Spin This

A Brief Primer On The Art Of The Fallacy

Joseph Crumb
4 min read
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It was in Ancient Greece during the fifth century BC that rhetoric—the art of public speaking—began to be taught in the ancient cities of Athens and Syracuse as the need arose for citizens to argue effectively and persuade their fellows in the jury courts and political assemblies. Rhetoric was also used on ceremonial occasions such as funeral orations. The study of rhetoric involved the use of different types of arguments. The appeal to reason involved the use of logic, and Aristotle was the first to formalize this discipline.

In general, the aim in formal logic is to draw valid conclusions through valid reasoning, so that if our premises are true, and the form of our argument correct, we can develop a cogent argument and arrive at a further truth.

Rhetoricians also employed nonlogical types of arguments such as the ethical appeal (for example, “so-and-so is a worthy man and we ought to do what he says”) and, of course, the appeal to emotions. Rhetoricians knew people could be easily persuaded to accept an argument or point of view if one made a passionate appeal to their fears, or their anger, or their love of country.

But how can one win an argument when his or her opponent has the stronger case? Or in modern parlance, how can we spin this?

This is precisely where fallacies come into play, and some of the most effective examples simply involve trying to change the subject (see main story).

It is informal fallacies—the oldest tricks in the book, so to speak—that are most relevant to our times. For if we lose our ability to engage in honest debate, we risk much. Honest debate is crucial to democracy. Without it, America could change from a democratic republic with an educated citizenry engaging in public debate on matters of civic importance to a sort of oligarchy akin to the Russia of the '90s where the moneyed few rule the rest.

Here are a few classic examples:

Argumentum ad baculum (appeal to the club): This type of argument is known as the appeal to force. An example given in Irving Copi's Introduction to Logic tells of an exchange at Yalta towards the end of World War II. Winston Churchill brought up the Pope's view of taking such-and-such course of action and Josef Stalin reportedly replied, “And how many divisions did you say the Pope had available for duty?” The ad baculum, like any threat, can be quite subtle. Recall Dick Cheney's remark during the 2004 election campaign that another devastating terror attack would be more likely if John Kerry were elected president.

Argumentum ad hominem (“take it to the man”): This is a very popular diversionary tactic whereby one attacks the person instead of his or her argument. Again, think of Kerry and how his service in Vietnam was turned against him in the fall of 2004. President Bush himself was a victim of this ploy when his opponents pointed to his service record in the Texas Air National Guard as disqualifying him as a capable Commander-in-Chief.

Argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people): In Classical Rhetoric, Edward P.J. Corbett gives some examples of the appeal to mass sentiment. “Honorific terms—Americanism, patriotism, motherhood, rugged individualism—are used to stir up a favorable emotional climate; pejorative terms—socialism, godlessness, radical, reactionary—are used to arouse hostile reactions.” This is a tried-and-true diversionary tactic that takes many forms. “The sanctity of private property rights” comes to mind.

Red Herring: This fallacy derives its name from a procedure used to train hounds for hunting, notes Patrick J. Hurley in his A Concise Introduction to Logic. A bag of red herrings is dragged across the trace to try to throw the dogs off the trail. Similarly, the odor of any number of extraneous issues can be introduced to change the subject rather than attempt to refute a strong argument.

Straw Man: Hurley's definition of this fallacy is apt: “The ’straw man' fallacy is committed when the arguer misinterprets an opponent's argument for the purpose of more easily attacking it, demolishes the misinterpreted argument, and then proceeds to conclude that the opponent's real argument has been demolished.”

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