Argumentum ad Hominem. Also known as the Appeal to Personal Ridicule, this fallacy is one of the most common fallacies of irrelevant evidence. The ad hominem appeal relies upon character assassination as a substitute for refutation of an opponent's thesis. Of course, a fact is true or false quite independently of the level of intelligence, amount of breeding, personal habits, or degree of fame of its asserter; yet a surprising number of arguers yield to the temptation to attack the reputation or ability or education of an opponent rather than to present arguments. Worse, the attack is often false, and amounts to nothing more than insult and invective.
Always remember that an argument can be legitimately attacked only by another argument. Truth does not always dwell with our friends, the good, and the sober; it is therefore our duty to look beyond personality and examine fairly whatever assertions, evidences, or positions are put forward.
The ad hominem fallacy has a particular, subtle form which uses the rhetorical device apophasis--pretending to deny what is really being asserted:
There are two circumstances where non-abusive, factual, personal criticism can be relevant to the issue. The first is commonly found in the courtroom, where the credibility of a witness is sometimes questioned because of his reputation as a liar or because of a demonstrable, overpowering self interest in promoting a certain account of what he has done. Note that such a reputation is significant only in relation to testimony about what the witness did or saw. It has no relevance in connection with his opinions or arguments. Note also that a witness' reputation as a liar (or as a very credible man) is no proof of anything, but merely a relevant factor to be taken into account when evaluating his testimony. A habitual liar can tell the truth and an outstanding citizen can lie. And note finally that even this closely circumscribed, legitimate criticism is often abused. An assertion like, "Don't listen to him; he's a liar," should be considered an ad hominem until the assertion is established as both true and relevant.
The second circumstance where personal character qualities can be relevant involves an estimate of behavior based on personal values. That is, the fact that Jones has been convicted of embezzling money from his employers twice before would be a relevant criticism when considering him for the job of treasurer of the company. And if your local representative has been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for votes, you would not be guilty of an ad hominem if you told others not to vote for him because of what he has done. However, it would be an ad hominem to say, "Congressman Smith's ideas about highway improvement are worthless because he takes bribes." Again, ideas can be attacked only by other ideas or by evidence.
Argumentum ad Populum. Also known as the Appeal to the Masses or the Bandwagon Appeal, this argument makes an appeal to a person's sense of belonging or wanting to belong to a particular group. The appeal may be to a political, racial, or religious grouping, but more frequently it involves a social cluster and an address to the beliefs and actions which define the cluster. Peer group pressure, fads, styles, trends, fashions, social acceptability, and fear of ostracization are powerful operators on human behavior and can be used very effectively to manipulate people. People have both a strong desire to belong (since we are social beings) and a general sense of "the normal." The ad populum fallacy takes advantage of this by mistakenly equating a certain popular notion or the mood of a riled-up mob with the normal, true, and acceptable. People are great imitators; they tend to do whatever is "in" and they tend to think whatever is the "right idea." This "human see, human do" phenomenon helps explain everything from goldfish-swallowing fads to the sudden popularity of adultery, and everything from bestselling records to the current focus of literary criticism.
Democracies are especially susceptible to this tyranny of the majority appeal, because political issues are commonly decided by majority vote, and social harmony is maintained partly by each citizen being agreeable. But truth and morality are not determined by popular vote, and to accept ideas or behavior patterns only because they are common can result in nothing less than delusion and oppression. As Anatole France reminds us, "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." Think for yourself and you will never have to admit that you have become a willing victim of social pressure.
Of course, many things that are commonly believed or promoted are quite true, and it would be foolish to suggest that all traditional beliefs, values, patterns, and so forth should be rejected because they are common (see the next fallacy); the fact is, much of tradition is true, helpful, or valuable precisely because it has been often examined, and those who reject it out of hand are as errant from wisdom as those who accept everything just as it is offered. The point is, then, that you should (1) be suspicious of arguments based largely upon their current popularity, (2) keep your mind operating when you are offered traditional information, and (3) never offer as a proof the fact that something is popular. In other words, keep your back to the wind of popular opinion (plenty of it will blow down your collar anyway), and reexamine your dogmas once a year: the good should be reaffirmed and the bad revised or discarded.
The basis for an ad populum appeal may be true (that is, it could be based on a genuine majority opinion) or it may be simply wishful thinking by the arguer. But whether the claim is true or false, the appeal is designed to create the urge to "jump on the bandwagon." (The propaganda analysts, in fact, call this the bandwagon appeal.)
Be careful of phrases such as "best selling," "popular," "America's favorite," "most people agree," and so on. The biggest danger of the ad populum is that this "get with it" philosophy is really an appeal for you to throw away your mind and become a cork on the river of life, floating along without any motion or direction of your own. My advice is, Don't just "go with the flow" unless the flow is going in the right direction. Sir James Barrie sums up: "As soon as you can say what you think and not what some other person has thought for you, you are on the way to being a remarkable man."
. . . For most minds are the slaves of external circumstances, and conform to any hand that undertakes to mold them, roll down any torrent of custom in which they happen to be caught, or bend to any importunity that bears hard against them.
The Appeal to Individualism. By a paradox of human nature, we have, along with our desire to belong, an equally strong desire to be independent and unique. We want to be like some people so that we will not feel alienated, but we want to be different from nearly everybody else. Such a situation makes possible a "mass appeal to individualism," where an advertiser, for example, will attempt to sell a product to a considerable number of people by telling them that it will make them different or that it is a product for only a select few. The same kind of appeal, coupled with the adolescent flock urge in young people, can create a trend of major proportions in records, clothes, and even behavior, which then becomes almost a prerequisite for social acceptance in that group: as we have witnessed in the "individualistic" fads and styles of our younger days, a mass desire to be "different" (from another group or generation) often leads to a slavish conformity of the most absurd and bizarre kind.
Actually, the appeal to individualism can be divided into three often interrelated forms. The first is an appeal to be different simply for the sake of being different. It is an appeal against tradition and the common; whatever is common, standard, ordinary should be rejected because it is common, standard, and ordinary--qualities the "individualist" defines as dull and unthinking. But this, of course, is no less reactionary than its ad populum counterpart.
Arguers often exploit this desire for a different drummer by calling upon it and then presenting their own position as that of the true independent thinker. "You should think for yourself," they say, and then, "Here's what you should think." Or, "You know, people who don't follow the mob think this way." The appeal is useful for arguers who find themselves in a minority position. If only a handful of people are buying a particular model of car, the advertiser can appeal to prospects to "be different." A small political faction can gain adherents by telling others not to be "pressed into a mold" or not to imitate those whose ideas have been "stamped out by a cookie cutter." It is pretty easy to characterize the common or majority as humdrum and boring while presenting the alternative as new, different, and original. (Remember the "it's different--I like it" soft drink advertisements?)
A few of the words and phrases used in connection with
this form of the appeal to individualism are:
The second form of this fallacy occurs as flattery or as a direct appeal to the individual ego: "You're pretty special, and this product is for special people," or "I know you will agree with me because you are so intelligent and well-informed." Sometimes this form uses a challenge: "Are you brave and rugged enough to join our group?"
The last form of the appeal to individualism might be characterized as an appeal to personal prestige--to social class, status, or self-importance. There is a certain amount of antiegalitarianism in many people; even in a two-hundred-year-old democracy the feeling that some people are naturally "more equal" than others is still prominent. An appeal to this sense of snobbery or exclusivity can be very effective and has become a major method of selling expensive ("upper class") goods to the aspiring and upwardly mobile middle class. So strong is this sense of snobbery that a bottle of perfume costing five dollars to make sells for forty dollars rather than ten or twelve because people will not buy "cheap" perfume. One condominium developer,who had sold only two units in many months, was told the units were too cheap for the prospective clientele. He doubled the price and sold the whole project in two weeks.
Perhaps we are all to some extent victims of our own hungry egos, of our desire to be someone special, and of the urge to be different just for the sake of novelty. The victimization is relatively harmless when it results only in purchasing a soft drink, soap, or perfume, since psychological satisfaction is a definite (though externally imposed) factor to be reckoned with when enjoying or evaluating a product. But to make a major purchase, or worse, accept an idea or vote a certain way on the basis of an appeal to individualism would be to sacrifice the reason at the altar of vanity and to trade in the truth for a satisfied ego.
Transference. Also called the fallacy of association, this classic fallacy of shifting the argument attempts to persuade the hearer, viewer, or reader by associating with the argument, product, or action something attractive or already acceptable or something unattractive or unacceptable.
Products are packaged in brightly-colored boxes with words like "New!" "Exciting!" and "Powerful!" printed all over them so that a prospective buyer will transfer the evoked positive feelings from the package to the product. Well dressed, good looking spokesmen make other products and ideas attractive and acceptable by being so themselves. In the days when "only prostitutes" dyed their hair, advertisers made hair coloring acceptable, even desirable, by associating it in advertisements with happy children and a contented husband. The woman who dyed her hair had an attractive family life and was loved and accepted.
We transfer our perceptions of externals--happy domestic situations, good looking men, fancy packaging, nice surroundings--to the essences, whether hair dyes, cars, perfume, or philosophies, political stances, and behavioral norms. Our associations demand consistency: a politician who supports motherhood and apple pie must have other good ideas, and a product in an expensive, good looking package must be high quality itself. Unfortunately, believing in transference (or falling for its appeal) opens us to costly and disappointing delusions.
Transference can be divided into several parts just for clarity. The first is the fallacy of external/internal equation, which might also be described as the whitewashed wall fallacy, after the ancient practice of unscrupulous builders who, having made a flimsy wall of loosely piled stones, covered the outside with whitewash to hide the fact that there was no mortar between the stones. This is the fallacy of judging a book by its cover--the external appearance of something is assumed to represent accurately its internal qualities. Needless to say, judging by external appearance or outer form is very foolish, and is becoming more so as the public's willingness to do so is increasingly exploited.
A second form of transference works by putting a product or idea in close connection with something attractive or unattractive (depending on whether the idea is to be promoted or attacked). Advertisements often picture the product in a beautiful country setting, around streams or mountains. Politicians often associate their opponents' names with pictures of crime victims, nuclear mushroom clouds, long lines of the unemployed, or the bad section of town. Other politicians distribute pictures of themselves touring new factories, shaking hands with "plain folks," kissing babies, officiating at the opening of a new highway, and so on.
A typical example of this associative appeal is the appeal to sex. There is hardly a more successful method of defeating the reasoning ability and swaying the judgment than to bring sex into the question, whether overtly or through subtle suggestion.
The main form of the appeal to sex is the erotic or carnal appeal--what we might call an appeal to lust. Advertisers use it regularly; the saying, "Sex sells," has proved so true that perhaps a third or more of all advertising uses this appeal in some way. Visual appeals usually show a woman with part of her body uncovered (this is called "cheesecake" in the advertising business), while verbal appeals often rely on double meanings and innuendoes.
A milder form of this appeal simply promises or implies social or romantic success. This appeal works well because social opportunities and relationships could always stand improvement.
In another form of the appeal to sex, a political appeal to one's own gender attempts to establish solidarity with all men or women and to play on one's pride in being a man or woman.
The advertisers, too, use this appeal:
The political pride-in-gender form of the appeal to sex works well because it has combined the appeal to individualism (one sex is independent and different from the other) and the ad populum appeal (all men or all women are one's allies).
Best advice: base your decisions on reasons rather than on anatomy.
Another significant form of the transference or association fallacy is the genetic error. This fallacy makes the mistake of judging an idea's truth or value by the person or institution originating or pronouncing it. But even though an idea might have been originated in the distant past, uttered by a criminal, or formulated by an amateur, it still might be true. And though another idea might have been approved by the latest scientific organization, uttered by a revered forefather, or formulated by an expert, it still may be false. The truth or worth of an idea, especially in areas like morals, politics, and philosophy, must be determined on its own merits; its origin is either completely irrelevant or at best (in the case of scientific discoveries and some expert opinions) a modest indicator of probability.
For some reason, the genetic error is very frequently committed by using quotations from the founders of America (everything they said must be true and right) and from Adolf Hitler or another such villain (everything he said must be wrong and vicious). And depending on individual political leanings and emotional responses to Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and so forth, these people are also used to "prove" how bad or good, true or false a particular idea must be, because they supposedly originated (or at least uttered) it.
Every age has suffered to some extent from modernist snobbery ("Well, we've really arrived now--we must be the only culture ever to have any good ideas") and that has created much of the problem we now call the genetic error. But we must remember that people in distant ages and remote locations were every bit as intelligent as we are, however lacking they might have been in modern technology. Think of the pyramids or Aristotle or Chinese herbal medicine and you will remember that we are not the first generation to do any thinking.
The final form of transference is the appeal to way of life. This appeal attempts to sell happiness or elegance as a concomitant of the product or idea being promoted. You have probably noticed that in almost all advertisements, no matter what the product is, the people pictured are having an astonishingly good time. Idea pushers sometimes use the appeal to way of life to market their wares to people who appear to value happiness or a good time above truth, morality, or justice. The appeal in this form can be quite selfish: "If we convict Button of embezzling those pension funds, his company will no longer support our little league team. Let's let him off."
Typical way of life appeals include claims to "live a little," "have fun," "feel the excitement," and "try a new adventure."
Go for the Gusto!
Motivation researchers are those harlot social scientists who, in impressive psychoanalytic and/or sociological jargon, tell their clients what their clients want to hear, namely, that appeals to human irrationality are likely to be far more profitable than appeals to rationality. --S. I. Hayakawa
Begging the Question (Petitio Principii). In its standard form, this fallacy occurs when the initially stated point to be proved (the thesis or assertion) is later used in the argument as an already accepted fact, to support some new point at issue which must be established to prove the initial point. Thus the original statement is eventually used to prove itself true, and hence the other name for this fallacy, circular reasoning. Thesis A is supported by point B; point B is then supported by thesis A (now called fact A).
(Note: The name of this fallacy is often confusing. "Question" here means "issue" rather than "a request for an answer." Thus, a question-begging argument usually has no actual questions in it.)
Sometimes essentially the same assertion is changed into different words and used directly as "evidence" to prove itself as first given:
Another form of this fallacy, known as a question-begging definition, defines a term or phrase in such a way that, when used in an assertion, it proves the assertion true by the very way the term is defined. Any objection to the assertion is silenced by appealing to the definition. For instance, if an arguer says, "All properly informed people oppose mining ocean-floor mineral nodes," anyone named to be in favor of such mining can be declared "not properly informed" by definition. Note the way the following implied definitions are question begging:
Question-begging definitions are often the result of stipulative definitions taken to extremes. A stipulative definition is a special, customized meaning given to a word for the sake of exactness or better understanding. Many words are broad or even vague, and stipulative definitions can help to clarify an argument or presentation. For example, no logical problem arises when a writer specifies that "the term 'current technology' shall mean here 'manufactured within the last two years'" or "by 'hardwood cabinet' I mean a cabinet made from boards of solid hardwood but a cabinet made from particle board, even though the particle board is made of hardwood chips." These are both reasonable stipulative definitions, almost certainly not designed to rig an argument. But compare these similar definitions and their arguments:
The test is whether the definition establishes a conclusion automatically and unfairly or whether it is a reasonable definition and clarification of a vague or loose term.
Compound Questions. Also called "poisoning the well," this fallacy involves a question which at the same time presents a conclusion or consists of a conclusion in the guise of a question. The fallacy is committed by combining two or more questions which cannot be answered together (hence the name "compound questions"), or more often, by asking a question implying that a previous question has already been asked and answered in a particular way. The compound question thus prevents or avoids any opposing arguments and incriminates the answerer regardless of the response he gives because any answer would admit the preliminary conclusions built into the question. The classic, ancient example is, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If you say, "no," you admit that you beat her. But if you say, "yes," you also admit that you used to beat her. Note the assumptions behind these questions:
In another form of this fallacy, several questions which may each have a different answer are combined into one question for which a single response is demanded.
The response to a compound question, of course, is to refuse to answer it as stated, identifying it as a compound question, and then breaking it down into its various components. Questions which imply previous conclusions should be responded to by objecting to the conclusions: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" "I do not now beat nor ever have beaten my wife."
Note that if a previous question has indeed been asked and answered or if some circumstance establishes the answer to a previous question, a question that implies that previous answer is not fallacious. If someone takes a few shots at you, you are not being illogical to ask, "Why are you trying to shoot me?" If Johnny is always late coming home, his parents are not being illogical to ask, "Why are you always late coming home?"
Condition Contrary to Fact. We all have fun speculating on what might have been different if certain events of history or the past had had different outcomes. Of course, we can never be sure what would have happened. A single event is a link in an infinitely branching chain, and to alter that event could result in an incomprehensible number of altered events after it. Thus, all we can do is imagine and guess--probably very inaccurately--what would have been if some circumstance had been different. To insist otherwise--to pretend to know what would have happened--commits the fallacy of condition contrary to fact.
In another form of this fallacy, an arguer applies the premise of a conditional syllogism to a circumstance that does not have a necessary or automatic cause-and-effect relationship. We can seldom be sure what will follow a certain proposed event until the event actually occurs. We can argue for probability in such cases, but not for necessity. Note the difference between the premises of acceptable conditional syllogisms like these--
--and these examples of condition contrary to fact:
Note that any of these last statements would serve very well for the thesis of an essay, in which supporting evidence would help to establish that thesis. But none of the conclusions follow necessarily from the proposed (hypothetical) conditions. As in all other areas of critical thinking, you must use your good judgment to determine how probable each of these claims seems to be.
Contradictory Premises. Conclusions are drawn from the interactions of premises: where two premises contradict each other, there can be no interaction and hence no conclusion. Similarly, if the definitions of two terms conflict with or exclude each other, then those two terms cannot be simultaneously ascribed to a single object or event. The classic example of contradictory premises is the question, "What will happen if an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" The problem here is that in a universe where an irresistible force has been defined to exist, there cannot also exist an immovable object, because then the force would not be irresistible. Conversely, if there is discovered or defined such an item as an immovable object, then by definition there can be no such thing as an irresistible force.
This fallacy's most popular appearance is in the form of a challenging question, because questions with contradictory premises are such brain teasers. In each case, though, no answer can be given because the premises cannot both be true.
The Fallacy of Self-Refutation. Any statement asserting a universal truth or absolute application must itself be subject to and consistent with the doctrine it advances. Sometimes, however, a statement--especially of epistemological philosophy--logically contradicts the philosophy it advances; that is, the expression or assertion of a "truth" is itself an exception or contradiction to the truth so expressed or asserted. For example, the statement, "All generalizations are false," is itself a generalization, so that if indeed all generalizations are false, the statement itself is false also. Thus the statement refutes itself and is therefore logically impossible. Note that the following statements all commit the fallacy of self-refutation because each one contradicts in itself the assertion it presents.
False Dilemma. This fallacy is also known as false alternatives or the either/or fallacy. We all sometimes get into the habit of viewing life as a series of antitheses: we hear one side of an argument and want to hear the "other" side; one party or position must be "right" and the other must be "wrong." Actually, there may be ten or more sides to an argument, not just two; and one party or position may be a mixture of good, bad, and compromised ideas, just like the other. The real circumstances of life seldom align themselves exactly with our ideals of right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice; so we must be careful not to create false alternatives forced into correspondence with these ideals (for example, "This energy bill is either good or bad").
Further, we must resist reducing complex situations and possibilities to only two alternatives (or three or four). Many alternative positions are not diametrically opposed to each other, but may be merely different mixtures of similar ingredients. Thus, to characterize two positions as mutually exclusive can be not only reductive, but completely false. For example, "This is a struggle between safety and liberty," or "You support progress but we support ecology," implies in each case that the two opposed elements cannot be reconciled or co-existent and that the hearer must choose between them.
A false dilemma is not always created by a careless or ignorant arguer. A few arguers purposefully establish such a one-or-the-other choice in order to oppose their position to an obviously false and easily rejectible position, thereby almost forcing agreement with theirs: "We must either put my plan into operation today or face anarchy and bloodshed tomorrow."
Be slightly suspicious when you read or hear expressions like, "Our choice is clear--we must have either . . ." or "Which will you have?" They are often followed by a false dilemma. (Do note that not every either/or usage is fallacious: "The patient is either alive or dead" or "Either God exists or he doesn't" are both legitimate oppositions.)
The Appeal to Force (Argumentum ad Baculum). This is simply the adult form of arguing the way a bully does: if you don't accept my opinion, I'll punch you in the nose. The arguer demands acceptance of his proposition not because it is true or proved but because there are consequences for rejecting it.
A variety of the appeal to force is the appeal to fear. This fallacy suggests possible negative occurrences by other agents (rather than direct threats by a bully) and the occurrences can be natural or non-human evils. A healthy, intellectual fear--which we call concern--is good, even necessary; but an emotional, irrational fear, working with stirred-up juices, will often produce poor decisions.
A good example from a few years ago is the tactic some door-to-door salesmen used to promote smoke detectors. The salesman would show his prospect several color pictures of children who had been burned to death in home fires, and then by playing on the feelings of the now suitably horrified prospect, would sell eight or ten detectors at over a hundred dollars each. A calm and rational evaluation of the situation would have resulted in the realization that two or perhaps three detectors would be entirely sufficient for most homes, and further, that they could be bought from a store for less than thirty dollars each. Once again we see the truth of the old maxim, "It costs extra to let your guts do your thinking."
The Appeal to Prestige (Argumentum ad Verecundiam). The fallacy of this appeal lies in associating an argument or conclusion with the fame, reputation, or prestige of some person or institution, thus making an equation between social status and proof. The argument is intended to take advantage of an audience's ignorance by exploiting its respect for authority.
An appeal to authority can be reasonably grounded when the authority bases his conclusions on examination, experiment, knowledge, or some set of reasons he is competent to judge. The opinions of experts are very good to have. The problem is that it is not always easy to tell when an appeal to authority is reasonably grounded and when it is merely an appeal to prestige--an appeal to the fame or position of the asserter. Has the authority conducted a thorough investigation or is he simply giving his unfounded or even prejudiced opinion?
One of the largest exhibitions of the fallacious appeal to prestige occurs in areas of controversy, where certain complex truths remain only partially understood. Every time a report, study, or article comes out with some new information (or just another opinion), that report is heralded by those whom it pleases as the final truth, proved so by an appeal to the prestige of the issuer. Thus what should have been an ongoing factual debate is rendered a mere battle of reputations. You should believe my truth because I have more famous people supporting it than my opponents have famous people supporting their truth. One long-running example of this is the debate over marijuana. Some authorities believe it causes permanent reduction in intelligence and general brain function while other authorities believe it is no worse than tobacco and maybe better. The ultimate determination ought to be made by objective tests and measurements, and not by comparing credentials.
Here are some common problems to keep in mind when considering or evaluating an appeal to authority:
It is natural that we want to know what other people think, particularly the wise and thoughtful and informed, so the use of authorities and their reasons can be helpful, especially when their comments are used to buttress other arguments. An authority appeal by itself will almost always look like (and perhaps be) a mere fallacious appeal to prestige.
So, as useful as the opinion of an expert is, it is still not a substitute for one's own thinking. Always prefer the merits (proofs) for an argument to the fame of its supporters, and always feel free to sift information for yourself.
Note in these examples how the appeal to prestige relies on status rather than evidence:
A variety of the appeal to prestige is the appeal to misplaced authority. This fallacy uses the reputation of respected authorities as a means of supporting their opinions on matters outside their area of expertise. An authority, however famous and competent and reliable in his field, must be considered an ordinary person in matters outside of it.
The danger of falling for this fallacy is especially acute when an attempt is made to extend an expert's authority into an area which appears to be a part of his own:
On the Appeal to Prestige
Nothing overshadows truth so completely as authority. --Alberti
A Story of Prestige
A horse dealer had an excellent animal for sale, but at the market it attracted no customers. So he went to see the famous horse trainer Po Lo. "In three days no one has noticed my superb horse," he said. "What I'd like you to do is to walk around the horse and inspect it, then walk away--but look back. For this I'll give you a morning's profit from my other sales." Po Lo circled the horse and examined it, walked away, but looked back; and within the day the horse was sold for ten times what it was worth.
--Chan Kuo Ts'e, tr. Moss Roberts