Identifying Fallacious Thinking Errors Sharpen The Mind

Fallacious thinking is a term we use to refer to the errors in logic we humans make in our every day activities 

There are many categories and subcategories for these mistakes, and the study of logic can quickly become confusing and tedious. 

To avoid this rabbit hole, let's focus on the more common ones, which provides a good springboard to begin our study.

Seven of the most common logical fallacies today include

  • Attacking the Man,
  • Straw Man, 
  • Slippery Slope, 
  • Fallacious Cause and Effect, 
  • Rationalizing, 
  • Circular Reasoning, and
  • Begging the Question

Attacking the Man or Ad Hominem: It's all the same. 
"Is not! You're just an idiot!" 

This fallacious thinking argument makes personal attacks against someone who is making a statement. 

The retort disparges the person rather than addresses the argument.

Here's a plausible scenario:  

If a group, business, or agency can belittle a truthsayer on a personal level, then, the audience, customer, or populace will be less likely to believe what that person has to say. 

Here are some additional examples: 

  • "Well, anyone who would vote for her, must be stupid."
  • "That candidate doesn't believe in evolution. What else doesn't he believe in: global warming?" 
  • "Anyone who wears those types of scarves, has no fashion sense."
  • "You're stupid because your husband plowed under his corn to build a baseball field." (One of my personal favorites from For Love of the Game.)


The flip side of this fallacious thinking argument is a popular propaganda technique used by advertisers. They know that the audience is more likely to believe the person who better conforms to society's idea of beauty than one who doesn't. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Straw Man Fallacy Is Easily Blown Away

The straw man argument is a shoddily built analogy to some argument. Usually, this fallacious thinking argument is distorted by creating an extreme, slightly different example to prove the premise false. 

Here are some sample arguments: 

1. Same sex marriage should be legal. 

  • If gays are allowed to marry, then people will start marrying their relatives and pets and then what would happen to the world. 

2. Marijuana should be legal in all 50 states.

  •  If we legalize marijuana, then people will want to legalize everything and pretty soon, people will be dying in the streets and crime will soar. 


3. We should lower the home loan interest rate. 

  • If we lower the interest rate and let anyone buy a home, pretty soon banks will be stuck with all these houses and the economy will crash. 

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How to better recognize this argument.

We can catch on to this fallacious thinking tactic when we hear a knee-jerk exaggeration.

Generally speaking, people don't like change, so if someone responds instantaneously and emotionally to some proposition, it could very well be the straw man argument. 

Let's review the arguments above: 

1. Same sex marriage is still marriage between two humans, but the straw man argument poses that persons of close genetic makeup or even non humans would soon marry. 

2. Marijuana is a natural plant with a wide range of medical and recreational qualities, but rather than address this legalization debate, the straw man argument states that lawlessness and crime would ensue. 

3. Rather than addressing the issue of home loan interest rates, the straw man argument assumes that everyone would automatically get loans, default on them, and the banks would be unable to sell them, and the entire economy would collapse as a result. 

Do Slippery Slopes Surreptitiously Lead To Lawlessness or
Doom Us To Disorder?

The key to understanding this fallacious thinking error is knowing how habits are formed. The slippery slope argument is used by our associates (family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc.)  quite often to "help us control" even one lapse of good judgment. Often, we hear the slippery slope in conjunction with an If....then argument.  

Here's a common one that parents quietly fear: 

"If our child doesn't go to college right out of high school, then, she'll never go and she'll never get a good job and forever have to work at minimum wage." 

The slippery slope argument is used to invoke fear of losing control of ourselves, but if we understood how habits are formed over a 21-day period with periodic reinforcement, we may be a bit less quick to use this argument. 

But what if you are truly concerned about a child's habits? 

Fallacious Thinking: Erroneous Cause and Effect

Of course, cause and effect is not fallacious thinking. When we smash our fingers with a hammer, it's logical to feel pain.

It's also human nature to want to understand the cause of things, so it's no surprise that people mistakenly apply wrong causes to certain effects or things that happen. Sometimes this is also called false cause. 

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For example,

  • if you get a cold a day or two after washing your hair after dusk, you may be convinced that your mother was right. 
  • If there is a record snowfall in the United States, that could be perceived as evidence against global warming. 
  • If you get sick to your stomach after eating out, it could be food poisoning. 
  • If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, you may be searching for any one of many different causes. 
  • The government puts fluoride in the water to sedate Americans and control them. 

How can one avoid fallacious thinking and get cause and effect right? 

1.  Research information on the problem. For example, find out how long it takes before symptoms of food poisoning appear for different foods. 

2.  Conduct objective scientific experiments.

3.  Accept that there may not be a definitive answer right now. 

Rationalizing

Most people cannot get out of bed without at least a couple of rationalizations to start the morning, but just because these are as common as jackrabbits, doesn't mean it's not fallacious thinking. 

For example,

  • When the alarm goes off and you reach over to tap the snooze bar, you say to yourself; "I didn't get to sleep on time last night, so I need a couple of extra minutes of sleep." 

You started a diet two days ago, but tonight is Aunt Edna's birthday party, and she always orders those awesome cakes from Greggerson's Bakery. 

       So you say: "Aunt Edna's birthday is only once a year, I've needed to lose this weight for months (so one more day won't matter); I'll only have a small slice of cake."

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  • Your daughter has only one hairband left, and she's visiting her friend who happens to have almost ten hairbands. She takes only one, and says to herself: "My friend has so many, 1)she won't mind if I take one. She 2) probably won't even miss it, and if my last one breaks, my 3) my hair will fly all over the place. Besides, 4) I'll return it when I get some more." 

Right there are four rationalizations to justify one theft.

Why do humans rationalize?

Because we humans have beliefs and desires that we convince ourselves we need to make  or keep ourselves happy.

Fallacious thinking occurs when we rationalize.  We think we may feel guilty about violating our code of conduct. Therefore, we attempt to trick our consciences into allowing us to take what we want. We believe that to live without this item? would increase our stress and make it more difficult to be happy or even function effectively.


However, if we took the time to honestly scrutinize some of these untested beliefs, we could eventually live more peaceful lives. 

 Are there any real benefits to NOT rationalizing

Let's take the girl's argument for taking the hairband. 

1. "She won't mind if I take one." Perhaps, that is true. If her friend allows her to borrow one of her hairbands, then she has further bonded and enriched her friendship. If not, perhaps the friend has her own issues with her possessions, and the girl has learned to accept boundaries, which also help build the friendship by accepting boundaries. Either way, the young girl has not violated her own moral boundaries and has preserved her peace of mind. 

2. "She probably won't even miss it." Perhaps, this is true too, but if this girl is honest with herself, the fact that she tried to rationalize her theft means that she may be anxious about it until she can return the hairband. If she thinks about this situation honestly, she may realize that she took the hairband because she has anxiety about something else.

3. "My hair will fly all over the place." Again, she still has one functional hairband, yet she is worried about losing it. Perhaps, she is self-conscious about her hair. If she would discuss these concerns with her mother, she could resolve this without violating her conscience. 

4. "I'll return it when I get some more."  Perhaps, this is plausible too. Rationalizing is easy because the things we tell ourselves could be true, but now she has to sneak the hairband back to her friend's room. Yes, this could be easy, but it could steal her peace of mind for a while. 


How to stop this fallacious thinking habit of rationalizing? 

Scrutinize the word NEED in all conversations. That's almost a dead giveaway that one is getting ready to rationalize. There are very few things that we need in life. 

Circular Thinking Circumvents Coherence

I've always been nosy, which is probably why journalism and I adopted each other in college. It seemed like a good cover for my basic nature. As is my habit, I had this conversation with a man in a gun store one day when he was preparing for a hunting trip.

Me: Ok, so you see a bear from the helicopter, land and set up camp, but you can't go after that bear until the next day?

Hunter: Yes, that's right.

Me: Why? 

Hunter: Cuz it's the law. 

Me: Why is it the law?

Hunter: I don't know. 

Me: Well, theoretically, there's always a reason for making a law, and you've hunted for years, but don't know the answer.

Hunter: I just follow the law.

Me: Haven't you ever wondered about why there's this law?

Hunter: No, not really. 

Me: Where could you find the answer?

Hunter: It's not important because it's the law. 

"I follow the law cuz it's the law."

Circular reasoning takes the question the poser asks and brings the answer back to the original question without any explanation.

Begging the Question

Begging the question is a subcategory of circular thinking. Its argument really doesn't answer the question, but simply brings one back to the question in a slightly modified form.

Begging the question type  of fallacious thinking arguments are usually accepted as truth because people don't see their own biases and accept one of the suppositions in the argument as a self-evident truth. For example,


A: People have a right to control their own bodies.

B: A baby is inside a woman's body

Therefore, a woman has a right to control the baby inside her body.


A: People have a right to free speech

B: Free speech is important.

Therefore, I can say whatever I want when I want. 


Here's one I read recently: 

A: Monsanto says its products are safe. 

B: Monsanto conducted a study.

Therefore, Monsanto's products are safe.

Visit my other how-to-recognize propaganda and Socratic thinking  pages. 

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