Professor Gary Jason, PhD | TUTORIAL – The Five Most Common Fallacies to Avoid

TUTORIAL – The Five Most Common Fallacies to Avoid


We are going to examine fallacies.  By the term “fallacy” I don’t mean a mistaken belief–as for instance when one says that it is a “fallacy” to think that women don’t make good firefighters.  Rather, I mean by fallacy a commonly made psychologically persuasive error in reasoning.

How many fallacies are there?  How many standard tricks do people commonly employ in reasoning?  Hundreds.  One book–Historian’s Fallacies by Ronald Fischer–lists over two hundred of them.  But we will be much less ambitious, covering the five most common fallacies I find in student papers.

An important point needs to be made about the list of fallacies we are about to cover.  Each label will be defined and illustrated in such a way as to make it distinct from the others.  But as with the terms “stew” and “chili,” there are going to be cases in which we could apply more than one label.  The point is to not get overly concerned with labels, but instead to use the labels to help you detect flaws in reasoning.

First: Irrelevant Appeal to Antipathy

The first of these fallacies is often called ”˜arguing against the person’ or ”˜appeal to hate’. We will use a more accurate label, irrelevant appeal to antipathy. This we define as attempting to arouse an aversion to a person or group that is irrelevant to the topic at hand to get the listener/audience to accept a claim instead of giving logical evidence for that claim.

This fallacy is committed in two ways. The first form is irrelevant personal attack, which is the fallacy of criticizing a person who puts forward a proposal or claim rather than giving evidence to refute his point of view logically. Arguing against the person is illogical even if the attack is factually correct. It is illogical because good people can be wrong in what they say, and even bad people can be correct in what they say, so to figure out whether a statement is correct one has to look at it, not the person who originated it.

We can distinguish several varieties of personal attacks. One variety is the abusive form, in which the person’s character is attacked. Dismissing a person’s claim on the basis of her being a “fascist,” or “pinko,” or “nut,” or “creep,” or “thief,” or any other (alleged) defect in her character is to commit the abusive form of this fallacy. Consider this example:

Dear Editor:

Regarding Fred Boar’s claim (see his letter to this paper May 13) that the 55 mph speed limit doesn’t save lives, I have this to say: Boar, you are the stupidest jerk I have ever run across. I would expect more smarts from a clump of fungus!

Logically speaking, one decides whether the 55-mile-per-hour limit saves lives by looking at the statistics concerning accident rates (among other things). Fred Boar’s character or intellect is entirely irrelevant to the issue. Notice I say that the accusation is irrelevant, not false. It wouldn’t matter if it were true: even people of low character or weak intellect can be correct in what they say.

The second variety of irrelevant personal is the circumstantial variety. Here, one does not so much attack another person’s character but rather accuses him of being biased. Again, whether the accusation is correct does not matter, because even biased people can be right. Some examples of this fallacy:

Lecturer: I think that lecturers are underpaid at this university, and deserve a significant raise in pay.

Student: Well, of course you would say that – you yourself are a lecturer!

The student hasn’t shown lecturers at that university do not deserve higher pay. For that, the student would have to cite facts about how much lecturers earn, what their duties are, how much time those duties take to perform well, and so on. That the lecturer is biased doesn’t matter: in fact, his bias may be what has made his recognize an unjust pay level.

Consider next this reply by someone who was accused of severe mismanagement:

Leonard J. Hansen, Senior World’s founder, publisher and editor, says that while he has recently experienced “severe cash problems,” reorganization has cut overhead and put the newspaper on the road to good health. Hansen dismisses the allegations as being from “a couple of disgruntled former employees who are going around trying to assassinate me.”

Has he proven those charges false merely by accusing those who made them of being prejudiced against him?

The third variety of irrelevant personal is tu quoque (”˜you also’), in which a person’s point of view is dismissed because of (alleged) hypocrisy. But, once again, even hypocrites can be right. It is illogical to dismiss your father’s warning about the use of drugs merely because he drinks. Even if he is a hypocrite, his warnings may be right: maybe seeing what his alcoholism has done to his own life is what enables the father to see the risks in his son’s behavior.

Consider this example of tu quoque, which took place during a debate between then California governor Jerry Brown and then San Diego mayor Pete Wilson. Brown asked Wilson to explain a $70,000 loan the mayor had gotten that allowed him to invest in a tax shelter and escape federal income taxes in 1980. Wilson responded that it was:

—the ultimate in brass even for Jerry Brown to come up with a comment on taxes. . . . Over the last three years, sir, I have paid more taxes than you. So if I have not paid a fair share of taxes, neither have you, brother”.

The fourth variety of irrelevant appeal personal attack is poisoning the well. To poison the well is to accuse the speaker of being a liar before he has a chance to speak – in effect, poisoning the minds of the listeners to what the speaker has to say. The tactic is to imply that the speaker is not to be trusted or believed. For example:

Friends, over the next few weeks you are going to hear a lot of stories about Senator Smith’s husband. Please keep in mind that all of these tall-tales are generated by a vast right-wing conspiracy of liars.

The second basic form of irrelevant appeal to antipathy deserves mention. Often, an idea (or theory, or practice, or proposal) will be attacked on the basis of its origins (its “genesis”). That is, instead of giving relevant evidence that the idea is false, the arguer will denigrate the group (as opposed to the person) that originated it. We call this a genetic fallacy. For example, such a fallacy would be committed by someone who argued against the idea of a four-day work week by saying it was a ”˜communist’ idea. It would equally committed by one who argued that the proposal to build more freeways is bad because freeways were first built by the Nazis.

When is it relevant to look at the character and background of a proponent of a point of view? That is, when is it not a fallacy to criticize the source? Two broad situations: when a person is testifying and when the issue at hand is precisely a person’s fitness for a position or role. Let’s examine each.

Quite often, a person will ask you to accept a point based on his testimony, his say-so. That is, he is acting as a witness: he is the evidence, so to speak. In such a situation, it is obviously relevant and logical to look to some extent at least at the witness’s credibility, character, qualifications, biases, and motives.

For example, suppose Jones is on trial for murder, and Smith is a witness who has just testified he saw Jones commit the crime. Jones attorney will almost surely question Smith.  If under questioning Smith reveals that he was intoxicated the night he claims he saw Jones commit the crime, the jury will likely discount his testimony. And they would be logical to do so, for Smith has revealed he probably had impaired observation and judgment at the time. Again, If Jones’ attorney gets Smith to reveal that Smith has been having an affair with Jones’ girlfriend, the jury will likely discount Smith’s testimony. And they would be logical to do so, for Smith has revealed he has a powerful reason to lie: by lying, he can get his romantic rival put away.

The second area in which a person’s background and character are relevant is when the question is the fitness of a person is the issue. For example, if Smith is applying for a job as (say) a school bus driver, of course it is broadly logical for the interview committee to ask him about his driving record. If a member of the interviewing committee asks Smith whether Smith has had any speeding or drunken driving tickets, and Smith reveals he has had numerous such tickets, the committee will likely not hire him. And they would be logical to not do so, since the legitimate issue here is his ability to drive safely, and numerous tickets for speeding and impaired driving are evidence for lack of care behind the wheel. Again, if under questioning, Smith reveals he has had accidents at which he was at fault that killed others, the committee likely will not hire him. And they would be logical to not do so, since past accidents are evidence that Smith will be more likely than people with no past accidents to be in future accidents.

However, even in question of testimony and fitness for a position, there are limits to what information can be considered relevant. Attorneys and hiring committees generally cannot ask witnesses/job candidates about their past religious preferences, or their ethnicity or sexual orientation, or about a host of other matters.

The following examples should help you see the difference between relevant and irrelevant (that is, fallacious) criticisms of a person.

Case 1

  1. President Jason says he will lower taxes if re-elected.
  2. But Jason has promised to lower taxes many times in the past, and never delivered.


        ∴ Jason probably won’t keep his promise.

Case 1 is not a fallacy, because the question at hand is whether Jason will act in a certain way, and his past behavior is relevant to that.

Case 2

  1. President Jason advocates lower taxes as a way to create more economic growth.
  2. President Jason is a liar, a drunken bum, and a filthy womanizer.


       âˆ´ We should not lower taxes.

Case 2 is an illogical argument, because the question at hand is whether lower taxes would cause economic expansion, and Jason’s character or behavior is irrelevant to that issue.

Case 3

  1. President Jason has had numerous extramarital affairs and recently cheated on his wife by having an affair right in the Oval Office with a White House intern.


       âˆ´ We should not vote for Jason for re-election.

Case 3 is tougher, because it depends on how you view the presidency. If you view the president merely as a government employee (however high-level he or she may be), whose performance in office is all that matters to his or her retention, and the argument is fallacious. Why? Because under that view, marital fidelity doesn’t matter in a president since it has nothing to do with his or her performance as the president. On the other hand, if you view the president as a head of state (as a living representative of the country), if you view the president as a role model for the youth of the country, or if you view the presidency as an honor only to be bestowed on the most worthy, then of course the personal character of any candidate is of relevance.

Second: Irrelevant Appeal to Identity

The next fallacy to be discussed is irrelevant appeal to identity, which involves the speaker arousing in the listener/audience a feeling of belonging or a desire to belong to a group instead of evidence to get a point accepted. Most texts call this fallacy ”˜appeal to the crowd’. Such appeals come in many varieties. These include bandwagon arguments, appeals to tradition, mob appeals, and appeals to sex.

In a bandwagon argument the arguer asserts that because most people believe some proposition P, P must be true. The irrelevant appeal here is to one’s identity as a person. In standard form, we can represent it as follows:

  1. Most people believe P.


      ∴ P must be true.

This conclusion is clearly illogical. Or we can represent this sort of argument as an enthymeme:

  1. Most people believe P.
  2. Whatever most people believe is true.


        ∴ P is true.

But the problem then becomes premise 2, since the majority of people often believe false things.

Illogical as it is, the bandwagon argument is common. For example, one car company argues in its commercials that its cars must be the best because they sell more than any other model.

We often see the irrelevant appeal to identity take the form of saying that you should believe or do something because “the winners” or “the leaders” or “the smart people” do so. We call this snob appeal.

Another form of irrelevant appealing to identity is appealing to tradition. In appealing to tradition, someone argues that something is good or true because it has traditionally been believed or done. But because something has been widely believed in the past is no more evidence of its truth than that is widely believed now.

A more subtle method of irrelevant appeal to identity is to appeal to feelings of patriotism, ethnic or racial pride, religious clannishness, or hometown sentiment. We call this tactic of demagogues and advertisers mob appeal, also called grandstand appeal. Chevrolet advertises its cars by appeal to patriotism: “What does America love? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” (As if only a traitor would buy a Porsche!) Dodges are often pictured in ads in front of “hometown America” scenes, such as family picnics and homecoming celebrations. Brands of TVs are advertised with the TV screens showing pictures of the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, and other national symbols.

One other form of appealing to the crowd is worth mentioning, which for lack of a better name I call appeal to sex. In this fallacy, allusions to sex replace rational evidence. The use of attractive models is pervasive in advertising.

When are appeals to identity relevant? Again, it depends on the question at hand. Consider some cases:

Case 1:

  1. Most people in this town say Ed’s Restaurant serves tasty food.


       âˆ´ Ed’s Restaurant probably serves tasty food.

This argument is reasonable, because the populace is being cited as actual witness to the truth of the claim about how good-tasting the food at Ed’s is. The testimony of witnesses is reasonable, relevant evidence in this case.

Case 2:

  1. Most people in this town believe the fish from the local lake are contaminated by toxins.


        ∴ Probably the fish are contaminated by toxins

This is a fallacious argument, because there is no evidence given that the majority of people in this town have professional competence to judge toxin levels in fish. (It would be different if we are told that this town is inhabited mainly by marine biologists!)

Case 3:

  1. This ad says that these beautiful people will date me if I send them money.


       âˆ´ Probably, I will be escorted by one of these beautiful people if I send them money.

This argument is not fallacious, because the issue at hand is precisely the ”˜renting’ of the people pictured in the ad. The beautiful model used to advertise an ”˜escort’ service is a relevant appeal since it is precisely her appearance or behavior that is the issue.

Case 4:

  1. This ad shows beautiful models using vitamin x.


       âˆ´ Probably, I should take vitamin x.

This argument is fallacious because even assuming that it is true that the beautiful models use x, no evidence is presented that those models are medical doctors who are in a position to testify professionally that it is precisely vitamin x that made them or kept them beautiful.

Case 5:

  1. The majority of Californians voted for Smith for governor.


       âˆ´ Probably, Smith should be permitted to become governor.


This argument is reasonable because, unless Smith has just committed a crime or is ineligible for some other reason, the preference of the majority regarding their representatives is what determines who takes office in a democracy.

Case 6:

  1. The majority of Californians voted for Smith for governor.


       âˆ´ Probably Smith is the best person for the job.

This argument is fallacious, because there is no evidence given that the majority of Californians have some special professional expertise in judging the fitness of candidates.

A more puzzling case is this:

  1. The majority of voters in Senator Smith’s state favor capital punishment.


      ∴ Smith should vote for capital punishment.

This argument is reasonable, but not necessarily compelling. In a democracy, representatives should work to enact the wishes of the people governed. But there is a difference between a direct democracy, in which the people directly institute laws, and a representative democracy, in which the people elect leaders who are expected to use personal judgment in doing legislative work. The need to represent her constituents is one relevant reason for Smith to favor or oppose something, but there are other considerations as well, such as personal conviction.

So let us refine our statement of the fallacy of irrelevant appeals to identity. An argument of the form:

  1. Most people (or most elite people, or most people of some preferred ethnic group or most sexy people) believe p.


        ∴ p is probably true.

is a fallacy, unless the people cited are either credible witnesses to the truth of p, or else p is about the behavior or choices of those people. Otherwise, the opinion of the crowd is irrelevant.

Third: Ignoring the Issue

The next fallacy is perhaps the most pervasive of all, certainly in political realm. Quite often, faced with an issue he cannot logically address, a person will ignore the issue at hand and instead talk about something else. In other words, he will simply change the subject. We call this ignoring the issue (This fallacy is also called ”˜irrelevant conclusion’, in that whatever evidence is given supports only a conclusion irrelevant to the discussion at hand).

As you might imagine, politicians often commit the fallacy of ignoring the issue: rather than admit they do not know the answer to a question they will talk on and on about matters they can address. It does not matter whether the irrelevant evidence is indeed good enough to establish the irrelevant conclusion – the point is the question at hand has been ignored. The only way to represent such a fallacy as an argument form would be:

  1. P is true.


       âˆ´ Q is true.

which is not very helpful. It is better to view this fallacy as breaking a rule implicit in rational dialogue: if a question is pertinent, answer it instead of changing the subject.

Varieties of this fallacy are often considered fallacies in their own right. They include glittering generalities, cavilling, diversion, red herring, strawman, slippery slope, and apples and oranges. We will discuss in turn each variety of ignoring the issue.

We begin with glittering generalities. It is expected of people that they try to propose solutions to the problems they face. But these proposals need to be supported by reasons. When a person supports her proposal by speaking in generalities (such as how terrible the problem is) rather than specifics (such as why this particular proposal will solve the problem and solve it in the best way), she ignores the issue. Politicians commit this fallacy with depressing regularity. Ask a senator to justify his bill on unemployment, and he will very likely give you only glittering generalities about how terrible it is to be unemployed, how it hurts the family and saps a person’s self-esteem, and so on. All true, but all irrelevant to the real issue: why vote for this bill? (What makes the generalities “glittering” is their obvious truth and compassionate nature.)

The converse fallacy of glittering generalities is nit-picking (also called cavilling), which is the fallacy of focusing on petty details to ignore the larger issue at hand. For example, it would be cavilling to nit-pick that, whereas your opponent claims an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent, it is “really only 10.25 percent.” In so doing, you are failing to come to grips with his claim that the unemployment rate is too high.

Another form of ignoring the issue is diversion, which is to change the subject by joking. Two recent presidents stand out for their exceptional ability to evade embarrassing or tough issues by joking: John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Wit is an admirable quality, but not if it is used to evade one’s responsibility to justify his beliefs.

The third way to ignore the issue is to raise a red herring issue. That is, faced with a difficult issue on which he is not prepared to give logical evidence, a person will often cloud the waters by raising controversial issues superficially like the one at hand, but essentially different. Example:

My fellow Americans, my opponent says he wants to reinstate the draft to better enable us to fight a war if necessary. But aren’t all wars really due to our capitalist system?

Here, the issue is whether the US should bring back the draft. The politician doesn’t address this issue, but makes a controversial claim about wars and capitalism.

A fourth variety of ignoring the issue is strawman, which is the distortion of another person’s position. (The name arises from the metaphor of setting up a straw man, a dummy, and vainly trying to prove your prowess by knocking it down.) A person can distort her opponent’s position by oversimplifying it (leaving out important qualifications and details) or by extending it to situations to which it was never meant to apply. For example,

Candidate: My opponent wants to increase the number of day care centers. But do we really want the government to take over child rearing? I say: let the parents raise the kids!

The claim the candidate’s opponent made was a modest one, viz., to increase the number of day-care centers. The opponent never suggested that the government takeover child rearing.

A fifth way to ignore the issue is by slippery slope. A fallacy of irrelevant slippery slope occurs when the arguer changes the issue to some other irrelevant issue by degrees. That is, faced with some issue, the arguer says, “But if we agree to A, then why not A1? Or A2? Or A3? But A3 is obviously absurd!” and the conclusion is drawn that the original issue or claim A is false too. What allows this fallacy to appear plausible is that the claims A1, A2, A3, and so on, differ by degree only. Consider this example:

Dear Editor:

The PTA has asked the television networks if they [the PTA] can have the power to stop programs with a lot of violence in them from being aired. I am outraged by the PTA’s request. If the PTA is allowed to determine what shows I can watch, maybe they can next determine what I can eat, when I should sleep, and what I read. I suppose they’ll be burning books next!

Notice that the writer has shifted away from the real issue (“Should the PTA be allowed to decide whether a TV program has too much violence to be aired?”) to a much easier one to refute (“Should the PTA be allowed to burn books?”)

One cautious note is worth making here. We should note that not all slippery slope arguments are fallacies. Many slippery slope arguments are causal in nature. A causal slippery slope argument is a negative argument from consequences with a key causal premise:

  1. If A1 occurs, then it will cause A2, which in turn will cause A3, which in turn will cause A4, . . . , ultimately causing An.
  2. But An has negative consequences.


       âˆ´ We should not do A1.

The term cause here is defined broadly. We can have in mind physical cause, as in:

  1. If you smoke marijuana, it will cause you to desire harder drugs, and then still harder drugs, until you will become a heroin addict.
  2. The life of a heroin addict is hideous.


        ∴ You should not smoke marijuana.

But the term cause can mean socially cause or socially give rise to, as in:

  1. If we allow mercy killing, society will become coarsened, and will eventually allow killing people who are deemed “inferior.”
  2. That would be a gross violation of human rights.


       âˆ´ We should not allow mercy killing.

Also, the term cause can mean legally cause or be a legal precedent for, as in:

  1. If we allow government to prohibit pornography, that will become legal precedent for prohibiting controversial literature, which in turn will be legal precedent for prohibiting radical political speech.
  2. But the control of radical political speech would be dangerous to our freedom.


        ∴ We should not allow government to prohibit pornography.

Notice that the crucial relevant premise in a causal slippery slope argument is that causal linkage between the different things along the slope. When this linkage is asserted, the argument is not logically bad (that is, fallacious), although it may be factually bad – as the examples given above illustrate. An irrelevant slippery slope fallacy occurs when a person mentions several other issues but does not assert (explicitly or implicitly) a causal link.

A sixth form of ignoring the issue is apples and oranges. In this form of the fallacy, the speaker lumps issue A in with another issue B and then proceeds to defend B instead of the real issue A. For example:

Criticism persists that much of what the NSF does fails to meet any reasonable definition of spending priorities. Its defenders say scientific advancement and improved technology depend upon the foundation’s continued growth. Last March, when Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio) offered an amendment to cut $14 million from the foundation’s biological, behavioral, and social science research, some warned that he could be denying money that might lead to breakthroughs in medical research.

“How many people here would vote for $100,000 to study the growth of viruses in monkey kidney cells?” asked Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). While that foundation-funded research had no immediate payoff, Harkin said, Dr. Jonas Salk a few years later used the study in his own research and came up with a polio vaccine.

But Harkin and Ashbrook, it seemed, were talking about apples and oranges. Ashbrook was not attacking medical research. Instead, he was criticizing studies that he argued were indefensible and simply wasted tax dollars. Like the $83,839 the foundation gave to the American Bar Association to study the social structure of the legal profession.

Ashbrook attacked social science funding; Harkin responded by exploiting the fact that the same agency that funds social science also funds medical science, to defend social science funding by defending the irrelevant issue of medical funding.

Fourth: Faulty Analogy

We often “reason by analogy,” as when I figure that the Toyota Avalon I just bought will last over 100,000 miles because I have owned several other Toyota Avalons, and they lasted that long.  Argument by analogy has this form:

  1. A, B, C,…all had property P
  2. X is like A, B, C,…

      ∴ X probably has property P

Clearly the essence of a good analogical argument is that the things compared (X and A, B, C,…) must share all significant characteristics, and not have any significant differences.  A fallacy of false analogy occurs when a significant difference is overlooked.  For instance, in the example used above, if the Avelon I just bought happens to have power steering, power brakes and air-conditioning, while the ones I previously owned did not, I would be making a false analogy.

Here are a few examples of the fallacy of false analogy:

Despite the fact that there is no evidence that the pilot of a small plane at San Diego was at fault in any way, the favorite solution suggested in the media has been to ban or restrict small-plane operations at major airports.  This suggestion ignores the fact that airports are public property paid for by all taxpayers, just as we all pay for highways.  No doubt there are bus and truck drivers who would like to see private cars and amateur drivers banned or restricted on major highways, too.  The solution is for the airlines to build and operate their own private air-transport terminals–much as the railroads once built and operated their own stations.

But a key difference exists between the need for private autos and the need for private planes.

Editor:  I believe that the fraternity system should be abolished on all colleges in the United States. The reason for this belief is simple. The behavior of many fraternity members is spiritually reminiscent of the Nazis of Hitler’s Germany as well as the leadership of the present-day Communist Party in both Russia and China. This may well seem to represent an extreme viewpoint, but I believe it to be a fair and rational conclusion in view of all the facts.

For example, you may recall not only the recent destructive behavior of certain pledges in terms of noise and property (palm trees), but also the recent law passed against hazing (an activity that has taken the lives of a number of students). There was also the fraternity member who endangered the lives of several thousand students at SDSU by flying his plane at nearly ground level a few semesters ago.

But clearly Frat members don’t seek genocide against those who aren’t members, or seek to conquer the world.

United Teachers–Los Angeles (a teacher’s union) president Hank Springer claims that the advertising agency Winner/Wagner bungled the job of defeating Proposition 13 (which the union hired it to do) so badly that a labor boycott of the firm’s clients is in order.  Springer said:

“If we can boycott Coors beer and hurt its sales because the company is unfair to its employees and boycott J.P. Stevens products for the same reason, we can and should boycott Winner/Wagner.  Like Coors and J.B. Stevens, Winner/Wagner let its unions down.”

Surely there is a difference of intent: The companies intended to stop unions, Winner/Wagner did not.

Fifth: Begging the Question/Loaded Language

A word or phrase is loaded if it has theoretical and/or emotional connotations. A word can be loaded in the sense of being theoretically loaded or emotionally loaded or both. As examples, consider the words ”˜bourgeois’ and ”˜proletarian’. Both are loaded with Marxist economic theory (which posits those economic classes) and emotion (”˜proletarian’ being laden with positive and bourgeois with negative emotional connotation). Of course, terms can be theoretically loaded without being emotionally loaded (”˜electron’, ”˜ionic bond’) or emotionally loaded without being theoretically loaded (”˜dirty rat’, ”˜punk’).

It is again worth emphasizing that loading is an extremely pervasive feature of language. Very likely, most words are loaded with overtones. That, per se, is not bad. It is how the loaded word is used that makes it good or bad. If a theoretically loaded term is used in a situation in which the theory at hand is not under question that is okay. If an emotionally loaded term is used in a context (a conversation, say) in which expressing emotion is the central purpose it is reasonable. But if the language is loaded to persuade by slanting the evidence, that can be bad. Such a situation (in which loaded language is used to slant evidence) is often called biased description.

The nature of biased description is best conveyed by Bertrand Russell’s “conjugation of an irregular verb”: “I am firm, you are stubborn, he is a pig-headed fool.” Here, the same trait (holding fast to one’s beliefs) is described favorably or unfavorably by using loaded terms.

Biased description is the stock in trade of the “yellow journalist” and the propagandist. For instance, an incident (a riot by some of the workers at a factory) might be described this way by a leftist journalist:

Yesterday, the oppressed proletarians at Smith Clock Works rose up in indignation. The fascistic agents of the capitalists battled the heroic workers for hours.

Yet the same incident could be described this way by a rightist:

Yesterday, union goons and shiftless malcontents tried to destroy private property at the Smith Clock Works. Brave public guardians tried for hours to restore law and order.

All we can safely conclude from reading such slanted accounts is that some violence occurred yesterday at Smith Clock Works. A more neutral description might be as follows:

A riot occurred yesterday at Smith Clock Works, apparently caused by labor discontent. The police fought the rioters for several hours.

One point is worth emphasizing here. Loading is a matter of degree.  Hence something can be loaded without being used to commit a fallacy. But it does not follow that the amount of degree is unimportant: differences in degree can amount to differences of kind that are important. For example, the difference between wealth and poverty is one of degree, but few would hold it to be unimportant. And with loaded language, the loading can be so strong as to commit the fallacy we call ”˜circular argument’. For example, consider this editorial:

Now our government’s really gone loco with your tax dollars – blowing $6,710 to study how religion influences life in a small Spanish town! The nitwit-run National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded money to a U.S. university student who plans to go to the province of Huelva in Spain for his incredibly useless study.

The student got the grant after convincing NSF’s bozos that it’s important to examine the influence of religion on the politics and economics of Huelva. An NSF official insists the project is a “well-thought-out proposal which will help us understand meaning and power in complex societies.” But its meaning for U.S. taxpayers is already clear – they’re getting shafted for more bucks, declares Rep. Bill Chappell (D-Fla.). “I doubt whether the NSF should be spending $6,710 on such a personal academic project,” he said.

In this example, the writer of the editorial wants us to believe that the research project in question – which appears to be a standard sociological field study of religion – is not worth funding, but he gives absolutely no evidence why. He doesn’t tell us, for example, that this research would only duplicate numerous already published studies, or that the researcher is not qualified in some way to do the research, or even that America is so short of money it can no longer afford to fund social science research. Instead, the conclusion is built into the phrases “loco,” “nitwit-run,” “incredibly useless study,” bozos”, “shafted”, and “personal academic project”. In this example, then, the evidence isn’t slanted – it is completely non-existent. We simple repeat the conclusion by building it into the phrases we use to describe the situation being judge. This tactic is called using question-begging epithets.

Another example of the use of question-begging epithets is:

Why do I think Gary is a bad person? Because he is totally evil, I mean, he’s just a despicable human being. He’s simply immoral.

Here again, no actual evidence is given that Gary is a bad person (by citing, say, his behavior towards others), it is just repeated in the epithets “totally evil”, “despicable”, and “immoral”.

Using question-begging epithets is just one way people commit the fallacy of circular argument, which is an argument in which claim C is backed up by premises P1, P2,—, Pn, but where one of those premises is, in fact, equivalent to the conclusion.  Remember that the same statement can be made using many greatly different sentences, and this is what makes circular arguments so difficult to spot in practice.

Consider these examples:

To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the state; for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community, that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited, of expressing his sentiments.

In this passage, the conclusion argued for (that freedom of speech is worthwhile for the state) and the premise offered for it means the same thing, but this is not obvious because they are expressed by different words.

Another example:

A person’s strongest desires determine that person’s actions.  For people do just what they want to do most.

Making circular arguments even harder to detect is the fact that many premises may intervene, causing the listener to lose track of what conclusion is to be proved.

            He:  God certainly exists.

            She:  How do you know?

            He:  The Bible states clearly that He does.

            She:  Maybe the Bible is wrong.

            He:  Impossible – it is too consistent

            She:  So maybe it is consistently wrong.

            He:  Impossible – it is written by prophets.

            She:  What do you mean by “prophet”?

            He:  A person inspired by God.

The premise “prophets inspired by God wrote the Bible” would not be accepted by someone who did not already believe in God’s existence.

Another example:

Papandreou had a simple proposition. It was that the CIA had bankrolled the colonels and told them to stage the coup d’état.

“That’s a hell of a statement for you to make, Mr. Papandreou, can you prove it?”

                        “I have seen the documents.”

                        “What documents?”

                        “They are secret.”

                        “But what if they are secret, how is it that you are quoting from them?”

                        “They cannot be seen by unfriendly eyes.”

But the statement “They cannot be seen by unfriendly eyes” assumes that the documents exist.

Circular argument can occur in explanations.  A famous example of a humorous circular explanation is from a play by Moliere, in which a physician explains why opium causes people to fall asleep by saying that it has “dormative power.”  The “explanation” is just the fact needing to be explained expressed in different words.