Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Is it that time of the year again? Logical Fallacies in Writing (Relevant for Plots AND Undergraduate Dissertations)

Every spring, the sun comes out. Not for long, but long enough that I notice. Sometimes I dash to the beach, or the park. The sun makes me happy.

But the other thing that amuses me this time of the year is schadenfreude. For undergaduates up and down the country, it's dissertation time. It's typically 8,000-12,000 words of hell. Few undergraduates really know how to construct a logical argument. Many think they do.

Courtesy of a guest post written for L K Jay this time in 2012, I'm going to do undergrads up and down the country a favour by highlighting the common pitfalls that take a 1st class essay down to a 2:1 (or, a 2:1 down to a 2:2).


  • Appealing to emotion instead of using an argument - This could be a child not wanting to eat their greens. The parent then tells them to think about the 'poor starving children in Africa'. That's emotional leverage, not logic.
  • Floodgates - The argument that we're on a slippery slope, and if we let A happen then B will ensue.
  • The double fallacy - Arguing that because a claim was supported by a fallacy, that it must be wrong.
  • Ad Hominem - We ignore the argument and attack the person making it instead.
  • No true Scotsman - Post rationalising that a person would never do something.
  • Point of original dismissal or acclamation - Something is good or bad because of where it came from.
  • Revenge criticism - Instead of debating on merit, we attack criticism with more criticism.
  • Incredulity - We say we can't believe it without substantiating it.
  • Wrong conditions - When caught in a falsehood we argue the conditions weren't right.
  • Loaded questions - We ask questions with no good answer.
  • Inverse burden of proof- We challenge someone to disprove rather than proving our own argument.
  • Double entendre - Using linguistic ambiguity to mislead.
  • Gambler’s fallacy - Something happened several times, so it will happen again.
  • Bandwagon - Everyone else says so.
  • False polarisation - Painting everything as black or white when it's not
  • False compromise - Suggesting something is grey or middle ground, when it's a polar choice
  • Authority without substance- Using your own or an institution’s authority instead of a credible argument.
  • Composition - What's true for one thing is true for everything made from it. We can't see molecules so we can't see anything made from them either.
  • Circular arguments - We stick the answer in the question.
  • Nature - Things that happen in nature should happen.
  • Anecdotes - Isolated personal experiences given too much weight.
  • Cherry picked arguments- You massaged the stats by picking an isolated example.
  • Misrepresentation - You twisted an argument to attack it.

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