An insight, and site for sore eyes and ears
taking apart the wretched mendacities, sleaze, spin, and arts of
persuasion we are abused with daily by those in authority, to
convince us that what is said is done, when the
reality and the spoken
word was never so far apart than in this netherworld of
hallucinatory perception contriving to cloak duplicity. Few of us
are left who say I know, rather
then I believe, or IT
IS, rather than it appears.
Fallacy Recognition Handbook
for support to the arguments found in all the following websites.
Poetry, Logic, Philosophy, Music & Art.
World Best Books Free
and Law, cases and laws of thought.
and Law, cases, complaints and abuses
and Law, cases,
Ombudsman rhetoric and disingenuous sophistry.
index has been added to by Tony Winter to enable easy location of
Hominem Tu Quoque
to the Consequences of a Belief
Appeals to Authority
to Common Practice
Cause and Effect
a Common Cause
Principle of Relevant Difference
Wrongs Make a Right
is to Say?
this line by kind courtesy of:
Michael C. LaBossiere
A Fallacy Recognition Handbook
Dr. Michael C.
This book is copyright 2002 by Dr.
Michael C. LaBossiere. It may be freely distributed for personal
or educational use provided that it is not modified and no fee
above the normal cost of distribution is charged for it. Visit my
web site at www.opifex.cnchost.com.
Fallacies and Arguments
In order to understand what a
fallacy is, one must understand what an argument is. Very briefly
an argument consists of one or more premises and one conclusion.
A premise is a statement (a sentence that is either true or
false) that is offered in support of the claim being made, which
is the conclusion (which is also a sentence that is either true
There are two main types of arguments: deductive
and inductive. A deductive argument is an argument such that the
premises provide (or appear to provide) complete support for the
conclusion. An inductive argument is an argument such that the
premises provide (or appear to provide) some degree of support
(but less than complete support) for the conclusion. If the
premises actually provide the required degree of support for the
conclusion, then the argument is a good one. A good deductive
argument is known as a valid argument and is such that if all its
premises are true, then its conclusion must be true. If all the
argument is valid and actually has all true premises, then it is
known as a sound argument. If it is invalid or has one or more
false premises, it will be unsound. A good inductive argument is
known as a strong (or “cogent”) inductive argument.
It is such that if the premises are true, the conclusion is
likely to be true.
A fallacy is, very generally, an error in
reasoning. This differs from a factual error, which is simply
being wrong about the facts. To be more specific, a fallacy is an
“argument” in which the premises given for the
conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support. A
deductive fallacy is a deductive argument that is invalid (it is
such that it could have all true premises and still have a false
conclusion). An inductive fallacy is less formal than a deductive
fallacy. They are simply “arguments” which appear to
be inductive arguments, but the premises do not provided enough
support for the conclusion. In such cases, even if the premises
were true, the conclusion would not be more likely to be true.
Example of a Deductive Argument
Premise 1: If Bill is a cat, then Bill is a mammal.
2: Bill is a cat.
Conclusion: Bill is a mammal.
Example of an Inductive Argument
Premise 1: Most American cats are domestic house cats.
2: Bill is an American cat.
Conclusion: Bill is domestic house
Example of a Factual Error
Columbus is the capital of the United States.
Example of a Deductive Fallacy
Premise 1: If Portland is the capital of Maine, then it is in
Premise 2: Portland is in Maine.
Portland is the capital of Maine.
(Portland is in Maine, but
Augusta is the capital. Portland is the largest city in Maine,
Example of an Inductive Fallacy
Premise 1: Having just arrived in Ohio, I saw a white
Conclusion: All Ohio squirrels are white.
there are many, many squirrels in Ohio, the white ones are very
Also Known as: Ad Hominem Abusive, Personal
Translated from Latin to English, “ad
Hominem” means “against the man” or “against
An ad Hominem is a general category of
fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis
of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person
presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy
involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of
person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is
made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person
reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence
against the claim or argument the person in question is making
(or presenting). This type of “argument” has the
1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on
3. Therefore A’s claim is false.
The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is
that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not
(in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the
claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).
Bill: “I believe that abortion is morally
Dave: “Of course you would say that,
you’re a priest.”
Bill: “What about the
arguments I gave to support my position?”
don’t count. Like I said, you’re a priest, so you
have to say that abortion is wrong. Further, you are just a
lackey to the Pope, so I can’t believe what you say.”
John: “Sally was saying that people
shouldn’t hunt animals or kill them for food or clothing.
Wanda: “Well, Sally is a sissy
crybaby who loves animals way too much.”
Wanda: “That means she is wrong about
that animal stuff. Also, if we weren’t supposed to eat ‘em,
they wouldn’t be made of meat.”
Hominem Tu Quoque
Also Known as: “You Too
This fallacy is committed when
it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1)
it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2)
what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of
“argument” has the following form:
1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B asserts that A’s
actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim
3. Therefore X is false.
The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make
any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of
inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be
false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not
consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a
hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.
Bill: “Smoking is very unhealthy and
leads to all sorts of problems. So take my advice and never
Jill: “Well, I certainly don’t want
to get cancer.”
Bill: “I’m going to get a
smoke. Want to join me Dave?”
Jill: “Well, I guess
smoking can’t be that bad. After all, Bill smokes.”
Jill: “I think the gun control bill
shouldn’t be supported because it won’t be effective
and will waste money.”
Bill: “Well, just last
month you supported the bill. So I guess you’re wrong now.”
Peter: “Based on the arguments I have
presented, it is evident that it is morally wrong to use animals
for food or clothing.”
Bill: “But you are wearing
a leather jacket and you have a roast beef sandwich in your hand!
How can you say that using animals for food and clothing is
Appeal to the
Consequences of a Belief
The Appeal to
the Consequences of a Belief is a fallacy that comes in the
#1: X is true because if people did not accept X as being
true, then there would be negative consequences.
#2: X is false because if people did not accept X as being
false, then there would be negative consequences.
#3: X is true because accepting that X is true has positive
#4: X is false because accepting that X is false has positive
#5: I wish that X were true, therefore X is true. This is
known as Wishful Thinking.
#6: I wish that X were false, therefore X is false. This is
known as Wishful Thinking.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the
consequences of a belief have no bearing on whether the belief is
true or false. For example, if someone were to say “If
sixteen-headed purple unicorns don’t exist, then I would be
miserable, so they must exist”, it would be clear that this
would not be a good line of reasoning. It is important to note
that the consequences in question are the consequences that stem
from the belief. It is important to distinguish between a
rational reason to believe (RRB) (evidence) and a prudential
reason to believe (PRB) (motivation). A RRB is evidence that
objectively and logically supports the claim. A PRB is a reason
to accept the belief because of some external factor (such as
fear, a threat, or a benefit or harm that may stem from the
belief) that is relevant to what a person values but is not
relevant to the truth or falsity of the claim.
The nature of
the fallacy is especially clear in the case of Wishful thinking.
Obviously, merely wishing that something is true does not make it
true. This fallacy differs from the Appeal to Belief fallacy in
that the Appeal to Belief involves taking a claim that most
people believe that X is true to be evidence for X being true.
God must exist! If God did not exist, then all
basis for morality would be lost and the world would be a
It can never happen to me. If I believed it
could, I could never sleep soundly at night.
I don’t think that there will be a
nuclear war. If I believed that, I wouldn’t be able to get
up in the morning. I mean, how depressing.
I acknowledge that I have no argument for the
existence of God. However, I have a great desire for God to exist
and for there to be an afterlife. Therefore I accept that God
Appeal to Authority
Also Known as: Fallacious Appeal to Authority, Misuse
of Authority, Irrelevant Authority, Questionable Authority,
Inappropriate Authority, Ad Verecundiam
Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:
1) Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
Person A makes claim C about subject S.
3) Therefore, C is
This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a
legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A
is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the
argument will be fallacious.
This sort of reasoning is
fallacious when the person in question is not an expert. In such
cases the reasoning is flawed because the fact that an
unqualified person makes a claim does not provide any
justification for the claim. The claim could be true, but the
fact that an unqualified person made the claim does not provide
any rational reason to accept the claim as true.
When a person
falls prey to this fallacy, they are accepting a claim as true
without there being adequate evidence to do so. More
specifically, the person is accepting the claim because they
erroneously believe that the person making the claim is a
legitimate expert and hence that the claim is reasonable to
accept. Since people have a tendency to believe authorities (and
there are, in fact, good reasons to accept some claims made by
authorities) this fallacy is a fairly common one.
sort of reasoning is fallacious only when the person is not a
legitimate authority in a particular context, it is necessary to
provide some acceptable standards of assessment. The following
standards are widely accepted:
1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter
Claims made by a person who lacks the needed
degree of expertise to make a reliable claim will, obviously, not
be well supported. In contrast, claims made by a person with the
needed degree of expertise will be supported by the person’s
reliability in the area.
Determining whether or not a person
has the needed degree of expertise can often be very difficult.
In academic fields (such as philosophy, engineering, history,
etc.), the person’s formal education, academic performance,
publications, membership in professional societies, papers
presented, awards won and so forth can all be reliable indicators
of expertise. Outside of academic fields, other standards will
apply. For example, having sufficient expertise to make a
reliable claim about how to tie a shoe lace only requires the
ability to tie the shoe lace and impart that information to
others. It should be noted that being an expert does not always
require having a university degree. Many people have high degrees
of expertise in sophisticated subjects without having ever
attended a university. Further, it should not be simply assumed
that a person with a degree is an expert.
Of course, what is
required to be an expert is often a matter of great debate. For
example, some people have (and do) claim expertise in certain
(even all) areas because of a divine inspiration or a special
gift. The followers of such people accept such credentials as
establishing the person’s expertise while others often see
these self-proclaimed experts as deluded or even as charlatans.
In other situations, people debate over what sort of education
and experience is needed to be an expert. Thus, what one person
may take to be a fallacious appeal another person might take to
be a well supported line of reasoning. Fortunately, many cases do
not involve such debate.
2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of
If a person makes a claim about some subject
outside of his area(s) of expertise, then the person is not an
expert in that context. Hence, the claim in question is not
backed by the required degree of expertise and is not
It is very important to remember that because of the
vast scope of human knowledge and skill it is simply not possible
for one person to be an expert on everything. Hence, experts will
only be true experts in respect to certain subject areas. In most
other areas they will have little or no expertise. Thus, it is
important to determine what subject area a claim falls under.
is also very important to note that expertise in one area does
not automatically confer expertise in another. For example, being
an expert physicist does not automatically make a person an
expert on morality or politics. Unfortunately, this is often
overlooked or intentionally ignored. In fact, a great deal of
advertising rests on a violation of this condition. As anyone who
watches television knows, it is extremely common to get famous
actors and sports heroes to endorse products that they are not
qualified to assess. For example, a person may be a great actor,
but that does not automatically make him an expert on cars or
shaving or underwear or diets or politics.
3. There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other
experts in the subject in question.
If there is a significant
amount of legitimate dispute among the experts within a subject,
then it will fallacious to make an Appeal to Authority using the
disputing experts. This is because for almost any claim being
made and “supported” by one expert there will be a
counterclaim that is made and “supported” by another
expert. In such cases an Appeal to Authority would tend to be
futile. In such cases, the dispute has to be settled by
consideration of the actual issues under dispute. Since either
side in such a dispute can invoke experts, the dispute cannot be
rationally settled by Appeals to Authority.
There are many
fields in which there is a significant amount of legitimate
dispute. Economics is a good example of such a disputed field.
Anyone who is familiar with economics knows that there are many
plausible theories that are incompatible with one another.
Because of this, one expert economist could sincerely claim that
the deficit is the key factor while another equally qualified
individual could assert the exact opposite. Another area where
dispute is very common (and well known) is in the area of
psychology and psychiatry. As has been demonstrated in various
trials, it is possible to find one expert that will assert that
an individual is insane and not competent to stand trial and to
find another equally qualified expert who will testify, under
oath, that the same individual is both sane and competent to
stand trial. Obviously, one cannot rely on an Appeal to Authority
in such a situation without making a fallacious argument. Such an
argument would be fallacious since the evidence would not warrant
accepting the conclusion.
It is important to keep in mind that
no field has complete agreement, so some degree of dispute is
acceptable. How much is acceptable is, of course, a matter of
serious debate. It is also important to keep in mind that even a
field with a great deal of internal dispute might contain areas
of significant agreement. In such cases, an Appeal to Authority
could be legitimate.
4. The person in question is not significantly biased.
an expert is significantly biased then the claims he makes within
his are of bias will be less reliable. Since a biased expert will
not be reliable, an Argument from Authority based on a biased
expert will be fallacious. This is because the evidence will not
justify accepting the claim.
Experts, being people, are
vulnerable to biases and prejudices. If there is evidence that a
person is biased in some manner that would affect the reliability
of her claims, then an Argument from Authority based on that
person is likely to be fallacious. Even if the claim is actually
true, the fact that the expert is biased weakens the argument.
This is because there would be reason to believe that the expert
might not be making the claim because he has carefully considered
it using his expertise. Rather, there would be reason to believe
that the claim is being made because of the expert’s bias
It is important to remember that no person is
completely objective. At the very least, a person will be
favorable towards her own views (otherwise she would probably not
hold them). Because of this, some degree of bias must be
accepted, provided that the bias is not significant. What counts
as a significant degree of bias is open to dispute and can vary a
great deal from case to case. For example, many people would
probably suspect that doctors who were paid by tobacco companies
to research the effects of smoking would be biased while other
people might believe (or claim) that they would be able to remain
5. The area of expertise is a legitimate area or
Certain areas in which a person may claim
expertise may have no legitimacy or validity as areas of
knowledge or study. Obviously, claims made in such areas will not
be very reliable.
What counts as a legitimate area of
expertise is sometimes difficult to determine. However, there are
cases which are fairly clear cut. For example, if a person
claimed to be an expert at something he called “chromabullet
therapy” and asserted that firing painted rifle bullets at
a person would cure cancer it would not be very reasonable to
accept his claim based on his “expertise.” After all,
his expertise is in an area which is devoid of legitimate
content. The general idea is that to be a legitimate expert a
person must have mastery over a real field or area of
As noted above, determining the legitimacy of a
field can often be difficult. In European history, various
scientists had to struggle with the Church and established
traditions to establish the validity of their disciplines. For
example, experts on evolution faced an uphill battle in getting
the legitimacy of their area accepted.
A modern example
involves psychic phenomenon. Some people claim that they are
certified “master psychics” and that they are
actually experts in the field. Other people contend that their
claims of being certified “master psychics” are
simply absurd since there is no real content to such an area of
expertise. If these people are right, then anyone who accepts the
claims of these “master psychics” as true are victims
of a fallacious appeal to authority.
6. The authority in question must be identified.
variation of the typical Appeal to Authority fallacy is an Appeal
to an Unnamed Authority. This fallacy is Also Known as an Appeal
to an Unidentified Authority.
This fallacy is committed when a
person asserts that a claim is true because an expert or
authority makes the claim and the person does not actually
identify the expert. Since the expert is not named or identified,
there is no way to tell if the person is actually an expert.
Unless the person is identified and has his expertise
established, there is no reason to accept the claim.
of reasoning is not unusual. Typically, the person making the
argument will say things like “I have a book that says…”
, or “they say…”, or “the experts say…”,
or “scientists believe that…”, or “I
read in the paper..” or “I saw on TV…”
or some similar statement. in such cases the person is often
hoping that the listener(s) will simply accept the unidentified
source as a legitimate authority and believe the claim being
made. If a person accepts the claim simply because they accept
the unidentified source as an expert (without good reason to do
so), he has fallen prey to this fallacy.
As suggested above, not all Appeals to
Authority are fallacious. This is fortunate since people have to
rely on experts. This is because no one person can be an expert
on everything and people do not have the time or ability to
investigate every single claim themselves.
In many cases,
Arguments from Authority will be good arguments. For example,
when a person goes to a skilled doctor and the doctor tells him
that he has a cold, then the patient has good reason to accept
the doctor’s conclusion. As another example, if a person’s
computer is acting odd and his friend, who is a computer expert,
tells him it is probably his hard drive then he has good reason
to believe her.
What distinguishes a fallacious Appeal to
Authority from a good Appeal to Authority is that the argument
meets the six conditions discussed above.
In a good Appeal to
Authority, there is reason to believe the claim because the
expert says the claim is true. This is because a person who is a
legitimate expert is more likely to be right than wrong when
making considered claims within her area of expertise. In a
sense, the claim is being accepted because it is reasonable to
believe that the expert has tested the claim and found it to be
reliable. So, if the expert has found it to be reliable, then it
is reasonable to accept it as being true. Thus, the listener is
accepting a claim based on the testimony of the expert.
should be noted that even a good Appeal to Authority is not an
exceptionally strong argument. After all, in such cases a claim
is being accepted as true simply because a person is asserting
that it is true. The person may be an expert, but her expertise
does not really bear on the truth of the claim. This is because
the expertise of a person does not actually determine whether the
claim is true or false. Hence, arguments that deal directly with
evidence relating to the claim itself will tend to be stronger.
Bill and Jane are arguing about the morality of
Bill: “I believe that abortion is morally acceptable.
After all, a woman should have a right to her own body.”
‘I disagree completely. Dr. Johan Skarn says that abortion
is always morally wrong, regardless of the situation. He has to
be right, after all, he is a respected expert in his
Bill: “I’ve never heard of Dr.
Skarn. Who is he?”
Jane: “He’s the guy that
won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on cold
Bill: “I see. Does he have any expertise
in morality or ethics?”
Jane: “I don’t know.
But he’s a world famous expert, so I believe him.”
Dave and Kintaro are arguing about Stalin’s
reign in the Soviet Union. Dave has been arguing that Stalin was
a great leader while Kintaro disagrees with him.
Kintaro: “I don’t see how you can consider Stalin
to be a great leader. He killed millions of his own people, he
crippled the Soviet economy, kept most of the people in fear and
laid the foundations for the violence that is occurring in much
of Eastern Europe.”
Dave: “Yeah, well you say
that. However, I have a book at home that says that Stalin was
acting in the best interest of the people. The millions that were
killed were vicious enemies of the state and they had to be
killed to protect the rest of the peaceful citizens. This book
lays it all out, so it has to be true.”
I’m not a doctor, but I play one on the
hit series “Bimbos and Studmuffins in the OR.” You
can take it from me that when you need a fast acting, effective
and safe pain killer there is nothing better than MorphiDope
2000. That is my considered medical opinion.
Siphwe and Sasha are having a conversation:
Sasha: “I played the lottery today and I know I am going
to win something.”
Siphwe: “What did you do, rig
Sasha: “No, silly. I called my Super
Psychic Buddy at the 1-900-MindPower number. After consulting his
magic Californian Tarot deck, he told me my lucky
Siphwe: “And you believed him?”
“Certainly, he is a certified Californian Master-Mind
Psychic. That is why I believe what he has to say. I mean, like,
who else would know what my lucky numbers are?”
Appeal to Belief is a fallacy
that has this general pattern:
1) Most people believe that a claim, X, is true.
Therefore X is true.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the
fact that many people believe a claim does not, in general, serve
as evidence that the claim is true.
There are, however, some
cases when the fact that many people accept a claim as true is an
indication that it is true. For example, while you are visiting
Maine, you are told by several people that they believe that
people older than 16 need to buy a fishing license in order to
fish. Barring reasons to doubt these people, their statements
give you reason to believe that anyone over 16 will need to buy a
There are also cases in which what people
believe actually determines the truth of a claim. For example,
the truth of claims about manners and proper behavior might
simply depend on what people believe to be good manners and
proper behavior. Another example is the case of community
standards, which are often taken to be the standards that most
people accept. In some cases, what violates certain community
standards is taken to be obscene. In such cases, for the claim “x
is obscene” to be true is for most people in that community
to believe that x is obscene. In such cases it is still prudent
to question the justification of the individual beliefs.
At one time, most people in Europe believed
that the earth was the center of the solar system (at least most
of those who had beliefs about such things). However, this belief
turned out to be false.
God must exist. After all, I just saw a poll
that says 85% of all Americans believe in God.
Of course there is nothing wrong with drinking.
Ask anyone, he’ll tell you that he thinks drinking is just
Appeal to Common
The Appeal to Common Practice
is a fallacy with the following structure:
1) X is a common action.
2) Therefore X is
The basic idea behind the fallacy is that the fact that most
people do X is used as “evidence” to support the
action or practice. It is a fallacy because the mere fact that
most people do something does not make it correct, moral,
justified, or reasonable.
An appeal to fair play, which might
seem to be an appeal to common practice, need not be a fallacy.
For example, a woman working in an office might say “the
men who do the same job as me get paid more than I do, so it
would be right for me to get paid the same as them.” This
would not be a fallacy as long as there was no relevant
difference between her and the men (in terms of ability,
experience, hours worked, etc.). More formally:
1) It is common practice to treat people of type Y in manner X
and to treat people of type Z in a different manner.
is no relevant difference between people of type Y and type Z.
Therefore people of type Z should be treated in manner X, too.
This argument rests heavily on the principle of relevant
difference. On this principle two people, A and B, can only be
treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference
between them. For example, it would be fine for me to give a
better grade to A than B if A did better work than B. However, it
would be wrong of me to give A a better grade than B simply
because A has red hair and B has blonde hair.
There might be
some cases in which the fact that most people accept X as moral
entails that X is moral. For example, one view of morality is
that morality is relative to the practices of a culture, time,
person, etc. If what is moral is determined by what is commonly
practiced, then this argument:
1) Most people do X.
2) Therefore X is morally correct.
would not be a fallacy. This would however entail some odd
results. For example, imagine that there are only 100 people on
earth. 60 of them do not steal or cheat and 40 do. At this time,
stealing and cheating would be wrong. The next day, a natural
disaster kills 30 of the 60 people who do not cheat or steal. Now
it is morally correct to cheat and steal. Thus, it would be
possible to change the moral order of the world to one’s
view simply by eliminating those who disagree.
Director Jones is in charge of running a state
waste management program. When it is found that the program is
rife with corruption, Jones says “This program has its
problems, but nothing goes on in this program that doesn’t
go on in all state programs.”
“Yeah, I know some people say that
cheating on tests is wrong. But we all know that everyone does
it, so it’s okay.”
“Sure, some people buy into that equality
crap. However, we know that everyone pays women less then men.
It’s okay, too. Since everyone does it, it can’t
really be wrong.”
“There is nothing wrong with requiring
multicultural classes, even at the expense of core subjects.
After all, all of the universities and colleges are pushing
An Appeal to Emotion is a
fallacy with the following structure:
1) Favorable emotions are associated with X.
X is true.
This fallacy is committed when someone manipulates peoples’
emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true.
More formally, this sort of “reasoning” involves the
substitution of various means of producing strong emotions in
place of evidence for a claim. If the favorable emotions
associated with X influence the person to accept X as true
because they “feel good about X,” then he has fallen
prey to the fallacy.
This sort of “reasoning” is
very common in politics and it serves as the basis for a large
portion of modern advertising. Most political speeches are aimed
at generating feelings in people so that these feelings will get
them to vote or act a certain way. In the case of advertising,
the commercials are aimed at evoking emotions that will influence
people to buy certain products. In most cases, such speeches and
commercials are notoriously free of real evidence.
of “reasoning” is quite evidently fallacious. It is
fallacious because using various tactics to incite emotions in
people does not serve as evidence for a claim. For example, if a
person were able to inspire in a person an incredible hatred of
the claim that 1+1 = 2 and then inspired the person to love the
claim that 1+1 =3, it would hardly follow that the claim that 1+1
= 3 would be adequately supported.
It should be noted that in
many cases it is not particularly obvious that the person
committing the fallacy is attempting to support a claim. In many
cases, the user of the fallacy will appear to be attempting to
move people to take an action, such as buying a product or
fighting in a war. However, it is possible to determine what sort
of claim the person is actually attempting to support. In such
cases one needs to ask “what sort of claim is this person
attempting to get people to accept and act on?” Determining
this claim (or claims) might take some work. However, in many
cases it will be quite evident. For example, if a political
leader is attempting to convince her followers to participate in
certain acts of violence by the use of a hate speech, then her
claim would be “you should participate in these acts of
violence.” In this case, the “evidence” would
be the hatred evoked in the followers. This hatred would serve to
make them favorable inclined towards the claim that they should
engage in the acts of violence. As another example, a beer
commercial might show happy, scantily clad men and women prancing
about a beach, guzzling beer. In this case the claim would be
“you should buy this beer.” The “evidence”
would be the excitement evoked by seeing the beautiful people
guzzling the beer.
This fallacy is actually an extremely
effective persuasive device. As many people have argued, peoples’
emotions often carry much more force than their reason. Logical
argumentation is often difficult and time consuming and it rarely
has the power to spurn people to action. It is the power of this
fallacy that explains its great popularity and wide usage.
However, it is still a fallacy.
In all fairness it must be
noted that the use of tactics to inspire emotions is an important
skill. Without an appeal to peoples’ emotions, it is often
difficult to get them to take action or to perform at their best.
For example, no good coach presents her team with syllogisms
before the big game. Instead she inspires them with emotional
terms and attempts to “fire” them up. There is
nothing inherently wrong with this. However, it is not any
acceptable form of argumentation. As long as one is able to
clearly distinguish between what inspires emotions and what
justifies a claim, one is unlikely to fall prey to this
As a final point, in many cases it will be difficult
to distinguish an Appeal to Emotion from some other fallacies and
in many cases multiple fallacies may be committed. For example,
many Ad Hominems will be very similar to Appeals to Emotion and,
in some cases, both fallacies will be committed. As an example, a
leader might attempt to invoke hatred of a person to inspire his
followers to accept that they should reject her claims. The same
attack could function as an Appeal to Emotion and a Personal
Attack. In the first case, the attack would be aimed at making
the followers feel very favorable about rejecting her claims. In
the second case, the attack would be aimed at making the
followers reject the person’s claims because of some
perceived (or imagined) defect in her character.
is related to the Appeal to Popularity fallacy. Despite the
differences between these two fallacies, they are both united by
the fact that they involve appeals to emotions. In both cases the
fallacies aim at getting people to accept claims based on how
they or others feel about the claims and not based on evidence
for the claims.
Another way to look at these two fallacies is as follows
Appeal to Popularity
Most people approve of X.
2) So, I should approve of X,
3) Since I approve of X, X must be true.
Appeal to Emotion
I approve of X.
2) Therefore, X is true.
On this view, in an Appeal to Popularity the claim is accepted
because most people approve of the claim. In the case of an
Appeal to Emotion the claim is accepted because the individual
approves of the claim because of the emotion of approval he feels
in regards to the claim.
The new PowerTangerine computer gives you the
power you need. If you buy one, people will envy your power. They
will look up to you and wish they were just like you. You will
know the true joy of power. TangerinePower.
The new UltraSkinny diet will make you feel
great. No longer be troubled by your weight. Enjoy the admiring
stares of the opposite sex. Revel in your new freedom from fat.
You will know true happiness if you try our diet!
Bill goes to hear a politician speak. The
politician tells the crowd about the evils of the government and
the need to throw out the people who are currently in office.
After hearing the speech, Bill is full of hatred for the current
politicians. Because of this, he feels good about getting rid of
the old politicians and accepts that it is the right thing to do
because of how he feels.
Appeal to Fear
Known as: Scare Tactics, Appeal to Force, Ad
The Appeal to Fear is a fallacy with
the following pattern:
1) Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce
2) Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is
generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because
creating fear in people does not constitute evidence for a
It is important to distinguish between a rational
reason to believe (RRB) (evidence) and a prudential reason to
believe(PRB) (motivation). A RRB is evidence that objectively and
logically supports the claim. A PRB is a reason to accept the
belief because of some external factor (such as fear, a threat,
or a benefit or harm that may stem from the belief) that is
relevant to what a person values but is not relevant to the truth
or falsity of the claim. For example, it might be prudent to not
fail the son of your department chairperson because you fear he
will make life tough for you. However, this does not provide
evidence for the claim that the son deserves to pass the class.
You know, Professor Smith, I really need to get
an A in this class. I’d like to stop by during your office
hours later to discuss my grade. I’ll be in your building
anyways, visting my father. He’s your dean, by the way.
I’ll see you later.
I don’t think a Red Ryder BB rifle would
make a good present for you. They are very dangerous and you’ll
put your eye out. Now, don’t you agree that you should
think of another gift idea?
You must believe that God exists. After all, if
you do not accept the existence of God, then you will face the
horrors of hell.
You shouldn’t say such things against
multiculturalism! If the chair heard what you were saying, you
would never receive tenure. So, you had just better learn to
accept that it is simply wrong to speak out against it.
Appeal to Flattery
Known as: Apple Polishing, various “colorful”
An Appeal to Flattery is a fallacy
of the following form:
1) Person A is flattered by person B.
2) Person B makes
3) Therefore X is true.
The basic idea behind this fallacy is that flattery is
presented in the place of evidence for accepting a claim. This
sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because flattery is
not, in fact, evidence for a claim. This is especially clear in a
case like this: “My Bill, that is a really nice tie. By the
way, it is quite clear that one plus one is equal to forty three.
Might I say that this is the best philosophy
class I’ve ever taken. By the way, about those two points I
need to get an A.
“That was a wonderful joke about AIDS
boss, and I agree with you that the damn liberals are wrecking
the country. Now about my raise…”
That was a singularly brilliant idea. I have
never seen such a clear and eloquent defense of Plato’s
position. If you do not mind, I’ll base my paper on it.
Provided that you allow me a little extra time past the deadline
to work on it.
Appeal to Novelty
Known as: Appeal to the New, Newer is Better,
Appeal to Novelty is a fallacy that
occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct
simply because it is new. This sort of “reasoning”
has the following form:
1. X is new.
2. Therefore X is correct or better.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the
novelty or newness of something does not automatically make it
correct or better than something older. This is made quite
obvious by the following example: Joe has proposed that 1+1
should now be equal to 3. When asked why people should accept
this, he says that he just came up with the idea. Since it is
newer than the idea that 1+1=2, it must be better.
of “reasoning” is appealing for many reasons. First,
“western culture” includes a very powerful commitment
to the notion that new things must be better than old things.
Second, the notion of progress (which seems to have come, in
part, from the notion of evolution) implies that newer things
will be superior to older things. Third, media advertising often
sends the message that newer must be better. Because of these
three factors (and others) people often accept that a new thing
(idea, product, concept, etc.) must be better because it is new.
Hence, Novelty is a somewhat common fallacy, especially in
It should not be assumed that old things must be
better than new things (see the fallacy Appeal to Tradition) any
more than it should be assumed that new things are better than
old things. The age of a thing does not, in general, have any
bearing on its quality or correctness (in this
Obviously, age does have a bearing in some contexts.
For example, if a person concluded that his day old milk was
better than his two-month old milk, he would not be committing an
Appeal to Novelty. This is because in such cases the newness of
the thing is relevant to its quality. Thus, the fallacy is
committed only when the newness is not, in and of itself,
relevant to the claim.
The Sadisike 900 pump-up glow shoe. It’s
better because it’s new.
James: “So, what is this new plan?”
“Well, the latest thing in marketing techniques is the GK
method. It is the latest thing out of the think tank. It is so
new that the ink on the reports is still drying.”
“Well, our old marketing method has been quite effective. I
don’t like the idea of jumping to a new method without a
Biff: “Well, we know that we have to
stay on the cutting edge. That means new ideas and new techniques
have to be used. The GK method is new, so it will do better than
that old, dusty method.”
Prof: “So you can see that a new and
better morality is sweeping the nation. No longer are people with
alternative lifestyles ashamed. No longer are people caught up in
the outmoded moralities of the past.”
what about the ideas of the great thinkers of the past? Don’t
they have some valid points?”
Prof: “A good
question. The answer is that they had some valid points in their
own, barbaric times. But those are old, moldy moralities from a
time long gone. Now is a time for new moralities. Progress and
all that, you know.”
Student: “So would you say
that the new moralities are better because they are newer?”
“Exactly. Just as the dinosaurs died off to make way for
new animals, the old ideas have to give way for the new ones. And
just as humans are better than dinosaurs, the new ideas are
better than the old. So newer is literally better.”
Appeal to Pity
Known as: Ad Misericordiam
An Appeal to Pity
is a fallacy in which a person substitutes a claim intended to
create pity for evidence in an argument. The form of the
“argument” is as follows:
1. P is presented, with the intent to create pity.
Therefore claim C is true.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because
pity does not serve as evidence for a claim. This is extremely
clear in the following case: “You must accept that 1+1=46,
after all I’m dying…” While you may pity me
because I am dying, it would hardly make my claim true.
fallacy differs from the Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief
(ACB). In the ACB fallacy, a person is using the effects of a
belief as a substitute for evidence. In the Appeal to Pity, it is
the feelings of pity or sympathy that are substituted for
It must be noted that there are cases in which
claims that actually serve as evidence also evoke a feeling of
pity. In such cases, the feeling of pity is still not evidence.
The following is an example of a case in which a claim evokes
pity and also serves as legitimate evidence:
Professor: “You missed the midterm, Bill.”
“I know. I think you should let me take the
was hit by a truck on the way to the midterm. Since I had to go
to the emergency room with a broken leg, I think I am entitled to
Professor: “I’m sorry about the
leg, Bill. Of course you can make it up.”
The above example does not involve a fallacy. While the
professor does feel sorry for Bill, she is justified in accepting
Bill’s claim that he deserves a makeup. After all getting
run over by a truck would be a legitimate excuse for missing a
Jill: “He’d be a terrible coach for
Bill: “He had his heart set on the job,
and it would break if he didn’t get it.”
guess he’ll do an adequate job.”
“I’m positive that my work will
meet your requirements. I really need the job since my
grandmother is sick”
“I should receive an ‘A’ in
this class. After all, if I don’t get an ‘A’ I
won’t get the fellowship that I want.”
The Appeal to Popularity has
the following form:
1) Most people approve of X (have favorable emotions towards
2) Therefore X is true.
The basic idea is that a claim is accepted as being true
simply because most people are favorably inclined towards the
claim. More formally, the fact that most people have favorable
emotions associated with the claim is substituted in place of
actual evidence for the claim. A person falls prey to this
fallacy if he accepts a claim as being true simply because most
other people approve of the claim.
It is clearly fallacious to
accept the approval of the majority as evidence for a claim. For
example, suppose that a skilled speaker managed to get most
people to absolutely love the claim that 1+1=3. It would still
not be rational to accept this claim simply because most people
approved of it. After all, mere approval is no substitute for a
mathematical proof. At one time people approved of claims such as
“the world is flat”, “humans cannot survive at
speeds greater than 25 miles per hour”, “the sun
revolves around the earth” but all these claims turned out
to be false.
This sort of “reasoning” is quite
common and can be quite an effective persuasive device. Since
most humans tend to conform with the views of the majority,
convincing a person that the majority approves of a claim is
often an effective way to get him to accept it. Advertisers often
use this tactic when they attempt to sell products by claiming
that everyone uses and loves their products. In such cases they
hope that people will accept the (purported) approval of others
as a good reason to buy the product.
This fallacy is vaguely
similar to such fallacies as Appeal to Belief and Appeal to
Common Practice. However, in the case of an Ad Populum the appeal
is to the fact that most people approve of a claim. In the case
of an Appeal to Belief, the appeal is to the fact that most
people believe a claim. In the case of an Appeal to Common
Practice, the appeal is to the fact that many people take the
action in question.
This fallacy is closely related to the
Appeal to Emotion fallacy, as discussed in the entry for that
My fellow Americans…there has been some
talk that the government is overstepping its bounds by allowing
police to enter people’s homes without the warrants
traditionally required by the Constitution. However, these are
dangerous times and dangerous times require appropriate actions.
I have in my office thousands of letters from people who let me
know, in no uncertain terms, that they heartily endorse the war
against terrorism in these United States. Because of this
overwhelming approval, it is evident that the police are doing
the right thing.
I read the other day that most people really
like the new gun control laws. I was sort of suspicious of them,
but I guess if most people like them, then they must be okay.
Jill and Jane have some concerns that the rules
their sorority has set are racist in character. Since Jill is a
decent person, she brings her concerns up in the next meeting.
The president of the sorority assures her that there is nothing
wrong with the rules, since the majority of the sisters like
them. Jane accepts this ruling but Jill decides to leave the
Appeal to Ridicule
Known as: Appeal to Mockery, The Horse Laugh.
Appeal to Ridicule is a fallacy in which ridicule or mockery is
substituted for evidence in an “argument.” This line
of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. X, which
is some form of ridicule is presented (typically directed at the
2. Therefore claim C is false.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because
mocking a claim does not show that it is false. This is
especially clear in the following example: “1+1=2! That’s
the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard!”
be noted that showing that a claim is ridiculous through the use
of legitimate methods (such as a non fallacious argument) can
make it reasonable to reject the claim. One form of this line of
reasoning is known as a “reductio ad absurdum”
(“reducing to absurdity”). In this sort of argument,
the idea is to show that a contradiction (a statement that must
be false) or an absurd result follows from a claim. For example:
“Bill claims that a member of a minority group cannot be a
racist. However, this is absurd. Think about this: white males
are a minority in the world. Given Bill’s claim, it would
follow that no white males could be racists. Hence, the Klan,
Nazis, and white supremacists are not racist
Since the claim that the Klan, Nazis,
and white supremacists are not racist organizations is clearly
absurd, it can be concluded that the claim that a member of a
minority cannot be a racist is false.
“Sure my worthy opponent claims that we
should lower tuition, but that is just laughable.”
“Equal rights for women? Yeah, I’ll
support that when they start paying for dinner and taking out the
trash! Hah hah! Fetch me another brewski, Mildred.”
“Those crazy conservatives! They think a
strong military is the key to peace! Such fools!”
The Appeal to Spite Fallacy is a
fallacy in which spite is substituted for evidence when an
“argument” is made against a claim. This line of
“reasoning” has the following form:
1. Claim X is
presented with the intent of generating spite.
claim C is false (or true)
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because a
feeling of spite does not count as evidence for or against a
claim. This is quite clear in the following case: “Bill
claims that the earth revolves around the sun. But remember that
dirty trick he pulled on you last week. Now, doesn’t my
claim that the sun revolves around the earth make sense to
Of course, there are cases in which a claim that
evokes a feeling of spite or malice can serve as legitimate
evidence. However, it should be noted that the actual feelings of
malice or spite are not evidence. The following is an example of
such a situation:
Jill: “I think I’ll vote for Jane to be treasurer
Vicki: “Remember the time that your purse
vanished at a meeting last year?”
“Well, I just found out that she stole your purse and stole
some other stuff from people.”
not voting for her!”
In this case, Jill has a good reason not to vote for Jane.
Since a treasurer should be honest, a known thief would be a bad
choice. As long as Jill concludes that she should vote against
Jane because she is a thief and not just out of spite, her
reasoning would not be fallacious.
Bill: “I think that Jane did a great job
this year. I’m going to nominate her for the award.”
“Have you forgotten last year? Remember that she didn’t
nominate you last year.”
right. I’m not going to nominate her.”
Jill: “I think Jane’s idea is a
really good one and will really save a lot of money for the
Bill: “Maybe. Remember how she showed
that your paper had a fatal flaw when you read it at the
convention last year…”
Jill: “I had just
about forgotten about that! I think I’ll go with your idea
Also Known as: Appeal to the Old, Old Ways
are Best, Fallacious Appeal to the Past, Appeal to
Appeal to Tradition is a fallacy that
occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct
simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has
been done.” This sort of “reasoning” has the
1. X is old or traditional
2. Therefore X is correct or
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the
age of something does not automatically make it correct or better
than something newer. This is made quite obvious by the following
example: The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far
older than the theory that microorganism cause diseases.
Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.
sort of “reasoning” is appealing for a variety of
reasons. First, people often prefer to stick with what is older
or traditional. This is a fairly common psychological
characteristic of people which may stem from the fact that people
feel more comfortable about what has been around longer. Second,
sticking with things that are older or traditional is often
easier than testing new things. Hence, people often prefer older
and traditional things out of laziness. Hence, Appeal to
Tradition is a somewhat common fallacy.
It should not be
assumed that new things must be better than old things (see the
fallacy Appeal to Novelty) any more than it should be assumed
that old things are better than new things. The age of thing does
not, in general, have any bearing on its quality or correctness
(in this context). In the case of tradition, assuming that
something is correct just because it is considered a tradition is
poor reasoning. For example, if the belief that 1+1 = 56 were a
tradition of a group of people it would hardly follow that it is
Obviously, age does have a bearing in some contexts. For
example, if a person concluded that aged wine would be better
than brand new wine, he would not be committing an Appeal to
Tradition. This is because, in such cases the age of the thing is
relevant to its quality. Thus, the fallacy is committed only when
the age is not, in and of itself, relevant to the claim.
final issue that must be considered is the “test of time.”
In some cases people might be assuming that because something has
lasted as a tradition or has been around a long time that it is
true because it has “passed the test of time.” If a
person assumes that something must be correct or true simply
because it has persisted a long time, then he has committed an
Appeal to Tradition. After all, as history has shown people can
persist in accepting false claims for centuries.
However, if a
person argues that the claim or thing in question has
successfully stood up to challenges and tests for a long period
of time then they would not be committing a fallacy. In such
cases the claim would be backed by evidence. As an example, the
theory that matter is made of subatomic particles has survived
numerous tests and challenges over the years so there is a weight
of evidence in its favor. The claim is reasonable to accept
because of the weight of this evidence and not because the claim
is old. Thus, a claim’s surviving legitimate challenges and
passing valid tests for a long period of time can justify the
acceptance of a claim. But mere age or persistence does not
warrant accepting a claim.
Sure I believe in God. People have believed in
God for thousands of years so it seems clear that God must exist.
After all, why else would the belief last so long?
Gunthar is the father of Connan. They live on a
small island and in their culture women are treated as property
to be exchanged at will by men.
Connan: “You know father, when I was going to school in
the United States I saw that American women are not treated as
property. In fact, I read a book by this person named Mill in
which he argued for women’s rights.”
what is your point son?”
Connan: “Well, I think
that it might be wrong to trade my sisters for cattle. They are
human beings and should have a right to be masters of their own
Gunthar: “What a strange and new-fangled
notion you picked up in America. That country must be even more
barbaric then I imagined. Now think about this son. We have been
trading women for cattle for as long as our people have lived on
this island. It is a tradition that goes back into the mists of
Connan: “But I still think there is
something wrong with it.”
Gunthar: “Nonsense my
boy. A tradition this old must be endorsed by the gods and must
be right. “
Of course this mode of government is the best.
We have had this government for over 200 years and no one has
talked about changing it in all that time. So, it has got to be
A reporter is interviewing the head of a family
that has been involved with a feud with another family.
Reporter: “Mr. Hatfield, why are you still fighting it
out with the McCoys?”
Hatfield: “Well you see
young man, my father feuded with the McCoys and his father feuded
with them and so did my great grandfather.”
“But why? What started all this?”
don’t rightly know. I’m sure it was the McCoys who
started it all, though.”
Reporter: “If you don’t
know why you’re fighting, why don’t you just
Hatfield: “Stop? What are you crazy? This
feud has been going on for generations so I’m sure there is
a darn good reason why it started. So I aim to keep it going. It
has got to be the right thing to do. Hand me my shooting iron
boy, I see one of those McCoy skunks sneaking in the cornfield.”
Also Known as: Circular Reasoning, Reasoning
in a Circle, Petitio Principii
Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim
that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume
that the conclusion is true. This sort of “reasoning”
typically has the following form.
1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or
the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or
2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because
simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or
indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that
conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not
serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in
particularly blatant cases: “X is true. The evidence for
this claim is that X is true.”
Some cases of question begging are fairly blatant, while
others can be extremely subtle.
Bill: “God must exist.”
“How do you know.”
Bill: “Because the Bible
Jill: “Why should I believe the
Bill: “Because the Bible was written by
“If such actions were not illegal , then
they would not be prohibited by the law.”
“The belief in God is universal. After
all, everyone believes in God.”
Interviewer: “Your resume looks
impressive but I need another reference.”
can give me a good reference.”
But how do I know that Jill is trustworthy?”
“Certainly. I can vouch for her.”
Also Known as: Biased Statistics, Loaded
Sample, Prejudiced Statistics, Prejudiced Sample, Loaded
Statistics, Biased Induction, Biased
This fallacy is committed when
a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample
that is biased or prejudiced in some manner. It has the following
1. Sample S, which is biased, is taken from population P.
Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following
type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive
Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
1. X% of all observed A’s are B’s.
X% of all A’s are B’s.
The fallacy is committed when the sample of A’s is
likely to be biased in some manner. A sample is biased or loaded
when the method used to take the sample is likely to result in a
sample that does not adequately represent the population from
which it is drawn.
Biased samples are generally not very reliable. As a blatant
case, imagine that a person is taking a sample from a truckload
of small colored balls, some of which are metal and some of which
are plastic. If he used a magnet to select his sample, then his
sample would include a disproportionate number of metal balls
(after all, the sample will probably be made up entirely of the
metal balls). In this case, any conclusions he might draw about
the whole population of balls would be unreliable since he would
have few or no plastic balls in the sample.
The general idea is that biased samples are less likely to
contain numbers proportional to the whole population. For
example, if a person wants to find out what most Americans
thought about gun control, a poll taken at an NRA meeting would
be a biased sample.
Since the Biased Sample fallacy is
committed when the sample (the observed instances) is biased or
loaded, it is important to have samples that are not biased
making a generalization. The best way to do this is to take
samples in ways that avoid bias. There are, in general, three
types of samples that are aimed at avoiding bias. The general
idea is that these methods (when used properly) will result in a
sample that matches the whole population fairly closely. The
three types of samples are as follows
Random Sample: This is a
sample that is taken in such a way that nothing but chance
determines which members of the population are selected for the
sample. Ideally, any individual member of the population has the
same chance as being selected as any other. This type of sample
avoids being biased because a biased sample is one that is taken
in such a way that some members of the population have a
significantly greater chance of being selected for the sample
than other members. Unfortunately, creating an ideal random
sample is often very difficult.
Stratified Sample: This is a sample that is taken by using the
following steps: 1) The relevant strata (population subgroups)
are identified, 2) The number of members in each stratum is
determined and 3) A random sample is taken from each stratum in
exact proportion to its size. This method is obviously most
useful when dealing with stratified populations. For example, a
person’s income often influences how she votes, so when
conducting a presidential poll it would be a good idea to take a
stratified sample using economic classes as the basis for
determining the strata. This method avoids loaded samples by
(ideally) ensuring that each stratum of the population is
Time Lapse Sample: This type of sample is taken by taking a
stratified or random sample and then taking at least one more
sample with a significant lapse of time between them. After the
two samples are taken, they can be compared for changes. This
method of sample taking is very important when making
predictions. A prediction based on only one sample is likely to
be a Hasty Generalization (because the sample is likely to be too
small to cover past, present and future populations) or a Biased
Sample (because the sample will only include instances from one
People often commit Biased Sample because of bias or
prejudice. For example, a person might intentionally or
unintentionally seek out people or events that support his bias.
As an example, a person who is pushing a particular scientific
theory might tend to gather samples that are biased in favor of
People also commonly commit this fallacy because
of laziness or sloppiness. It is very easy to simply take a
sample from what happens to be easily available rather than
taking the time and effort to generate an adequate sample and
draw a justified conclusion.
It is important to keep in mind
that bias is relative to the purpose of the sample. For example,
if Bill wanted to know what NRA members thought about a gun
control law, then taking a sample at a NRA meeting would not be
biased. However, if Bill wanted to determine what Americans in
general thought about the law, then a sample taken at an NRA
meeting would be biased.
Bill is assigned by his editor to determine
what most Americans think about a new law that will place a
federal tax on all modems and computers purchased. The revenues
from the tax will be used to enforce new online decency laws.
Bill, being technically inclined, decides to use an email poll.
In his poll, 95% of those surveyed opposed the tax. Bill was
quite surprised when 65% of all Americans voted for the taxes.
The United Pacifists of America decide to run a
poll to determine what Americans think about guns and gun
control. Jane is assigned the task of setting up the study. To
save mailing costs, she includes the survey form in the group’s
newsletter mailing. She is very pleased to find out that 95% of
those surveyed favor gun control laws and she tells her friends
that the vast majority of Americans favor gun control laws.
Large scale polls were taken in Florida,
California, and Maine and it was found that an average of 55% of
those polled spent at least fourteen days a year near the ocean.
So, it can be safely concluded that 55% of all Americans spend at
least fourteen days near the ocean each year.
Burden of Proof
Known As: Appeal to Ignorance (“Ad
Burden of Proof is a
fallacy in which the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side.
Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is
taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of
proof actually rests on side B. A common name for this is an
Appeal to Ignorance. This sort of reasoning typically has the
1. Claim X is presented by side A and the burden of proof
actually rests on side B.
2. Side B claims that X is false
because there is no proof for X.
In many situations, one side has the burden of proof resting
on it. This side is obligated to provide evidence for its
position. The claim of the other side, the one that does not bear
the burden of proof, is assumed to be true unless proven
otherwise. The difficulty in such cases is determining which
side, if any, the burden of proof rests on. In many cases,
settling this issue can be a matter of significant debate. In
some cases the burden of proof is set by the situation. For
example, in American law a person is assumed to be innocent until
proven guilty (hence the burden of proof is on the prosecution).
As another example, in debate the burden of proof is placed on
the affirmative team. As a final example, in most cases the
burden of proof rests on those who claim something exists (such
as Bigfoot, psychic powers, universals, and sense data).
Bill: “I think that we should invest more
money in expanding the interstate system.”
think that would be a bad idea, considering the state of the
Bill: How can anyone be against highway
Bill: “I think that some people have
Jill: “What is your proof?”
“No one has been able to prove that people do not have
“You cannot prove that God does not
exist, so He does.”
A Circumstantial ad Hominem is
a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting
that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self
interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an
attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s
religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). The
fallacy has the following forms:
1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B asserts that A makes
claim X because it is in A’s interest to claim X.
Therefore claim X is false.
1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on
3. Therefore X is false.
A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s
interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or
falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests
will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the
claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a
person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation,
etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is
made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims
that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is
There are times when it is prudent to suspicious
of a person’s claims, such as when it is evident that the
claims are being biased by the person’s interests. For
example, if a tobacco company representative claims that tobacco
does not cause cancer, it would be prudent to not simply accept
the claim. This is because the person has a motivation to make
the claim, whether it is true or not. However, the mere fact that
the person has a motivation to make the claim does not make it
false. For example, suppose a parent tells her son that sticking
a fork in a light socket would be dangerous. Simply because she
has a motivation to say this obviously does not make her claim
“She asserts that we need more military
spending, but that is false, since she is only saying it because
she is a Republican.”
that we should reject what Father Jones has to say about the
ethical issues of abortion because he is a Catholic priest. After
all, Father Jones is required to hold such views.”
“Of course the Senator from Maine opposes
a reduction in naval spending. After all, Bath Ironworks, which
produces warships, is in Maine.”
“Bill claims that tax breaks for
corporations increases development. Of course, Bill is the CEO of
The fallacy of Composition
is committed when a conclusion is drawn about a whole based on
the features of its constituents when, in fact, no justification
provided for the inference. There are actually two types of this
fallacy, both of which are known by the same name (because of the
high degree of similarity).
The first type of fallacy of
Composition arises when a person reasons from the characteristics
of individual members of a class or group to a conclusion
regarding the characteristics of the entire class or group (taken
as a whole). More formally, the “reasoning” would
look something like this.
1. Individual F things have characteristics A, B, C, etc.
Therefore, the (whole) class of F things has characteristics A,
B, C, etc.
This line of reasoning is fallacious because the mere fact
that individuals have certain characteristics does not, in
itself, guarantee that the class (taken as a whole) has those
It is important to note that drawing an
inference about the characteristics of a class based on the
characteristics of its individual members is not always
fallacious. In some cases, sufficient justification can be
provided to warrant the conclusion. For example, it is true that
an individual rich person has more wealth than an individual poor
person. In some nations (such as the US) it is true that the
class of wealthy people has more wealth as a whole than does the
class of poor people. In this case, the evidence used would
warrant the inference and the fallacy of Composition would not be
The second type of fallacy of Composition is
committed when it is concluded that what is true of the parts of
a whole must be true of the whole without there being adequate
justification for the claim. More formally, the line of
“reasoning” would be as follows:
1. The parts of the whole X have characteristics A, B, C,
2. Therefore the whole X must have characteristics A, B,
This sort of reasoning is fallacious because it cannot be
inferred that simply because the parts of a complex whole have
(or lack) certain properties that the whole that they are parts
of has those properties. This is especially clear in math: The
numbers 1 and 3 are both odd. 1 and 3 are parts of 4. Therefore,
the number 4 is odd.
It must be noted that reasoning from the
properties of the parts to the properties of the whole is not
always fallacious. If there is justification for the inference
from parts to whole, then the reasoning is not fallacious. For
example, if every part of the human body is made of matter, then
it would not be an error in reasoning to conclude that the whole
human body is made of matter. Similarly, if every part of a
structure is made of brick, there is no fallacy committed when
one concludes that the whole structure is made of brick.
A main battle tank uses more fuel than a car.
Therefore, the main battle tanks use up more of the available
fuel in the world than do all the cars.
A tiger eats more food than a human being.
Therefore, tigers, as a group, eat more food than do all the
humans on the earth.
Atoms are colorless. Cats are made of atoms, so
cats are colorless.
Every player on the team is a superstar and a
great player, so the team is a great team.” This is
fallacious since the superstars might not be able to play
together very well and hence they could be a lousy team.
Each part of the show, from the special effects
to the acting is a masterpiece. So, the whole show is a
masterpiece.” This is fallacious since a show could have
great acting, great special effects and such, yet still fail to
“come together” to make a masterpiece.
Come on, you like beef, potatoes, and green
beans, so you will like this beef, potato, and green been
casserole.” This is fallacious for the same reason that the
following is fallacious: “You like eggs, ice cream, pizza,
cake, fish, jello, chicken, taco sauce, soda, oranges, milk, egg
rolls, and yogurt so you must like this yummy dish made out of
all of them.
Sodium and chlorine are both dangerous to
humans. Therefore any combination of sodium and chlorine will be
dangerous to humans.
Confusing Cause and
Also Known as: Questionable Cause, Reversing
Confusing Cause and Effect is a
fallacy that has the following general form:
1) A and B regularly occur together.
2) Therefore A is the
cause of B.
This fallacy requires that there not be, in fact, a common
cause that actually causes both A and B.
This fallacy is
committed when a person assumes that one event must cause another
just because the events occur together. More formally, this
fallacy involves drawing the conclusion that A is the cause of B
simply because A and B are in regular conjunction (and there is
not a common cause that is actually the cause of A and B). The
mistake being made is that the causal conclusion is being drawn
without adequate justification.
In some cases it will be
evident that the fallacy is being committed. For example, a
person might claim that an illness was caused by a person getting
a fever. In this case, it would be quite clear that the fever was
caused by illness and not the other way around. In other cases,
the fallacy is not always evident. One factor that makes causal
reasoning quite difficult is that it is not always evident what
is the cause and what is the effect. For example, a problem child
might be the cause of the parents being short tempered or the
short temper of the parents might be the cause of the child being
problematic. The difficulty is increased by the fact that some
situations might involve feedback. For example, the parents’
temper might cause the child to become problematic and the
child’s behavior could worsen the parents’ temper. In
such cases it could be rather difficult to sort out what caused
what in the first place.
In order to determine that the
fallacy has been committed, it must be shown that the causal
conclusion has not been adequately supported and that the person
committing the fallacy has confused the actual cause with the
effect. Showing that the fallacy has been committed will
typically involve determining the actual cause and the actual
effect. In some cases, as noted above, this can be quite easy. In
other cases it will be difficult. In some cases, it might be
almost impossible. Another thing that makes causal reasoning
difficult is that people often have very different conceptions of
cause and, in some cases, the issues are clouded by emotions and
ideologies. For example, people often claim violence on TV and in
movies must be censored because it causes people to like
violence. Other people claim that there is violence on TV and in
movies because people like violence. In this case, it is not
obvious what the cause really is and the issue is clouded by the
fact that emotions often run high on this issue.
reasoning can be difficult, many errors can be avoided with due
care and careful testing procedures. This is due to the fact that
the fallacy arises because the conclusion is drawn without due
care. One way to avoid the fallacy is to pay careful attention to
the temporal sequence of events. Since (outside of Star Trek),
effects do not generally precede their causes, if A occurs after
B, then A cannot be the cause of B. However, these methods go
beyond the scope of this program.
All causal fallacies involve
an error in causal reasoning. However, this fallacy differs from
the other causal fallacies in terms of the error in reasoning
being made. In the case of a Post Hoc fallacy, the error is that
a person is accepting that A is the cause of B simply because A
occurs before B. In the case of the Fallacy of Ignoring a Common
Cause A is taken to be the cause of B when there is, in fact, a
third factor that is the cause of both A and B. For more
information, see the relevant entries in this program.
Bill and Joe are having a debate about music
and moral decay:
Bill: ‘”It seems clear to me that
this new music is causing the youth to become corrupt.”
‘What do you mean?”
Bill: “This rap stuff is
always telling the kids to kill cops, do drugs, and abuse women.
That is all bad and the kids today shouldn’t be doing that
sort of stuff. We ought to ban that music!”
you think that getting rid of the rap music would solve the drug,
violence and sexism problems in the US?”
it wouldn’t get rid of it all, but it would take care of a
lot of it.”
Joe: “Don’t you think that most
of the rap singers sing about that sort of stuff because that is
what is really going on these days? I mean, people often sing
about the conditions of their time, just like the people did in
the sixties. But then I suppose that you think that people were
against the war and into drugs just because they listened to
Dylan and Baez.”
“Well, it seems to me that the main cause of the content of
the rap music is the pre-existing social conditions. If there
weren’t all these problems, the rap singers probably
wouldn’t be singing about them. I also think that if the
social conditions were great, kids could listen to the music all
day and not be affected.”
Joe: ‘Well, I still
think the rap music causes the problems. You can’t argue
against the fact that social ills really picked up at the same
time rap music got started.”
It is claimed by some people that severe
illness is caused by depression and anger. After all, people who
are severely ill are very often depressed and angry. Thus, it
follows that the cause of severe illness actually is the
depression and anger. So, a good and cheerful attitude is key to
Bill sets out several plates with bread on
them. After a couple days, he notices that the bread has mold
growing all over it. Bill concludes that the mold was produced by
the bread going bad. When Bill tells his mother about his
experiment, she tells him that the mold was the cause of the
bread going bad and that he better clean up the mess if he wants
to get his allowance this week.
Fallacy of Division
The fallacy of Division
is committed when a person infers that what is true of a whole
must also be true of its constituents and justification for that
inference is not provided. There are two main variants of the
general fallacy of Division:
The first type of fallacy of
Division is committed when 1) a person reasons that what is true
of the whole must also be true of the parts and 2) the person
fails to justify that inference with the required degree of
evidence. More formally, the “reasoning” follows this
sort of pattern:
1. The whole, X, has properties A, B, C, etc.
the parts of X have properties A,B,C, etc.
That this line of reasoning is fallacious is made clear by the
following case: 4 is an even number. 1 and 3 are parts of 4.
Therefore 1 and 3 are even.
It should be noted that it is not
always fallacious to draw a conclusion about the parts of a whole
based on the properties of the whole. As long as adequate
evidence is provided in the argument, the reasoning can be
acceptable. For example, the human body is made out of matter and
it is reasonable to infer from this that the parts that make up
the human body are also made out of matter. This is because there
is no reason to believe that the body is made up of non-material
parts that somehow form matter when they get together.
second version of the fallacy of division is committed when a
person 1) draws a conclusion about the properties of individual
members of a class or group based on the collective properties of
the class or group and 2) there is not enough justification for
the conclusion. More formally, the line of “reasoning”
is as follows:
1. As a collective, group or class X has properties A,B,C,
2. Therefore the individual members of group or class X
have properties A,B,C, etc.
That this sort of reasoning is fallacious can be easily shown
by the following: It is true that athletes, taken as a group, are
football players, track runners, swimmers, tennis players, long
jumpers, pole vaulters and such. But it would be fallacious to
infer that each individual athlete is a football player, a track
runner, a swimmer, a tennis player , a swimmer, etc.
be noted that it is not always fallacious to draw a conclusion
about an individual based on what is true of the class he/she/it
belongs to. If the inference is backed by evidence, then the
reasoning can be fine. For example, it is not fallacious to infer
that Bill the Siamese cat is a mammal from the fact that all cats
are mammals. In this case, what is true of the class is also true
of each individual member.
“The ball is blue, therefore the atoms
that make it up are also blue.”
“A living cell is organic material, so
the chemicals making up the cell must also be organic material.”
“Bill lives in a large building, so his
apartment must be large.”
“Sodium chloride (table salt) may be
safely eaten. Therefore its constituent elements, sodium and
chlorine, may be safely eaten.”
“Americans use much more electricity than
Africans do. So Bill, who lives in primitive cabin in Maine, uses
more electricity than Nelson, who lives in a modern house in
South Africa. “
“Men receive more higher education than
women. Therefore Dr. Jane Smart has less higher education than
Mr. Bill Buffoon. “
“Minorities get paid less than whites in
America. Therefore, the black CEO of a multi-billion dollar
company gets paid less than the white janitor who cleans his
Known as: Black & White Thinking
Dilemma is a fallacy in which a person uses the following pattern
1. Either claim X is true or claim Y is true (when X and Y
could both be false).
2. Claim Y is false.
claim X is true.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because if
both claims could be false, then it cannot be inferred that one
is true because the other is false. That this is the case is made
clear by the following example:
1. Either 1+1 =4 or 1+1=12 .
2. It is not the case that 1+1
3. Therefore 1+1 =12.
In cases in which the two options are, in fact, the only two
options, this line of reasoning is not fallacious. For example:
1. Bill is dead or he is alive.
2. Bill is not dead.
Therefore Bill is alive.
Senator Jill: “We’ll have to cut
education funding this year.”
Senator Jill: “Well, either we cut
the social programs of we live with a huge deficit and we can’t
live with the deficit.”
Bill: “Jill and I both support having
prayer in public schools.”
Jill: “Hey, I never
Bill: “You’re not an atheist are
“Look, you are going to have to make up
your mind. Either you decide that you can afford this stereo, or
you decide you are going to do without music for a while.”
The Gambler’s Fallacy is
committed when a person assumes that a departure from what occurs
on average or in the long term will be corrected in the short
term. The form of the fallacy is as follows:
1. X has happened.
2. X departs from what is expected to
occur on average or over the long term.
3. Therefore, X will
come to an end soon.
There are two common ways this fallacy is committed. In both
cases a person is assuming that some result must be “due”
simply because what has previously happened departs from what
would be expected on average or over the long term.
involves events whose probabilities of occurring are independent
of one another. For example, one toss of a fair (two sides,
non-loaded) coin does not affect the next toss of the coin. So,
each time the coin is tossed there is (ideally) a 50% chance of
it landing heads and a 50% chance of it landing tails. Suppose
that a person tosses a coin 6 times and gets a head each time. If
he concludes that the next toss will be tails because tails “is
due”, then he will have committed the Gambler’s
Fallacy. This is because the results of previous tosses have no
bearing on the outcome of the 7th toss. It has a 50% chance of
being heads and a 50% chance of being tails, just like any other
The second involves cases whose probabilities of
occurring are not independent of one another. For example,
suppose that a boxer has won 50% of his fights over the past two
years. Suppose that after several fights he has won 50% of his
matches this year, that he his lost his last six fights and he
has six left. If a person believed that he would win his next six
fights because he has used up his losses and is “due”
for a victory, then he would have committed the Gambler’s
Fallacy. After all, the person would be ignoring the fact that
the results of one match can influence the results of the next
one. For example, the boxer might have been injured in one match
which would lower his chances of winning his last six fights.
should be noted that not all predictions about what is likely to
occur are fallacious. If a person has good evidence for his
predictions, then they will be reasonable to accept. For example,
if a person tosses a fair coin and gets nine heads in a row it
would be reasonable for him to conclude that he will probably not
get another nine in a row again. This reasoning would not be
fallacious as long as he believed his conclusion because of an
understanding of the laws of probability. In this case, if he
concluded that he would not get another nine heads in a row
because the odds of getting nine heads in a row are lower than
getting fewer than nine heads in a row, then his reasoning would
be good and his conclusion would be justified. Hence, determining
whether or not the Gambler’s Fallacy is being committed
often requires some basic understanding of the laws of
Bill is playing against Doug in a WWII tank
battle game. Doug has had a great “streak of luck”
and has been killing Bill’s tanks left and right with good
die rolls. Bill, who has a few tanks left, decides to risk all in
a desperate attack on Doug. He is a bit worried that Doug might
wipe him out, but he thinks that since Doug’s luck at
rolling has been great Doug must be due for some bad dice rolls.
Bill launches his attack and Doug butchers his forces.
Jane and Bill are talking:
Jane: “I’ll be able to buy that car I always
Bill: “Why, did you get a
Jane: “No. But you know how I’ve
been playing the lottery all these years?”
you buy a ticket for every drawing, without fail.”
“And I’ve lost every time.”
why do you think you will win this time?”
after all those losses I’m due for a win.”
Joe and Sam are at the race track betting on
Joe: “You see that horse over there? He lost his last
four races. I’m going to bet on him.”
I think he will probably lose.”
Joe: “No way, Sam.
I looked up the horse’s stats and he has won half his races
in the past two years. Since he has lost three of his last four
races, he’ll have to win this race. So I’m betting
the farm on him.”
Sam: “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. That pony is due, man…he’s
A Genetic Fallacy is a line of
“reasoning” in which a perceived defect in the origin
of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence that discredits the
claim or thing itself. It is also a line of reasoning in which
the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence for the
claim or thing. This sort of “reasoning” has the
1. The origin of a claim or thing is presented.
claim is true(or false) or the thing is supported (or
It is clear that sort of “reasoning” is
fallacious. For example: “Bill claims that 1+1=2. However,
my parents brought me up to believe that 1+1=254, so Bill must be
It should be noted that there are some cases in
which the origin of a claim is relevant to the truth or falsity
of the claim. For example, a claim that comes from a reliable
expert is likely to be true (provided it is in her area of
“Yeah, the environmentalists do claim
that over-development can lead to all kinds of serious problems.
But we all know about those darn bunny huggers and their silly
“I was brought up to believe in God, and
my parents told me God exists, so He must.”
“Sure, the media claims that Senator
Bedfellow was taking kickbacks. But we all know about the media’s
credibility, don’t we.”
Also Known as: Bad Company Fallacy, Company
that You Keep Fallacy
Guilt by Association is
a fallacy in which a person rejects a claim simply because it is
pointed out that people she dislikes accept the claim. This sort
of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. It is pointed out that person A accepts claim P.
Therefore P is false
It is clear that sort of “reasoning” is
fallacious. For example the following is obviously a case of poor
“reasoning”: “You think that 1+1=2. But, Adolf
Hitler, Charles Manson, Joseph Stalin, and Ted Bundy all believed
that 1+1=2. So, you shouldn’t believe it.”
fallacy draws its power from the fact that people do not like to
be associated with people they dislike. Hence, if it is shown
that a person shares a belief with people he dislikes he might be
influenced into rejecting that belief. In such cases the person
will be rejecting the claim based on how he thinks or feels about
the people who hold it and because he does not want to be
associated with such people.
Of course, the fact that someone
does not want to be associated with people she dislikes does not
justify the rejection of any claim. For example, most wicked and
terrible people accept that the earth revolves around the sun and
that lead is heavier than helium. No sane person would reject
these claims simply because this would put them in the company of
people they dislike (or even hate).
Will and Kiteena are arguing over socialism.
Kiteena is a pacifist and hates violence and violent people.
Kiteena: “I think that the United States should continue
to adopt socialist programs. For example, I think that the
government should take control of vital industries.”
“So, you are for state ownership of industry.”
“Certainly. It is a great idea and will help make the world
a less violent place.”
Will: “Well, you know
Stalin also endorsed state ownership on industry. At last count
he wiped out millions of his own people. Pol Pot of Cambodia was
also for state ownership of industry. He also killed millions of
his own people. The leadership of China is for state owned
industry. They killed their own people in that square. So, are
you still for state ownership of industry?”
“Oh, no! I don’t want to be associated with those
Jen and Sandy are discussing the topic of
welfare. Jen is fairly conservative politically but she has been
an active opponent of racism. Sandy is extremely liberal
Jen: “I was reading over some private studies of welfare
and I think it would be better to have people work for their
welfare. For example, people could pick up trash, put up signs,
and maybe even do skilled labor that they are qualified for. This
would probably make people feel better about themselves and it
would get more out of our tax money.”
see. So, you want to have the poor people out on the streets
picking up trash for their checks? Well, you know that is exactly
the position David Count endorses.”
Jen: “Who is
Sandy: “I’m surprised you don’t
know him, seeing how alike you two are. He was a Grand Mooky
Wizard for the Aryan Pure White League and is well known for his
hatred of blacks and other minorities. With your views, you’d
fit right in to his little racist club.”
I should reject my view just because I share it with some
Sandy: “Of course.”
Libard and Ferris are discussing who they are
going to vote for as the next department chair in the philosophy
department. Libard is a radical feminist and she despises Wayne
and Bill, who are two sexist professors in the department.
Ferris: “So, who are you going to vote for?”
‘Well, I was thinking about voting for Jane, since she is a
woman and there has never been a woman chair here. But, I think
that Steve will do an excellent job. He has a lot of clout in the
university and he is a decent person.”
know, Wayne and Bill are supporting him. They really like the
idea of having Steve as the new chair. I never thought I’d
see you and those two pigs on the same side.”
“Well, maybe it is time that we have a woman as chair.”
Also Known as: Fallacy of Insufficient Statistics, Fallacy of
Insufficient Sample, Leaping to A Conclusion, Hasty Induction
This fallacy is committed when a person draws
a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not
large enough. It has the following form:
1. Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population
2. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following
type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive
Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
1. X% of all observed A’s are B’s.
X% of all A’s are B’s.
The fallacy is committed when not enough A’s are
observed to warrant the conclusion. If enough A’s are
observed then the reasoning is not fallacious.
will tend to be unrepresentative. As a blatant case, asking one
person what she thinks about gun control would clearly not
provide an adequate sized sample for determining what Canadians
in general think about the issue. The general idea is that small
samples are less likely to contain numbers proportional to the
whole population. For example, if a bucket contains blue, red,
green and orange marbles, then a sample of three marbles cannot
possible be representative of the whole population of marbles. As
the sample size of marbles increases the more likely it becomes
that marbles of each color will be selected in proportion to
their numbers in the whole population. The same holds true for
things others than marbles, such as people and their political
Since Hasty Generalization is committed when the sample
(the observed instances) is too small, it is important to have
samples that are large enough when making a generalization. The
most reliable way to do this is to take as large a sample as is
practical. There are no fixed numbers as to what counts as being
large enough. If the population in question is not very diverse
(a population of cloned mice, for example) then a very small
sample would suffice. If the population is very diverse (people,
for example) then a fairly large sample would be needed. The size
of the sample also depends on the size of the population.
Obviously, a very small population will not support a huge
sample. Finally, the required size will depend on the purpose of
the sample. If Bill wants to know what Joe and Jane think about
gun control, then a sample consisting of Bill and Jane would
(obviously) be large enough. If Bill wants to know what most
Australians think about gun control, then a sample consisting of
Bill and Jane would be far too small.
People often commit
Hasty Generalizations because of bias or prejudice. For example,
someone who is a sexist might conclude that all women are unfit
to fly jet fighters because one woman crashed one. People also
commonly commit Hasty Generalizations because of laziness or
sloppiness. It is very easy to simply leap to a conclusion and
much harder to gather an adequate sample and draw a justified
conclusion. Thus, avoiding this fallacy requires minimizing the
influence of bias and taking care to select a sample that is
One final point: a Hasty Generalization, like
any fallacy, might have a true conclusion. However, as long as
the reasoning is fallacious there is no reason to accept the
conclusion based on that reasoning.
Smith, who is from England, decides to attend
graduate school at Ohio State University. He has never been to
the US before. The day after he arrives, he is walking back from
an orientation session and sees two white (albino) squirrels
chasing each other around a tree. In his next letter home, he
tells his family that American squirrels are white.
Sam is riding her bike in her home town in
Maine, minding her own business. A station wagon comes up behind
her and the driver starts beeping his horn and then tries to
force her off the road. As he goes by, the driver yells “get
on the sidewalk where you belong!” Sam sees that the car
has Ohio plates and concludes that all Ohio drivers are jerks.
Bill: “You know, those feminists all hate
Bill: “Yeah. I
was in my philosophy class the other day and that Rachel chick
gave a presentation.”
Joe: “Which Rachel?”
“You know her. She’s the one that runs that feminist
group over at the Women’s Center. She said that men are all
sexist pigs. I asked her why she believed this and she said that
her last few boyfriends were real sexist pigs.”
“That doesn’t sound like a good reason to believe
that all of us are pigs.”
Bill: “That was what I
Joe: “What did she say?”
“She said that she had seen enough of men to know we are
all pigs. She obviously hates all men.”
you think all feminists are like her?”
They all hate men.”
Ignoring a Common
Also Known as: Questionable
This fallacy has the following general
1) A and B are regularly connected (but no third, common cause
is looked for).
2) Therefore A is the cause of B.
This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that one thing
causes another simply because they are regularly associated. More
formally, this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A
is the cause of B simply because A and B are regularly connected.
Further, the causal conclusion is drawn without considering the
possibility that a third factor might be the cause of both A and
In many cases, the fallacy is quite evident. For example,
if a person claimed that a person’s sneezing was caused by
her watery eyes and he simply ignored the fact that the woman was
standing in a hay field, he would have fallen prey to the fallacy
of ignoring a common cause. In this case, it would be reasonable
to conclude that the woman’s sneezing and watering eyes was
caused by an allergic reaction of some kind. In other cases, it
is not as evident that the fallacy is being committed. For
example, a doctor might find a large amount of bacteria in one of
her patients and conclude that the bacteria are the cause of the
patient’s illness. However, it might turn out that the
bacteria are actually harmless and that a virus is weakening the
person, Thus, the viruses would be the actual cause of the
illness and growth of the bacteria (the viruses would weaken the
ability of the person’s body to resist the growth of the
As noted in the discussion of other causal
fallacies, causality is a rather difficult matter. However, it is
possible to avoid this fallacy by taking due care. In the case of
Ignoring a Common Cause, the key to avoiding this fallacy is to
be careful to check for other factors that might be the actual
cause of both the suspected cause and the suspected effect. If a
person fails to check for the possibility of a common cause, then
they will commit this fallacy. Thus, it is always a good idea to
always ask “could there be a third factor that is actually
causing both A and B?”
One day Bill wakes up with a fever. A few hours
later he finds that his muscles are sore. He concludes that the
fever must have caused the soreness. His friend insists that the
soreness and the fever are caused by some microbe. Bill laughs at
this and insists that if he spends the day in a tub of cold water
his soreness will go away.
Over the course of several weeks the leaves
from the trees along the Wombat river fell into the water.
Shortly thereafter, many dead fish were seen floating in the
river. When the EPA investigated, the owners of the Wombat River
Chemical Company claimed that is it was obvious that the leaves
had killed the fish. Many local environmentalists claimed that
the chemical plant’s toxic wastes caused both the trees and
the fish to die and that the leaves had no real effect on the
A thunderstorm wakes Joe up in the middle of
the night. He goes downstairs to get some milk to help him get
back to sleep. On the way to the refrigerator, he notices that
the barometer has fallen a great deal. Joe concludes that the
storm caused the barometer to fall. In the morning he tells his
wife about his conclusion. She tells him that it was a drop in
atmospheric pressure that caused the barometer to drop and the
Known as: Golden Mean Fallacy, Fallacy of
This fallacy is committed when it
is assumed that the middle position between two extremes must be
correct simply because it is the middle position. this sort of
“reasoning” has the following form:
1. Position A and B are two extreme positions.
2. C is a
position that rests in the middle between A and B.
Therefore C is the correct position.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because it
does not follow that a position is correct just because it lies
in the middle of two extremes. This is shown by the following
example. Suppose that a person is selling his computer. He wants
to sell it for the current market value, which is $800 and
someone offers him $1 for it. It would hardly follow that $400.50
is the proper price.
This fallacy draws its power from the
fact that a moderate or middle position is often the correct one.
For example, a moderate amount of exercise is better than too
much exercise or too little exercise. However, this is not simply
because it lies in the middle ground between two extremes. It is
because too much exercise is harmful and too little exercise is
all but useless. The basic idea behind many cases in which
moderation is correct is that the extremes are typically “too
much” and “not enough” and the middle position
is “enough.” In such cases the middle position is
correct almost by definition.
It should be kept in mind that
while uncritically assuming that the middle position must be
correct because it is the middle position is poor reasoning it
does not follow that accepting a middle position is always
fallacious. As was just mentioned, many times a moderate position
is correct. However, the claim that the moderate or middle
position is correct must be supported by legitimate reasoning.
Some people claim that God is all powerful, all
knowing, and all good. Other people claim that God does not exist
at all. Now, it seems reasonable to accept a position somewhere
in the middle. So, it is likely that God exists, but that he is
only very powerful, very knowing, and very good. That seems right
Congressman Jones has proposed cutting welfare
payments by 50% while Congresswoman Shender has proposed
increasing welfare payments by 10% to keep up with inflation and
cost of living increases. I think that the best proposal is the
one made by Congressman Trumple. He says that a 30% decrease in
welfare payments is a good middle ground, so I think that is what
we should support.
A month ago, a tree in Bill’s yard was
damaged in a storm. His neighbor, Joe, asked him to have the tree
cut down so it would not fall on Joe’s new shed. Bill
refused to do this. Two days later another storm blew the tree
onto Joe’s new shed. Joe demanded that Joe pay the cost of
repairs, which was $250. Bill said that he wasn’t going to
pay a cent. Obviously, the best solution is to reach a compromise
between the two extremes, so Bill should pay Joe $125.
Misleading Vividness is a
fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic
events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical
evidence. This sort of “reasoning” has the following
1. Dramatic or vivid event X occurs (and is not in accord with
the majority of the statistical evidence) .
events of type X are likely to occur.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the
mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does
not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face
of significant statistical evidence.
People often accept this
sort of “reasoning” because particularly vivid or
dramatic cases tend to make a very strong impression on the human
mind. For example, if a person survives a particularly awful
plane crash, he might be inclined to believe that air travel is
more dangerous than other forms of travel. After all, explosions
and people dying around him will have a more significant impact
on his mind than will the rather dull statistics that a person is
more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a plane
It should be kept in mind that taking into account the
possibility of something dramatic or vivid occurring is not
always fallacious. For example, a person might decide to never go
sky diving because the effects of an accident can be very, very
dramatic. If he knows that, statistically, the chances of the
accident are happening are very low but he considers even a small
risk to be unacceptable, then he would not be making an error in
Bill and Jane are talking about buying a
Jane: “I’ve been thinking about getting a
computer. I’m really tired of having to wait in the library
to write my papers.”
Bill: ‘What sort of computer
do you want to get?”
Jane: “Well, it has to be
easy to use, have a low price and have decent processing power.
I’ve been thinking about getting a Kiwi Fruit 2200. I read
in that consumer magazine that they have been found to be very
reliable in six independent industry studies.”
wouldn’t get the Kiwi Fruit. A friend of mine bought one a
month ago to finish his master’s thesis. He was halfway
through it when smoke started pouring out of the CPU. He didn’t
get his thesis done on time and he lost his financial aid. Now
he’s working over at the Gut Boy Burger Warehouse.”
“I guess I won’t go with the Kiwi!”
Joe and Drew are talking about flying.
Joe: “When I was flying back to school, the pilot came
on the intercom and told us that the plane was having engine
trouble. I looked out the window and I saw smoke billowing out of
the engine nearest me. We had to make an emergency landing and
there were fire trucks everywhere. I had to spend the next six
hours sitting in the airport waiting for a flight. I was lucky I
didn’t die! I’m never flying again.”
“So how are you going to get home over Christmas
Joe: “I’m going to drive. That will
be a lot safer than flying.”
Drew: “I don’t
think so. You are much more likely to get injured or killed
driving than flying.”
Joe: “I don’t buy
that! You should have seen the smoke pouring out of that engine!
I’m never getting on one of those death traps again!”
Jane and Sarah are talking about running in a
Jane: “Did you hear about that woman who was attacked in
Sarah: “Yes. It was terrible.”
“Don’t you run there every day?”
Jane: ‘How can you do that? I’d
never be able to run there!”
Sarah: “Well, as
callous as this might sound, that attack was out of the ordinary.
I’ve been running there for three years and this has been
the only attack. Sure, I worry about being attacked, but I’m
not going give up my running just because there is some slight
chance I’ll be attacked.”
Sarah: “That is
stupid! I’d stay away from that park if I was you! That
woman was really beat up badly so you know it is going to happen
again. If you don’t stay out of that park, it will probably
happen to you!”
Peer Pressure is a fallacy in
which a threat of rejection by one’s peers (or peer
pressure) is substituted for evidence in an “argument.”
This line of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Person P is pressured by his/her peers or threatened with
2. Therefore person P’s claim X is false.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because
peer pressure and threat of rejection do not constitute evidence
for rejecting a claim. This is especially clear in the following
Joe: “Bill, I know you think that 1+1=2. But we don’t
accept that sort of thing in our group.”
was just joking. Of course I don’t believe that.”
It is clear that the pressure from Bill’s group has no
bearing on the truth of the claim that 1+1=2.
It should be noted that loyalty to a group and the need to
belong can give people very strong reasons to conform to the
views and positions of those groups. Further, from a practical
standpoint we must often compromise our beliefs in order to
belong to groups. However, this feeling of loyalty or the need to
belong simply do not constitute evidence for a claim.
Bill says that he likes the idea that people
should work for their welfare when they can. His friends laugh at
him, accuse him of fascist leanings, and threaten to ostracize
him from their group. He decides to recant and abandon his
position to avoid rejection.
Bill: “I like classical music and I think
it is of higher quality than most modern music.”
“That stuff is for old people.”
only real sissy monkeys listen to that crap. Besides, Anthrax
rules! It Rules!”
Bill: “Well, I don’t
really like it that much. Anthrax is much better.”
Bill thinks that welfare is needed in some
cases. His friends in the Young Republicans taunt him every time
he makes his views known. He accepts their views in order to
Known as: Ad Hominem Abusive
A personal attack
is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for
evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims.
This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the
attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the
claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the
person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an
individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.
all ad Hominems are fallacious. In some cases, an individual’s
characteristics can have a bearing on the question of the
veracity of her claims. For example, if someone is shown to be a
pathological liar, then what he says can be considered to be
unreliable. However, such attacks are weak, since even
pathological liars might speak the truth on occasion.
general, it is best to focus one’s attention on the content
of the claim and not on who made the claim. It is the content
that determines the truth of the claim and not the
characteristics of the person making the claim.
In a school debate, Bill claims that the
President’s economic plan is unrealistic. His opponent, a
professor, retorts by saying “the freshman has his facts
“This theory about a potential cure for
cancer has been introduced by a doctor who is a known lesbian
feminist. I don’t see why we should extend an invitation
for her to speak at the World Conference on Cancer.”
“Bill says that we should give tax breaks
to companies. But he is untrustworthy, so it must be wrong to do
“That claim cannot be true. Dave believes
it, and we know how morally repulsive he is.”
“Bill claims that Jane would be a good
treasurer. However I find Bill’s behavior offensive, so I’m
not going to vote for Jill.”
“Jane says that drug use is morally wrong,
but she is just a goody-two shoes Christian, so we don’t
have to listen to her.”
Bill: “I don’t think it is a good
idea to cut social programs.”
Bill: “Well, many people do not get a fair
start in life and hence need some help. After all, some people
have wealthy parents and have it fairly easy. Others are born
into poverty and…”
Jill: “You just say that
stuff because you have a soft heart and an equally soft head.”
This sort of “reasoning”
involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by
presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about
the person. This “argument” has the following form:
1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person
A is presented.
2. Therefore any claims person A makes will be
This sort of “reasoning” is obviously
fallacious.The person making such an attack is hoping that the
unfavorable information will bias listeners against the person in
question and hence that they will reject any claims he might
make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a
person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the
claims he/she might make. This is especially clear when Poisoning
the Well is looked at as a form of ad Hominem in which the attack
is made prior to the person even making the claim or claims. The
following example clearly shows that this sort of “reasoning”
is quite poor.
“Don’t listen to him, he’s a
“Before turning the floor over to my
opponent, I ask you to remember that those who oppose my plans do
not have the best wishes of the university at heart.”
You are told, prior to meeting him, that your
friend’s boyfriend is a decadent wastrel. When you meet
him, everything you hear him say is tainted.
Bill: “Boy, that professor
is a real jerk. I think he is some sort of Eurocentric
Prof. Jones: “…and so we see that there
was never any ‘Golden Age of Matriarchy’ in 1895 in
Bill: “See what I
Jill: “Yeah. There must have been a Golden
Age of Matriarchy, since that jerk said there wasn’t.”
Known as: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, False Cause, Questionable
Cause, Confusing Coincidental Relationships With
A Post Hoc is a fallacy with the
1) A occurs before B.
2) Therefore A is the cause of B.
The Post Hoc fallacy derives its name from the Latin phrase
“Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” This has been
traditionally interpreted as “After this, therefore because
of this.” This fallacy is committed when it is concluded
that one event causes another simply because the proposed cause
occurred before the proposed effect. More formally, the fallacy
involves concluding that A causes or caused B because A occurs
before B and there is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant
such a claim.
It is evident in many cases that the mere fact
that A occurs before B in no way indicates a causal relationship.
For example, suppose Jill, who is in London, sneezed at the exact
same time an earthquake started in California. It would clearly
be irrational to arrest Jill for starting a natural disaster,
since there is no reason to suspect any causal connection between
the two events. While such cases are quite obvious, the Post Hoc
fallacy is fairly common because there are cases in which there
might be some connection between the events. For example, a
person who has her computer crash after she installs a new piece
of software would probably suspect that the software was to
blame. If she simply concluded that the software caused the crash
because it was installed before the crash she would be committing
the Post Hoc fallacy. In such cases the fallacy would be
committed because the evidence provided fails to justify
acceptance of the causal claim. It is even theoretically possible
for the fallacy to be committed when A really does cause B,
provided that the “evidence” given consists only of
the claim that A occurred before B. The key to the Post Hoc
fallacy is not that there is no causal connection between A and
B. It is that adequate evidence has not been provided for a claim
that A causes B. Thus, Post Hoc resembles a Hasty Generalization
in that it involves making a leap to an unwarranted conclusion.
In the case of the Post Hoc fallacy, that leap is to a causal
claim instead of a general proposition.
Not surprisingly, many
superstitions are probably based on Post Hoc reasoning. For
example, suppose a person buys a good luck charm, does well on
his exam, and then concludes that the good luck charm caused him
to do well. This person would have fallen victim to the Post Hoc
fallacy. This is not to say that all “superstitions”
have no basis at all. For example, some “folk cures”
have actually been found to work.
Post Hoc fallacies are
typically committed because people are simply not careful enough
when they reason. Leaping to a causal conclusion is always easier
and faster than actually investigating the phenomenon. However,
such leaps tend to land far from the truth of the matter. Because
Post Hoc fallacies are committed by drawing an unjustified causal
conclusion, the key to avoiding them is careful investigation.
While it is true that causes precede effects (outside of Star
Trek, anyway), it is not true that precedence makes something a
cause of something else. Because of this, a causal investigation
should begin with finding what occurs before the effect in
question, but it should not end there.
I had been doing pretty poorly this season.
Then my girlfriend gave me this neon laces for my spikes and I
won my next three races. Those laces must be good luck…if
I keep on wearing them I can’t help but win!
Bill purchases a new PowerMac and it works fine
for months. He then buys and installs a new piece of software.
The next time he starts up his Mac, it freezes. Bill concludes
that the software must be the cause of the freeze.
Joan is scratched by a cat while visiting her
friend. Two days later she comes down with a fever. Joan
concludes that the cat’s scratch must be the cause of her
The Republicans pass a new tax reform law that
benefits wealthy Americans. Shortly thereafter the economy takes
a nose dive. The Democrats claim that the tax reform caused the
economic woes and they push to get rid of it.
The picture on Jim’s old TV set goes out
of focus. Jim goes over and strikes the TV soundly on the side
and the picture goes back into focus. Jim tells his friend that
hitting the TV fixed it.
Jane gets a rather large wart on her finger.
Based on a story her father told her, she cuts a potato in half,
rubs it on the wart and then buries it under the light of a full
moon. Over the next month her wart shrinks and eventually
vanishes. Jane writes her father to tell him how right he was
about the cure.
This fallacy has the following
1) A and B are associated on a regular basis.
A is the cause of B.
The general idea behind this fallacy is that it is an error in
reasoning to conclude that one thing causes another simply
because the two are associated on a regular basis. More formally,
this fallacy is committed when it is concluded that A is the
cause of B simply because they are associated on a regular basis.
The error being made is that a causal conclusion is being drawn
from inadequate evidence.
The Questionable Cause Fallacy is
actually a general type of fallacy. Any causal fallacy that
involves an error in a reasoning due to a failure to adequately
investigate the suspected cause is a fallacy of this type. Thus,
fallacies like Post Hoc and Confusing Cause and Effect are
specific examples of the general Questionable Cause
Causal reasoning can be quite difficult since
causation is a rather complex philosophic issue. The complexity
of causation is briefly discussed in the context of the specific
versions of this fallacy.
The key to avoiding the Questionable
Cause fallacy is to take due care in drawing causal conclusions.
This requires taking steps to adequately investigate the
phenomena in question as well using the proper methods of careful
Joe gets a chain letter that threatens him with
dire consequences if he breaks the chain. He laughs at it and
throws it in the garbage. On his way to work he slips and breaks
his leg. When he gets back from the hospital he sends out 200
copies of the chain letter, hoping to avoid further accidents.
When investigating a small pond a group of
graduate students found that there was a severe drop in the fish
population. Further investigation revealed that the fishes’
food supply had also been severely reduced. At first the students
believed that the lack of food was killing the fish, but then
they realized they had to find what was causing the decline in
the food supply. The students suspected acid rain was the cause
of both the reduction in the fish population as well as the food
supply. However, the local business council insisted that it was
just the lack of food that caused the reduction in the fish
population. Most of the townspeople agreed with this conclusion
since it seemed pretty obvious that a lack of food would cause
fish to die.
Known as: Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase
A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an
irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from
the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an
argument by leading attention away from the argument and to
another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the
1. Topic A is under discussion.
2. Topic B is introduced
under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is
actually not relevant to topic A).
3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because
merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an
argument against a claim.
“Argument” against a bond measure:
“We admit that this measure is popular. But we also urge
you to note that there are so many bond issues on this ballot
that the whole thing is getting ridiculous.”
“Argument” for a tax cut:
“You know, I’ve begun to think that there is some
merit in the Republicans’ tax cut plan. I suggest that you
come up with something like it, because If we Democrats are going
to survive as a party, we have got to show that we are as
tough-minded as the Republicans, since that is what the public
“Argument” for making grad school
“I think there is great merit in
making the requirements stricter for the graduate students. I
recommend that you support it, too. After all, we are in a budget
crisis and we do not want our salaries affected.”
Known as: The Subjectivist Fallacy
Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person rejects a claim by
asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for
him/her. This sort of “reasoning” has the following
1. Claim X is presented.
2. Person A asserts that X may be
true for others but is not true for him/her.
3. Therefore A is
justified in rejecting X.
In this context, relativism is the view that truth is relative
to Z (a person, time, culture, place, etc.). This is not the view
that claims will be true at different times or of different
people, but the view that a claim could be true for one person
and false for another at the same time.
In many cases, when
people say “that X is true for me” what they really
mean is “I believe X” or “X is true about me.”
It is important to be quite clear about the distinction between
being true about a person and being true for a person. A claim is
true about a person if the claim is a statement that describes
the person correctly. For example, “Bill has blue eyes”
is true of Bill if Bill has blue eyes. To make a claim such as “
X is true for Bill” is to say that the claim is true for
Bill and that it need not be true for others. For example:
“1+1=23 is true for Bill” would mean that, for Bill,
1+1 actually does equal 23, not that he merely believes that
1+1=23 (that would be “It is true of Bill that he believes
1+1=23”). Another example would be “The claim that
the earth is flat is true for Bill” would mean that the
earth really is flat for Bill (in other words, Bill would be in a
different world than the rest of the human race). Since these
situations (1+1 being 23 and the earth being flat for Bill ) are
extremely strange, it certainly seems that truth is not relative
to individuals (although beliefs are).
As long as truth is
objective (that is, not relative to individuals), then the
Relativist Fallacy is a fallacy. If there are cases in which
truth is actually relative, then such reasoning need not be
Jill: “Look at this, Bill. I read that
people who do not get enough exercise tend to be
Bill: “That may be true for you, but
it is not true for me.”
Jill: “I think that so called argument
you used to defend your position is terrible. After all, a
fallacy hardly counts as an argument. “
may be true for you, but it is not true for me.”
Bill: “Your position results in a
contradiction, so I can’t accept it.”
“Contradictions may be bad in your Eurocentric, oppressive,
logical world view, but I don’t think they are bad.
Therefore my position is just fine.”
Known as: The Camel’s Nose
Slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must
inevitably follow from another without any argument for the
inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are
a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in
question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps
or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument”
has the following form:
1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because
there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably
follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is
especially clear in cases in which there are a significant number
of steps or gradations between one event and another.
We have to stop the tuition increase! The next
thing you know, they’ll be charging $40,000 a semester!”
“Europe shouldn’t get involved
militarily in other countries. Once the governments send in a few
troops, then they will send in thousands to die.”
“You can never give anyone a break. If
you do, they’ll walk all over you.”
“We’ve got to stop them from
banning pornographic web sites. Once they start banning that,
they will never stop. Next thing you know, they will be burning
all the books!”
Special Pleading is a fallacy
in which a person applies standards, principles, rules, etc. to
others while taking herself (or those she has a special interest
in) to be exempt, without providing adequate justification for
the exemption. This sort of “reasoning” has the
1. Person A accepts standard(s) S and applies them to others
in circumstance(s) C.
2. Person A is in circumstance(s) C.
Therefore A is exempt from S.
The person committing Special Pleading is claiming that he is
exempt from certain principles or standards yet he provides no
good reason for his exemption. That this sort of reasoning is
fallacious is shown by the following extreme example:
1. Barbara accepts that all murderers should be punished for
2. Although she murdered Bill, Barbara claims
she is an exception because she really would not like going to
3. Therefore, the standard of punishing murderers
should not be applied to her.
This is obviously a blatant case of special pleading. Since no
one likes going to prison, this cannot justify the claim that
Barbara alone should be exempt from punishment.
The Principle of
From a philosophic standpoint, the
fallacy of Special Pleading is violating a well accepted
principle, namely the Principle of Relevant Difference. According
to this principle, two people can be treated differently if and
only if there is a relevant difference between them. This
principle is a reasonable one. After all, it would not be
particularly rational to treat two people differently when there
is no relevant difference between them. As an extreme case, it
would be very odd for a parent to insist on making one child wear
size 5 shoes and the other wear size 7 shoes when the children
are both size 5.
It should be noted that the Principle of
Relevant Difference does allow people to be treated differently.
For example, if one employee was a slacker and the other was a
very productive worker the boss would be justified in giving only
the productive worker a raise. This is because the productivity
of each is a relevant difference between them. Since it can be
reasonable to treat people differently, there will be cases in
which some people will be exempt from the usual standards. For
example, if it is Bill’s turn to cook dinner and Bill is
very ill, it would not be a case of Special Pleading if Bill
asked to be excused from making dinner (this, of course, assumes
that Bill does not accept a standard that requires people to cook
dinner regardless of the circumstances). In this case Bill is
offering a good reason as to why he should be exempt and, most
importantly, it would be a good reason for anyone who was ill and
not just Bill.
While determining what counts as a legitimate
basis for exemption can be a difficult task, it seems clear that
claiming you are exempt because you are you does not provide such
a legitimate basis. Thus, unless a clear and relevant
justification for exemption can be presented, a person cannot
claim to be exempt.
There are cases which are similar to
instances of Special Pleading in which a person is offering at
least some reason why he should be exempt but the reason is not
good enough to warrant the exemption. This could be called
“Failed Pleading.” For example, a professor may claim
to be exempt from helping the rest of the faculty move books to
the new department office because it would be beneath his
dignity. However, this is not a particularly good reason and
would hardly justify his exemption. If it turns out that the real
“reason” a person is claiming exemption is that they
simply take themselves to be exempt, then they would be
committing Special Pleading. Such cases will be fairly common.
After all, it is fairly rare for adults to simply claim they are
exempt without at least some pretense of justifying the
Bill and Jill are married. Both Bill and Jill
have put in a full day at the office. Their dog, Rover, has
knocked over all the plants in one room and has strewn the dirt
all over the carpet. When they return, Bill tells Jill that it is
her job to clean up after the dog. When she protests, he says
that he has put in a full day at the office and is too tired to
clean up after the dog.
Jane and Sue share a dorm room.
Jane: “Turn of that stupid stereo, I want to take a
Sue: ‘Why should I? What are you exhausted
Jane: “No, I just feel like taking
Sue: “Well, I feel like playing my
Jane: “Well, I’m taking my nap. You
have to turn your stereo off and that’s final.”
Mike and Barbara share an apartment.
Mike: “Barbara, you’ve tracked in mud
Barbara: “So? It’s not my
Mike: “Sure. I suppose it walked in on its
own. You made the mess, so you clean it up.”
Mike: “We agreed that whoever makes a
mess has to clean it up. That is fair.”
I’m going to watch TV. If you don’t like the mud,
then you clean it up.”
“What? I want to watch the show. I don’t want to
clean up the mud. Like I said, if it bothers you that much, then
you should clean it up.”
Spotlight fallacy is committed when a person uncritically assumes
that all members or cases of a certain class or type are like
those that receive the most attention or coverage in the media.
This line of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Xs with quality Q receive a great deal of attention or
coverage in the media.
2. Therefore all Xs have quality Q.
This line of reasoning is fallacious since the mere fact that
someone or something attracts the most attention or coverage in
the media does not mean that it automatically represents the
whole population. For example, suppose a mass murderer from Old
Town, Maine received a great deal of attention in the media. It
would hardly follow that everyone from the town is a mass
The Spotlight fallacy derives its name from the fact
that receiving a great deal of attention or coverage is often
referred to as being in the spotlight. It is similar to Hasty
Generalization, Biased Sample and Misleading Vividness because
the error being made involves generalizing about a population
based on an inadequate or flawed sample.
The Spotlight Fallacy
is a very common fallacy. This fallacy most often occurs when
people assume that those who receive the most media attention
actually represent the groups they belong to. For example, some
people began to believe that all those who oppose abortion are
willing to gun down doctors in cold blood simply because those
incidents received a great deal of media attention. Since the
media typically covers people or events that are unusual or
exceptional, it is somewhat odd for people to believe that such
people or events are representative.
For brief discussions of
adequate samples and generalizations, see the entries for Hasty
Generalization and Biased Sample.
Bill: “Jane, you say you are a feminist,
but you can’t be.”
Jane: “What! What do you
mean? Is this one of your stupid jokes or something?”
“No, I’m serious. Over the summer I saw feminists
appear on several talk shows and news shows and I read about them
in the papers. The women were really bitter and said that women
were victims of men and needed to be given special compensation.
You are always talking about equal rights and forging your own
place in the world. So, you can’t be a feminist.”
“Bill, there are many types of feminism, not just the
brands that get media attention.”
Joe: “Man, I’d never want to go to
New York. It is all concrete and pollution.”
all of it.”
Joe: “Sure it is. Every time I watch
the news they are always showing concrete, skyscrapers, and lots
Sam: “Sure, that is what the news
shows, but a lot of New York is farmlands and forest. It is not
all New York City, it just receives most of the attention.”
Ann: “I’m not letting little Jimmy
use his online account anymore!”
Sasha: “Why not?
Did he hack into the Pentagon and try to start world war
Ann: “No. Haven’t you been watching
the news and reading the papers? There are perverts online just
waiting to molest kids! You should take away your daughter’s
account. Why, there must be thousands of sickos out
Sasha: “Really? I thought that there were
only a very few cases.”
Ann: “I’m not sure
of the exact number, but if the media is covering it so much ,
then most people who are online must be indecent.”
The Straw Man fallacy is committed
when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and
substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of
that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the
1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y
(which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because
attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not
constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well
expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the
Prof. Jones: “The university just cut our
yearly budget by $10,000.”
Prof. Smith: “What are
we going to do?”
Prof. Brown: “I think we should
eliminate one of the teaching assistant positions. That would
take care of it.”
Prof. Jones: “We could reduce
our scheduled raises instead.”
Prof. Brown:” I
can’t understand why you want to bleed us dry like that,
“Senator Jones says that we should not
fund the attack submarine program. I disagree entirely. I can’t
understand why he wants to leave us defenseless like
Bill and Jill are arguing about cleaning out
Jill: “We should clean out the closets.
They are getting a bit messy.”
Bill: “Why, we just
went through those closets last year. Do we have to clean them
out every day?”
Jill: I never said anything about
cleaning them out every day. You just want too keep all your junk
forever, which is just ridiculous.”
Two Wrongs Make a
Two Wrongs Make a Right is a
fallacy in which a person “justifies” an action
against a person by asserting that the person would do the same
thing to him/her, when the action is not necessary to prevent B
from doing X to A. This fallacy has the following pattern of
1. It is claimed that person B would do X to person A.
It is acceptable for person A to do X to person B (when A’s
doing X to B is not necessary to prevent B from doing X to A).
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because an
action that is wrong is wrong even if another person would also
It should be noted that it can be the case that it is
not wrong for A to do X to B if X is done to prevent B from doing
X to A or if X is done in justified retribution. For example, if
Sally is running in the park and Biff tries to attack her, Sally
would be justified in attacking Biff to defend herself. As
another example, if country A is planning to invade country B in
order to enslave the people, then country B would be justified in
launching a preemptive strike to prevent the invasion.
Bill has borrowed Jane’s expensive pen,
but found he didn’t return it. He tells himself that it is
okay to keep it, since she would have taken his.
Jane: “Did you hear about those
terrorists killing those poor people? That sort of killing is
Sue: “Those terrorists are justified.
After all, their land was taken from them. It is morally right
for them to do what they do.”
Jane: “Even when
they blow up busloads of children?”
Sue: “Yes. “
After leaving a bookstore, Jill notices that
she was undercharged for her book. She decides not to return the
money to the store because if she had overpaid, they would not
have returned the money.”
Jill is horrified by the way the state uses
capital punishment. Bill says that capital punishment is fine,
since those the state kill don’t have any qualms about
Who is to
This fallacy occurs when a person
assumes that asserting “who is to say” (or some
variation) ends the need for further consideration of an issue.
It is assumed by the person that this tactic “proves”
that there is no way to decide whether any position or view is
better than another. The person may appear to be asking a
question, but they have the answer in mind: no one is to say. The
fallacy has the following form:
“Who is to say?” or some variation is presented.
Therefore there is no way to decide whether any position or view
is better or worse than another.
This sort of reasoning is fallacious because the mere fact
that someone says or writes “who is to say?” hardly
proves that there is no better or worse position on the issue at
It is, of course, possible that there are situations in
which it is impossible to show that one position of view is any
better than the others. However, this would have to be shown
through argument. For example, what people like and dislike when
it comes to food is a rather subjective matter-what proof could
be given that Rocky Road ice cream is tastier than Heavenly Hash?
In this case, it would be reasonable to hold the view that no one
is to say what ice cream truly tastes better or worse.
fallacy is often used as a tactic to simply end discussion or as
an easy (lazy) way to avoid taking a position on an issue.
Three students are discussing cheating.
“You know, I saw that Josh was cheating like a crazy monkey
on the last test.”
Andrea: “Yeah, he’s like
Bill: “Um, what the heck does ‘cheating
like a crazy monkey’ mean?”
Bill. Anyway, I think cheating is wrong. People should work for
Andrea: “Hey, little miss judge,
who are you to say what people should do?”
Andrea: “I mean, how can anyone say
what is wrong or right? You just can’t.”
Some people are discussing evolutionary theory
Polly: “You know, the evidence for
evolution seems overwhelming. There is the fossil evidence, the
genetic data and all kinds of…”
may be. But you can’t just chalk the universe up to chance.
I think that God is a necessary factor in explaining the
Geoff: “Hey guys, lighten up. I mean,
no one can really decide who is right here. So, there is no point
in fighting. Polly, you can keep on bowing down to Darwin and
Rorty. Jim, you can keep on praying to Jesus. See everybody can
be happy because no one is right…or wrong.”
“Heretic. You must be burned.”
get the wood and gasoline.”
Geoff: “Hey, can’t
we all just get along?”
Jim & Polly: “No!”