Recognizing Fallacies in the Daily News

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In talking to my students about the common logical fallacies, I stress that it is not as important that they are able to label a fallacy as it is to recognize when there is a problem with the logic in a given statement. The list of fallacies in our text and in every other argument text on the market, with variations, is useful for alerting them to what can go wrong with logic, but knowing the difference between a straw man and a red herring is less important than recognizing that the logic is skewed. That applies to seeing fallacies in what they read and hear, and also in what they write.

You don’t have to look far in today’s newspaper or online news or listen too long to the news to hear logical fallacies. Our hope is that news reports will present facts and that commentary, where cases are built for or against interpretations of those facts, will be clearly labeled as commentary. Unfortunately, the line between hard news and commentary has become increasingly blurred. All it takes is comparing the coverage of an event by CNN and by Fox News to see that. Any controversial topic brings out flawed logic. The more controversial the issue, the more flawed the logic is likely to be because when emotions get involved, they can outweigh reason. Bias can change the way a story is covered simply because of what is included and what is left out. To be fair, reporting the facts alone of a case often includes a person’s stated reasons for his or her actions, and these reasons often include their own faulty logic. A fight breaks out aboard an airliner because one person is afraid to sit next to another because of the color of the other person’s skin or the clothes he is wearing. That’s a hasty generalization. To assume that to limit the sale of automatic weapons will lead to taking away everyone’s guns is a slippery slope. To justify one politician’s indiscretions because another politician is equally guilty of indiscretions illustrates the two-wrongs-make-a right fallacy. (They don’t.)

For years, advertisers got away with false use of authority. An early ad claimed, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Actors who played doctors on television advertised all sorts of medications and cures. In an interesting recent play on that tradition, a group of television doctors admit in a series of Cigna ads that they only play doctors on television, but that they still want you to get an annual checkup. Is Marie Osmond or Jennifer Hudson any more qualified than any other user of a weight-loss program to argue for its efficacy? The claim to authority is only valid in such a case if the celebrity actually used or uses the product.

In the political sphere, President Trump has actually been accused of ordering attacks on Syria as a red herring to draw attention away from the Stormy Daniels story. His administration has been compared to the early days of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, which most would classify as a false analogy, but some would not. Is blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidential election on a letter written by James Comey a post hoc fallacy or not?

These examples are enough to suggest that students won’t have to look far if they are asked to bring in examples of logical fallacies from the news or from advertising. The class can discuss what is wrong with the logic and why. They can start to think about where logic goes wrong and maybe start to notice flawed logic when they see or hear it. Peer critiques of their argumentative essays can point out flawed logic that is so hard for a writer to see in his or her own writing. The terms matter much less than an eye or ear attuned to errors in reasoning.

Image Source: “I Can Be Persuaded” by Martha Soukup on Flickr 10/30/10 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.