3 Logical Fallacies That Make Good Arguments Look Bad

3 Logical Fallacies That Make Good Arguments Look Bad

"It’s important to argue logically because logic is an essential part of argumentation." Is this sentence logically sound? Not really. Logic can go wrong in many ways. And sometimes we don't even realize that the point we’re making isn’t that strong. Read this article to learn common mistakes in reasoning and how to avoid building bad arguments.

What is a bad argument?

In order to answer this question, let's first figure out the purpose of content.

So the purpose of content is to convince readers to accept your opinion. With a bad argument, you can't accomplish this purpose. A bad argument is an argument that doesn't get us anywhere. Its premises do not provide good reasons to support the conclusion. 

Let's see a few examples of what this looks like.

1. An assumption is based on prejudice or stereotype like in, "Don't mess with Chechen –  they’ll loot, rape, and kill." The image of Chechens as particularly fierce and ruthless has been carefully formed by Russian propaganda, which has led many people to believe Chechens are terrorists. Even if the author of this assumption demonstrates that there were large-scale massacres during Russia's wars in Chechnya, the conclusion that all Chechens loot, rape, and kill does not necessarily follow. 

2. An assumption is unsupported by proof. For example, "Despite being aggressive, Russia is undeniably a superpower." Because this statement is not supported by evidence, we have a good reason to question the validity of this argument. 

3. Incomplete evidence, like when a writer constructs an argument about the USSR playing the decisive role in fighting against Nazis but omits any mention of the fact that they actually helped start the Second World War. By not acknowledging any counterarguments, you weaken your claims.

4. False or faulty analogies. Analogies are a good way to illustrate your points but they can't replace arguments. For example, “Playing too many video games is like drinking too much alcohol. This addiction can completely ruin someone’s life.” This analogy does not demonstrate that playing too many video games is an addiction, nor does it prove that playing video games can ruin someone's life. It cannot substitute for a solid argument or evidence.

A bad argument is often called a logical fallacy, which is essentially an error in reasoning. These errors make your argument much less convincing because it's built on a shaky foundation. Here are three common logical fallacies:

  1. Confirmation bias
  2. Strawman argument
  3. Vicious circle

Let's talk about them in more detail.

Confirmation bias

Writers often look for evidence confirming what they already think and ignore any piece of evidence that seems to disprove their hypothesis. 

If you begin writing with a preconceived idea and find evidence to back it up, you are committing a logical fallacy called confirmation bias.

You can see the confirmation bias working in a scenario like this: 

Say, you work for a software development company that is looking to attract leads from an article about how to build a food delivery app. In this article, you want to convince your readers that food delivery is a fast-growing and profitable market niche. If that wasn't the case, what's the point in writing about food delivery apps in the first place? 

With this idea in mind, you will look for data confirming your point. There is a 100% chance you'll succeed. With the right search term, you can find seemingly legitimate data for any point. But the truth is, if you look for data that disproves your argument, you will find reports suggesting that people who used delivery services during the pandemic are reverting back to their original way of shopping; and that the on-demand delivery market is facing a slump in sales. 

This data puts you in an inconvenient situation. If you don't fall for the confirmation bias, you have to decide whether writing this article makes sense at all. 

Of course, it's less stressful to not even think about counterarguments that can challenge your preconceived ideas. But this approach will result in a useless piece of content.

The logical fallacy of confirmation bias can lead to more terrible consequences. 

The 2005 report to the president of the United States on the lead-up to the Iraq War says, “When confronted with evidence that indicated Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction], analysts tended to discount such information. Rather than weighing the evidence independently, analysts accepted information that fit the prevailing theory and rejected information that contradicted it.”

The only solution to confirmation bias is this: research needs to precede the hypothesis. In other words, use research to come up with ideas; not defend the ideas you already have. This way, you'll be able to get rid of the claims that can be easily disproved. 

A straw man argument

It's really easy to knock down any argument by turning it into a straw man. For example, you create a straw man in a conversation like this: 

  • Even though there might be a higher demand for lawyers, I prefer studying economics.
  • Right. Learning all about making money and being rich is more important than learning how to respect the law.

A straw man argument is a misrepresentation of an opinion or viewpoint. In other words, it's when you claim people said or believe something that they didn't say.

We all slip into straw man arguments when we completely disagree with some ideas. But these arguments are not logically valid. Instead of listening to the other person carefully and trying to persuade them, a person that makes a straw man argument is poking holes in an opponent’s ideas to defeat them quickly.

Many writers tend to commit this logical fallacy out of ignorance because they simply don’t know their opponent’s position, and so they choose instead to introduce an entirely new version of the opponent’s argument. But misrepresenting someone's argument to make it easier to attack can make the writer look foolish. 

Look at this example:

The majority of startups rush to launch their products ahead of the competition. But this fast-paced work is extremely stressful. If you have a team with burnout, your startup is heading toward failure. 

The author here is making an irrelevant and exaggerated conclusion: fast-paced work might be stressful, but it doesn't necessarily lead a startup to failure. This careless reasoning isn't supported by any evidence. 

When writers want to stress the validity of their position but don't understand the topic well enough they often over-exaggerate, like here: 

Did you know that poor-made app results in a company going bankrupt and every employee returning to their parent's basement, where they started?

Arguments like that cannot be taken seriously.

To avoid attacking a straw man, you need to make sure you understand the opposing perspective. It's a good practice to incorporate well-articulated arguments from the opposing point of view and then disprove them with your counterarguments. This way you'll be able to make your position look more rational, impactful, and credible.

One of the laziest and most intellectually dishonest arguments I've ever heard belongs to the supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What they basically say is that it's okay for Russia to occupy Ukraine and kill civilians because the United States committed similar atrocities in the past. These people are busy attacking the strawman. Instead of condemning Russian barbaric behavior, they bring up the narrative about the US which is totally out of context. 

To avoid the straw man fallacy in your work, engage with the real issue however difficult it is to lay hold of. Don't distort ideas to make them easy to attack. 

A vicious circle

Using logic is important because it's important to use logic.

This is a perfect example of circular reasoning, a logical fallacy in which you state your claim, then reword it, and state it again as your reason. Instead of offering proof, you simply want the reader to accept the conclusion as settled. But if you're not giving any reasons to believe your claim, your argument isn't useful. It goes nowhere. 

Circular reasoning is a very common fallacy in writing. I suspect that's either because writers don't know how to build arguments to justify their claims, or because they don't want to dig deeper and find evidence for their claims. Look at this example:

This speaker is a great communicator because he has a knack for talking effectively to the audience.

Being able to talk effectively to the audience is the definition of a great communicator. It's not a premise that supports the conclusion. 

To avoid circular logic and prove what you're saying is true, you need to bring forward reasons that are independent of the conclusion. For example, to prove that eating sweetened foods and beverages is bad, you need to cite some data about, say, high-sugar diets leading to obesity, inflammation, and high blood pressure, which are all risk factors for heart disease. If you say instead, "Eating sweetened foods and beverages is bad because it has a negative impact on your health," you're building a vicious cycle.

There are dozens of logical fallacies that can mess things up in writing. We've only discussed some of them. But you should definitely learn about the gambler's fallacy, slippery slope, genetic fallacy, and more.

How to avoid bad arguments

Here are a few tips:

  • Clearly define your thesis – the main idea that you want to explore or defend 
  • Explain your premises – the reasons why you believe your thesis is true
  • Provide relevant evidence to demonstrate that each of your premises is, indeed, reasonable
  • Use research to come up with ideas; not defend the ideas you already have
  • Explore the opposing perspective by bringing up counterclaims 
  • Catch yourself every time your argument turns into a vicious circle 

Watch it instead:

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