Don't be tricked by these five fallacies.
In ad hominem attacks, a position is attacked not through reasoning related to the argument itself, but instead by attacking the opponent’s personal character. For example, if Squiggly says we should have chocolate cake for dinner, and Aardvark responds by saying that Squiggly is an idiot, he’s using an ad hominem attack—addressing only Squiggly’s character—and not making a logical argument about why chocolate cake for dinner is bad.
Closely related to the ad hominem attack is the tu quoque fallacy: This is when, instead of opposing an argument or a criticism, the speaker or writer responds by turning it back on the accuser. It’s essentially an argument that says, “Oh, yeah? What about you?” An example would be crafting an argument against doctors’ anti-smoking messages by pointing out statistics about how many doctors smoke. Those facts would have nothing to do with the anti-smoking argument itself but instead simply attack the behavior of those on the opposing side.
A post hoc argument assumes one event caused another, based solely on the order of occurrence. The full Latin phrase—“post hoc, ergo propter hoc”—means “after this, therefore, because of this.” So, to use a historical example that was once believed to be fact: “People who spend time outside at night are more likely to catch malaria, therefore, night air causes malaria.” The fact that things happen in order doesn’t mean that one thing actually caused the next to happen. We now know that malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitos, not by night air.
This is somewhat like the “slippery slope” fallacy. In these cases, you’re arguing against something with the assumption that it will lead to another undesirable outcome through a series of incremental steps. But in reality, the events may not actually be related if they do occur, or the first event might happen without the catastrophic result.
A red herring is a classic misdirection. We see this all the time in fiction, from Sherlock Holmes stories to modern-day thrillers. False clues are planted to throw the reader off. Similarly, a red herring fallacy can pop up in your writing when your argument veers into an area only tangentially related to the core topic. This may be purposeful, but it’s also easy to do without intending to. Here’s an example in which President Ronald Reagan used humor and diversion as a red herring in answering a debate question:
Reporter: You already are the oldest president in history. ... President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
Reagan: Not at all ... and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.
So, how do you catch yourself using fallacies? Play devil’s advocate with your own writing. Ask yourself what the logical counter-argument is and whether yours holds up. Then, identify any stereotypes or biases you are inadvertently using to inform your position. This should help you identify holes in your logic and set you up for a stronger result.
Lora Wegman is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.
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