Protect Yourself From Verbal Sleight of Hand

Don’t be fooled by these rhetorical tricks that mystify and manipulate.

Posted Mar 12, 2018

A few years ago I wrote about a Facebook exchange among two friends of mine that upset me because one of my friends resorted to name-calling instead of addressing the other friend's arguments (see Facebook Drama Triangle). In retrospect, that was mild. More recently I've been shocked by some disturbingly excessive name-calling, in the comment sections of articles I've read, that was directed at other commenters. The name-calling is bad enough, but the number of people who find that to be an acceptable method for engaging in debate is appalling. No one is going to be motivated or persuaded by vitriol.

Two months ago, I wrote an article on the importance of critical thinking in our age of information overload (see A Survival Guide for the Era of Fake News). Developing the ability to judge the veracity of the information we receive is important because there are many people, seeking power or profit, who will say anything in order to push their agenda. We must protect ourselves from the lies, propaganda, and fake news that we get from politicians, government, corporations, and the media.

People seeking power and influence will use verbal trickery in order to convince you to accept their point of view. They will speak confidently with tones of authority so that you won’t scrutinize their words too carefully. But, you can protect yourself by learning to recognize their logical and rhetorical fallacies. Here are the most common:

Ad Hominem Attack or Name-Calling: in this fallacy, the proponent will attack their opponent by attaching a negative label to them rather than support their argument or opinion with facts.

Ad Populum or Bandwagon: in this fallacy, the proponent will argue that you should agree because everyone is doing it. They want you to feel left out, or encourage you to try to “keep up with the Jones.” I’ll never forget my mother shutting this argument down by asking me: “If all your friends jump off a cliff are you going to follow?”

Appeal to the Stone: in this fallacy, the proponent will dismiss an argument as absurd (or unworthy of serious consideration) without giving any proof or reason for believing it is absurd.

Cherry Picking or Card Stacking: in this fallacy, the proponent will omit key information in order to slant a position in his favor. In this case, you are receiving a partial truth and you will have to do your own research to find out the rest.

False Analogy: in this fallacy, the proponent will present two things as being similar even though they are not.

False Dilemma: in this fallacy, the proponent will present only two options as if these were the only choices. Also called an "Either/Or" argument because it offers no middle ground and disregards compromises, alternatives, or new ideas.

Straw Man: in this fallacy, the proponent will distort or misrepresent their opponent’s position then proceed to attack this false and fabricated viewpoint instead. This fallacy creates the illusion that the opponent’s argument has been refuted when only a straw man has been knocked down.

 Scarecrow) via Wikimedia Commons
Misstating your opponent's position makes it as easy - as a straw man - to knock down.
Source: By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Americana: Scarecrow) via Wikimedia Commons

Red Herring: in this fallacy, the proponent will ignore a question, topic, or argument and attempt to shift the discussion/debate to a separate issue which he or she is more comfortable addressing.

False Cause: in this fallacy, the proponent will suggest that because two events are related that one caused the other to happen. It’s important to remember that correlation and/or coincidence do not prove causation.

Hasty Generalization: in this fallacy, the proponent will use a sample size that is too small to support an overriding conclusion or to declare a universal principle.

Appeal to Authority: in this fallacy, the proponent will use a famous person to endorse his position. You must ask yourself what this celebrity knows about the issue, and what they have to gain from it.

It’s one thing to attempt to persuade someone with facts, but it’s fraudulent when someone starts twisting them. Arm yourself against these fallacies by knowing and understanding how they work. Many times you won’t know that a fallacy has been used until you do your own research and verify the information for yourself. Once you have mastered these, there are many more fallacies you can learn about by searching online.

Print a copy of this article and keep these fallacies handy; you'll be able to use them every day. You can also use them for a fun drinking game during political debates. Every time you catch one, you get to take a shot!

Please share in the comments examples of these fallacies that you’ve encountered recently in the news or current events.