Most of the criticism directed at Donald Trump and others running for president has focused on the factual errors and lofty promises they have made. But little attention has been paid to their fallacious arguments, and it is time to correct these abuses of logic.
An argument is an attempt to establish the truth about a belief; fallacious arguments appear to do this but don’t. Since all of the political candidates claim to be making truthful statements, it’s crucial that we voters understand when their arguments don’t hold up to scrutiny.
While there are dozens of types of fallacies, we have room to highlight only a few here. And to show that I’m not playing favorites, I’ll give examples of fallacies each of the leading candidates has made and, in some cases, continues to make.
Argumentum ad hominem
Ad hominem arguments are personal attacks that have nothing to do with the truth of the target’s statements. Donald Trump uses this technique in practically every speech he gives. Senator Marco Rubio’s height is irrelevant to his assertion that Trump’s clothing business hires workers outside of the U.S. That claim would be just as true or false if Rubio towered over Trump in a game of one-on-one basketball (which, truth be told, might be a healthier way of settling their disagreements).
Since he has been on the receiving end of Trump’s insults and knows their irrelevancy firsthand, one would expect Rubio to avoid making such attacks himself. But he has given in to the urge to use them, too. As long as he remains in the race, it would behoove Rubio to make the strongest possible case for why his knowledge and skills make him the best person to lead our country. Personal swipes at Trump don’t do that.
Appeal to authority
In this fallacy, one attempts to justify one’s beliefs by appealing to a powerful figure. On the March 6 edition of Face the Nation, Hillary Clinton spoke about the retroactive classification of more than 2,000 emails she sent on her personal server while Secretary of State. “Colin Powell summed it up well,” she told host John Dickerson. “He was told that some of his emails from more than 10 years ago were going to be retroactively classified, and he called it ‘an absurdity.’”
If reclassifying old emails is wrong, it’s because it’s unconstitutional, or because it’s a violation of FBI policies, or something else intrinsic to the activity itself, not because a respected person has so declared it.
Here, a word or concept with two meanings is used one way in one context and another way in another context. Philosopher Gregory Sadler notes that Senator Ted Cruz uses this type of fallacy when he criticizes Trump’s position on Planned Parenthood.
This organization, according to a Cruz TV advertisement, “treats the unborn like another form of currency.” The ad then states that “Donald Trump defends Planned Parenthood,” and to support this claim, we see a clip of Trump telling Sean Hannity, “Planned Parenthood serves a good function… We have to look at the positives.”
It would be easy to conclude from this ad that Trump is pro-choice, and this appears to be Cruz’s intent. But abortion is only one of the services that Planned Parenthood provides. Trump has stated numerous times that what he supports about Planned Parenthood are the services other than abortion that they provide for women.
There are many legitimate ways for Ted Cruz to criticize Donald Trump, but equivocation isn’t a logical or ethical way to do it.
Another fallacious argument is the so-called Straw Man, in which an opponent’s position is exaggerated and thus made easy to knock down. On the issue of gun control, here is what Senator Bernie Sanders said about Hillary Clinton and other critics during MSNBC’s Democratic Presidential Candidates Forum:
Sanders gave a great sound bite and a vivid image. But no one is seriously arguing for the right to have a backyard missile launcher. Sticking to the facts may make for boring television, but grand entertainment is not what political debates should be about.
There are other abuses of logic that strictly speaking aren’t fallacious but should be avoided nevertheless. One such abuse is inconsistency. For example, during the Republican debate on March 2, Ted Cruz addressed the issue of same-sex marriage and adoption this way:
By using the phrase “five unelected judges,” Cruz is indicting the U.S. Supreme Court as an institution with undeserved power to interpret the law. But if you’re going to take such a position, it’s inconsistent to defer to the same body on other occasions. On his official website, for example, Cruz notes that he has written 70 Supreme Court briefs and made nine arguments there.
Either the Supreme is a legitimate institution or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.
There are several ways in which leaders can get their points across. They can use brute force, as the heads of ISIS, Boko Haram, and other fascist states do.
Less extreme but still problematic are politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen who use fear appeals and other abuses of logic to advance their agendas.
At the other end of the moral spectrum sit democracies like ours, which are founded on the idea that rational discourse—not violence, bullying, or name-calling—is the best way to solve problems.
If the people seeking the most powerful office in our country really believe that the way we tackle challenges is superior, then they ought to use the essential tools of democracy—reason and logic—and eschew fallacious arguments like the ones we’ve discussed here. In the words of Mr. Spock, to do it any other way would be highly illogical.
What are some other fallacies you’ve observed in the news? Leave a comment below, and I may cite you in a follow-up column on the topic of fallacies.
Informal Fallacies Project
Abstract: Requirements for an Informal Fallacy Project is described with an example fallacy analysis. Suggestions for how to find fallacies are provided.
Requirements for the Informal Fallacies Project
The Informal Fallacies Project is to be based on your own choice of resources, including webpages, newspapers, magazines, books, or journals. The goal for the project is to find and analyze at least five informal fallacies where each fallacy is a different type. All references are to be cited in a standard bibliographical manner. Please keep in mind the following additional guidelines:
- Book, newspaper, magazine, and journal sources for fallacies are to be publicly accessible.
- Oral arguments, whether in everyday conversations, speeches, lectures, television, or web broadcasts, are not to be used unless a written text is separately available on the World Wide Web.
- Examples drawn from advertising are to be explicit arguments and not merely a form of emotive appeal.
- The fallacy selected is to be used in an argumentative context and not be taken from fallacy examples or illustrations in critical reasoning or logic sources. (For example, examples copied from books or websites on informal fallacies are not to be used.)
The evaluation of your project is based on the following criteria:
- Citations are provided in accordance with a standard bibliographic standard formats such as MLA, APA, Chicago, or CSE.
- The excerpt (or fallacy quotation) should be sufficiently inclusive such that the fallacy is evident: not too brief and thereby committing the fallacy of accent and not too extensive such that irrelevant statements are present.
- The extensiveness and adequacy of the explanation of how the fallacy is effected is essential for full credit.
- At least five different kinds of informal fallacies are to be included.
The presentation of your paper is be similar to the example illustrated below.
“Before considering these development in detail it is worth asking why such an apparently simple device as the bicycle should have had such a major effect on the acceleration of technology. The answer lies in the sheer humanity of the machine.”
S. S. Wilson, “ Bicycle Technology.” Scientific American 228 no. 3 (March, 1973), 82.
The question posed is a composite of several questions:
(1) Is the bicycle an apparently simple device? If the answer to this question is yes, then the further question can be raised: (2) Did “this apparently simple device” have “a major effect on the acceleration of technology?” If the answer to the latter question is “yes,” the cited question would be appropriate: (3) How had the bicycle had such a major effect on the acceleration of technology? An answer to (1) is not clearly straightforward. An answer to (2) is even less so, and an answer to (3) (provided in the text) is much more doubtful. Most of the technical innovations used in the bicycle (e.g., differential gears, classic diamond frame, tubular frame, ball bearings, pneumatic tire) were developed independently of bicycle technology.
Hence although the technology of this apparently simple device might be important for the evolution of modern technology, it is a fallacy to presuppose it had a major effect on the future development of technology. The answer provided by Dr. Wilson blurs the distinct aspects of the question he raises and treats them as a simple query; hence, the fallacy of Complex Question occurs.
Finding Sources for Fallacies
Finding concise, clear examples of informal fallacies is difficult. Every so often you can discover fallacies by critically reading materials containing the exchange of ideas. Good sources for fallacies include personal arguments in on-line forums; letters to the editor in newspapers, magazines and journals; editorials or opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines; debate transcripts; political speeches; and pseudo-scientific writings.
Some suggested online sources where fallacies occasionally occur include:
Editorials and Opinion Pages
- “Editorials,”The New York Times — Topics include current issues involving U.S. and international affairs.
- “Opinions,”The Washington Post — Editorials columns, letters to the editor, as well as national and global issues are essayed, frequently from a liberal point of view.
- “Thursday's Editorial Archive” and “Wednesday's Example of Media Bias Archive,”Student News Daily — Editorial essays and news reporting on a variety of timely topics are selected from diverse sources on the web.
- “Political Editorials,”The Washington Times — Opinion articles from U.S.politics are usually presented from a conservative standpoint.
- “Opinion,”New York Post — The opinions expressed in this sensationalist tabloid usually advance a conservative point of view.
Speeches and Debates
- “Great Speeches Collection” — A selection of famous speeches from various historical periods and on a variety of subjects is listed at The History Place.
- “Famous Speeches in History — Archive of great historical speeches is indexed by topic, speaker, date, and also archived by women, African-Americans, and U.S. Presidents at EmersonKent.com.
- “Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches and Letters 1880—2016” — This compilation of U.S. Republican and Democratic speeches is provided by Gerhard Peters at The American Presidency Project.
- “Presidential Debates 1960—2016” — Transcripts of U.S. general and primary election debates are furnished by Gerhard Peters and John T. Wooley at the The American Presidency Project.
- “Top 100 Speeches” — Transcripts of famous U.S. speeches selected by Stephen E. Lucas and Martin J. Medhurst are provided at American Rhetoric.
- “Online Speech Bank” — Over 5,000 U.S.speeches, debates, and media events are compiled at American Rhetoric.
- “The Opinion Pages Room for Debate — Experienced debaters take a opposing stands on current issues.
- Debates.Org — Participants debate selected topics, respond to argumentative subjects, and post in open forums on specific topics.
- Debate Politics — Topics discussed include U.S. and Global politics as well as specific political and non-political issues.
- Online Debate Network — Forums include current events, conspiracy, philosophy, religion, and social issues, among many others.