Fallacies of Logic Commonly Used in Today's Political Arguments
Fallacies of Logic Commonly Used in Today's Political Arguments
Have you ever discussed partisan issues with somebody, and you just knew that their arguments were somehow invalid, but you couldn’t pinpoint exactly how to point this out and respond accordingly? Do you want to make sure that you are only using valid arguments yourself so that you don’t get caught being the irrational one in an argument?
What about politicians and political talking heads? Other than when they straight-out lie to you, how can you tell when they are saying things that are rational as opposed to playing on emotions by saying things that sound reasonable according to your baser instincts?
Here is a list of logical fallacies that can help. Keep these fallacies in mind, or keep this list handy, when debating issues with someone who disagrees with you. You can become the rational one in debates; just keep this list in mind while listening to political arguments from politicians and talking heads.
Fallacies of logic are, quite simply, errors in reasoning. They are irrational arguments. They can be distinguished from factual errors, which are fallacies but not logical fallacies. Logical fallacies have been studied and categorized for centuries, dating back to the days of Plato and Aristotle. Many are known by names that are in the Latin language, which is evidence of the antiquity of their study.
Although known types of fallacies have become quite standardized over time, it is difficult to find one list of fallacies that is comprehensive. Many are very similar, with differences that are irrelevant in most situations. Many are specific cases of others which are more general. Some can be classified in subsets with different combinations of others.
This list is not comprehensive, but it is rather extensive. I have made no attempt to put them in any form of hierarchy. Some have come to be known by more than one name, and I have grouped together some with only nuanced differences that are irrelevant for the purpose at hand. Since different names are used together, this list is not in alphabetical order. I have chosen to list only the types of fallacies that are common today in political debates.
You will likely find that this list reads like an academic study. No doubt, you have already heard of some of these. But unless you have studied logic in a formal educational setting, you probably won’t want to jump right in, reading the list and studying it until you have this information down pat. You probably want to get to the arguments first, and then see how to counter those arguments with logic.
With that in mind, here are several samples of common arguments used in today’s political environment. You might have seen these recently. Perhaps you have seen many of them on several occasions. All of them are invalid because they rely on logical fallacies.
The ones within quotation marks use typical wording of arguments; the ones without quotation marks describe the arguments. Each example includes an explanation of the fallacies involved. The names of the relevant fallacies are given in bold. You can then go to the list of fallacies which follows, and find a definition and more information for each fallacy. Familiarity with this process will help you to identify and counter fallacies of logic in arguments other than the samples that I use here. Or, you can skip the examples and jump straight to the list of fallacies.
• “Capitalism is all about the private sector. It works because of the ‘invisible hand’. Therefore, any government involvement is socialism.”
This argument incorporates a number of different fallacies of logic. It mischaracterizes the role and nature of the government, in both capitalism and socialism, by ignoring the facts that government creates the circumstances that make a system of capitalism possible; no system of pure capitalism, one with no government involvement, has ever existed or ever could exist, so every existing or proposed economic system is a form of a mixed economy; and socialism by definition requires government ownership of some factors of production, not just some kind of role in the economy. By using a false definition of socialism, and implying a false role for government in capitalism, a generic argument against government involvement is a straw man argument. By ignoring the reality of various types of mixed economies and substituting arguments for capitalism over socialism, it is oversimplifying and creating a false dilemma. The wording of the argument by itself doesn’t necessarily claim a support for capitalism over socialism, but it doesn’t have to. This common argument is associated with implicit ad nauseam comments that make it clear that the arguer considers capitalism to be unquestionably good and socialism to be so evil as to be avoided. (False dilemma; Playing on emotions; Oversimplifying; Argumentum ad nauseam; Straw man; Judgmental language)
• “Rich people pay the majority of taxes, and poor people receive handouts from the government that are paid for with rich people’s taxes. Therefore, this problem is caused by the rich people’s taxes being too high.”
This is only one example of a number of different arguments relating to inequality. It ignores the fact that inequality has grown at the same time that effective tax rates on the rich have decreased significantly. Both the increase in inequality and the decrease in tax rates for the rich have been historically large in recent decades. This means that, mathematically, the consequences of rich people paying a higher share of the taxes while more government handouts are going to poor people can only be caused by rich people receiving a higher share of taxable income while the poor receive a smaller share of taxable income. In fact, this is verified by the historical record. But this argument is making the opposite claim, that rich people should pay fewer taxes; in effect advocating for more of the policies that created the inequality while leaving the impression that rich people’s tax rates have increased which is false. However, many people have heard the claim so often that they assume it to be true. (Circular cause and consequence; Argumentum ad nauseam; Lying with statistics)
• “Corporate executives earn all of the money that they are paid, because they are paid according to the free market.”
This argument is used to justify corporate executives receiving a much larger share of national income than they did in the past while the workers under them receive a much smaller share. It ignores the fact that no market forces can be identified to explain it. There is no market for corporate executives which works according to the principles of classic economics that are behind such claims; the pay scale is not based on relative productivity or efficiency; and the market does not act in accordance with the theories of perfect competition that are implied in the claim. Claiming that it is earned according to the market is the same thing as saying: “Corporate executives earn all of the money that they are paid.” “How do you know that they earn it?” “Because that is what they get paid.” (Circular Argument; non sequitur)
• Stating the dangers of a completely disarmed population when the opposition is not arguing for disarming the population, but rather arguing for a few gun control laws designed to improve safety.
I can’t think of any issue that is more emotionally-charged than the issue of gun control. For many people, this is a partisan issue. For others, it is a highly personal issue unrelated to other political issues. The nature of the issue means that many different kinds of arguments involving logical fallacies are involved. Here, I’m only focusing on a current trend, whereby many arguments against any kind of gun law are factually just arguments against a total gun ban which is not the argument that the opposition is making. (Straw Man)
• “Trickle-down economics works because the economy grew and government revenue increased after Reagan lowered taxes.”
This statement cherry-picks “economy grew”, “government revenue increased” and “lowered taxes” from the following evidence, the totality of which would lead to a different conclusion:
Ronald Reagan took office in January of 1981. The economy went into a recession in July of 1981 and stayed in recession until November of 1982. This followed a shorter recession from January 1980 to July 1980. The annual unemployment rate peaked at 9.7% in 1982, which is still the highest on record. The economy grew following the recession, as it always does following a recession. It continued to grow until a new recession began in July 1990. The economic growth following the recession of 1981-1982 was accomplished using the classical Keynesian policies of massive government debt and large increases in government spending, the opposite of what this argument implies. Several changes occurred in the tax code throughout these years, most notably the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Some taxes decreased, some increased; some loopholes were closed. Government deficits and debt grew far out of proportion to anything seen before, due to a much larger increase in government expenditures over revenue. In dollar terms, revenue for the most part increased due to an increase in the size of the economy as well as population growth. In terms of percentage of the economy and percentage of expenditures, revenue decreased. What was non-Keynesian about this method of escape from recession is the long term nature of fixes for a short term problem. Deficits continued to skyrocket even after the goal of economic growth was reached; a “no new tax” and deregulatory mentality developed that negatively affected future decades. Without going into detail here, it can be argued using historical data that the long term problems far outpaced the short term economic gains. The conclusion that “trickle-down economics works” agrees with the cherry-picked aspects but not with the totality of the scenario. (Stacked Evidence; Reductionism)
• “The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln.”
This argument is used to imply that the modern Republican Party shares the values of Abraham Lincoln, or that Lincoln would approve of the modern-day party positions. Similar arguments are made regarding the Republican Party and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The argument ignores the fact that the make-up and direction of the party has shifted and evolved into something completely different from what it used to be. For details, see the historical record of party registration changes from Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights, and the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy. (Etymological fallacy; Presentism)
• Only referencing or linking a source from a blog or other post from somebody who is paid to agree with a particular position as a basis for an argument, while ignoring any contrary information that comes from qualified sources. (False attribution)
• Journalists often assume that they are being unbiased if they give equal time to each side of an issue, and report each position as equal, regardless of the relative merits of each position. (False compromise)
• The idea that the meaning of the Constitution cannot be changed, and must be strictly adhered to and applied to modern situations, regardless of any subsequent human advancements or changes in global conditions. (Historian’s fallacy)
• “Households and businesses must live within their budgets, so the government should never run a deficit.”
This argument implicitly defines a deficit as “paying bills on time” for households and businesses, while at the same time it defines a deficit as “not having any bills to pay” for the government; two different definitions that together make the case. In reality, most households, businesses, and governments routinely use credit, and all presumably are expected to pay their bills on time. The U.S. government actually has a much better record in terms of “paying bills on time” than households or businesses. In fact, the U.S. government is considered the safest investment in the world, and the U.S. dollar is a global currency, due to the government’s stellar credit record. (Inconsistent comparison)
• “I oppose welfare because I don’t want my hard-earned money going to lazy people who choose to live off handouts. I don’t want money from ‘makers’ going to ‘takers’.” Or, finding a specific example of apparent welfare fraud and using it to argue that welfare should be abolished or greatly curtailed.
Welfare fraud is already illegal, and the laws making it illegal can always be reviewed and tightened if necessary. Citizens who have factual knowledge that welfare fraud is taking place can report this to the state authorities in charge instead of making sweeping generalizations that imply widespread fraud. This is not a valid argument for eliminating or greatly curtailing the welfare system outside of the specific fraud aspect, but it does play on people’s emotions by getting them to think that their tax money is going to benefit somebody who is not worthy. (Sweeping generalization; Overwhelming exception; Playing on emotions; Argumentum ad nauseam)
• “I oppose legalizing gay marriage because…”
I left this one as a fill-in-the-blank sentence because what is in the rest of the sentence most likely does not matter. I have followed the issue extensively and I have seen many arguments on both sides. All of the arguments that I have seen in opposition to legalizing gay marriage are examples of one or more of the following fallacies of logic: (Non sequitur; Blind loyalty; Argumentum ad numerum; Slippery slope; Argumentum ad antiquitatem; Appeal to nature; Contextomy; Nunc pro tunc; Wishful thinking; Judgmental language; Reductionism)
• “Taxing corporations kills jobs.”
• “Minimum wage jobs are only temporary jobs for teenagers or entry-level positions.”
• “More and more regulations are hurting business.”
• “Obama is raising our taxes to pay for out of control government spending.”
• “Obama is bankrupting America with record high deficits.”
• “Obama has ignored the Constitution and is acting like a dictator with all of his executive orders.”
• “All inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply.”
These are examples of beliefs that are commonly held, yet all of them can either be proven false or the available evidence does not support them. (Argumentum ad nauseam)
The list of logical fallacies begins here. Keep in mind that this list is not comprehensive, but has been compiled in an attempt to include the fallacies which are common in today’s political arguments. Since many fallacies are known by different names, differences between others are only subtle differences which are irrelevant to the purpose here, and many fallacies can be considered both stand-alone fallacies and sub-categories of other fallacies, this list is not in any particular order. I have grouped identical and nearly identical ones together.
Circulus in demonstrando (Circular argument)
Assuming the conclusion
This is the fallacy of using what you are trying to prove as part of the proof. The conclusion is merely a restatement of the premise.
Argument from Repetition
Big lie technique
Staying on message
This is the fallacy of trying to prove something simply by making the same claim so often that the listener assumes that if it is said so often it must be true. Whether or not the claim itself is fallacious is irrelevant; it is only by repetition of the claim that this fallacy is committed. Whether or not a claim is true, stating it over and over again doesn’t make it so.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc (After this, therefore because of this)
This is the fallacy of concluding causation based on correlation. Just because two events happen together doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other.
“It does not follow”
The conclusion is not drawn logically from the evidence presented.
This is the fallacy of mischaracterizing the position of an opponent and arguing against that mischaracterization rather than the actual position of the opponent.
Lying with statistics
These types of fallacies involve cherry-picking pieces of evidence so that a distorted conclusion is drawn.
There is no alternative
Get over it
These types of fallacies involve presenting a black and white worldview in which only one or two choices are considered as if no other option is possible; they could involve an attempt to end debate by taking options off the table.
The red herring fallacy involves the use of arguments that are irrelevant to the question at hand; or the use of any diversionary tactics that are designed to change the subject in order to get the person you are debating to talk about something other than the issue at hand.
These are variations on the same type of fallacy, a fallacy of stereotyping: presenting specific examples in arguments and then drawing conclusions as if the evidence is true in every case.
Poisoning the well
This fallacy occurs when an arguer makes attacks on the person instead of the person’s ideas that are at issue.
Appeal to hypocrisy
Two wrongs make a right
This is a type of red herring in which the arguer, when presented with evidence of committing a logical fallacy, instead of admitting to error, responds with the claim that the opponent also has committed the same (or worse) fallacy.
This is the fallacy of attacking an opponent’s associates instead of the ideas presented.
Appeal to authority
Blood is thicker than water
These are variations of the same type of fallacy. They involve citing the beliefs or words of somebody who is considered to have a good character or reputation as evidence, even though that person is not an authority on the issue at hand; or taking a position simply to agree with somebody for personal reasons.
Argumentum ad populum (Appeal to the public)
Argument from common sense
These fallacies involve using evidence of the popularity of a belief to argue that the belief is right or true.
This fallacy involves arguing that if one thing is allowed to happen, it will lead to other things with negative consequences, but without providing evidence that logically links the issue at hand with the consequences. Because the fallacy is the missing evidence supporting the claim, this is a form of non sequitur.
Appeal to antiquity or tradition
This is the argument that a certain way of doing something is the correct way simply because that is the way it has traditionally been done.
Argumentum e silentio (Argument from silence)
These are similar fallacies that involve assuming something is true simply because it has not been proven false, or cannot be proven false (argumentum ad ignorantiam); arguing that something is false because it hasn’t been proven true (argumentum e silentio).
Argument to logic
This fallacy involves claiming something is false simply because someone has offered an invalid argument for it.
Appeal to pity
This is the argument that “something must be done and you need to do more”, without recognizing that other worthwhile causes exist, different people place different priorities on these causes, resources are limited, and “doing something” does not necessarily create effective and efficient results.
Fallacy of many questions
Have you stopped beating your wife?
This is a question that is worded in such a way as to imply that something is true even if that truth has not been established, often in a form requiring a yes or no answer.
Appeal to God’s will
Appeal to faith
These types of fallacies are arguments that assume that whatever the arguer considers consistent with nature or the arguer’s belief in a higher power is good, and whatever conflicts with this definition of nature is bad.
This is the fallacy of reaching conclusions of good or bad based on facts alone. Conclusions of value must include premises of value in order to be valid.
This fallacy involves the claim that the consequence of something is what caused it.
The fallacy of equivocation occurs from making a misleading statement by using a term that has more than one definition, and implying that one definition is being used when in fact the context requires a different definition.
This fallacy involves making assumptions about specific individuals based solely on conclusions drawn from a larger group that these individuals are perceived to be a part of.
This fallacy involves the inference that the current meaning of a term is the same as its original or historical meaning.
Black and white fallacy
Two opposing positions are assumed to be the only possibilities.
This fallacy involves using carefully selected words which can be implied to support whichever side of an issue the listener supports.
False attribution involves the use of biased, irrelevant, unqualified, falsified, or unidentified sources to support arguments.
Fallacy of quoting out of context
This fallacy involves using selected words from a source with the result of distorting the contextual meaning of the source.
This fallacy occurs by assuming or implying that the truth or best outcome lies somewhere between two opposing viewpoints.
This is the practice of rewriting history by projecting present day positions and issues into the past in a way that implies historical agreement with those positions.
This fallacy involves an implicit assumption that the information we have available today was also available to decision-makers of the past.
This fallacy involves comparing or contrasting two ideas but using different methods for each idea.
Missing the point
This is an argument that does not actually address the issue at hand.
This is the practice of continuing to defend a position against evidence to the contrary by using multiple arguments that are not consistent with each other.
Raising the bar
These are similar types of fallacies that involve demanding more and stronger evidence from an opponent, or creating exceptions, when confronted with evidence that contradicts one’s position.
Perfect solution fallacy
This is the fallacy of rejecting a proposed solution to a problem because it is not perfect, even if no perfect solution has been proposed.
Burden of proof
Denying a negative
This fallacy involves making a claim and then demanding that someone disprove the claim. It is a specific form of argumentum ad ignorantiam.
Proof by verbosity
Proof by intimidation
This is the fallacy of making a claim that is so complex or wordy that no opponent can possibly deal with all of the different components of the claim, especially when a time limit is involved.
These are similar types of fallacies that involve using a detailed description of an event (misleading vividness) or citing a notorious example (overwhelming exception) to imply that the problem is much bigger than that one event, and concluding that a bigger problem needs to be addressed.
This is the practice of basing arguments on what a debater wants to be true, rather than on what the evidence says is true.
This is the fallacy of rejecting an argument because of perceived motives of the person making the argument, instead of addressing the merits of the argument.
This is the fallacy of rejecting an idea solely because the person proposing the idea is thought or known to be biased. It is a form of argumentum ad hominem in the sense that it is only a fallacy if it involves the bias of the person rather than the bias of an idea.
This is the practice of using insults or words with negative connotations in order to influence the listener.
Playing the Nazi card
This fallacy involves attempting to associate opponents with somebody who is universally reviled. It is a specific form of judgmental language fallacy.
This involves rejecting an argument because it is too difficult to understand.
Argument from inertia
Stay the course
These types of fallacies occur when an arguer refuses to admit an error in reasoning, perhaps by citing dire consequences of the opposing position.
Playing on emotions
These are similar fallacies of arguments using simplistic statements or emotionally charged language to mislead by making a complex situation sound simple.
A version of this essay is included as a chapter in the book Common Misconceptions of Economic Policy by Jerry Wyant. You can purchase this book in paperback form from Amazon and other online book distributors. The list price is $12.99 (only $9.99 using discount code TA9GTK7E when ordering, depending on the distribution channel). Or if you prefer, you can download a digital version on your device (Kindle, Nook, etc.) for $4.99.
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