How To Argue (without sounding like an idiot) — Part 2

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

This is the second part of the “How to Argue” series where we take a look at logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning that undermine the logic of an argument.

Last week we discussed slippery slope, ad hominem and straw man fallacies. This week, we’ll cover red herring, false dilemma, circular argument and hasty generalizations. Catch up at

Red Herring

Red herring is a type of logical fallacy that misdirects an argument through the introduction of irrelevant information. The tactic is useful as a form of distraction from the issue at hand. The term comes from an antiquated technique for training or distracting hunting dogs. Trainers would drag a smelly smoked herring across the path of a dog to throw off its scent.

An example of a red herring fallacy: A mom comes home from work and yells at her son to clean his room. Her son yells back, “I saw you smoking cigarettes in the kitchen last night! You’re not supposed to do that.”

A real world example of a red herring: When asked about lewd comments Trump made on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, President Trump responded: “It’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We’re going to defeat ISIS. ISIS happened a number of years ago in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.”

Explanation: Instead of addressing the comments he made on the tape, Trump diverted the attention of the argument by changing the topic, quite abruptly, to how he would defeat ISIS.

False Dilemma

Also referred to as a false dichotomy, a false dilemma fallacy occurs when a speaker limits the options for an outcome to just two when there are more options to choose from. It’s basically an oversimplifying of options meant to manipulate and polarize the audience into two camps: those who agree and are heroized, and those who don’t agree, who are demonized.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many instances where there are only two options to an issue.

An example of a false dilemma fallacy: If I were to say, “Either the Sandpoint Reader is the best newspaper in town, or it isn’t,” that would be a true dilemma since there are really only two options to choose from – either the Reader is the best or it isn’t. If I were to say, “There are two kinds of people in Sandpoint – those who love the Reader and those who can’t read.” Just because someone can read doesn’t mean they will love the Reader. The choices provided are way too oversimplified.

A real world example of a false dilemma fallacy: A week following 9/11, President George W. Bush addressed Congress to discuss the U.S. going to war with Iraq. He said, “…we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Explanation: President Bush committed a false dilemma fallacy because he oversimplified the choices. Obviously there are many different shades of gray in the argument for going to war, especially with a country that was not the home of the suicide bombers who were responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It was entirely possible to not be with the terrorists, yet also not approve of the decision to invade Iraq.

Circular Argument

This one can be particularly maddening when you hear it in an argument. A circular argument is just that; an argument that goes round and round and doesn’t ever arrive at a new conclusion. Speakers who use circular arguments repeat their initial points they already assumed beforehand, sometimes in slightly different forms, always arriving at the same end.

Circular arguments have also been called Petitio principii, which means “Assuming the initial.” Circular arguments only appear to be an argument, when really they are a way to repackage someone’s assumptions into a form that might resemble an argument. One of the best ways to recognize a circular argument is if the conclusion also appears as one of the premises in the argument. Put simply, a circular argument starts where it finishes and finishes where it starts.

An example of a circular argument: “Only a mentally deranged person would ever kill someone, so anyone who kills someone is automatically mentally ill.”

A real world example of a circular argument: In 2014, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was discussing the potential legalization of marijuana in the state, he told a reporter, “If I’m at a wedding reception here and somebody has a drink or two, most people wouldn’t say they’re wasted. Most folks with marijuana wouldn’t be sitting around a wedding reception smoking marijuana.”

Explanation: See what he did there? Gov. Walker’s argument neglects certain key facts which would make his argument fall apart if presented. People aren’t openly smoking marijuana at Wisconsin wedding receptions because the drug is illegal. If made legal, who knows, maybe wedding receptions would be a great place to get stoned. There’s plenty of food lying around, at least.

Hasty Generalization

When you make a general statement without sufficient evidence to support it, you could be making a hasty generalization. You’ll see hasty generalizations made when people commit an illicit assumption, stereotyping, unwarranted conclusion or an exaggeration.

A hasty generalization is one of the most common logical fallacies because there’s no single agreed-upon measure for “sufficient” evidence. You can identify a hasty generalization by examining if its possible to support the original claim without resorting to guesswork.

One way to avoid hasty generalizations is to add qualifying words like “sometimes,” “often,” or “maybe.”

An example of a hasty generalization: “Toyota engines last longer than other engines.” This may be true for some Toyotas, but it’s impossible to say every Toyota engine lasts longer than its competitors. If you added one word, this statement no longer would be a logical fallacy: “Toyota engines often last longer than other engines.”

A real world example of a hasty generalization: This is a quote from then-candidate Donald Trump, who said the following when he announced his run for the Republican nomination: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Explanation: Trump commits a hasty generalization with this quote because he wants the audience to jump to a conclusion with little to no evidence to support their conclusion. With his statement, he assumes that the majority of Hispanics are either rapists, drug mules or criminals in general. Logically, there is no way this can be true. Sure, there are probably cases to support his accusations, but to generalize that an entire country is deliberately sending illegal immigrants to the U.S., and to presume them as criminals without any validation, is a hasty generalization at work.

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