Humans are biased. We remember things that confirm our beliefs more than things that don’t. And every day, we’re presented with new information and arguments that we have to sort through, especially from politicians.
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Our political beliefs are also skewing our perceptions, but to counter this, it’s helpful to know common fallacies in arguments so you can make better, more rational decisions about what to believe. (Of course, some arguments can just be based on lies. We also have a guide for fact-checking those.) Below are the common logical fallacies that many politicians use in their arguments with tips on how to spot them.
Ad antiquitatem (an appeal to tradition)
Not every tradition is good. An ad antiquitatem fallacy is when an argument relies on tradition to support it. For example, in arguing against gay marriage, many people cited tradition as a reason against it. Former Indiana congressman Mark Souder said on his website, “I am committed to preserving traditional marriage, the union of one man and one woman.” Similarly, people may argue that something is “unnatural” in opposing it, but it isn’t clear what it means for something to be “natural”, and natural doesn’t always mean good.
Ad hominem (a personal attack)
Ad homninem attacks are attacks on a person rather than the argument. During the 2016 US election, Donald Trump often made ad hominem attacks, including ones against Mitt Romney. He mocked Romney for walking like a penguin. He also repeatedly called Jeb Bush low-energy. Sad!
.@JebBush is a low energy "stiff" who should focus his special interest money on the many people ahead of him in the polls. Has no chance!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2016
However, ad hominem attacks can sometimes help to strengthen arguments, such as noting when a person’s credibility is questionable or if they have an incentive to lie about an issue.
Ad ignorantiam (appeal to ignorance)
Just because something hasn’t been proven false, doesn’t mean it’s true. According to The Atlantic, four per cent of Americans believe that lizard people control politics. Though there’s no definitive proof of this, it hasn’t been proven false either. But that doesn’t make a good argument for lizard people existing, since the burden of proof should typically fall on those claiming that lizard people are controlling politics.
Ad misericordiam (appeal to pity)
One of the most common appeals to pity is given through anecdotes. A video went viral this year of a lifelong Republican who was against Obamacare until it saved his life. But this anecdote doesn’t really tell us what Obamacare does or look at the possible consequences of Obamacare. For that, there are statistics that can help you make rational arguments for or against Obamacare, such as the number of people who would lose their healthcare without it.
Ad misericordiam arguments help make arguments more compelling, but it’s important to note that these anecdotes aren’t necessarily representative of other circumstances and scenarios.
Ad nauseam (repetition)
Some arguments are just repeated over and over again. For example, many politicians run campaign ads during election season. And a lot of claims are repeatedly made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re true.
Ad numerum / ad populum (appeal to numbers)
An ad numerum or an ad populum fallacy is when an argument tries to persuade people to believe that something is true just because a large number of people believe it is. Using Donald Trump as an example again, Trump cites (biased) poll results showing that people think he’s a strong leader to prove a point that he is a strong leader. But just because a lot of people think so, doesn’t mean it’s true.
…popular vote. ABC News/Washington Post Poll (wrong big on election) said almost all stand by their vote on me & 53% said strong leader.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2017
Ad verecundiam (appeal to authority)
Oftentimes, politicians will cite authority figures to support their points. This does strengthen their arguments, but only when the expert is an expert in the field the data comes from. Albert Einstein is often quoted saying that segregation is a “disease of white people“, but Einstein isn’t a political philosopher so his opinion on politics isn’t as widely accepted as his opinion on physics is. Similarly, even if an expert is cited, it’s important to be sceptical. For example, in convincing people to vote for Hillary Clinton, some people noted that none of the living former Presidents of the United States have endorsed Donald Trump.
A false dichotomy is when someone presents an argument as if there were only two solutions. Sometimes people can misrepresent their opposing argument and make their opposing argument sound foolish. For example, in the gun control debate, Trump said, “Hillary Clinton wants to take your guns away, and she wants to abolish the Second Amendment.” In this example, Trump creates a false dichotomy between allowing guns and completely banning guns when there are lots of other viewpoints between those two extremes.
Cherry picking is also extremely common in politics. A lot of politicians use data that makes them look better, such as an improved economy or increased trade. This is cherry picking when the data doesn’t show the full picture, for example if the politician has manipulated the start and end dates to eliminate inconvenient data points, or if they are leaving out important context. In the 2004 US election, George Bush claimed that “Kerry’s plan will raise taxes by at least $900 billion his first hundred days”. Though people found that Kerry’s health plan would cost $US895 billion, they also found that after including cost-cutting measures, it would actually cost $US653 billion. When listening to statistics from politicians, look for the context of the data.
Circular arguments are when someone uses their argument to prove their argument. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said that marijuana shouldn’t be legalised because it wasn’t socially acceptable.
“If I’m at a wedding reception here and somebody has a drink or two, most people wouldn’t say they’re wasted,” Walker said, according to The Capital Times. “Most folks with marijuana wouldn’t be sitting around a wedding reception smoking marijuana.”
People aren’t openly smoking marijuana because weed is illegal. This reasoning is like arguing that weed shouldn’t be legal because it’s against the law. Though circular arguments aren’t always as obvious as this example, circular arguments often occur in political debates.
Correlation is not causation
It’s common for politicians to argue that one thing causes another when it’s really just a correlation. Some things are correlated, not because they cause one another, but because of coincidence or because they might be caused by a third factor. One example is that a lot of people argue that Bill Clinton helped the economy, but the economy also improved because of things outside Clinton’s control, such as the dot com boom.
Dicto simpliciter (generalization)
Generalisation is common in politics, especially when it comes to stereotyping. You should be weary of when politicians speak in absolutes (all, none) because it only takes one example to disprove their argument. Politics has become increasingly divided since the 2016 US election, which has led to more generalisations about both parties, such as that Democrats are gay and Republicans are rich. These stereotypes aren’t as true as we believe them to be. Instead, next time you hear a generalisation, look at where people get these beliefs from and try to back it up with statistics.
Ignoratio elenchi (missing the point)
A lot of the time, politicians respond to attacks with something unrelated. For example, in the second US presidential debate, Trump asked Clinton about her “33,000” deleted emails, but Clinton responds by correcting him rather than addressing the deleted emails: “Not — well, we turned over 35,000, so…” This response misses the point and doesn’t actually respond to his question.
Similarly, there is a red herring fallacy, which distracts from the main issue. When asked about his comments Trump made on his tape with Billy Bush, 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 judgement. And I will tell you, I will take care of ISIS.” Instead of addressing his comments, he changes the topic to ISIS.
A slippery slope argument is when someone argues that one small thing can lead to a chain of other consequences. Sometimes, the consequences are logical, but other times, they’re heavily exaggerated and just untrue. In a political ad against Clinton, Trump presents a dark image of America if Clinton is elected, with “Syrian refugees flooding in, illegal immigrants convicted of crimes staying”. To avoid slippery slopes, think about how likely the scenario is and if it could be supported by facts and statistics.