Language and reason
If, to guide our everyday discourse, we had to choose a concise precept, it would be the logicians' and ethicists' advice: be truthful and consistent.
Whenever you read or hear something and reason, "That doesn't make sense," what do you mean? And, what does the next person mean? Reasoning is a complex process; characterizing it is difficult. This is partly because modes of reasoning are not universal. Western logic, for example, evolved from the Greek tradition of public debates in the forum
, and is rule-based; some Eastern cultures are inspired by Confucianism and emphasize social harmony. Yet it appears that humans do have a common set of sense-making rules. Independently of the matters presented in a certain reasoning path, we agree to observe that path's directness. On this basis we distinguish correct from incorrect reasoning. The rules of reasoning are grouped in the discipline called logic
What is an argument?
Logicians define "argument" as a group of statements in which one or more propositions or claims (i.e., premises) are used as evidence to support a conclusion. The logical connection between the premises is an inference. The basic format of an argument is:
Since [true premise]
and [true premise] → [logical inference]_
Since all dolphins are mammals
and all mammals are animals
Therefore, all dolphins are animals
Premises are only premises in the context of a particular argument; in other arguments they might be conclusions, and vice versa, a conclusion from one argument might be a premise in another argument.
Logicians talk about preserving truth. In a deductive argument, whenever the premises are true, the conclusion is guaranteed to be true. A deductive argument is valid when the inference from premises to conclusion is perfect. In everyday language, however, most arguments are inductive. In inductive arguments the premises are (only) likely to provide support for the conclusion. Yet an unsupported statement is not an argument; it is only an opinion.
What is a good argument?
According to T.E. Damer, a good argument is one in which the premises are acceptable, are relevant to the truth of the conclusion and provide sufficient grounds for it, and anticipate and rebut all reasonable challenges to the conclusion.
When a statement in an argument triggers the thought "that doesn't make sense," the statement probably contains a logical fallacy.
What are logical fallacies?
A logical fallacy is an error of argumentation that renders a conclusion invalid. Fallacies have been categorized as formal and informal.
A formal fallacy is a deductive argument that is invalid. Consider:
- All humans are mammals.
- All dogs are mammals
- Therefore, all humans are dogs.
The premises are true—but the conclusion is false. The argument is invalid because of its incorrect structure, which is:
- All A are C
- All B are C
- Therefore, all A are B
An informal fallacy is any other invalid reasoning that is not due to the structure of the argument (i.e., the structure may be valid), but due to a flawed content. The argument fails to demonstrate the truth of its conclusion. Its only plausibility derives from a misuse of semantics.
Why do fallacies occur?
Logicians emphasize that we tend to hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe. We unwittingly engage in fallacies. Author Marilyn Vos Savant (the person with the highest recorded IQ) explains "Perhaps the desire to be right is even instinctual in the human animal. After all, narcissism has enormous individual survival value." Indeed, many fallacies are unintentional. They may arise from:
- language barriers. These affect exchanges where some participants are not fluent in the language in which a discussion is held.
- cultural paradigms. What we read, hear, say and write may be inadvertently screened and biased by our own assumptions.
- fragmented attention. This occurs whenever the listener's or reader's attention drifts, then guesses what he has missed, then replies. It happens in meetings, conferences, and online forums in which participants skip parts of the discussion, yet draw (invalid) conclusions. These fallacious inferences, in turn, may be all that other participants understand, which triggers a situation akin to the "phone" children's game.
- poor memory: neurological and mental disabilities, many medicines, alcoholism, and substance abuse (or any combination of them) can blur memory. An arguer may contradict his or her own previous claims, which the arguer may not recall having made.
- inadequate cognitive level.
Other logical fallacies are intentional. They are conceived to persuade, elude responsibilities, manipulate, deride or disparage. The underlying assumption is that argumentation is a zero-sum game: if one side loses, the other wins. Fallacies abound in the convoluted discourse of "spin doctors," politicians, advertising gurus (and their chief "copywrongers," according to William Safire), people in power, and con artists. Fallacious language is common in people with personality disorders such as antisocial personality and narcissistic personality.
Arguing logically and ethically
To establish real communication through language we must understand what it means to be consistent and what it means to be contradictory. Underlying both is the notion of truth: truth as accurate conformity to fact or actuality, and truth as sincerity. Language and moral conduct are indeed inextricably related. T.E. Damer proposes that when communicating, each of us should adhere to an intellectual code of conduct.
In some discussions, however, fallacies abound. Using fallacies deliberately is, of course, unethical. Author Jean Hollis Weber poses that being ethical means knowing "what's 'right' and 'wrong' and applying that in situations where your job, or possibly even your life, could be placed in jeopardy if you do the 'right' thing." Weber adds: "We've all read about the 'whistle-blowers' who are demoted, sacked, harassed, and so on, for making public some information that someone in power did not want known." This "shooting the messenger" situation is the theme of a vignette used below to illustrate several fallacies.
Some common logical fallacies
There are many types of informal fallacies; not all are presented in this article. Perhaps the largest category is that of fallacies of relevance. A broad name for all fallacies of relevance is irrelevant conclusion (Ignoratio elenchi; literally, "ignorance of refutation"). The fallacy occurs when the arguer purports that an argument establishes a particular conclusion when it supports a different conclusion (i.e., missing the point). To this category belong most fallacies discussed below. When the argument's conclusion is glaringly flawed, the term non sequitur (i.e., "it does not follow") applies; one example is "heads I win, tails you lose" -in reference to a coin toss.
Vignette: A (fictional) company of professional caregivers offers in-home childcare services and advertises "caregivers with undergraduate degrees in child development and impeccable references." One of the company's core rules is that "employee misconduct will not be tolerated." Rules are enforced by the regional managers, who oversee employees. Sam, one of the company's new managers, receives a complaint from a client. The client states that the caregiver at her home, Triki, seems aloof. The client expresses concern about her child being ignored and unfed. In addition, some expensive items are missing from the home.
Sam checks the digital video recording from the surveillance cameras installed by the company in clients' homes. He can clearly see Triki taking pieces of the client's jewelry out of the home. Triki is also seen shaking the child in her care, who is crying. Sam examines previous surveillance images from the company's archive. He notices that Triki had engaged in similar behavior before. Sam reviews Triki's file and finds, as proof of ID, a copy of a driver's license. The name on it does not match the name in Triki's school diploma. In Triki's file, client references cannot be found.
Sam calls Triki and inquires about her background and past employment. Triki's answers are evasive. Upon further questioning, she reluctantly admits to having presented a forged ID and diploma. Sam informs Triki of the client's complaint. Triki then admits to neglecting the children under her care and to having "borrowed" items from homes.
All this information is compiled by Sam in a detailed report for discussion at the regular company Web conferences, which are attended by all managers plus the company owner, Todd. At the next meeting, Sam uploads to the company intranet a document with his factual report. Next, he makes a brief oral introduction regarding his findings about Triki, and explains that he prefers to show the images before continuing. Then he starts a webcast of the surveillance videos. Before the first video ends, both image and sound are interrupted. Most of Sam's report remains unheard. The transmission is not restored.
Discussion of fallacies
Sam's posting: "Todd, what happened to my report?"
Red herring (smoke screen, changing the subject)
This is a diversionary tactic. Its name originates in the sport of fox hunting, where a strong-scented red herring is dragged across the fox trail to mislead the hounds. Similarly, a "red herring" consists of introducing a topic irrelevant to the argument (under the guise of being relevant).
Todd: "Managers, Sam's presentation yesterday suggests that our rules regarding reports on employee performance are unclear. I have now re-worded the rules and uploaded them as "Updated Rules." Please review them and acknowledge them ASAP."
Begging-the-question (Petitio principii)
"Question" here refers not to an actual question but to an issue stated in a premise (i.e., the fallacy is "begging [acceptance of] the issue"). In a form of circular argument or tautology, the arguer starts from an unproven claim and tries to use it as a conclusion to prove that claim: "A is true because A is true." Whenever the truth of the conclusion is assumed, the reasons that explain it become dependent upon the very point which is contested.
Todd: "Sam, your presentation raises privacy concerns."
Sam: "Why? I haven't discussed Triki's case with anyone. I compiled all relevant information and brought it to the team for advice. Triki's case may also point to the need to revise our procedures for verification of employees' background and previous performance."
Todd: "See what I mean? You're ignoring our company's privacy policies."
The conclusion remains unproved; the listener is "begged" to accept it. In a non- tautological argument, instead, a claim would be properly supported by independent evidence.
A variant of "begging the question" is "question-begging definition." The arguer creates a definition that "proves" the assertion true. This is common through "overadaptation" of stipulative definitions. A stipulative definition is a specific meaning assigned to a term. For example, a contract may specify "here, the term 'device' shall mean 'pacemakers or defibrillators'." This is a reasonable constraint to prevent ambiguity. But some stipulative definitions are impromptu definitions created to manipulate.
Todd: "Sam, your presentation raises privacy concerns. Our web conferences are attended by many managers: many sets of eyes and ears."
By this "adapted" definition of "privacy," any manager who becomes aware of information about an employee's irregular activities will be unable to broach the subject at the company meetings, even though managers' responsibilities include obtaining and acting on such information.
It should be noted that begging the question—the fallacy—differs from to beg the question—the phrase. The latter means "the question really ought to be raised / addressed," where "question" is not an issue but an actual question. This phrase usage is relatively new (and incorrect).
"Who is to say?" fallacy
An argument's valid conclusion is labeled "mere opinion" or "belief." The attacker misrepresents the arguer's conclusion as subjective and thus de-legitimizes it, while appearing to invoke neutrality.
Todd: "Sam, aren't you condemning Triki, here? Why are we being judgmental about one of our most reputable employees?"
However, the premises initially posed by the arguer and their conclusion are factual (objective). They could be independently reviewed by others who would verify the validity of the original argument. The difference between an opinion and a valid conclusion is broadly analogous to the difference, in Science, between a hypothesis and the results of a scientific study.
Either-or fallacy ("black-and-white fallacy" or "false dilemma")
This occurs when an argument is built upon the assumption that only two outcomes are possible when there are several, or when of two possible outcomes, one would not contradict the other. This faulty adversarial construction places the listener "between a rock and a hard place."
Sam: "Todd, I conducted an investigation on Triki not to "judge" her, but because I received a complaint from a client. What I found was certainly more than I expected. Triki has clearly violated not one, but several of the company's rules. Triki herself admitted to abusing her position repeatedly and to providing false documents upon enrollment. All this is in my report; its goal was to review employee conduct—as per our usual procedures—and to propose a review of our employee recruitment and verification system. I don't understand what is wrong about bringing up this matter here."
Todd: "Sam, you seem more interested in being right than in being truthful."
This statement implies that being right is inconsistent with being truthful; there is also innuendo (see below).
Fallacy of exclusion (stacking the deck)
Evidence that would change the outcome of an argument is excluded from consideration. The speaker "stacks the deck" in his favor by ignoring proofs of the conclusion.
All managers: "Todd, Sam has uncovered extraordinary material, which we have not had the chance to see. Will we be able to review it and discuss it?"
Todd: "Our job does not include gossiping. I've not only deleted Sam's report from our website, but I've also suppressed it and all videos from my own view. Sam, if you wish to present your case properly, I recommend you edit the videos. Make each about 3 seconds long. Add one caption sentence. In the meantime, this topic is closed."
The requirement that Sam had tried to follow (i.e., that all relevant information be included in an argument) is called the "principle of total evidence."
Straw man fallacy
The name straw man derives from combat training. The first person throws a punch at the second, who builds a straw man, throws punches at it, and claims victory for winning against the first person. Yet the real opponent (the arguer) has been ignored. In the straw man fallacy the first person presents a valid argument. The argument is perceived as "a punch" by the second person (the attacker), who re-words the argument as a caricature or "straw man" version of itself.
Sam: "Todd, you mentioned concerns about privacy, but our managers team is a private group. We're all bound by confidentiality! Or, were you referring to our clients? Their homes' surveillance systems transmit directly to our company intranet; is our monitoring not approved by clients?"
Todd: "Sam, are you suggesting that we pry on people...that our real business is not in-home childcare—but systematic voyeurism? Should we re-name our company "Peeping Tom"...or maybe "Sliver"—after the movie? Or, maybe we install spyware? Perhaps we're involved in surreptitiously collecting details about people's private moves and businesses, then selling them for a fortune?
While the attacker is indeed refuting his own creation (by misrepresenting the arguer's position), the refutation appears cogent to someone unfamiliar with the original argument.
Argument by innuendo
It consists of "planting" a claim. Through a particular choice of words, the arguer directs listeners to draw a certain conclusion -for which there is no evidence. The strength of the fallacy lies in the impression created that some veiled claim (usually derogatory) is true.
During a private telephone conversation:
Sam: "Todd, how should I edit the videos so that they are acceptable to you, yet telling?"
Todd: "I've already explained it."
Todd (To the managers via online meeting): "I've spoken with Sam; he's stalling his re-submission of an edited report. I'm suspending him. Please remember that managers shouldn't let passion obtund their work."
The idea that Sam has reacted angrily to Todd's directives is implied.
Poisoning the well
This consists of making a negative remark about an opponent before hearing his argument.
Todd: " Managers, per your requests this past week, I agree to reconsider Sam's suspension. I'll invite Sam to join us in our next web conference. We have talked again today, however, and he still hasn't stepped up to the plate by acknowledging our new rules. I ask you to keep an open mind about this, because this is a behavior that only *I* have witnessed."
This predisposes managers against Sam.Appeal to force (argumentum ad baculum)
This is a form of bullying. The arguer demands acceptance of his proposition not because it is valid but because there will be negative consequences if rejected.
Todd: "Sam, I've waited long enough for you to edit your material. Your silence implies that you're challenging our rules again. If you keep this attitude, I'll have no choice but to let you go."
Argumentum ad hominem
A person attacks the arguer instead of refuting his thesis. Attacking the circumstances or character of an arguer is much easier than rebutting his position with logically valid evidence.
At the managers' request, Todd schedules a small meeting with a few senior managers and Sam "to review possible solutions for Sam's problem." The meeting date coincides with one of Sam's planned trips—a fact known to Todd. On the meeting day, Sam calls in to participate in the discussion by telephone.
Todd: "Sam, this absence of yours today is just another way to show contempt toward me and our company. It's a ploy to elude responsibilities; one more of your ruses. You are clearly dishonest. As of now, you are released from duty."
This fictional vignette illustrates a series of fallacies. What prompted them is unclear to Todd's audience. As an exercise, we could make some presumptions. One is that Todd wished to avoid discussing the matter. This wish could be aimed to protect Triki, either because she is his friend or from fear of Triki's retaliation through legal action. A full discussion would have also included consideration of the company surveillance methods; this in turn could have raised inconvenient questions (if for example the surveillance methods or the company's true business were unlawful). Another presumption is that perhaps Todd regretted hiring Sam (for personal reasons) and took the occasion of his report to fabricate a reason to terminate him. Or perhaps Todd's cognitive ability was impaired, and his fallacies were unintentional.
Whatever the reasons, it is important that we remain alert to language use. Seemingly innocent fallacies that are not readily admitted or detected can mislead people into accepting unethical paths. For those witnessing logical fallacies (such as Todd's or anyone else's), or participating in complex discussions, principled actions would include:
- Analyze the arguments presented. Consider:
- What is the literal meaning of the message? (denotation)
- What do the syntax and word choice suggest? Are there implications or allusions? What impression does the argument convey? (connotation).
- Am I allowing my own wishes or prejudices to influence my understanding of the message? What am I assuming that I should instead verify? These questions may be difficult to answer without help; it may be necessary to ask for clarifications from a neutral, competent third party.
- If you believe that a fallacy has been stated, point it out by stating the premises of the argument and its fallacious conclusion versus the likely valid conclusion.
- Whenever you need to pose an argument, state your premises explicitly. Well-supported claims are more likely to be accepted.
- If among your own statements you detect a fallacy or one is pointed to you, admit it; then restate your argument or withdraw it.
If, to guide our everyday discourse, we had to choose a concise precept, it would be the logicians' and ethicists' advice: be truthful and consistent. This precept means that our words should reflect our principles and match not only our previous words but also our subsequent words and actions. In our vignette, Todd's fallacies contradict (i.e., are not consistent with) a core rule of his company, namely "employee misconduct will not be tolerated." If this rule is in place while Sam is released from duty and Triki remains employed (the report on her never discussed), then that rule is false—and Todd is not truthful. The rule actually being enforced is "reporting employee misconduct will not be tolerated."
Nowadays, we all share the same real and virtual conversation spaces. By identifying in an argument the premises and the conclusions, we can detect their logical inference (or lack thereof). The inference can then be examined for fallacies which invalidate the argument. Fallacies can then be replaced with valid reasoning.
In conclusion, the ethical standards that guide traditional discourse can also guide our interactions today. Throughout each written or spoken exchange, we linguists have a special responsibility to abide by an intellectual code of conduct, and—if pertinent—help others to do so.
I am indebted to Rosemary Camilleri, Ph.D., for her expert review of the manuscript.
By Elena Sgarbossa, M.D.,
a freelance medical author,
translator (from Italian, Spanish and English into Spanish and English) and editor
Weston, FL, U.S.A.
- D. Bennett. Logic Made Easy. How to Know When Language Deceives You. W.W: Norton & Co. New York, USA, 2004.
- T.E. Damer. Attacking Faulty Reasoning. Wadsworth (Thomson Learning), Belmont, CA, USA; 4th edition, 2001.
- M.J. McCann. "Translator Ethics and Professionalism in Internet Interactions." Part I. Caduceus Summer 2006;19-21.
- E.B. Sgarbossa. "A Health-related Fallacy: Appeal to Nature (Argumentum ad naturam)." Caduceus Summer 2006;10-11.
- M. Vos-Savant. The Power of Logical Thinking. St. Martin's Griffin, New York, NY, 1997.
- J. Weber. Ethics in Scientific and Technical Communication. http://www.jeanweber.com/about/ethics.htm (accessed: September 5, 2006).