Unit 6: Argumentative Essay Writing

42 Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning based on faulty logic. Good writers want to convince readers to agree with their arguments—their reasons and conclusions. If your arguments are not logical, readers won’t be convinced. Logic can help prove your point and disprove your opponent’s point—and perhaps change a reader’s mind about an issue. If you use faulty logic (logic not based on fact), readers will not believe you or take your position seriously.

Read about five of the most common logical fallacies and how to avoid them below:

  1. Generalizations
  2. Loaded words
  3. Inappropriate authority figures
  4. Either/or arguments
  5. Slippery slope

Common Logical Fallacies

Below are five of the most common logical fallacies.

#1 Generalizations

Explanation: Hasty generalizations are just what they sound like—making quick judgments based on inadequate information. This kind of logical fallacy is a common error in argumentative writing.

Example 1: Ren didn’t want to study at a university. Instead, Ren decided to go to a technical school. Ren is now making an excellent salary repairing computers. Luis doesn’t want to study at a university. Therefore, Luis should go to a technical school to become financially successful.

Analysis: While they have something in common (they both want to go to school and earn a high salary), this fact alone does not mean Luis would be successful doing the same thing that their friend Ren did. There may be other specific information which is important as well, such as the fact that Ren has lots of experience with computers or that Luis has different skills.

Example 2: If any kind of gun control laws are enacted, citizens will not be allowed to have any guns at all.

Analysis: While passing new gun control laws may result in new restrictions, it is highly unlikely the consequences would be so extreme; gun control is a complex issue and each law that may be passed would have different outcomes. Words such as “all,” “always,” “never,” “everyone,” “at all” are problematic because they cannot be supported with evidence. Consider making less sweeping and more modest conclusions.

Suggestions for Avoiding Generalizations

Replace “absolute” expressions with more “softening” expressions.

  • Replace words like “all” or “everyone” with “most people.” Instead of “no one” use “few people.”
  • Replace “always” with “typically” or “usually” or “often.”
  • Replace “never” with “rarely” or “infrequently” or the “to be verb” + “unlikely.”
  • Replace “will” with “may or might or could” or use the “to be verb” + “likely.”

Example 1 revised: Luis could consider going to a technical school. This education track is more likely to lead to financial success.

Example 2 revised: If extensive gun control laws are enacted, some citizens may feel their constitutional rights are being limited.

#2 Loaded Words

Explanation: Some words contain positive or negative connotations, which may elicit a positive or negative emotional response. Try to avoid them in academic writing when making an argument because your arguments should be based on reason (facts and evidence), not emotions.  In fact, using these types of words may cause your reader to react against you as the writer, rather than being convincing as you hoped.  Therefore they can make your argument actually weaker rather than stronger.

Example 1: It is widely accepted by reasonable people that free-trade has a positive effect on living standards, although some people ignorantly disagree with this.

Analysis: The words “reasonable” (positive) and “ignorantly” (negative) may bias the readers about the two groups without giving any evidence to support this bias.

Example 2: This decision is outrageous and has seriously jeopardized the financial futures for the majority of innocent citizens.

Analysis: The words “outrageous,” “seriously,” and “innocent” appeal to readers’ emotions in order to persuade them more easily. However, the most persuasive arguments in academic writing will be supported with evidence instead of drawing on emotions.

Suggestions for Avoiding Loaded Words

Choose appropriate vocabulary.

  • Omit adjectives and adverbs, especially if they carry emotion, value, or judgment.
  • Replace/add softeners like, “potentially” or modals like “might” or “may.”

Example 1 revised: It is widely accepted by many people that free-trade may have a positive effect on living standards, although some people may disagree with this.

Example 2 revised: This decision has potentially serious consequences for the financial futures for the majority of citizens.

#3 Inappropriate authority figures

Explanation: Using famous names may or may not help you prove your point. However, be sure to use the name logically and in relation to their own area of authority.

Example 1: Albert Einstein, one of the fathers of atomic energy, was a vegetarian and believed that animals deserved to be treated fairly. In short, animal testing should be banned.

Analysis: While Einstein is widely considered one of the great minds of the 20th century, he was a physicist, not an expert in animal welfare or ethics.

Example 2: Nuclear power is claimed to be safe because there is very little chance for an accident to happen, but little chance does not have the same meaning as safety. Riccio (2013), a news reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, holds a strong opinion against the use of nuclear energy and constructions of nuclear power plants because he believes that the safety features do not meet the latest standards.

Analysis: In order to provide strong evidence to support the claim regarding the safety features of nuclear power plants, expert opinion is needed; the profession of a reporter does not provide sufficient expertise to validate the claim.

Suggestions for Avoiding Inappropriate Authority Figures

Replace inappropriate authority figures with credible experts.

  • Read through your sources and look for examples of experts. Pay attention to their credentials. (See examples below.)
  • Find new sources written by or citing legitimate experts in the field.
  • Google the authority figure you wish to use to determine if they are an expert in the field. Use the Library Databases to locate a substantive or scholarly article related to your topic. Cite the author of one of these articles or use an indirect citation to cite an expert mentioned in the article.

Example 1 revised: Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S., emphasizes the need for researchers to work with international governments and agencies to follow new guidelines to protect animals and minimize their use in animal testing.

Example 2 revised: Edwin Lyman, senior scientist of the Global Security Program, points out that while the U.S. has severe-accident management programs, these plans are not evaluated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and therefore may be subject to accidents or sabotage.

#4 Either/Or Arguments

Explanation: When you argue a point, be careful not to limit the choices to only two or three. This needs to be qualified.

Example 1: Studying abroad either increases job opportunities or causes students to become depressed.

Analysis: This statement implies that only two things may happen, whereas in reality these are two among many possible outcomes.

Example 2: People can continue to spend countless amounts of tax dollars fighting the use of a relatively safe drug, or they can make a change, legalize marijuana, and actually see a tax and revenue benefit for our state. (owl.excelsior.edu)

Analysis: Most issues are very complex and hardly ever either/or, i.e. they rarely have only two opposing ways of looking at them or two possible outcomes. Instead, use language that acknowledges the complexity of the issue.

Suggestions for Avoiding Either/Or Arguments

Offer more than one or two choices, options, or outcomes.

  • If relevant for your essay focus, offer more than one or two choices, options, or outcomes.
  • Acknowledge that multiple outcomes or perspectives exist.

Example 1 revised: Studying abroad may have a wide spectrum of outcomes, both positive and negative, from increasing job opportunities to leading to financial debt and depression.

Example 2 revised: There are a number of solutions for mitigating the illegal sale of marijuana, including legalizing the use of the drug in a wider range of contexts, increasing education about the drug and its use, and creating legal businesses for the sale, among other business related solutions.

#5 Slippery Slope

Explanation: When you argue that a chain reaction will take place, i.e. say that one problem may lead to a greater problem, which in turn leads to a greater problem, often ending in serious consequences. This way of arguing exaggerates and distorts the effects of the original choice. If the series of events is extremely improbable, your arguments will not be taken seriously.

Example 1: Animal experimentation reduces society’s respect for life. If people don’t respect life, they are likely to be more and more tolerant of violent acts like war and murder. Soon society will become a battlefield in which everyone constantly fears for their lives.

Analysis: This statement implies that allowing animal testing shows a moral problem which can lead to completely different, greater outcomes: war, death, the end of the world!  Clearly an exaggeration.

Example 2: If stricter gun control laws are enacted, the right of citizens to own guns may be greatly restricted, which may limit their ability to defend themselves against terrorist attacks. When that happens, the number of terrorist attacks in this country may increase. Therefore, gun control laws may result in higher probability of widespread terrorism. (owl.excelsior.edu)

Analysis: The issue of gun control is exaggerated to lead into a very different issue. Check your arguments to make sure any chains of consequences are reasonable and still within the scope of your focused topic. (writingcenter.unc.edu)

Suggestions for Avoiding Slippery Slope

Think through the chain of events.

  • Carefully think about the chain of events and know when to stop to make sure these events are still within the narrowed focus of your essay.

Example 1 revised: If animal experimentation is not limited, an increasing number of animals will likely continue to be hurt or killed as a result of these experiments.

Example 2 revised: With stricter gun laws, the number of citizens who are able to obtain firearms may be reduced, which could lead to fewer deaths involving guns.

As you read your own work, imagine you are reading the draft for the first time. Look carefully for any instances of faulty logic and then use the tips above to eliminate the logical fallacies in your writing.

Adapted from Great Essays by Folse, Muchmore-Vokoun, & Soloman

For more logical fallacies, watch this video.

from GCFLearnFree.org

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Academic Writing I Copyright © by UW-Madison ESL Program; Heidi Evans; Andrea Poulos; and Becky Tarver Chase is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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