Rhetorical fallacies are arguments that lack internal logic. Far from being unpersuasive, these arguments instead use appeals to emotions, preexisting audience biases or creative wordplay to seem logical in the absence of supporting evidence. We see them all the time in politics, and they’ve been especially prominent in Donald Trump’s campaign and current administration. (Consider Vox’s recent analysis of Kellyanne Conway’s interview strategies or Jake Tapper’s criticism of Sean Spicer on Conan.) But, while they may be effective, these arguments are impediments to critical thought or dialogue based on real information, and many are so subtle we may not even realize when we or other people are using them. So in this video below, I review a handful of the most common rhetorical fallacies, all presented as responses to a simple question: “Why won’t Donald Trump release his tax returns?”
Here’s a rundown of all the fallacies featured.
Slippery Slope: Assuming that a small action will escalate into larger, negative consequences
Wishful Thinking: Suggesting that a claim is true because you strongly hope it is
Appeal to Flattery: Using an irrelevant compliment alongside a claim, with the hope the compliment and the claim will be accepted together
Appeal to Anonymous Authority: Suggesting a claim is backed by an unnamed yet supposedly credible source
Appeal to Incredulity: Suggesting a claim is false because it sounds unbelievable
Lie: Intentionally using false information to support a claim
Appeal to Probability: Suggesting that because something could happen or is likely to happen that it will happen
Red Herring: Presenting irrelevant information that distracts from the initial argument and leads toward a different conclusion. The classic “pivot.”
Middle Ground: Assuming that because two arguments could have merit, the answer must lie somewhere in between
Perfectionist Fallacy: Assuming that because an argument is unable to solve the full scope of a problem that it cannot be taken seriously
Repetition: A statement’s credibility is not related to how often it is said
Relativist Fallacy: Rejecting a claim on the grounds that truth is relative to a person or group
Unfalsifiability: Making an argument that cannot be disproven, as there is no way to determine whether it is true or false
Ad Hominem: Refuting an argument through an irrelevant personal attack on the opponent and not the claim
Circumstance Ad Hominem: Suggesting that an opponent is not credible because of their personal interests in the claim
Burden of Proof: Assuming a claim is valid until the opponent can prove it false
Cum Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: Assuming that correlation is the same as causation—that two simultaneous events must have a causal relationship
False Dilemma: Suggesting two options are the only options, and an audience must support one or the other
Straw Man: Creating a distorted or oversimplified version of your opponent’s claim and arguing against that instead
And there are of course many, many more.
Why should we learn rhetorical fallacies? Because in a world where we are saturated with information, across 24-hour news cycles, social media and digital and print publications, in addition to our real-life conversations, understanding which sources are credible and whom can be trusted is a crucial part of remaining informed. Real information has never been so accessible, but false claims are also more widespread than ever, sometimes through the same channels. (The role lies, red herrings and “fake news” played in Trump’s election victory cannot be understated, and these strategies get their power from people’s tendency to fall for the same rhetorical tricks again and again.)
It’s easy to get overwhelmed and want to take shortcuts, to assume that the pithiest arguments are the most reasonable, or to believe things are true because we want them to be true. And it’s something everyone does, to some degree. (It’s also worth noting how that’s not always a bad thing. We rarely have perfect information, and sometimes we have to make decisions with our gut or go with what seems most probable. Fallacies aren’t necessarily underhanded. They’re just not ways to prove the truth of something.) But when we have the opportunity to know the truth, we have to make the effort to seek it out. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to be critical thinkers, to found our views on hard evidence and to live in the most accurate reality we can.
If you know people you think could use a refresher on rhetorical fallacies, please share this video with them online, and together we can make the argument for better arguments.
(Because as we all know, smart, beautiful and talented people know how to resist the allure of rhetorical fallacies. And surely you’re one of them…)