How To Spot Leaky Arguments
By LILY CHEAH
Logic. As field of study, the topic is polarising. Either you like it or you sneer at the thought of it. But logic plays a big part in our everyday lives as we digest information we are bombarded with.
Often, illogical arguments manifest in responses like “This doesn’t make sense” or “How is this relevant?” accompanied by an internal unease.
But there are occasions too where we don’t recognise the flaws of an argument, or even make illogical arguments ourselves. These arguments, which are seemingly persuasive on the surface, but are illogical once you take a closer look, are called “fallacies”. Arguments can be fallacious for a couple of reasons:
1. They rely on a false premise
So take a statement like the following: “Everyone in this company is happy, so if you’re looking for job where you will be happy, this is the right place”.
If it’s not true to begin with that every employee in the company is happy, then the argument is unsound for the reason that it relies on a false premise.
2. The premise of the argument does not imply the conclusion
An example is: “They use a lot of colour on their walls. That is why the culture is so good in that company.” “Everyone is doing this now, so we should do it too” is a more subtle example.
The use of colour doesn’t necessarily imply a good culture, nor does the fact that everyone is doing something make it a good choice. The premise of these arguments do not imply the conclusion.
There are two main categories of fallacies: fallacies of ambiguity and fallacies of relevance. This article dives into some examples of the latter category, in the hopes that we don’t fall for arguments that commit the fallacy of relevance and that we ourselves avoid these mistakes when we form our own arguments.
Committing the fallacy of relevance?
An argument commits a fallacy of relevance when the premise of an argument is not relevant to the conclusion. We may be surprised how often these mistakes are made in workplace communication.
Digging into Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen’s Introduction to Logic, here are six fallacies of relevance that we may spot around the workplace:
1. The argument from ignorance
An argument in this category assumes, in Copi and Cohen’s words, that a “proposition is rue simply on the basis that it has not been proved false, or that it is false because it has not been proved true.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea because no other company has attempted it.” This is an example of an argument from ignorance.
Simply because something hasn’t been done before does not mean that it is a bad idea. Yet how often have we heard this in meetings when a new idea is offered?
The only context where an argument from ignorance is appropriate is in the case of criminal convictions. It would be so grave to convict an innocent person that an accused will be presumed innocent until it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt that he/she is guilty.
2. The argument ad hominem (circumstantial)
Here, a person draws attention to the circumstances of the person making a claim even though it has no relevance to the truth of the claim.
“Why should we believe Raj? Of course he’ll agree with Lim’s proposal. They’re in the same team!” is an example in the work context. The fact that Raj and Lim are in the same team has no relevance to the strength of Raj’s claim.
3. The appeal to emotion
An argument that appeals to emotion can be very effective at soliciting a positive response from listeners.
Here a claim is made in a way that seeks to provoke emotion, whether this is enthusiasm, excitement, anger or hate.
Classic examples include advertisements that rely on convincing consumers about the strength of a product by reason that it is “new” or “sexy” or “popular”.
“Everyone is trying this open concept style for their offices. It’s the new thing. We should try it too!” Statements of this kind rely on emotion rather than sound logic to make their point.
4. The appeal to pity
The appeal to pity is a specific case of “the appeal to emotion”, where a person appeals to the mercy of the listener. Copi and Cohen give a great example:
“The argument is ridiculed in the story of the trial of a youth accused of the murder of his mother and father with an ax. Confronted with overwhelming proof of his guilt, he pleaded leniency on the grounds that he was an orphan.”
Employees looking to ask for a pay rise may fall into this trap: “Boss, I really need a pay rise. My current pay is barely enough to provide for my children’s education. And my mother’s health isn’t very good and she needs regular treatment, which is very expensive.”
While this argument definitely conjures pity, it isn’t a good argument as to why the employee deserves a pay rise.
5. The appeal to force
When a person appeals to force, they rely on the threat of force to make people behave a certain way. It’s the “do it because I say so, or else…” method.
Introduction to Logic explains about a time when the Attorney-General in the Reagan administration was under strong attack by the press for misconduct. Howard Baker, White House chief of staff in 1988 opened a staff meeting by saying:
“The President continues to have confidence in the Attorney-General and I have confidence in the Attorney-General and you ought to have confidence in the Attorney-General, because we work for the President and because that’s the way things are. And if anyone has a different view of that, or any different motive, ambition, or intention, he can tell me about it because we’re going to have to discuss your status.”
In an argument that appeals to force, there is no reason. While the audience will comply, this is due to the threat of force and not because they accept the truth of the statement.
“Don’t question what I say. Just follow, or leave this team” is the attitude.
6. Irrelevant conclusion
When the premise of an argument doesn’t support the conclusion, it makes the mistake of drawing an irrelevant conclusion, even if it sounds logical at first.
Telling a company that they must approve a proposal because the company really needs help is one example. Just because the company needs help does not mean that the only solution is to accept this proposal.
“They are a very important client, and that’s why we need to throw them this big thank you party” is another instance to demonstrate the large leap the listener must take from premise to conclusion.
Here’s another example from Copi and Cohen: “An attorney is always free to consult law books. And a physician often looks up cases in medical texts. Everyone should be allowed a similar freedom of reference. So students should be permitted to use their textbooks during examinations.”
We make arguments everyday in the attempt to persuade others to see things our way. In order to influence, our arguments must be sound. Watch for these six mistakes when communicating, and careful not to fall for arguments that commit the fallacy of relevance.
Fallacies can be both intentional and unintentional in our communications, and we should take care to assess claims for what they really are.