Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Fallacies of Logic: Argumentation Cons

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Fallacies of Logic: Argumentation Cons

Article excerpt


Nowhere, perhaps, can you be more easily conned than during an argument or discussion. You've taken a position on an issue, which you've thoroughly thought through. You have supporting data at your fingertips. You're a quick thinker and articulate. You unfold your argument in logical steps. Yet somehow you don't seem to be getting anywhere. The other guy keeps coming back with statements and questions that seem to be relevant, that seem to make sense. And yet somehow they're neither relevant, nor do they make sense. You become confused, frustrated, angry. What's wrong? The explanation may be simple - you're being conned.

Using con tactics to win an argument was raised to a high level of skill in Athens, in the Fifth Century, BC. It constituted the core of study at a school of philosophers called the Sophists. The school's faculty concentrated on teaching young Greeks how to win arguments and debates at any price, even if it included faulty reasoning, deception, trickery, or whatever was necessary as long as the opponent was not able to discern the difference between sound and specious argumentation.

What's happening is that your opponent is using what are commonly known as fallacies of logic.

There are lots of these fallacies. Here are just a few of them.

The con of over-generalizing

This con is common, seductive, and dangerous. Its Latin name is secundum quid, meaning "in some one respect only." It involves assigning a characteristic to an entire group on the basis of only one or two observations. For example: A politician is convicted of taking a bribe, therefore, all politicians are crooked; one malingering black person, and all black people are malingerers; one cowardly Italian, and all Italians are cowards; one drunken Irishman, and all Irishmen are drunkards; one grasping Jew, and all Jews are grasping; one welfare cheat, and everyone on welfare is a cheat; and so on.

To avoid being taken in by this con, always keep in mind that "One swallow a summer does not make."

The "thin entering wedge" con

The next con is very similar to the previous one in that it also reflects over-generalizing. The major difference between the two is that the former deals with observations that lie in the past or present, and the "thin entering wedge" con (also known as the "camel's nose in the tent" fallacy or the "give him a finger and he'll take the whole hand" fallacy) deals with projecting present or past observations into the future.

Here are some examples:

* If the Democrats regain control of the White House, they will spend the nation into bankruptcy.

* If the Republicans maintain control of the White House, the U.S. will know only bread lines all over the country.

* If we grant this request for a variance so that the developers will be allowed to build a high rise apartment house, our city will look like mid-Manhattan in five years.

* If we ban the possession of hand guns, we'll end up like Russia.

The con is illogical, because it completely ignores the vast number of possible outcomes that could follow a specific event, and focuses on only one with total certainty. But it is also vicious, because it puts you in a very difficult position if a con man uses it. All you can do in return is make the observation that this enormous leap into the future will most probably not take place.

If the argument or discussion is taking place before onlookers, which of the two antagonists will prevail, if one uses this con, will depend to a great degree upon how clearly and rationally the audience is thinking at the time. If it is emotionally detached, the intended victim will be favored. However, if the listeners are passionate about the subject of the debate, it's just about all over for the one at whom the attack is directed.

The "ignoring the issue and attacking the opponent personally" con

The Latin name for this con is ad hominem meaning "to the man. …

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