16 Common Logical Fallacies and How to Spot Them

Logical fallacies are everywhere – hiding in political speeches, viral social media posts, and even friendly conversations over dinner. These faulty arguments can be sneakily persuasive, making it crucial to learn how to identify and dismantle them.

Research shows the human brain is wired to look for patterns and take mental shortcuts, making us prone to logical errors. One study found that over 50% of arguments in online comment threads contained logical fallacies.[^1] Training ourselves to spot bad reasoning is key to making sound decisions and convincing arguments.

In this post, we‘ll dissect 16 of the most common logical fallacies to watch out for, with plenty of real-world examples. We‘ll also share expert tips for identifying fallacies and engaging in more productive conversations. Let‘s dive in!

Appeal to Emotion

This fallacy manipulates people‘s feelings to bolster an argument, even though emotions aren‘t evidence.

Example: "How can you eat meat knowing those animals suffered? You must not care about cruelty!"

Guilt and moral outrage are powerful emotions, but they don‘t prove eating meat is unethical. To do that, you‘d need to make a logical case based on facts.

Straw Man

Arguing against a "straw man" means misrepresenting your opponent‘s argument so it‘s easier to knock down.

Example: "Senator Nunes wants more affordable housing, but giving homes away for free will bankrupt the city!"

The senator never proposed free homes. Exaggerating his real argument makes it seem absurd and simple to dismiss.

False Dilemma

Also known as the either-or fallacy, this presents a complex issue as having only two extreme options.

Example: "We can either enforce strict lockdowns or let COVID-19 deaths skyrocket, period."

Most issues exist on a spectrum. Here, targeted restrictions, voluntary precautions, and other measures in between strict lockdowns and zero rules are ignored.

Hasty Generalization

It‘s a hasty generalization when someone draws a conclusion about an entire group from an insufficient sample.

Example: "I tried online dating once and got catfished. Online dating is a scam!"

One person‘s bad experience doesn‘t represent online dating as a whole. You need more than a single anecdote to make a reasonable generalization.

Slippery Slope

A slippery slope argument claims one small change will lead to a major consequence without evidence the chain of events will occur.

Example: "If we ban plastic straws, next the eco-police will ban plastic cups, then all plastic. Before long we‘ll live in caves!"

Banning straws won‘t inevitably send us back to the Stone Age. Restrictions exist on a continuum. The arguer needs to prove straws are the first domino causing all the others to fall.

Ad Hominem

Ad hominem attacks go after the person making an argument, not their ideas.

Example: "Dr. Patel‘s study can‘t be trusted because he‘s a known adulterer!"

Even if true, Dr. Patel‘s personal life choices don‘t automatically invalidate his professional research. We need to evaluate his study‘s methods and data.

Tu Quoque

Latin for "you too," tu quoque arguments deflect criticism back at the critic.

Example: "I may have gone over the speed limit, but you do it too, so you can‘t lecture me!"

Whether the critic also speeds is irrelevant. Her actions don‘t justify the arguer‘s speeding. He needs to prove he wasn‘t speeding or that it was justified.

Appeal to Authority

An appeal to authority cites an expert to add credibility, but it can be fallacious when the "authority" lacks true expertise or makes unsupported claims.

Example: "My yoga teacher says juice cleanses remove toxins, so they must work!"

Yoga teachers aren‘t experts in human physiology or toxicology. Expertise matters – consult relevant authorities, and verify their claims are evidence-based.

Bandwagon

The bandwagon fallacy assumes if many people do or believe something, it must be right.

Example: "Everyone these days communicates by emoji, so 🤷 using full sentences in texts!"

What‘s popular isn‘t always proper. Emojis‘ widespread use alone doesn‘t prove shrugging off grammar is good communication. The pros and cons need to be weighed.

Anecdotal

Relying on personal stories over data or evidence is anecdotal reasoning.

Example: "My grandpa smoked a pack a day and lived to 100, so cigarettes can‘t be that bad!"

Amazing anecdotes stick in our minds, but they don‘t outweigh statistics. Data shows lifelong smokers live 10 years less on average.[^2] Base beliefs on strong scientific consensus, not memorable stories.

False Cause

This fallacy mistakes correlation for causation.

Example: "Every time I wear green socks, I ace my exams. The socks must be lucky!"

The socks and success may correlate, but that doesn‘t prove causation. More likely factors? Studying extra when wearing the socks, or random chance creating an illusory pattern.

Red Herring

A red herring is a distraction from the real issue.

Example: "The budget deficit is growing, but what about the giant elephant in the room that is climate change?"

The climate crisis matters, but it‘s a separate issue from the deficit. Discussing it doesn‘t resolve the budget problem. Stay focused on one issue at a time.

Burden of Proof

Demanding others disprove your claim improperly shifts the burden of proof.

Example: "No one can prove that aliens haven‘t visited Earth, so they must be among us!"

The claimant bears the burden to prove aliens are here; skeptics aren‘t obligated to prove a negative. Any claim requires positive evidence.

Middle Ground

Assuming the truth always lies between two extremes is a fallacious appeal to moderation.

Example: "Ruiz says we need 30% budget cuts; Lee wants 10%. So the right number must be 20%!"

Sometimes a "centrist" position is wisest, but moderation isn‘t inherently correct. Splitting the difference can lead to arbitrary compromises if the specific merits aren‘t analyzed.

Texas Sharpshooter

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy cherry-picks data to make random chance look like a significant pattern.

Example: "Our ad campaign ran in April, and sales jumped 20% in April, so the ads clearly caused the spike!"

Zooming in on two data points ignores the broader context needed to infer causation. Were there other promotions, seasonal factors, or economic changes? The claim requires a more comprehensive analysis.

No True Scotsman

This fallacy redefines a category to exclude counterexamples.

Example:
Chris: "Christians are loving and accepting of all."
Jen: "The Westboro Baptists identify as Christian and spew hate speech."
Chris: "Real Christians would never do that, so they aren‘t true Christians."

Chris shifts the definition of Christian instead of acknowledging that some Christians can act hatefully. Categories can contain diverse members; one example doesn‘t invalidate a group.

How to Combat Logical Fallacies

Simply naming a fallacy often isn‘t enough to diffuse it. Use these strategies to keep discussions productive:

  1. Model intellectual humility: Acknowledge when you‘re uncertain or your argument has weaknesses. This creates an atmosphere where everyone can question their assumptions.

  2. Steelman the other side: Summarize your conversation partner‘s argument in its strongest form before responding. This proves you understand their perspective and focuses the discussion on substantive disagreements.

  3. Cite credible sources: Back up your position with trustworthy evidence from experts, not just opinions. If someone cites a questionable source, politely point them to higher-quality information.

  4. Stay calm: Letting emotions hijack a discussion breeds defensiveness. Take deep breaths, acknowledge any anger or frustration, and return the focus to ideas, not attacks.

  5. Ask questions: Instead of arguing, gather more information. Probing questions like "What evidence supports that?" or "Have you considered…?" invite reflection.

Putting It All Together

Mastering logical reasoning takes practice, but it‘s worth the effort. When we learn to build compelling, truth-seeking arguments, we make wiser choices and engage in richer dialogues.

Keep this guide handy to help you spot the most prevalent logical fallacies in daily life. The more you recognize faulty arguments, the less likely they‘ll trip you up.

Remember, the goal isn‘t to "win" or make others look foolish for using fallacies. Approach every discussion as a collaborative search for truth. Be charitable, stay curious, and keep honing your critical thinking toolkit. 👍

[^1]: Sahlane, Ahmed. (2012). Argumentation and fallacy in the justification of the 2003 War on Iraq. Argumentation. 26. 459-488. 10.1007/s10503-012-9265-8. [^2]: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Tobacco-Related Mortality. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/index.htm