Understanding Fallacies All Around Us

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Logical fallacies can be the source of humor or the source of the most successful acts of deceit ever pulled off. To learn to avoid fallacies in their own writing, students need to practice recognizing and understanding the fallacies in what they read and hear. They will be less susceptible to flawed logic if they practice spotting it in everyday rhetoric.

Commercials and ads provide plenty of examples for practice. You can ask your students to bring in or jot down examples of fallacies they find in ads and then can discuss in class what fallacies they illustrate.

Here are a few examples:

  • Faulty Use of Authority: Mila Kunis endorsing Jim Beam.
  • False Dilemma: “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.”
  • Ad Populum: “Lipton Ice Tea. Join the Dance.”
  • Appeal to Tradition: For lemonade (or almost anything else) — "Just like grandma used to make.”

It’s not always easy to categorize logical fallacies, but the important thing is for students to recognize what is wrong with the logic even if the line between types of fallacies is sometimes blurry. Remember also that the fact that an advertising strategy is not logical does not mean that it is not effective.

You may want to move from such an exercise to consider logical fallacies drawn from the news, perhaps bringing in some examples and asking the students to find others. 

  • False Analogy: The most infamous example this month has been Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s editing 44,000 hours of January 6th footage and characterizing the remaining brief clip as the actions of innocent sightseers being escorted through the Capitol.
  • Post Hoc or Doubtful Cause: Because some childhood inoculations are given around the same age as parents often become aware of the first symptoms of autism in their children, a group of anti-vaxxers now object to having their children inoculated. It has been proven that the inoculations do not cause autism, but the misguided belief of a few has led to a rise in the number of cases of some diseases once virtually eliminated in the U. S.
  • Ad Hominem: It is common in politics to attack an opponent, and in this age of a decisive split between parties, those attacks are as heated as ever. An ad hominem fallacy occurs when the person making an argument is attacked instead of his or her argument. It is an attempt to distract from the issue at hand. For example, critics have been using Biden’s age to argue that he is not fit to be president of the U.S.
  • Slippery Slope: This sort of poor reasoning is exactly why a bank failure such as the recent one in California sends shock waves through the financial community. Unfortunately, it has happened before that the failure of one or a few banks caused a panic, which caused people to pull their money out of other banks, which caused more banks to fail.

It’s not hard to find examples of bad logic, but it takes practice. Students generally enjoy these exercises. The challenge comes in seeing their own flaws in logic as they draft their essays.

"I must be a cat"  by Nattiebug is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.