Avoid Logical Fallacies in Your Thinking and in Your Writing

Have you ever heard a young child say to his or her parent or teacher, “It’s not fair”? Of course you have. This cry is common among frustrated children, and perhaps you’ve even used that phrase yourself when you felt wronged or unfairly punished. While this cry may be justified at times, the young child, or adult, using it may be guilty of using a logical fallacy.

A logical fallacy is a paradox, a phrase that sounds contradictory at first but upon reflection makes perfect sense. The contradiction occurs because “logical” sounds positive, and “fallacy” sounds negative. Overall, however, the fallacy is negative; the user has simply used a logical form to make the argument appear more reasonable. Let’s look at some common examples.

One of the most common complaints I hear in The Writing and Research Center is that a teacher grades too harshly. Since I don’t want to encourage such discussions, I try to change the subject, but the complainer wants to convince me, so he’ll add a phrase like, “Seriously, she did the same thing to my girlfriend last semester and to my brother last year.” Thus, the argument sounds logical: “This teacher graded my papers, my girlfriend’s papers, and my brother’s papers too harshly; therefore, she is a teacher who grades everyone’s papers too harshly.” In reality, however, the argument is a fallacy called a “hasty generalization.”

A hasty generalization is a conclusion based on too few examples. Most full-time teachers have 20–30 students in a class. Thus, just because three students — out of 100 or 150 — feel a particular teacher grades too harshly does not necessarily mean the charge is true. If a much larger number of students complained about the teacher, or if student evaluations over the years had generally made that same observation, then the criticism might have to be taken more seriously. But if only three students feel this way over a period of three semesters, then the argument — even though it sounds logical — is a fallacy.

Another common complaint goes something like this: “This teacher gives too much homework. I have a three-year-old child at home, and I have a full-time job; I can’t be expected to do all this school work.” Do you see the fallacy present here? A student who complains in this way is guilty of using a “non sequitur” or an irrelevant argument.

The phrase “non sequitur” comes from Latin and means “does not follow.” In other words, the two statements are not connected at all. Just because a student’s personal life is busy and complicated doesn’t mean that the student should be exempt from course requirements. Thus, if in your writing, you try to connect points or arguments that are unrelated, you are guilty of using the logical fallacy called a non sequitur.

Finally, I often see arguments like the following in student essays: “The politician’s plan to balance the budget won’t work because he cheats on his wife.” This type of fallacy is similar to the non sequitur because the ability to balance a budget isn’t quite the same as the ability to maintain a healthy marriage. However, this type of fallacy is more precisely referred to as an “argument to the person.”

The argument to the person is sometimes called an “ad hominem” attack from the Latin phrase meaning “to the man.” Unfortunately, many political debates are full of this type of argument; the candidates simply criticize each other rather than the important issues of the day. In other words, the argument criticizes the man rather than the budget the man has put forward.

Some people resort to logical fallacies in their thinking or their writing because these people are so personally involved in an issue that they’re not thinking clearly or because they haven’t taken the time to dig up any reliable evidence. Are there other logical fallacies besides the three mentioned here? Yes, numerous logical fallacies exist, and advertisers often use them to persuade you to buy a particular product or service. As a serious writer, though, you shouldn’t use logical fallacies because most readers will see through your flimsy arguments and will, as a result, refuse to take your writing seriously. Here’s one more example of a non sequitur.

I live in a suburban community that requires us to keep our cars in our driveways rather than in the streets during snowstorms, so the road crews can come through and plow easily. Last winter, as I looked our front door before going to bed, I noticed the snow falling lightly on my car which was parked in the street. Feeling sleepy and lazy, I left my car in the street and went to bed thinking, “It’s not going to snow that much.” By the next morning, of course, we had ten inches of snow, and I found a fifty-dollar parking ticket on my windshield. In my anger and my frustration, I committed a logical fallacy of my own when I said to my wife, “That’s not fair.”



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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.