we will have a more educated community.

8. Wishful Thinking. Ignoring obvious problems. Do we see rich people building huge houses near the beach one metre above sea level? Or small men getting out of very large SUVs?

9. Argument from Popularity. If it's popular then it's okay. The boss says that cheating on tests is wrong, but everyone does it, so it's okay. So is boozing to excess.

10. Coincidence. X happened after Y, so Y must have caused X. Which is why people often get credit or blame for things they had nothing to do with. My race times were pretty bad until I got a new T-shirt and won the next race, so I'll need to keep wearing it.

Joining the dots

The Top Twenty Crooked Arguments
From the New England Skeptical Society, www.theskepticsguide.org/logicalfallacies.asp, here abridged and grouped under headings according to theme. They duplicate five of the above Top Ten (1,2,5,9,10, see 1,5,12,16,17 below):

Crooked arguments involving the person
1. Ad hominem. Attack the person not the argument. Attack the messenger not the message. Guilt by association. People who believe in astrology are crazy. The consultant is biassed and cannot be trusted. (Claims must be judged on their own merits. If the claimant's credentials are dubious, we have no reason to judge the claim either true or false.)
2. Argument from Authority. The Bible says God exists, therefore God exists. X is true because Aristotle says so. I don't believe X because Tom Cruise doesn't. (Truth rests on evidence, not on authority or celebrity status.)

Arguing in a circle
3. Circular Argument. Astrology works because it links us to the planets. Fried rice makes me sleepy because it is soporific. The idea is unpopular because nobody supports it.
4. Begging the Question or using unstated assumptions. All food should be labelled with its cholesterol content (unstated assumption: cholesterol in food causes high blood cholesterol).

Distorting the argument
5. Straw Man. Distorting a view to make it easy to dismiss. Astrology is bunk because newspaper horoscopes are bunk. Your new car is a bad choice because all cars are polluting.
6. False Dichotomy. Reducing many possibilities to two. Evolution is impossible so we must have been created. If there is any risk then the project must be stopped.
7. False Continuum. Reducing several possibilities to one. The line between cults and religion is fuzzy, so they are the same thing.
8. Double Standards. Being inconsistent. We need stronger regulation of prescription drugs but none for medicinal herbs. We want industry to pay more but are against higher taxes.
9. Reductio ad absurdum. Attacking an argument by reducing it to absurdity. You haven't seen elves, so you don't believe in them; but you have't seen elephants, so you don't believe in them either.

Raising the hurdles
10. Moving the Goalposts. Always demanding new evidence. You say the butler did it but where is the body?
11. Special Pleading to make a claim appear valid. ESP does not work when skeptics are present. You made me miss the target.

Arguments that don't follow
12. Non-Sequitur or it doesn't follow. UFOs are from outer space. The moon is yellow so it must be made of cheese.
13. Argument from Ignorance. I don't know what it was, so it must be an alien spacecraft. Ghosts must exist because nobody has proved they don't exist. (Lack of evidence can neither prove nor disprove anything.)
14. Argument from Final Consequences. God must exist otherwise life would have no meaning.
15. Argument from Personal Incredulity. I cannot explain it so it cannot be true.
16. Argument from Popularity. Tu quoque or you too. Murder is OK because murderers do it. My evidence may be invalid but so is yours.
17. Coincidence. Or post hoc ergo propter hoc = after that, therefore because of that. A cause must precede an effect, but just because X preceded Y does not mean X caused Y. The rooster crowing caused the sun to rise. My new T-shirt caused me to fail the exam. Which is more likely, your pillow is growing hair or you are losing yours?
18. Confusing Correlation with Causation. During the 1990s church attendance and illegal drug use both rose, so religion causes drug use. The current drought is due to global warming.
19. Confusing Unexplained with Unexplainable. We cannot explain ball lightning so it is supernatural.
20. Slippery Slope. Claiming that a particular action will necessarily lead to other actions. We can't accept armed police because they would always be shooting people. If this project is approved there will be hundreds of similar projects. (The consequences may or may not be true, but we cannot tell without further evidence.)

Paying to feel better

Dealing with Crooked Arguments
There are more than the ten or twenty crooked arguments listed above. For example in his book Straight and Crooked Thinking (Pan Books 1953) the eminent psychologist Dr Robert Thouless lists 38 of them, which he calls "dishonest tricks". But in his book The Art of Clear Thinking (Collier 1962) the best-selling author Dr Rudolf Flesch notes that we couldn't function if we had to classify a given argument in 38 different ways before we could deal with it. So we need something simpler. He suggests that just two ways will do:

1. The reasoning makes an irrelevant point. Remedy: so what?
2. The reasoning ignores a relevant point. Remedy: specify.

For example: I believe in the paranormal (so what?).
Many people believe in the paranormal (so what?).
The paranormal shows me the real reality (specify).
The real reality has been proven (specify).

For further help on asking the right questions see Crash Course in Critical Thinking on this website under Classroom Resources.

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