Definition of Fallacy
A fallacy is a display of faulty reasoning that makes an argument invalid, or a faulty belief based on an unsound argument. Many fallacies are deceptive in that they may appear to be based on sound reasoning and seem to follow good logic. Some examples of fallacious reasoning are done intentionally in order to manipulate others or persuade via deception, while others are accidental and come about by ignorance or not paying close attention.
The definition of fallacy can further be divided into two main types, with several dozen subcategories of fallacy in each. The first of these types is called formal fallacy, which refers to a fallacy that can be disproven in a straightforward manner using a standard system of logic. The other type of fallacy, not surprisingly, is called informal fallacy, and refers to an error in reasoning rather than incorrect logic. We will look at some examples of these two types of fallacy next.
Types of Fallacy
This is an incomplete list of many different types of formal and informal fallacies.
- Anecdotal—Using an isolated event or personal experience to come to a conclusion, rather than sound reasoning.
- Appeal to probability—Arguing that something must be true because it is most likely the case.
- Unwarranted assumption—Coming to a conclusion that is based on a false assumption.
- Syllogistic fallacies—These types of formal fallacies are based on errors in syllogisms, such as “If not A, then not B; If not B, then not C; therefore A causes C.”
- Argument from incredulity—“I can’t imagine this could be true, therefore it cannot be true.”
- Burden of proof—“I can’t prove that my claim is true, but you must prove it is false.” (Also known as petition principii)
- Gambler’s fallacy—The belief that the unrelated outcomes between different events must affect each other, such believing that a coin is bound to land on heads because it has landed on tails five times previously.
- Red herring—Distracting the audience by providing a piece of evidence that seems relevant, but is not relevant at all.
- Cherry picking—Using specific pieces of information to prove a point, and ignoring counter evidence.
- Ad hominem—Attacking a speaker’s character rather than his or her arguments in order to counter him or her.
- Appeal to emotion—Manipulating the audience’s emotions to prove a point rather than using sound reasoning.
- Straw man fallacy—Arguing against an opponent by misrepresenting the opponent’s position.
- Two wrongs make a right—Canceling out one wrong with another.
Common Examples of Fallacy
Though the above list is not exhaustive of the many dozen varieties of fallacy, it is easy to imagine common examples of most of them that you may hear or even use in daily speech. It is also quite easy to find examples of these fallacies in political debates. Here are some examples of fallacy:
- Argument from incredulity—“ “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.” –Ted Cruz, 2015
- Cherry picking—“ I’m a skeptic. I’m not a scientist. I think the science has been politicized. I would be very wary of hollowing out our industrial base even further … It may be only partially man-made. It may not be warming by the way. The last six years we’ve actually had mean temperatures that are cooler. I think we need to be very cautious before we dramatically alter who we are as a nation because of it.” –Jeb Bush, 2009
- Straw man—“I know some folks in Washington and on Wall Street are saying we should just focus on their problems. It would be nice if I could just pick and choose what problems to face, when to face them. So I could say, well, no, I don’t want to deal with the war in Afghanistan right now; I’d prefer not having to deal with climate change right now. And if you could just hold on, even though you don’t have health care, just please wait, because I’ve got other things to do.” –Barack Obama, 2009
Significance of Fallacy in Literature
Authors generally use fallacy examples in their works of literature to provide characterization. The use of fallacy illustrates the inner mental workings of a character, and in this way the reader can better understand where that character is coming from. This can also be the case if a character is intentionally using a fallacy to deceive another character; the audience will change their opinions of this character in light of the character’s manipulation.
Examples of Fallacy in Literature
PRINCE OF MOROCCO: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
Why, that’s the lady. All the world desires her.
From the four corners of the earth they come
To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint.
(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)
There are interesting fallacy examples in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. One of the central pieces of drama is the riddle of the three caskets. Princes from around the world come to try to win the hand of Portia; they must do so by choosing the correct of three caskets. The first two princes reason incorrectly and choose the wrong caskets. Here we see the Prince of Morocco choose the golden casket by way of an unwarranted assumption. He reads the clue, proclaiming that inside the golden casket it “what many men desire,” and thus must be Portia’s portrait. He is disproved when he opens the casket and reads the famous line, “All that glisters is not gold.”
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
(“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor)
The Southern Gothic tale “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor, centers around a family taking a drive. Earlier in the story they discuss the escape of a killer named The Misfit, and later in the story the family’s car breaks down and The Misfit comes across them. The grandmother in the story is the first to recognize The Misfit, and tries to appeal to him through emotion. She keeps insisting that he must have “good blood” and tries to get him to act in a certain way. However, this is a fallacy example because even the grandmother knows that there is no better nature of The Misfit’s to appeal to.
The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence to the effect that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is.
(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
In this stirring speech, defense lawyer Atticus Finch shows the numerous examples of fallacy that the prosecution has used in the central case in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Many different types of fallacy could be invoked here. The main issue is that there’s an assumption that Tom Robinson is guilty solely because of his skin color. Perhaps strongest here is the “burden of proof” fallacy—the state, as Finch argues, “has not produced one iota of medical evidence.” The prosecution’s case rests on the jury to believe them not because they have proof, but because the defense can’t muster enough evidence to disprove the accusation. Of course, Finch argues that the defendant’s testimony should be enough to counter the two witnesses for the prosecution, but he knows that this is not enough.
Test Your Knowledge of Fallacy
1. Which of the following statements is the best fallacy definition?
A. An argument that is correct, but proved through bad reasoning.
B. Faulty reasoning that leads to an unsound conclusion.
C. An argument made by a dumb person.
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2. Consider the following excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Othello:
IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.
Iago is trying to convince the character Brabantio that Othello is dangerous. What kind of fallacy is Iago using?
A. Appeal to emotion
B. Burden of proof
C. Appeal to probability
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3. Consider the following quote from the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
What type of fallacy is the grandmother using?
A. Gambler’s fallacy
B. Straw man fallacy
C. Argument from incredulity
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