Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 27, 2005

New Year’s resolution: More critical thinking in South County

Fallacy – a statement or an argument based on a false or invalid inference ~

Argument – a set of reasons or evidence in support of a conclusion ~ Anthony Weston in A Rulebook for Arguments

One of the frustrations of reading the editorial page, for me, is the impracticality of responding to fallacious arguments.

I read fallacy-filled letters and columns and wish that I could tell every reader, “See there – he’s poisoning the well.” Or, “That’s a perfect example of the ad hominem fallacy.” Often, “Look, she’s using the democratic fallacy.”

But the opinion page is an accurate mirror of the community, and sadly, critical thinking skills are sorely lacking in our society. I’ve had my doubts about the usefulness of California’s High School Exit Exam, given that it only tests up to 10th-grade material, but if a critical thinking section were added, it might be worthwhile.

Arguing is very different than quarreling. Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary philosophy and logic professor D. Q. McInerny wrote in Being Logical: “The object of argument is to get at the truth. The object of quarreling is to get at other people. There are any number of folk who, though happy to quarrel with you, are either unwilling or unable to argue with you.”

Despite McInerny’s warning, I’m hoping that, with a little prompting, many South Valley residents will join me in making a new year’s resolution to encourage critical thinking.

A good first step is recognizing fallacies. The editorial page is full of them. In the spirit of fostering constructive arguments and discouraging divisive quarreling on the paper’s opinion page (yes, I’m an eternal optimist), I’ve recapped a few fallacies frequently employed by letter writers and columnists.

Perhaps the most common example of fallacious reasoning is the personal attack. As McInerny wrote, “In argumentation, we respond to the argument, not the the person behind the argument.” When a writer uses inflammatory phrases or loaded terms like “flipped her wig,” “goes ballistic,” “radical socialist policy” or “idiotic terms” to disparage a debate opponent, you’re likely seeing an ad hominem fallacy.

When you identify an ad hominem fallacy, remember McInerny’s warning: “The intention of the perpetrator of this fallacy is to divert an audience’s attention from the argument, usually because the perpetrator is getting the worst of it.”

Another problem with the ad hominem fallacy is that it can also poison the well. Weston defines the poisoning the well fallacy as “using loaded language to disparage an argument before even mentioning it.” Ad hominem fallacies can negatively affect the audience’s reaction to any future letters or columns the attacked party might write.

Whenever I see an ad hominem or poisoning the well fallacy, I wonder if the perpetrator is too dumb to know better, too lazy to do better, or suffering from desperation caused by espousing a poorly supported conclusion. None of those possibilities reflect well on the person using fallacious reasoning.

The democratic fallacy is also frequently used. This fallacy holds that because a majority of the population holds an opinion, it is the correct conclusion. As McInerny wrote, “That a majority of the population … holds a particular opinion … is interesting sociological information, but it has no necessary bearing on the truth or falsity of the matter in question. Majorities can be wrong. They can also be right.”

The democratic fallacy is similar to the using and abusing tradition fallacy, which champions “we’ve always done it that way” as a reason to keep doing something. Again quoting McInerny, “Established ways of doing things are commendable if they can stand on their own merits.”

The democratic and using and abusing tradition fallacies are often found in debates that involve religion, for example:

• “Every American should say ‘Merry Christmas’ because the majority of the population is Christian.”

• “We shouldn’t expand the definition of marriage to include homosexuals because it has traditionally applied only to heterosexual couples.”

These assertions do not rationally support their respective conclusions. Like all fallacies, they transform a constructive argument into a divisive quarrel.

I highly recommend the short story “Love is a Fallacy” by Max Shulman, an entertaining recap of several fallacies that’s understandable by most middle-school students. Google the title to find lots of links to it. It just might ignite a passion for logic, debate and argument and inspire a healthy intolerance of fallacies.

“… Fallacious reasoning can often be very persuasive, sometimes more so than sound reasoning. Therein lies its great danger.” ~ D. Q. McInerny



  1. […] fallacy-free lines of reason — even passionate argument, but when argument degrades into quarrels — using falsehoods and fallacies to try to support a point — or worse, insult-fests […]

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