Chapter Seven: What About Faults and Gaps In Arguments?

Fallacies in Arguments

Arguments break down when readers discover weak linkages between a thesis or claim and its support. Scrutinizing these linkages is what most people mean by critical thinking
Arguments typically breakdown in one of three main ways:

  1. Reasoning or logic
  2. Credibility
  3. Emotion

Errors in the thinking can be categorized as various kinds of fallacies

Weak Evidence
Arguments commonly fail when the audience does not consider the evidence presented to be sufficient or relevant. Remember, when thinking about arguments, that effectiveness depends on the specific audience: what one particular reader considers relevant or sufficient, another may not.

Insufficiency
Just because a fallacy makes sense or seems persuasive doesn’t mean that it represents sound logic and reasoning. Scholars and educated citizens avoid fallacies because they don’t represent our best thinking: Fallacies do not build the best possible case for reaching a conclusion. Fallacies can be persuasive depending on the audience.

Unqualified Claims
People do not have the tendency to change their minds easily. An audience that disagrees with an argument naturally tends to pick apart the argument. When an audience hears an argument they already agree with, they tend to think less critically about the quality of the linkages and support.

What is difficult when creating arguments is knowing how picky or objective your audience will be. Generally speaking, you can assume that scholarly audiences will be reasonably objective and especially rigorous about sufficiency. You can avoid sufficiency fallacies, in your arguments and in your own thinking, by qualifying your claims

A qualification is stated as a restriction that limits a claim’s strength. Qualifying claims helps us to avoid exaggerating arguments.
We can do that one or more of the following ways:

  1. Weaken the verb:
  2. Narrow the subject
  3. Limit the object
  4. Add support

One qualification that bothers many scholars is the use of the phrase “think” before the introduction of a claim. The phrase often precedes an assertion, or unsupported opinion. Students sometimes think they can avoid the work of building an argument if they simply qualify their claims as “personal” opinion. Also, Characterizing an assertion as “just my opinion” can shut down conversation for people who believe that “everyone is entitled to her opinion.”

Take ownership of your claims rather than “hedging.”

Irrelevance

Another main category of reasoning errors involves relevance. Even when there is sufficient support, the linkage between that evidence and the claim or thesis may be weak.

A common kind of relevance fallacy confuses correlation with causation.

A second type of fallacy intentionally introduces information that is only weakly related to the conclusion¬¬

A third kind of relevance fallacy occurs when writers create “straw man arguments” – Oversimplified, exaggerated, or simply inaccurate, or simply inaccurate versions of opposing arguments- to make alternative perspectives seem weak, foolish, and easily refutable, like a scarecrow that we could easily knock over. One of the most common straw man techniques is to misquote or use someone’s words out of context. Another popular trick it to misrepresent or oversimplify opposing views.

Relying Too Much on Credibility
Writers and readers commonly make mistakes with credibility, just as they do with evidence. The first kind of mistake is agreeing with an argument because of the author’s reputation, rather than the verification and evidence presented. Advertisements often use this kind of false authority fallacy because they know that consumers will buy products based on celebrity endorsements, rather than on what they know about the quality of the product itself or whether it really works.

Getting Emotional
Emotions provide the least reliable but most powerful kind of support. Consider how much money charities raise by showing cuddly puppies or starving children to evoke sympathy. Emotion can make the difference between an audience agreeing with an argument and doing something about it. Emotion can also cloud good judgment, especially when those emotions become intensely positive or negative, so scholars employ emotions sparingly in their arguments.

The Usefulness or Fallacies
When reading or listening, recognizing fallacies can make us smarter consumers of arguments made by advertisers, politicians, bosses, and so called friends. Education in this kind of rhetoric can be a kind of inoculation against being manipulated by others because we will be more likely to think twice about whether we should believe an argument – especially when we’re already inclined to do so.

• You might think of a hasty generalization as a hypothesis worth testing
• You might notice red herrings as potential issues to investigate further
• You might use evidence to support an argument that typically evokes only emotion
• You might search for credible sources to replace the false authorities that a weak argument relies on

Anticipate and Respond to Opposing Views
Another way to make arguments stronger is to address alternative perspectives. Sometimes we can fail to anticipate our audience’s objections, and it leaves readers thinking. These omissions can annoy readers or imply that we haven’t thought through our argument fully. At the very least, readers aren’t fully convinced. At the worst, they’re offended, angry, or unwillingly to read any further.

Sometimes we feel this way when we view political ads that only show one side of the story, such as when a candidate attacks his opponent for one poor decision while disregarding all the good work he’s done.

Anticipate Objections
Imagining potential objections is one of the best ways fortify our arguments against resistance. After all, its much better to anticipate readers’ objections before we release our words to the public than it is to hope that our readers won’t think of that one counter argument that could ravel our whole case.

Respond to Objections

1. We can concede. When reader’s objections are valid, we typically acknowledge their legitimacy. We do not think of conceding as “giving in” or undermining our argument; rather, we concede to show our readers that we are honest, open-minded, and reasonable. We are careful about the way we frame the concession, though, so that we do not sound weak or unsteady in our position.

2. We can refute. If we disagree with our readers’ objections, we can explain how we have arrived at an alternative position. We articulate an opposing view and then present the evidence, verification, and illustrations that convinced us to think differently.

Elaborate to Fill Gaps
Writers can never cover an issue entirely, so we can always find more room for development. As readers, we can mine these gaps to discover unanswered questions, missing evidence, and places to insert our ideas. As writers, we can identify gaps in order to expand and refine our arguments.

  1. Incorporate more examples
  2. Respond to more objections
  3. Relate the argument to real-life contexts
  4. Discuss the larger implications of your argument
  5. Make connections
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