We like to think we’re on the right side of things. We’re the people who can ignore the noise and get to the whole truth. Sure, you hear others claim objectivity, but their arguments don’t hold a candle to yours. They’re idiots.
How does this thought process keep happening?
One could attribute it to the mindset in which all kids are told they’re smart and special, or maybe we have some conceitedness brewing in us (I know I do). The truth is, there are plenty of factors that mix together to form your personal worldview, but what’s keeping you from changing your mind are logical fallacies.
Logical fallacies are flaws in reasoning that, when we’re having a spirited debate with someone, we don’t notice. When these fallacies occur in the average person’s argument, it seems to be subconscious and unintentional.
Our brains will go through any number of mental gymnastics to justify our opinions, but it’s important to recognize these mechanics and do our best to overcome them. It’s one thing to have a lively debate, but can it be fair when the arguments are all over the place? Below are a few of the most common logical fallacies and how to overcome them.
Slippery Slope Fallacy
Fear is a strong motivator when making an argument. From the President to your mother, invoking a scary image of what’s to come potentially can stir things up.
Commonly referred to as a ripple effect, the slippery slope fallacy has the argument shift to extreme hypotheticals. During the gay marriage debate a few years back, you would hear the idea that if a man could marry another man, people will then be able to marry animals. Clearly, this argument doesn’t hold up; bestiality would never be legalized in this country and shouldn’t be compared to the LGBTQ community.
What makes this fallacy tricky and effective is the subtle topic switch. Per the example above, the argument has shifted from the merits of gay marriage to this far-fetched scenario of cross-special matrimony. Rather than discussing a group of people’s civil rights, the debate now has to discuss an emotional appeal with no basis in fact. The fearmongering and “what ifs” make this fallacy effective to deploy during a losing battle. A slippery slope requires no data, evidence, or proof of any kind; all that’s needed is a desire to win and a conversation shift.
Remember, logical fallacies can be used without realizing it. I like to see the slippery slope fallacy as an extension of our “fight or flight” response. Rather than abandon the discussion and be proven wrong, the brain conjures up fantastical imagery to stay in the game. What’s important is how to avoid it altogether. Think in the back of your mind: is there causation between these two points? Will this idea add to the conversation or just derail things? Am I using this as a last resort?
No one likes to be wrong, but sometimes you have to admit defeat for the sake of honesty and fairness.
The Strawman Fallacy
“I think the current model for incarceration in our country is outdated. We need to re-evaluate what a prison sentence looks like and stress reform.”
“So basically, you’re saying you want a bunch of murderers to run around free?”
Has this type of interaction happen to you? You try to articulate a point, but you get something similar-sounding but altogether different thrown back in your face?
This is what’s known as the strawman fallacy, where an argument is oversimplified or exaggerated to a point where it can be unrightfully discredited. Most opinions and ideas we hold have a certain level of nuance to them; almost nothing is black and white. When a strawman argument is introduced (like the one above), the conversation shifts in a subtle but dramatic way. Like with the slippery slope fallacy, we’re no longer talking about a nuanced issue or point.
The conversation goes broad and from the gut.
What makes the strawman fallacy so effective and devious is, when you employ it, you appear as the more level-headed one. Per the example above, it’s easy to argue against new prison reform if you label your opponent as not caring if killers are released. As in this scenario by PBS Digital Studios, all the strawman does is boil down the conversation to a tangentially-related stance. Using the prison comment from the beginning of this section, what was supposed to be a discussion on prison reform shifted into a fight about lawlessness and murder.
The strawman fallacy can be dangerous when used. I could argue that this is the “fake news” of fallacies due to its manipulative and deceptive nature. When you mess around with someone’s words to make them seem less informed or incompetent, that can lead to character defamation. The strawman fallacy does away with rational debate and replaces it with a low-level squabble of intentions.
Fighting the strawman fallacy can be tricky. You can only reiterate your point so many times before getting frustrated. After a certain grace period, it ceases to be on your shoulders to undo the now-warped version of your argument. Remember: by arguing the new point brought up by the strawman, you’re feeding the fallacy.
The Fallacy Fallacy
Let’s see how many times I say fallacy in this section. This one gets a bit meta.
As you dive into the intricacies of one’s logical reasoning, it’s easy to call out any weak argument as a fallacy and therefore discredit the point completely. However, as I mentioned earlier, almost nothing is black and white.
The fallacy fallacy goes into the dangers of writing someone off completely because of their argument’s structure; if you listen closely and process what they’re trying to convey, the intent could come out.
We let our emotions get the best of us, and we have valid points that get muddled with shaky evidence. My goal of this article is to make you aware of what your brain does in a heated conversation, but when you become aware, it can be an overcorrection where you police and ignore anything that could be the result of a logical fallacy.
For example, in a conversation about climate change, one person argues that plastic straws will fill up landfills and kill hundreds of species. At first glance (and you’d be correct), this point employs the slippery slope fallacy. But at the same time, the arguer brings up a valid point that plastic straws can definitely have a great impact on waste.
Should the use of hyperbole discredit an entire argument? When passionate, we think about every small possibility being the be-all and end-all. It’s important to be skeptical and think critically — your gut will typically steer you right – though I feel you need to reach across, meet people in the middle, and understand where their worldview is coming from.
We use logical fallacies every day. No one is immune from accidentally committing one, and no one is above falling for one. In this day and age, we are divided. We want to be the person that knows everything and has flawless reasoning, but the best of us can make mistakes. There’s not much you can do besides swallow your pride, evaluate your thinking, and strive to improve. Know that it’s perfectly fine and an important part of discoursing to be wrong; it’s even better to admit it.
Next time you have a heated argument on social media or in real life, take a step back and think.
Are there clear logical problems I’m ignoring? Is my passion getting in the way of facts? Where is my information coming from?
Nobody’s perfect, but everyone can edit and move forward.