When I was in 7th grade Mrs. Pohan, unable to come up with anything else for me and my precocious friends to do after we completed all the levels of the SRA Reading box (level GOLD thank you!), pulled out the last resort game to keep us engaged.
The game was called “Propaganda” and was co-created by Bonanza patriarch and TV star Lorne Greene, a fact that was quite odd to me at the time.
Anyway, the purpose of Propaganda was to teach players how to spot the different ways that advertising agencies use tricks to get people to buy their products. The players had to guess the type of propaganda being used in the game’s advertising examples. The more you guessed correctly, the higher your score.
I never forgot that game and today I think about Propaganda when I see how different political and religious groups try to persuade others that they have the “correct” cause. Instead of propaganda, however, most of these arguments fall under what are called Logical Fallacies, arguments that are errors of reasoning some of which actually were in the old Propaganda game.
When presented with logical fallacies, we often are drawn aback, unable to present a counter because the logical fallacy doesn’t make much sense to a thinking person.
With that in mind, I decided to create a series that focuses on the most common logical fallacies given in context with arguments you might find in your life today. If you understand how the argument being presented to you is incorrect, it is easier to counter the argument.
That doesn’t mean you will immediately change your opponent’s mind, but perhaps if you can point out the illogic of their argument, they might just rethink how their argument doesn’t make sense.
There are quite a few logical fallacies and I will try to get through two per article. Let’s get started:
Logical Fallacy #1: The Strawman Argument
This happens when someone misrepresents something by exaggerating or fabricating a claim to blow it out of proportion to use that exaggeration to make their argument.
For instance, a classic strawman argument might be how the term “invader” is used to describe refugees escaping some horror in their home country and coming to the US, seeking, you guessed it, refuge. Are they really INVADING the country? An invasion is actually a military term, think of the invasion of Normandy in WWII.
Do 13000 Haitian refugees with little or nothing except the clothes on their backs, camped out under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas constitute an “invasion?” Can that many desperate mostly poor, refugees take over a country the size of the United States? Of course not, but the strawman logical fallacy is that they can because they have been changed linguistically from the actual term “refugee” into the strawman term more sinister term of “invader.”
Of course, who could forget when we were told that Mexico was sending their rapists and murderers across the border with the US? In that one sentence, the actual undocumented immigrant became the strawman much more evil “rapist and murderer.”
Of course, if that were the case, El Paso would be the rape and murder capital of the US, but of course, we know it is not. Suddenly, all immigrants from Mexico or Central America, mostly families with children, became “rapists and murderers” in the minds of some people.
Do you want more government funding for healthcare and education? How many times have we heard that if you want that, you also want to end spending on defense and destroy the military? That is how a strawman argument works. You also are called a socialist and probably a communist (which is close to the ad hominem logical fallacy we will discuss later). Oh, and because you want to give people free healthcare, you probably also have some kind of “radical leftist agenda.”
Whenever you hear an idea renamed to something much worse than it actually is, such as “His policies will lead to the collapse of our democracy,” or you know that a strawman logical fallacy is being employed.
Logical Fallacy #2: Personal Incredulity
Personal incredulity happens when someone does not understand an argument or idea, and therefore insists that it cannot be true.
Most subjects are not simply black and white ideas and have layers of knowledge to truly understand them, way beyond looking up the first three hits on a Google search.
Think of global warming: I remember listening to Rush Limbaugh who would happily point out that since there was some kind of tremendous snowstorm happening somewhere, then the entire idea of global warming and climate change must be fake. How, he would bellow into his Golden Microphone, could there be global warming when Buffalo, New York has 32 inches of snow on the ground?
This was an example of the Personal Incredulity logical fallacy. He didn’t understand global climate change, therefore it must not be real.
We have seen this a lot recently involving the Covid virus. People that were unfamiliar and unwilling to understand even the basics of epidemiology insisted that it was nothing worse than a common cold.
Then it wasn’t worse than the flu.
Then masks made it hard to breathe.
Then wearing masks violated your rights.
Then the vaccine was never tested.
Then the vaccine was tested too quickly.
Then the vaccine would have a 5G chip in it.
Then the vaccine made you magnetic.
Then the vaccine made you impotent.
Then you were stepping on parent’s rights by forcing even the most basic mitigation strategies on school children.
While moving the goalposts is another logical fallacies we will discuss later, it usually happens when someone cannot understand an idea.
People protesting masks or mandated vaccines on Constitutional grounds neither understood the basics of the Constitution nor the role of the government when dealing with the disease. (Heaven forbid that these folks had been living during the polio outbreak of the 1940s and ’50s.)
Because THEY didn’t understand the idea of disease and how diseases spread, then the idea must be flawed in some way.
(Interestingly enough, you can easily see how Personal Incredulity can quickly change with understanding. How many people were “anti-vaxxers” suddenly became great advocates of getting Covid vaccines once they or a loved one got sick with it? They changed their minds once they understood the argument.)
I don’t understand global climate change, therefore there is something wrong with the entire idea of global climate change. I don’t understand the struggles of black Americans with the police, therefore the entire Black Lives Matter movement is flawed.
That is the idea behind Personal Incredulity as one of the Logical Fallacies.
Next time, a look at some more Logical Fallacies and how to spot them.
Author: Tim Holt
Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback. Feel free to leave a comment, over at his site. Read his previous columns here.
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