Refuting the Fallacies

People Will Usually Try To Be Objective If They Are Asked To Be Objective.

By Thomas J. Roach

There are occasions when one needs to refute an argument. It might be a workgroup meeting, a presentation to a zoning commission or a press conference. When plans or perspectives are at odds, it sometimes becomes necessary not just to make your own arguments, but also to point out flaws or fallacies in your opponent’s arguments. 

Aristotle began the study of fallacies in the 4th century BCE when he noted that refuting an opposing argument is one way to win a debate. That is, if an opponent makes several arguments and only one of them is weak, it is possible to win the debate by refuting just the weakest argument. 

Aristotle defined fallacies as seemingly valid reasoning that is really invalid. Francis Bacon, John Locke, Richard Whately and other students of rhetoric have expanded the definition and added to an increasingly long list of types of invalid arguments. Here are some fallacies that should be useful in the contemporary business environment.

Either/Or Fallacy – Some either/or situations represent only two options. It is valid to say that if Socrates is dead, then he must not be alive. However, true either/or propositions are rare. Consider the statement, “Bob isn’t in his office, he must be on vacation.” Bob could be sick, at a job site or working from home. The second statement is a logical fallacy. 

Faulty Generalization – Also called jumping to a conclusion, this is when the conclusion is based on evidence that is inadequate because it is irrelevant, unrepresentative, outmoded, biased, inaccurate, insufficient, or misquoted. 

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc (after this, therefore because of this) – The rooster crows every day before the sun comes up, therefore the rooster causes the sunrise. This is the error of assuming that because one thing comes before another that there is a cause-and-effect relationship. “I make more sales when I wear my baseball cap.” Well, maybe, maybe not.

Faulty Analogy – Augment by analogy is often the strongest way to make an argument, but it is also easily undermined by the challenge that the analogy does not hold. While some analogies are more probable than others, they are all vulnerable to refutation because they are persuasive without actually proving anything. 

Begging the Question – Also called circular reasoning, this is when the conclusion is the same as the proof. “We are an honest company; we would never cheat anyone.” This basically says we are honest because we are honest. Often speakers who beg the question start their statement with phrases like, “obviously,” “of course,” or “everyone knows.” 

Ad Hominem Attack (against the man) — In many ways this is the lowest blow in a debate. Ad hominem attacks are usually made by speakers who realize they don’t have a good argument, so they attack the character of their opponents. Regrettably, this fallacy has become a dominant theme in political advertising. 

Argument Ad Populum (to the people) — This insidious tactic uses weasel words to evoke irrational emotional reactions to distract an audience from objectively looking at the issue. 

The Red Herring — This fallacy refers to the practice of dragging a herring across a path to cause hounds to lose the scent of their prey. In argumentation, it means inserting an interesting but irrelevant issue into a debate to shift the debate away from a weak argument. 

Research indicates that speakers get away with fallacies because audiences are absorbed in their own biases and are often not paying attention to details. Interestingly, however, research also indicates that people will usually try to be objective if they are asked to be objective. It follows then that a good strategy for refuting a fallacy is began with a statement like, “let’s look at this objectively.” 

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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