Effective Arguing; Beware of Logical Red-Herrings
As I am apt to, from time to time, I recently attended a conference on Operational Excellence and Change Management. There were two issues related to one another that came-up time and again from the “Change-Agents” as being a challenge and those were; 1) How do I get the support of management and 2) How do I get people on-board the program.
As we discussed these challenges and how to overcome them, I was struck by how ill-equipped some of the Change-Agents were with effectively arguing their points – or worse, effectively counter-arguing points against their positions and plans.
Arguing (or debating), as opposed to quarrelling, is a necessary and key component of the process of discovery and understanding. Without it, two (or more) people will never achieve a consensus for moving forward. And while straight-up debate based on facts and desired outcomes is preferred, oftentimes, the arguments are manipulative and misleading – a verbal “rope-a-dope” if you will. Such false arguments are referred to as “logical fallacies”.
So, I decided to devote this month’s article to the art of arguing, and specifically, how to recognize and counter these logical fallacies.
The Loaded Question
The Loaded Question is a variation of the psychological game “Now I got you, you son-of-a-bitch” and is an easy trap to set and a difficult one to avoid. Its simplicity is its beauty and, once tripped, is very difficult to work out of because it tends to spiral as each attempt at defending can actually precipitate-out a series of other loaded questions.
The key is to carefully listen to the question and to answer the question directly. In the cartoon example, the response that would diffuse would simply have been, “I did not see your pipette.”
The Straw-Man is a very common form of counter-argument based on a false representation of the opponent’s argument. Although it usually is not effective on the person delivering the original argument, it could be very effective on an ignorant or inadequately informed audience.
Examples of the Straw-Man can be easily observed in Social Media (such as Facebook) where the promotion of one position is rebutted with unrelated (or under-related) counter-positions.
The Slippery Slope
The Slippery-Slope is also a very common form of counter-argument. It holds that, if some action were to occur, then it would become the root-cause of some undesirable after-action to occur – with the natural conclusion being that the original action should not occur.
It is often used to exaggerate a consequence of an action, but it can also be used to connect an otherwise unconnected consequence to an action. Although slippery slopes do exist, they are not guaranteed because the progress can usually be stopped.
The False Cause
The False Cause is most often used to relate to points whose relationship is either weakly or totally unrelated to one another. When this fallacy is played, some situation first occurred, then some second situation occurred, and the one making the argument will argue that the second occurred as a result of the first.
We can see an example of this in the current kerfuffle regarding vaccinations. The “anti-vaxxers” argue that the introduction of vaccines resulted in an increase in autism, even though there is no scientific evidence to support the allegation.
The Gambler’s Fallacy
The Gambler’s Fallacy derives its name from playing games of chance. Its false premise is that results of the past will have and influence on some future result – even though the two are entirely unrelated (but might seem so).
For instance, if you are playing the casino game roulette, the chances of a ball landing on any particular pocket on the wheel is entirely independent of the history. So looking at the board and thinking “black” has to be next because “red” came-up the last “x” number of times is wrong-thinking.
Ad Hominem is probably the weakest form of argument, as it attacks an individual and not the facts. If used, it will most certainly mean that the person who made the personal attack will lose the argument, and the debate – and this is almost always the result even if the individual who made the personal attack is in the right overall. The reason is that the individual who made the personal attack loses credibility.
So think real hard before you make a personal attack (calling someone, or their argument, a derogatory name). If you don’t take this piece of advice seriously, then you’re just stupid.
Tu Quoque is an attempt to deflect an argument by claiming that the opposition has made the same (or similar) mistake in the past.
We see this technique played-out over an again in social media. Some examples;
- It’s alright that President Obama does something inappropriate (like taking a vacation or golf) because other past Presidents did the same (or similar).
- It’s alright for the police to use excessive force because the bad guys are really bad.
It’s alright for me to eat toast on the couch because you did it last week.
The Bandwagon is a very powerful argument to overcome. Its power is in the mass of people who believe one thing whilst a fewer amount of people believe in something else – even if the fewer people have “facts and science” on their side. Usually, the facts win – but only over time.
Time and again, we see this played-out in history such as; Galileo’s claim that the sun was the center of the solar system and not the earth, Christopher Columbus’ believe that the earth was round and not flat, and today’s climatologists and their claims about “Global Warming” (we shall see).
Special Pleading is often used by those of privilege or are otherwise “elitist”. It is a form of exceptionalism that involves claiming an allowance or exclusion based on some status or characteristic.
Think about the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This is usually the unspoken policy of those who have (or think they have) special privileges. For examples of this, we need look no further than the rules and regulations made by those in government, but making those in government exempt – or policies that might apply to employees, yet the employers might be exempt.
Appeal to Authority
Appeal to Authority is a very superficial yet pervasive technique for persuasion which we see often in commercials and advertisements – and especially in social media.
For instance, what particular expertise do celebrities such as George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolene, or Sean Penn, etc… have on any given subject that their opinions should carry any weight? And what about the celebrities that endorse or sell any given product? The mere fact that they are being paid for the endorsement is dismissed in the decision-making process of the consumer.
Appeal to Emotion
Appeal to Emotion is an attempt to partner with the opponent in an effort to get them to agree with your argument or ambition – to pull in close and connect with them on a personal level to get them to support you rather than to have to out-argue them.
Think about the last time you had to select a puppy (or other pet) from an assortment. You almost certainly picked the one that appealed to you most on an emotional level. You also probably use this technique most often with those who are closest to you (and also have it used most often on you by those closest).
Burden of Proof
Burden of Proof is a passive-aggressive counter-argument (defense) where the onus is placed on the attacker by the defender to win the argument by “proving” the defender wrong. In most cases, the defender knows their position is strong because there is a lack of solid proof to discredit the argument.
The defender seemingly sits smugly atop his mountain and makes the attacker do all the work. Even if the attacker presents proof, the defender will take the position that it is not enough proof – not overwhelming proof – and that the defender is justified in continuing on.
Arguing from Fallacy/Ignorance
Arguing from Fallacy (also called Arguing from Ignorance) is a form of argument that plays what can’t be proved (or adequately proved to the opponent) as proof that the opposite is true.
A classic Argument from Fallacy is, “You cannot prove God exists, therefore God does not exist.”
But the absence of proof is not necessarily proof that something isn’t (or is). For instance, before July 20, 1969, people could argue that the moon was made of cheese. How can it be proved otherwise? But on this date, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and proved it was not.
Personal Incredulity is an argument that plays on one’s ego. You don’t believe it’s true because it simply can’t be true. It’s often merely a denial of something that is shocking, but it can also be a form of passive-aggressiveness if used to maintain the status-quo.
As an example of this, think back to your thoughts and feelings on 9/11. I remember the first plane hitting the WTC and thought it a tragic accident. But then the second plane hit, and one at the Pentagon – and I simply could not believe the reality behind what was really happening at that moment.
Ambiguity is a “smoke-screen” argument that is used when you don’t want to commit, but you also don’t want to concede the point.
For example: I had a friend who worked for the FBI in Albany who gave me an “FBI Albany” baseball cap that I left on the dash of my vehicle. I got stopped once at a roadblock because my car was out of inspection. The Sherriff came to me and asked if I was in the FBI. Not wanting to get into trouble by miss-representing myself, and also not wanting to toss away something that might be working for me, I responded; “Well… you know.”
… She said, “Cool”. And let me on my way.
Composition / Division is a form of argument that extrapolates the analysis of a subset and applies the findings to the entirety of the set.
Like a caricaturist might emphasis the chin of Kirk or Michael Douglas – thus giving the chin exaggerated weight in the overall – the party which puts forth a Composition / Division argument is taking a vignette, transforming it into a stereotype, and applying it to the whole.
Other than stereotypes, this argument is also applied in recalls, where one bad pill or cut of meat can result in a massive recall of the lot.
Black-or-White (or “False Choice”) is a form of argument most often used by propagandists and those who want to cause divisions and leverage extreme (and often unrelated) views.
In reality, not many things (outside the formulas of science) are truly “black and white”, but are instead shades of gray (and there are more than 50 of them).
An example might be; “If you are for a strong defense, you must be against the poor” or “If you are against paying teachers more, then you must be against education.”
Begging the Question is a circular form of argument in that the justification or “proof” in the validity of the argument is included in the premise of the argument. It is a rather incoherent argument which is falsely strong because it is circular. To counter, you can’t attack the premise or the proof, but rather you have to attack the circular structure.
For example, we all know that the greatest boxer was Mohammad Ali. And we know this because Mohammad Ali said so himself (that it was true in this particular case is not the point).
The Anecdotal Argument is an extreme form of Composition / Division in that it is based on either personal experience or an isolated (perhaps even extreme or unproved) example.
The counter-attack to this argument is to argue with a larger and more relevant data-set whose weight will collapse the merits of the argument.
A typical Anecdote Argument might start off with phrases such as; “Back in my day…”, or “My experience has been…”, or “I know what the studies say, but my Uncle…”
Appeal to Nature is an argument that is based on the false pretense that everything in nature is good and inherently acceptable, and further, that if something is not from nature, it must be not good or acceptable.
The counter-attack is to cite the near-infinite instances of things in nature not being good for you, and of things that are not in nature being good for you.
Rattlesnake venom bad. Antibiotics good.
Peyote Bad. Peyote Good.
The Texas Sharpshooter is type of argument that proposes that an outlier vignette of data is somehow proof-positive of the argument’s validity. But as Mark Twain famously stated; “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
The key to this argument being successful is that the opponent is not aware of the entirety of the dataset and accepts the findings as genuine.
A successful counter-argument requires that the opponent has visibility to the entire dataset and also an understanding of what it represents.
No True Scotsman is more of a follow-on argument. It is used to quantify a previous argument and gets its name from an anecdote.
Angus states that; “Scotsmen for not put sugar on their porridge”.
Malcom responds; “But, I am a Scotsman, and I put sugar on my porridge.”
To which Angus retorts; “Well, no true Scotsman would put sugar on their porridge.”
The purpose of this argument is to cast the purity of the nature of the rebuttal.
The Genetic Argument is a very prejudicial form of argument. It judges and dismisses based on the origin of the person or product.
Examples of this can be found almost daily such as; not drinking the water in Mexico unless you want to experience “Montezuma’s Revenge”, or Chinese products are poorly made, or that all politicians are liars and scoundrels (well, that last one might be true).
The rather obvious counter-argument to the Genetic Argument is to cite enough exceptions to this argument that it is discredited.
Middle Ground is a form of argument that seeks a compromise and is usually invoked by the party with the weaker position.
And although compromise is almost always a reasonable goal, it is not always appropriate, attainable, or practical.
For instance, a half-truth is still a lie. Or to loan Greece more money so they can use some of it to pay outstanding loans and some to pay government employees.
Sometimes, there is no middle-ground.
When preparing to argue, you must do the work. Make sure that your desired outcome is simple and crystal clear. Map-out how you will present your arguments so that they lead to the desired outcome and ensure that you have all the information necessary to support your arguments. Also be prepared for valid counter-arguments so that they may be engaged and overcome. Perhaps practice your debate with a friend or colleague who is a knowledgeable and credible adversary.
When engaged in the actual argument, be on the look-out for these false arguments, these logical fallacies. They are the entrances to rabbit-holes you want to avoid going down at all costs. Be en-garde for such false arguments and, when encountered, parry and thrust. Get back on-point and on-track as quickly as possible. The person who engages in argument according to their (well thought-out) plan and maintains control of the narrative has the advantage.
And remember, using logical fallacies are a sign of weakness in the argument and the person invoking them. So, whilst you are on the lookout for them in your opponent, make sure not to use them yourself.
A handy Hi-Res A4-Style PDF of the above can be found here…
A Special “Thank You!” to “The Upturned Microscope” and YourLogicalFallacyIs for their invaluable contributions to this article. Please be sure to visit their websites.
By Joseph F Paris Jr
Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence.
He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 45,000 members.
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