What Millennials need to know about valid arguments and logical fallacies

Logical Fallacies
Photo credit: Kathryn Casello

Today’s college students are more engaged than Generation X was according to a study done by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, surveying 386 students and involving 47 focus groups, describing college students as, “neither cynical nor highly individualistic. They do not want to write off politics, despite their many criticisms; instead, they seek ways to engage politically.”

Another finding of the study was that students dislike polarized debates and seek authenticity in debates about politics, which is a possible factor in the large amount of enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, often described as honest and unafraid to speak his mind, among Millennials in the 2016 election cycle.

Studies like these highlight the necessity for open, clear and effective argumentation in politics as well as in daily life. Because of the technology that propels news and events forward, it’s much easier for people to have access to information as well as express their opinions. Amie Stanley, a coach for UAA’s Seawolf Debate team, explained why it’s important to have productive dialogue and avoid faulty logic.

“I think when we engage in conversation specifically in arguing or making arguments, we’re doing so because we think talking about it is important,” said Stanley. “Whether or not you consider yourself political, your engagement at all is political. We use a lot of arguments in everyday conversation; I took a class as a graduate student for conflict management in the workplace and really it’s negotiation and it’s everyday reasoning, and it’s difficult to engage if you’re using fallacies.”

A fallacy is a line of reasoning that is considered wrong because it either suffers from a factual error, in which the evidentiary support is false, or where the premises of the argumentation are not sound. A logical fallacy, or formal fallacy, happens when there is a flaw in logical structure, whereas an informal fallacy happens when the structure of the argument is valid, but some part of the premises cannot guarantee the conclusion.

“I think the most common one people fall into is the hasty generalization fallacy where they have specific knowledge on a topic and they make a claim like ‘the sky is always blue’ because they see it’s blue all the time, where in reality the sky might change color,” said Stanley. “It’s very common when people talk about immigration, saying ‘well every person of a certain race doesn’t pay their taxes’ because they think that some people as illegal immigrants maybe don’t get taxed, so they take something as true and apply it to a variety of cases where it’s not always true.”

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This fallacy tends to stop a conversation in it’s tracks because it often times does not have strong evidentiary support and might be based on someone’s opinion. Whether the purpose of dialogue is to understand more about a topic or someone else’s opinion or to convince someone to change their mind, it’s never helpful to stop the conversation from continuing. The effect happens as well with teleological reasoning.

Stanley explained that teleological reasoning occurs commonly in discussions about individual rights and gun control. People will often reference the 2nd Amendment’s Right to Bear Arms as a justification for not implementing gun control policies, even though Constitutional rights are not inherently a justification for anything — laws and regulations are often updated, thrown out and replaced and so referencing the law as the final judgment on an issue avoids important dialogue and understanding.

John Mouracade, the Interim Dean for the University Honors College and a professor of philosophy and logic weighed in on some common fallacies and why sound logic is as important as it is fun and crafty.

“One of the fun things about logic is that whenever someone is making a case for anything, it could be in physics, in a law court, politics, ethics, or anything else there are two ways you can object to someone’s argument,” said Mouracade. “One is you could dispute the worthiness of their evidence, which requires a rich domain of experience, and the other is you can object to how they make their argument, which is logic. It’s the lazy man’s way to be intellectually engaging.”

For Mouracade, being aware of inconsistencies in arguments and able to effectively communicate about opinions are accessible skills for any person.

“The strawman fallacy is where you make an opponent’s argument out to be weaker then it actually is, so you’re not actually arguing against a man, you’re arguing against a strawman, but it doesn’t get you anywhere to defeat a bad position,” said Mourcaude. “What philosophers have to combat this is the principle of charity; at any point where you can see their argument as stronger, you take it that way.”

Mischaracterizing an argument or choosing to only argue against certain parts of someone’s point are often ways that people engage in strawman tactics. This can be both frustrating, as well as unproductive, for the person who is having their point unfairly deconstructed; wasting time trying to explain what an argument actually means distracts from the real issue and prevents meaningful understanding.

Mouracade also referenced vagueness of language and unclear summaries of evidence as issues that make a statistic or a fact more favorable or influential than it actually is. This type of bad argumentation often hinders a person’s ability to actually assess an argument when they hear it.

“I might say something like ‘Americans are in favor of minimum wage hike,’ which is true, but I’ve left out how many Americans we’re talking about and which ones specifically,” said Mouracade. “Poltiicans will say ‘Americans want this, Americans want that.’ If three Americans want it, technically what i’ve said is true, but you’re leaving out the information. These types of imprecise statements sound more powerful than they really are.”

Both Mouracade and Stanley also mentioned the authority fallacy, also known as the halo effect, where someone who is not actually an expert is considered to be the authority on an issue.

“One of the issues is that sometimes an individual is an authority in one area but not an authority in another,” said Mouracade. “Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon, obviously an expert in one area, but that doesn’t mean that he knows anything about foreign policy or economics. Likewise, a lot of Hollywood actors might be very intelligent, but that doesn’t mean they are informed about political issues. When I was growing up there was this actor who played a doctor on this TV show, ‘Trapper John M.D.,’ and he was so popular he used to do commercials for Bayer Aspirin and he’d come out in white coat with a stethoscope and say ‘I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV, and I recommend Bayer Aspirin.’ That shows how susceptible people are to this — he even tells you he’s not a doctor.”

Fallacies present themselves in argumentation in many ways and depending on the situation, flaws in logic can make it difficult to have real and meaningful discussions about collective action or public policy. Term Instructor Hugh Gunner Deery III, who teaches logic and philosophy, talked about how misleading fallacies like cherry-picking and false dichotomies plague political discussions and undermine attempts at finding holistic solutions.

“The one that I think is the easiest to identify that is relatively irritating to me, and I think potentially the most dangerous, is what I call the fallacy of the false dichotomy,” said Deery. “It will be painted that there are only two choices, often called false choices, or black-and-white thinking, which is to suppose that there’s only two options in a scenario when in fact there’s more than that. Most famously you hear things in the political sphere like ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us.'”

While valid argumentation might not seem like the concern of the average working American, Deer posited that being aware of when arguments are actually valid and sound is part of protecting oneself from being taken advantage of.

“Given the fact that society is so interrelated at this point in time that if you’re not at least semi-aware or semi-invovled in the certain circumstances of your society then you’re bound to be taken advantage of or potentially suffer some negative repercussions,” said Deery. “It’s helpful to have at least some idea of what people are proposing that you should do with your life, your money, or anything else like that. In that case, sound logic and argumentation and critical awareness about what someone is asking to you to do is important.”

On a similar level, Mouracade urged that people use conversations with oppositional points of view as an opportunity to learn more about an issue and improve the discourse in the social marketplace of ideas.

“When you think about engaging in discourse rather than argumentation, and in reality discourse shouldn’t be about winning,” said Mouracade. “Even if you don’t change your mind, you understand your opponent’s side and your position better. The goal is truth, but if you can’t get there understanding multiple viewpoints and those strengths and weaknesses is the next best thing.”

Often times people recognize being uninformed in society as a detriment to public good, but Stanley explained that logical speech can be an issue of personal relationships and communication too.

“I think there’s certain phrases used to shut down conversations, like fighting words. ‘You’re always late,’ ‘You never tell me you love me,’ they aren’t effective or truthful because they’re absolutes and they can be hurtful and harmful in conversations.”

Ultimately, the goal of dialogue is dependent on the situation. Political debates seek to convince and win, while a conversation between a couple about what movie to see or where to go on vacation is about mutual understanding and furthering the prosperity of a relationship. No matter what the reason is, valid and sound logic is crucial to successful and effective discourse.

Disclaimer: Kathryn Casello is a member of the UAA Debate Team.