What are Fallacies?
In general, writing in regard to fallacies is a bit more complicated than just picking them out and using them to poke holes in other people’s arguments, as in some scenarios, they can actually be used and considered as great tools for your writing or in promoting discussion. According to Daniel V. Bommarito, Fallacies are often defined as errors or flaws in reasoning. Fallacies earn a bad rep from this kind of definition, and through their usage in arguments in how they tend to simply divert attention or trick the reader with no logical basis. This means that a fallacy doesn’t really provide any facts additional to the argument, but convinces the reader or audience to join over to your side of the topic. Going back to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who originally coined the concept, the definition proposed by this philosopher over 2000 years ago states a fallacy to be somewhat of a writing concept used in argument that makes one’s argument appear to be more reasonable and logical without actually contributing any points to it. A comparison that could be made with this is that of a woman wearing makeup to appear beautiful, when underneath she may not look nearly as pleasant. Along with this, fallacies are primarily still taught today to some degree, but only as means for people to get rid of them and spot them whenever they occur in their writing. This process is based on the idea that when we take them out of our work and better our writing or arguments by helping them to be more logical in presentation. However, logical fallacies shouldn’t all be stomped out! We should not simply appeal to authority in a way that decides the method in which we write or form out arguments because it is popular, as that in itself could be considered fallacious. We may have some understanding of why the writing authority may want us to remove all fallacies from our work, but we may not understand:
- How difficult, inconsistent, and biased that this process can be.
- The consequences of pointing out fallacies in practice in its use throughout shutting down discussion.
- The limitations it may pose within our work in the craft of writing or in persuasion.
Fallacies have been placed under scrutiny for a very long time, but our world is changing, our writing and the mediums in which we spread our thoughts are changing as well, and it’s not as if in modern society that people are shunned for using a little bit of makeup from time to time. A good writer understands what the rules or writing are, but a better writer understands when it is acceptable to break those rules. Knowing this, and keeping our current and evolved ideas of writing in mind, allow me to explain a bit about the history of fallacies, and why it may be a good idea to occasionally use fallacies within your writing.
Selective and Inconsistent Identification
Fallacies are often hard to identify within one’s own work. We may write them naturally or accidentally by means that they simply sound good, and seem to play a more persuasive role in our work. When we write without the fear of needing to identify and remove fallacies from our work, it’s usually going to give you as the writer an easier time working on whichever paper or argument you may be writing. However when we follow the ideas expected of us from the authority’s opinion, even if you try your best in removing them, it may do more harm than good.
Let’s say you are an English teacher, and as part of your school’s curriculum, you must assign an opinionated prompt on why your students love their hobby as a means to check your student’s papers for fallacies. Your goal is to check the work, find the fallacies within, and highlight them so students can take them out in the future. As a second part to this, whenever you find a fallacy, you must take off 5 points from the student’s grade on their work. Now there are many fallacies out there, and even as an English teacher who may have actually even done a lesson on fallacies, there are fallacies that you may consistently skim over. There will also be fallacies that you might hone in on from your ability to better recognize them in your students’ work. Fallacies in this way are also based with great emphasis on subjectivity, as depending on the teachers beliefs, some statements may or may not be deemed as fallacy.
As a minor example, in the fallacy of appeal to authority, someone may believe that the Bible and its stories as a true history of the world. At the same time, while religious enthusiasts will see this as valid reasoning, to atheists this may be seen as fallacious reasoning. Depending on if a student’s hobby relates to or mentions something like going to church, reading the bible, or perhaps even something as simple as learning about science and dinosaurs, with this logic the teacher may deduct points depending on their own belief.
Going to the students’ perspectives now as well, a student may have checked over their work for fallacies themselves, but as they too may not know everything about fallacies, they may miss one or two. Is it fair to them that even after a thorough check that they will still lose the points when the teacher spots them using a fallacy in their work? And the prompt itself is an opinionated prompt on hobbies, which inherently can not be wrong, as they are based on personal preference. These students would have points deducted for their accidental reasoning, and from these points alone, their essay would be discredited through this deduction despite being entirely true and opinion based. Some students may receive great grades and use fallacies the teacher doesn’t notice, while others may lose significant chunks of their grade over something as simple as a false analogy about why they prefer football over baseball. It’s simply too inconsistent to check for, and in many cases, when picking them out they can be perfectly good persuasive pieces. Perhaps someone actually became interested in a hobby or enjoys it because someone else they know enjoyed it, like their parents or a friend. Does this mean that they are appealing to popularity, and just saying they like it on grounds it would help them fit in? No! They probably just like their hobby and enjoy doing it. It is for these reasons that fallacies should not be cherry picked so inconsistently from writing, and instead simply be left in as persuasive and explanatory tools to help push our points forward.
Winning an Argument vs Coming to a Solution
When it comes to arguments, it is reasonable to say the first thing many may think of is that of an argument between a couple over relationship issues or perhaps an argument over differences in political beliefs. It is also within reason to state that from personal experience, individuals who are arguing and are passionate about their subject matter, may tend to talk faster than they can think to race out their points, and in these instances, may accidentally use a fallacy in their reasoning. These fallacies have been taught by Aristotle to his students to be weak points that must be struck down. It is from this logic that many who pluck fallacies from arguments will seemingly end arguments entirely or discredit them for lack of logic rather than come to an actual solution with it and fix the issue. For example, if a couple was arguing over perhaps a payment or two being missed on the rent by one of the two partners. One of the partners, of course, is clearly guilty here, and perhaps the guilty partner even uses a fallacy or two in their argument while trying to explain why they don’t have the money for it currently. If the other partner points this out in a sort of “ah ha” moment, while the guilty partner may now look like a fool and the argument itself is over, nothing has really been resolved here. Arguments in a verbal or written form should not simply be ended by technicality, as there was no true end or solution to the argument or its cause. Yes, sure, the diligent partner who pays their rent on time has won the argument, but they have not fixed their significant other’s financial problem, or even allowed them to speak long enough to explain themselves. With nothing solved, they may very well have this discussion again at a later date because of it.
Another more comedically political example of this could be a televised debate between the made up parties of pro vanilla and pro chocolate individuals. Perhaps at some political meetup, a pro chocolate individual may be hosting a panel to explain his reasoning and debate people who disagree with their stance. Many attendees may be pro vanilla, and perhaps one of those attendees may say “Vanilla is the better flavor, all my friends and family eat vanilla, and vanilla was the only thing keeping me sane and happy over the past stressful years of my life. I’ve tried chocolate, and don’t think it’s very good, so vanilla must be better”. The panelist may at this point while picking out their fallacies, may simply respond to them by saying something along the lines of, “Just because liking vanilla is true for you, your family, and your experience with chocolate and depression, doesn’t mean that liking vanilla is true for someone else.” And while of course this argument is not logically incorrect, it does shut down the debate over which of the flavors is better, and does not actually bolster or reveal the reasonings the panelist has over why they find chocolate better. The panelist is debating in a combative way where they are not trying to solve the issue here or even come to an understanding, but are aiming to shut down or discredit arguments to prove their own beliefs as superior. Arguing, and fallacy use in writing however is not a sword fight where every comment needs to be shut down. A good panelist should instead want to ask why they think about it that way, or pose a secondary question to get to the root of their reasoning. Perhaps they could ask what their experience with chocolate was, and what they thought of people who ate chocolate. Maybe they could ask if there could be any chance that the audience member could try both flavors mixed together, and ask them to what degree would work best. When it comes to identifying fallacies in arguments, you may “win” but don’t solve anything by making people look like fools. You just end the argument by pointing out its flaws. You can not solve the problem until you start working towards a solution, and this is where fallacies shine.
Fallacies can be used to promote discussions. Perhaps while not factually adding much to an argument, they are easy to come up with, and can give those within the discussion a bit of a better understanding of the other person’s ideas or view of the subject. They may also themselves be swayed to a sort of common ground quicker from simply hearing the other person out, and being persuaded to see their side of things. And when using fallacy in argument, it is not as if only one participant should be restricted to using them! You yourself should be able to give your own argument and explain your side and not have to worry about being discredited for an accidental or perhaps even intentional fallacy when explaining your own side.
Talking from the point of good writers, again when it comes to breaking the rules, there is a time and place for everything. While perhaps a professional journal or MLA literature review may still need to avoid the use of fallacies, language and writing has changed over the past 2000 years, and in that time, many individuals have seen the benefits that fallacies can provide. For example, advertising is one of the greatest fields when it comes to the use of fallacies, as with the job of convincing consumers, they understand that with how convincing fallacies are, and from how they can record a video, audio, or create an image that can not be globally altered or changed through an “ah ha” or “gotcha” moment. In advertising, fallacies are used because they work, and while they can be argued, no significant majority are going to care or over analyze them for it, especially with how advertisements are prerecorded or static in their presentation.
In a similar scene, many news articles, and written pieces online may make use of fallacy to convince readers over to their side of an argument, and persuade them to listen and understand their points of view. When things make sense, people tend to listen. Take for example the concept of a review, and the use fallacies may provide to one. Perhaps you are looking for a new videogame to play or a new place to go out and eat at. The reviews you will find will likely be opinionated, and include persuasive fallacies to either deter you or try to bring you in. While some people who believe fallacies should be purged may only want the facts in a review, there really is not much that one can go off of here without a professional opinion or simply stating what the reviewed game or place may offer. As example, in a logical and fallacy picked piece, some may say,
“The restaurant offers many Italian meals, and prices between 16 and $25 on average. I ordered the pasta, and chicken parm, and enjoyed a well cooked and filling meal. After reviewing hundreds of restaurants in the past, I can definitively say that this restaurant is above average in terms of food, taste, price, and presentation.”
This logical review is done by a professional, and is written in a way that endorses the restaurant without bringing in any information of opinion aside from the one influenced by a professional. But this review is rather boring, and not very convincing aside from being recommended as above average. A similar review making use of fallacy may look like the following.
“This restaurant is just adorable! It only just showed up to town but I’ve seen people flocking to it for some of their great Italian food. Not only is the food good however, but the value of the food you get for the price you spend is equally as good! Most things on their menu are less than $25, and the portion sizes are massive, so you can always prepare for some leftovers. I personally would recommend the chicken parm and pasta, as the sauce they use for it is unlike any tomato paste I’ve ever had, and they seemingly could feed two people with the pasta alone! While I may not be a professional chef or food critic by any means, I can say for certain I know I’ll be coming back to this restaurant on a future visit, and I’d highly recommend anyone to come and visit as well.”
This second review, through it’s use of various fallacies and more opinionated and persuasive techniques, does not just tell the facts, but actively convinces the reader why they should go there from their own experience. The mentions of the restaurant being adorable despite not contributing to food quality and being opinionated, may create certain images within a readers mind of what they see as an adorable restaurant, and the discussion of large portions may perhaps vary from person to person based on their own opinions of what is a large portion of food. While in reality, the restaurant may not be perfect, or the ideal vision we see when reading this, these pieces are what we see more commonly today as parts of reviews because their language helps support their argument, and gets people out there to try new things and eat at these places. So long as these persuasive techniques of fallacy are not used maliciously, there really isn’t anything wrong with them. They give their audience a better idea of what they might expect from a restaurant, and provide the basic facts to go along with it. And actively benefit the reviewer in their writing. When we pick out fallacies, we actually stifle what creativity we may have in our work, and can make things more difficult for ourselves in forming our arguments, and in persuading others to our side.
Even in mediums of non opinionated pieces, fallacies can provide a great grounds for things like character motives, or in foreshadowing subtle flaws and imperfections in characters. Maybe a hero’s reasoning for saving the day in a book is not because of a utilitarian or Kantian logical principle, but to impress a girl or be redeemed by one of their parents. Maybe a villain in a book can be written to believe that the hero of the story is wrong as their religion states something contradictory to the hero’s beliefs, and because of this discrepancy, neither side is really wrong in their action. or perhaps the writer doesn’t want the audience to learn all the facts straight away, and may use a red herring fallacy to distract the audience away from a secret they will later be revealed and convince them otherwise for the sake of entertainment. Fallacies are needed to help generate conversation, and can be used to help better a story’s plot! Without them, and with facts and logic alone, while arguments may be strong, but writing becomes more of a competition to shut down your opponent that an outlet for opinions and creative expression. Many great stories would suffer from a loss in entertainment value if we were to stop using this kind of reasoning within our written works.
Fallacies are a part of life. As a species, we are imperfect, make mistakes, and will naturally use tools like fallacies in our writing and arguments to convince people over to our sides. Facts can always help us to back up our writing of course, but as not and not solving the issue, regardless of facts. Over 2000 years, we have to start accepting that fallacies should be allowed to stick around, and can even benefit our work. Yes, in some cases, fallacies could be used to convince people maliciously or into believing a false or bad idea, but the significant benefits of their use in convincing others to good ideas can severely outweigh the negatives, and even be used to combat them. Fallacies being used in writing are not going to lead us down a slippery slope to where ideas just are no longer backed by facts at all anymore. They’ll be used as guiding tools that can help aim our audience in the direction our article’s perspective wants to have them begin to understand. Modern articles, advertising, reviews, opinion pieces, and hot takes all could not exist as they stand without the use of persuasive tools like the fallacy to help convince their audience, and I find it hard to even try to imagine advertisements that lack the use of emotional or authoritative reasoning. Fallacies work, and they can very well convince people better than facts in some scenarios, but as writers we need to understand when and how we should use them. The takeaway we need to leave with is understanding that fallacies should not be necessarily purged from our writing, as with their many inconsistencies they end up causing more strain on the writer and the person taking them out. They can prevent or shut down discussions and arguments, and even stifle one’s creativity in how they can convince others and write their own pieces. So long as they are used in moderation, and within the contexts we know a fallacy will do well in, it should be accepted by the majority to occasionally use fallacies within our own work.