We have all been in arguments on social media. And sometimes your opponent may begin to twist your words and place you in seemingly ‘unwinnable’ positions. For example, you may argue that ‘legalising medicinal cannabis is a good idea’, but are then asked to comment on ‘so you think all illegal drugs are fine.’
Obviously, this is not true, so you are unlikely to agree with it.
This is a strawman argument, and by making any concession the opponent will then erroneously signal your defeat. And because debates are often won or lost on emotion or ‘strength’, this can be a crucial difference in conveying the truth.
But with strawman arguments, as with many other logical fallacies, there are ways out. Often the very argument raised is illogical, dishonest or weak. So all you have to do is spot and declare the common errors.
So let’s list our top 10 logical fallacies, teach you how to spot them, and how to dismantle them. In each case, we have included a comprehensive retort for you to use. And you can skip to the end for the biggest argument destroyer of all.
1. ‘Black and White’ Fallacy (False dichotomy, False dilemma.)
This common fallacy presents an erroneously limited number of outcomes for any given argument. And in doing so, limits your answer to either agreeing with or refuting a single point using an incomplete set of alternative explanations.
In short, you are forced to pick an outcome you don’t agree with from a list without all the answers. This may illegitimately misrepresent the truth of a situation, your own view and further the dishonest cause of the person involved.
So let’s look at the fallacy simply;
- Black White Fallacy; Premise ‘A’ must be explained by outcome ‘1’ or’ 2′.
- Correction: Premise ‘A’ is explained by neither ‘1’ or ‘2’, both, partially, or by something else entirely.
So to make things a little more useful, let’s present a common use of the fallacy
- You can either believe that humans cause climate change or that it’s due to volcanoes.
And although volcanoes do contribute to climate change, we know that humans do. The statement asks you to agree with either side, dismissing the other. But in practice, both humans and volcanoes contribute to climate change.
An easy way to spot this fallacy is to simply look for a question or statement that forces a narrow set of options or explanations, and then consider whether the answers provided are exhaustive. If not, then the advocate is making a black-white fallacy. Look for words like ‘which, pick one, must, is and either.’
So now that you know how to spot it, what can you say back? I would recommend copying and pasting this answer;
‘The options presented do not capture the truth of the situation at hand. You have deliberately limited our possible responses to further your own agenda. I will not entertain a false dilemma.’
You can then provide your argument, having both recognised their dishonesty and called the person out.
2. ‘False Cause’ Fallacy (False Association, induction error.)
A false cause fallacy presents an erroneous association between two variables. The user will link two or more different ideas to form a dishonest or incorrect conclusion. This could be comparing data, or someones past actions with their current (although this is not exhaustive.)
In each case, the link between the variables is erroneous, confounded by a third factor (or more,) or not as straight-forward as the person would wish others to believe.
So let’s look at the basic idea;
- False Cause Fallacy: Since A is ‘true’ and B is ‘true’, then ‘C’ must be true.
- Correction: ‘A’ and ‘B’ may both be true, but do not explain or cause ‘C’ at all, entirely or alone.
A common example oft used to demonstrate this is ‘Storks and Babies.’ In a study comparing the number of breeding pairs of ‘Storks’ in a country with the number ‘human births,’, finding that with more storks came more births;
- Since Stork numbers increase in proportion to human births, babies must be delivered by Storks.
Here we can see how the conditions addressed (correlation in stork numbers and human births,) do not explain their relationship. The conclusion itself is erroneous, as we know how babies are born. There is a third factor involved, the size of the country, which also predicts an increase in stork numbers and birth rates.
An easy way to spot this fallacy is to note any argument made using data or a premise to justify the conclusion. At this point you may question whether the conclusion can be explained fully by the argument offered, or the data/premise presented. Look for words like ‘since, as, showed.’
And what can you say back?
‘The argument presented is incorrect. The variables that you have presented do not provide evidence to justify your conclusion. This is a false cause fallacy.’
You can then post the truth.
3. Appeal To Nature Fallacy (Naturalistic Fallacy.)
An appeal to nature fallacy presents the idea that something is only true if it appears ‘natural.’ Conversely, anything that does not fit someone’s view of ‘natural’ can be dismissed. The argument places an undeserved omnipotence in the ‘natural world’ as a source of truth when it comes to any subject, and an arbiter of its ‘morality.’
- Naturalistic Fallacy; ‘A’ is’ unnatural’, so it must be ‘incorrect’ and/or ‘morally wrong.’
- Correction: The natural world has no moral precepts, and the efficacy or truth of a statement or intervention must be judged on means other than ‘what is natural.’
So let’s look at a common example;
- Medicines are unnatural, it is much safer and morally preferable to use herbal remedies.
In this scenario, medicines are argued to be ‘unnatural’ and therefore ‘not safe’ and morally ‘bad.’ The advocate assumes that ‘natural is best’ and that any abrogation is morally and functionally wrong. But we also know that medicines save lives in situations where their avoidance would mean death (i.e antibiotics, chemotherapy.)
From a logical standpoint, the moral judgment must be made on the effects of medicines compared with our shared precepts of ‘right and wrong.’ You could easily argue that using antibiotics to save a child’s life is more morally agreeable than using a herbal remedy that won’t make a difference. Here nature is neither superior or morally ‘better.’
To spot this fallacy look for any argument where the person refers to nature or what is commonly accepted. Look for words like ‘natural, better way, holistic, homoeopathic, folk wisdom, alternative medicine or big pharma’.
So now you can spot the argument, here is our perfect retort;
The statement presented assumes a ‘natural’ omnipotence and moral authority. Neither is true, as nature is neither moral or universally effective. This is a weak appeal to nature. We must consider an argument on several attributes before making any judgement in either domain.’
You can then post your counter argument and any relevant evidence.
4. The ‘Strawman’ argument
A favourite of keyboard warriors, the ‘strawman’ argument switches the focus of the debate to untenable grounds. Often the person will ask you to extend your premise to account for another situation, where it is either limited or not applicable at all. It is designed to distract from the core argument.
Crucially, it creates a false or imaginary situation constructed to force you to agree. It is a conscious attempt to misrepresent both your views and the reality of the situation;
- Strawman argument: Since you support ‘A’, you must support ‘B.’
- Correction: Supporting ‘A’ is not necessarily coherent with ‘B’, context matters.
Often people will then concede on the new subject, and the concession be cited as ‘evidence’ that their original point is no longer valid;
- How can you possibly support ‘A’ if you cannot support ‘B’? I guess you don’t believe in ‘a’ at all!
So let’s review a topical example;
- You say that guns shouldn’t be used by civilians. So you are happy for people to be robbed?
In this situation, you can be unhappy with both civilian firearm use and theft. The two are not intrinsically related, and your reasons for not supporting civilian firearm use are nothing to do with theft. The person insists that you must accept their faulty reasoning to validate your own. Look for phrases like ‘so you’re saying, so you must think.’
So what do you say back?
This is a strawman argument. Do not assume to generalise my point beyond it’s original context. My argument stands on it’s on merit in the domains in which it is presented. Refute that before you invent an imaginary scenario to your favour.
5. Begging the question (circular argument, circular reasoning.)
This particularly dishonest approach presents an argument that includes its own conclusion as a premise. In short, it assumes that you won’t spot the trick. You are forced to agree with the statement because it is logically valid, even if untrue.
In this situation you have no choice to agree with the conclusion if you agree with the premise, and therein lies it’s weakness;
- Circular Argument: ‘A’ proves ‘B’ and ‘B’ proves ‘A’
- Correction: Neither proves either. You need alternative evidence.
A common example is the recognisable ‘Proof of God’;
- The beauty of nature is proof of God. Since nature is beautiful, then God exists.
In this situation, the premise deductively inextricable from its conclusion. But you can dismiss the argument by pointing out that the ‘beauty of nature’ does not prove anything, and therefore it ‘being proved’ by ‘what it asserts must be true’ as a consequence is simply invalid. But how do you spot it? This one is a little trickier, but look for when someone includes synonyms in a statement, repeated terms or words like ‘proof, since, then or must be true.’
And what can you say back?
This is circular reasoning and provides no actual proof of your assertion. You are not highlighting a distinct relationship between two variables, but merely presenting them as one logical entity. Unless you can provide a third proof, then this argument can be dismissed.’
6. The ‘Slippery Slope’ (absurd exploitation, domino fallacy.)
The basic design of this argument is to take a premise and extend its consequences beyond context to something catastrophic. It presents the ‘worst case’ scenario as grounds to dismiss any suggestion, conveniently ignoring any sense of restriction or limitation. Simply put, it takes your argument beyond your intended situation into realms most would find it disagreeable, and likely never have to encounter.
In this situation you are forced to recognise the theoretical risk, which appears to others as if agreeing with it. But as Aristotle said
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
It essentially says;
- Slippery slope: If ‘A’ causes ‘B’ and ‘B’ causes ‘C’…. (ad nauseam until uncomfortable conclusion drawn.)
- Correction: ‘A’ may cause ‘B’, but does not inherently cause an unstoppable sequence of events. We have choice and means to exercise restraint on the conditions considered.
A common example often encountered on Twitter is;
- If we elect the democrats this will lead to communism, and before you know it there will be mass executions.
In this unfortunately non-hyperbolic example, all you need to do is point out the inaccuracies in the original premise and the important of context in disrupting the chain of causation. For example, the democrats are not communists, and communism is an ideology. Mass executions performed under communist regimes were not a result of the ideology, but the dictator.
So how can you spot this approach? It’s quite simple, just look for anyone extending your argument toward anything emotionally tumultuous, topical or disagreeable. The weakness of the approach is it’s appeal to tragedy, which although powerful, makes it easy to spot. Or you can look for words like ‘if, will lead to, next, before you know it, consequence’ or any historically significant abomination ‘Nazis, racism, executions, etc.’
And in response you can say;
This is a nonsensical slippery slope argument designed to paint the worst case scenario. In reality it makes a number of unsupported links and assumptions and ignores our ability to recognise poor outcomes. There is no unavoidable chain of consequence here. You are not just being dishonest, but underestimating and insulting both your readers and myself.
7. Anecdotal Argument (personal experience, hearsay’)
A rather personal bugbear of mine is the anecdotal argument. This is where somebody uses one or more limited examples of ‘experience’ to extrapolate their view beyond the examples. In short it compares the conclusions of one person with the combined data for all applicable situations, and favours the former. Within science, this is the lowest form of evidence as it is prone to error, misinterpretation and confounded by other variables.
In this case the person may not be aware of their error, as the result is ‘true to them’;
- Anecdotal Argument: I know that ‘A’ does not cause ‘B’ because I know someone who does ‘A’ and doesn’t have ‘B.’
- Correction: Individual examples of the relationships between variables may differ from large-scale observations. There may be other factors involved, or you have experienced a case within the margin of negative probability.
This one is a little wordy, so let’s use a common case;
I don’t vaccinate my children because my friend Jane’s son has autism, and she says it’s because of the vaccine.
In this situation it is clear where the fallacy lies. There is a misconception (that vaccines cause autism, they don’t,) and the child’s diagnosis is used as proof of the misconception (this is somewhat similar to circular reasoning.) Here the person is using a single unverified case to generalise to an entire field of study, ignoring the wealth of contradictory evidence. Look out for words like ‘hear, my friend, but didn’t, this one case’ or worse still, people posting links to anecdotal opinion pieces.
And how do you respond?
‘Anecdotal accounts are unreliable due to either a paucity of supporting evidence, the presence of confounding variables, a misconception and undermined by the larger data. Opinion pieces are worthless compared to large-scale studies. Unless a relationship is replicable beyond one scenario, it’s ‘truth’ is unlikely replicable beyond that case. There are sometimes exceptions to the rules, but these are often predictable and accounted for.
8. An ‘Appeal to Emotion’ (playing on emotion, ‘for the children’.)
You may have heard the term ‘won’t someone think of the children’, usually used in jest within comedy. But this approach, often used in good faith by well-meaning individuals, can be used by politicos to manipulate the public into supporting their personal causes. It may be used in conjunction with the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy, as it disregards logical discourse in favour of moral judgement.
You are forced to agree because not doing so give you the appearance of being callous, evil or worse. It essentially asks for the ‘rules to be bent’ because of a real or fabricated ‘special case/’
- Appeal to emotion: If we don’t do ‘A’ then ‘B’ will happen (B being something negative, emotional or pulling on heartstrings.)
- Correction: The relationship between ‘A’ and ‘B’ isn’t logical, defined or likely. Emotional ploys are being used to manipulate and divide people.
And a common example;
- If you don’t allow this person to travel to a different hospital then you want him to die, you Nazi.
This is a common medical scenario. But this argument makes faulty assumptions about a persons moral standpoint and intentions. It also appeals to the common sensibility of ‘wanting people to live (which we all do.)’ It then goes a step further to assert that ‘you wanted a person to die.’ This is just one example, but others could include discussions about criminal activity, euthanasia (if criminal,) abortion or other contentious topics.
Now, this one is difficult. As people will genuinely believe what they are saying, and be saying it in perceived good faith, this cannot always be taken as intentional manipulation. These are very hard to debate, as the emotive aspect is so powerful and the accusation so strong. I have seen many doctors pushed to breaking point debating the finer points of decisions around life and death. Furthermore, you make yourself the fictitious enemy of an often justified moral crusade.
Look for words like ‘children, women, forced, infringement, fascism etc’, or emotive images and one-sided opinion pieces being used.
So, aside from leaving it to the official authority involved, you could say;
This is a very difficult situation. But before we make quick judgements about what may be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, it is important to get a full picture of what is going on. You may very well be right, but there may be information that you are not aware of that complicates things.’
But when it comes to this one, less engagement is more. Personally I only debate subjects where avoiding the argument puts others at risk.
9. The ‘Ad Hominem’ (abusive, name calling)
Personally, the use of personal insults or use of character traits within academic discourse is enough cause for me to withdraw from debate. An ‘ad hominem’ is where someone begins either casting aspersions on their opponent (he is x or y,) or bringing up past actions (he used to do x, he once y) to try and undermine their argument. The insult or characterisation may be completely unrelated, but infer some blanket moral judgement.
Of course, there are cases where someones character or past actions may predict the validity of their argument, but to assume so is foolhardy.
Often the nature of the person is irrelevant to the argument, where the approach insists that a ‘bad’ person cannot make a ‘valid or true’ statement because of their nature;
- Ad hominem: ‘A’ must be wrong because he did x
- Correction: The likelihood of being wrong must be taken on the evidence presented, not his character.
This is easier to present with a common example;
- The surgeon-general says that burgers are unhealthy, but he is really fat so whatever.
In this example an ‘ad hominem’ attack is made to question the validity of the surgeon-generals advice based on his appearance. It infers that if burgers were really unhealthy, then he/she wouldn’t be fat. Therefore, he/she is lying and he/she is a bad person. Worse still, it presents being overweight as some kind of moral shortcoming.
This usually signifies that the argument has been lost and may reveal something about the character of who you are dealing with. On a personal note, often these ‘trolls’ thrive on attention, so don’t waste your time beyond one response. You are not convincing them, you are convincing bystander readers.
The important point missed is that burgers are unhealthy if even to extreme, regardless of who says it. This is an easy one to spot, just look for adjectives or insults.
i.e ‘Crooked Hillary.’
So what do you say?
A person’s character or personal attributes must be taken second to the evidence presented. To use insults to undermine an argument or person is both a departure from debate and an underhanded manipulative tactic. It suggests to me that you cannot provide a reasoned refutation of the point.
10. ‘Personal Incredulity’ (argument from astonishment, misunderstanding.)
Not to be confused with an ‘argument from ignorance’ (where someone is simply unaware of the facets of their argument,) this approach portends that the complicated nature of an idea renders it false. Basically, it says that because something is complicated, or beyond someones understanding, it can be dismissed either in favour of something more simple or not solved at all;
- Personal Incredulity: ‘A’ seems too complex to be true, so it can’t be.
- Correction: The complexity of an idea has no bearing on its validity, and a personal misunderstanding does not change the truth.
A recent example, featured in my work on The Flat Earth, is as follows;
- I cannot see the curvature of the earth, so it must be flat.
The problem here is a misunderstanding of optics and what can be expected. As well as being a ‘common sense’ fallacy, you may also treat it as an ‘argument from ignorance’ if you were to appraise what might be common knowledge. But here I am addressing the somewhat complex idea of the evolutionary limitations of human vision and the fractional curvature defined by distance. Look for words like ‘complicated, nonsense, made up, theory and elite.’
In response you can say;
The truth of this matter is inherent in its complexity, which is understandably beyond many people’s comprehension. But to assert that the statement is wrong because you don’t understand it is erroneous. Simple is not always correct.’
So there we are, our top 10 common fallacies and how to fight back. You may have noticed a common theme, which is either the misrepresentation of information, assumption of terms and intention, or glossing over the finer details in favour of emotive manipulation. Each is obvious once spotted, but in the sphere of social media often it is not the most logical who wins, but the most emotive.
And unfortunately, on the battlefield of ideas, this does cost lives. The public understanding of concepts directly influences our behaviours, so people refuse medication, avoid vaccination and place others at risk. This can often be traced back to the poor argument or dishonest actions of a charlatan or ‘influencer’ whom uses these tricks to confound and manipulate others.
But I wish to offer you one more retort, which you can use almost anywhere. Whenever someone makes an unsubstantiated claim, for example ‘vaccines cause autism’ or ‘flu shots cause Alzheimers’ you can respond with what I call the Sagan-Hitchens Razor, as it combines the aphorisms of two great logicians. I have added my own pithy knockdown at the end, but I feel it arrogant to place my name amongst the greats’;
‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. So put up, or shut up.’
So let me know how you fare, and if you come across any spectacularly poor arguments let me know in the comments or social media.
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