Arguing With the Other Side: 12 Fallacies to Know and How to Fight Them

By Liz Hensler

I’ve been offline for a few weeks, taking some time to unplug from all the vitriol and misinformation floating across (insidiously infecting?) social media. At home, we’ve been talking a lot about the different argument fallacies being put forward as people talk about the election, racial and social justice, health access, etc. Being an advocate or engaging in public policy (or being a person on social media at all right now) can mean being ready to stand up for a cause you believe in, to defend your position, and to combat misinformation and logical fallacies where they appear. In order to do that effectively, it’s important to be armed with the knowledge needed to identify these arguments and counter.

1. Whataboutism

The term “whataboutism” was coined as a Soviet propaganda tactic during the height of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union, when accused of human rights offenses by Western nations would instead point out crimes committed by the West.

It is essentially a form of deflection, not only distracting from the accusation, but turning the accusation back on the accuser.

How it shows up now:
  • In fighting with people on the internet, I’ve seen this frequently around the Black Lives Matter protests. In stating that police brutality and murder of Black people in the US is a problem, the most popular Whataboutism I’ve heard has been, “Well, what about Black on Black crime?”. This argument deflects away from the key problem being discussed (disproportionate murder of Black people by police) and attempts to distract to another issue (crime, generally, not by law enforcement) entirely, while pointing the finger back at the accuser (Black people protesting against police brutality).
  • Another, more public example, is from the recent Presidential debate. Former VP Joe Biden accused the Trump administration of grievously mishandling the current COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to the deaths of over 220,000 Americans. President Trump, in response, accused the Obama/Biden administration of mishandling swine flu during their administration. Mr. Trump’s attempt to distract from his administration’s failings to point the finger back at his accuser in bringing up an unrelated transgression is as textbook Whataboutism as it comes.
How to combat Whataboutism arguments:
  • Call it out. “We’re talking about X, your bringing up the different topic Y is an attempt to distract from X.”
  • Ask for their logic. “How does Y connect to X?” And listen to their answer, they will likely reveal deeper biases in their response. As the saying goes, when someone tells you who they are, believe them.
  • Agree with them/Mirror (*counterargument dependent). For example, in arguing against police brutality towards Black people, a person I was arguing with said, “What about the fact that more White people are killed by police every year than Black people?” This is true, but misleading, in that there are many more White people in the US than Black people and within the proportion of the population, Black people are more likely to be killed by police. In response, I said, “I agree that police brutality against the people they’ve sworn to protect and serve is a problem for everyone, and if you want to talk to your local representatives about reforming your city’s police, I will stand with you.”
  • Walk away. If someone is engaging in Whataboutism arguments, they are likely not interested in listening or finding common ground. They want to win and are unlikely to change their minds, despite your brilliant counterargument. Whether it’s your racist family member or a Facebook troll (or both at the same time), sometimes it’s better to put your energies elsewhere.

2. Strawman

A strawman argument is taking your opponent’s point, exaggerating and distorting the point to make it easier to attack. It generally is used to play on the emotions of the audience.

The imagery of the phrase comes from the idea of constructing figure (like a scarecrow) to easily knock it down to claim a victory.

Artist cred: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

How it shows up now:
  • A charged example is the debate between pro-life and pro-choice. Pro-choice proponents state that, in terms of abortion, it should be a pregnant person’s right to choose what happens to their body, as a private decision with their medical provider. For some pro-lifers, the strawman arguments frequently used are, “Pro-choicers want to kill babies after they are born!”; “Most women are using abortion as birth control!”.
  • Another is the hotly contested topic of immigration. In 2016, now President Trump claimed that former Secretary Clinton wanted to open borders with no regulation, increased chaos and crime. The phrase “open borders” was taken out of context and used to stoke anti-immigrant rhetoric and amplify racial fears. Sound bites are born from strawman arguments.
How to combat Strawman arguments:
  • Correct them: Don’t give the argument any validity. Call it out for what it is and be clear and straightforward in your points.
  • Make them prove it: Because strawman arguments are born out of exaggeration and distortion, challenging your opponent on producing the facts will fall short.
  • Ignore it: Strawman arguments are designed to get an emotional response – from you, from the audience. Stay the course, don’t engage, and don’t feed the fire.

3. Ad Hominem

Ad hominem, translated from Latin, means “to the man” or “attack the man”. This argument fallacy means, instead of arguing your opponent’s point, you level personal attacks.

How it shows up now:
  • If you google “Trump” and “ad hominem”, there are endless examples. The president’s rhetoric is rarely based in arguing the point, but attacking the person opposing him.
Trump, Preliminaries 2015
  • Examples on social media usually devolve quickly from the point to calling the opponent a “libtard”, an idiot, or a racist. This can also show up in dismissing someone by saying they don’t have the credentials or by attacking their motive. This is one of the most common fallacies on social media and quickly shuts down any semblance of a dialogue.
How to combat Ad Hominem arguments:
  • Call it out: Like many of these fallacies, when exposed, they tend to crumble. When pointing out what your opponent is doing through personal attacks, their argument, in turn, loses credibility.
  • Debunk it: Prove it wrong. If the personal attack is damaging and untrue, tell them why. (This can sometimes backfire, as it draws more attention to the attack).
  • Ignore it: Margaret Thatcher once said, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” If someone is coming for you personally, it means they have nothing substantive left to argue. That they are resorting to ad hominems means you’ve already won.

4. Appeal to Ignorance

The appeal to ignorance fallacy (or ad ignorantiam) is based in the arguer and the audience presenting a belief as fact, due to not having enough information to make an informed argument. This fallacy is the idea that “something must be true, because I’ve/we’ve never seen evidence that it isn’t.”

Many arguments based on stereotypes are rooted in this fallacy.

How it shows up now:
  • In 2016, after former Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the electoral college. President Trump tweeted voraciously that her winning of the popular vote was due only to “FRAUD votes”. He retweeted, “you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame!” By stating that because it was impossible to prove as false/no one had yet proven this statement false, it must be true.
How to combat Appeal to Ignorance arguments:
  • Prove me wrong: Where possible, prove them wrong. Facts and evidence are your best friend when the appeal to ignorance argument is provable.
  • Place the burden of proof back on them: Harder to fight are those arguments based on belief that are physically impossible to prove either way. Here, you can use their own logical fallacy against them. If they say that Joe Biden is part of a group of lizard people who are running a secret pedophile ring for the Hollywood elite, and because you can’t prove definitively that it’s false, it must be true. Ask them where their proof is. Make them show you receipts.

5. False Dilemma

The false dilemma fallacy presents an argument as only two-sided. It argues that there are only two options, black/white, all or nothing – when really there are additional options, shades of grey and both/and arguments.

Image cred: John Cook, Cranky Uncle

How it shows up now:
  • One of the most obvious false dilemma fallacy examples lies in the US political system. Those using a false dilemma fallacy argument state that there are only two ways of thinking: you are either a Democrat or a Republican. If you vote for a Republican, you are against the Democrats. If you vote for a Democrat, you are against the Republicans. It wrongly assumes that every member of one party or the other is “all in” for that party’s policies – instead there are so. many. options. The shades of grey include: varying spectrum ideals (fascist, conservative, libertarian, moderate, liberal, progressive, socialist, communist, etc.); third party candidate options, abstaining from voting altogether, the very human ability to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, and so on. People are more complicated – and to argue false dilemmas engenders further polarization.
  • With the recent conversations around Black Lives Matter, there have been strong pro and anti-stances to “Defund the police”. This argument has been simplified by the pro-police groups to mean that if someone wants to reform the current US policing system, they want to completely dismantle the police. You are either pro-Black Americans or pro-Police.
How to combat False Dilemma arguments:
  • Present a third option: Demonstrate that the either/or argument isn’t fully descriptive. In the Defund the Police debate, completely dismantling the police system is one option, but there are many others, including reinvesting in community services, implementing no tolerance policies for police brutality, scaling back police department responsibilities, etc.
  • Show the overlap: Not all either/or ideas are mutually exclusive. Describe the overlap in a both/and scenario – you can support ending police brutality against Black people AND want police to be better equipped to do their jobs, as well as supporting an increase in funding services and a no tolerance policy for “bad apples”.

6. Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope fallacy argument takes a small event and argues that that event will cause another, and another until it leads to a large, usually bad conclusion.

How it shows up now:
  • As confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nomination to fill the seat of famed Justice Ginsburg with a conservative originalist continue, there have been conversations of possible retaliatory actions by Democrat representatives. One popular idea is to “pack the court”. As the Constitution does not have a set number of justices, there is a possibility to add more justices to rebalance the ideology of the Court. And there is precedent. In response, Senate Republicans are introducing a resolution that states that adding more justices has historically been unpopular, is a partisan power grab for a political party, and finally, will dismantle the system of checks and balances.
  • An obvious example is around the rhetoric used for immigration – if you let in higher numbers of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, there will be fewer jobs for American citizens, with fewer jobs, American citizens will suffer, this will lead to a total collapse of American economy and culture. This rhetoric is clearly bogus and uses the slippery slope fallacy to mask xenophobic policies.
How to combat Slippery Slope arguments:
  • Point out roadblocks: In a slippery slope argument, the arguer is jumping from point A to point Z, without acknowledging the rest of the alphabet. By pointing out the many steps that would have to happen to get to their argument, there is an opportunity to demonstrate the unlikelihood (absurdity?) of their leap, as well as all of the stopping points between the two.
  • Demonstrate that they’re talking about an entirely different hill: In some slippery slope arguments, the arguer is jumping from point apple to point orange – the leap is entirely unrelated to the causal event. By pointing out how the two are unrelated, you underline the absurdity.

7. Correlation/Causation

The Correlation vs. Causation fallacy is when two events happening together are wrongly conflated to have a cause and effect relationship. Even if two events are related, the assumption that one causes the other may be wrong or unsubstantiated.

How it shows up now:
  • In June 2020, President Trump called for “smaller testing” for COVID-19, claiming that testing was the reason for an increased number of COVID cases in the US. While increased testing did align with more confirmed COVID cases (correlation), there is no evidence that increased testing caused more people to be infected (causation).
How to combat Correlation/Causation arguments:
  • Give an alternative: In Statistics, in order to prove causation, you must show that this variable directly caused the effect. With arguments based in this fallacy, demonstrate other factors that could create the effect.
  • Yes, and: While the argument may be that variable A caused B, it may be true that variable A could not cause B alone. Sometimes, the combination of a few factors together create the effect. For example, the argument that soda drinks directly cause morbid obesity. By itself, the existence of these beverages does not cause morbid obesity – there are other factors at play, including the amount of soda a person consumes, access to alternative beverages, persuasion and public health information’s effect on behavior, cost of soda in comparison to healthier beverages, other dietary factors, other health indicators, etc.

8. Appeal to Pity

The Appeal to Pity fallacy is when someone tries to distract from the argument by playing on their opponent’s (and the audience) emotional response, through pity or guilt.

How it shows up now:
  • After being accused of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings in 2018, Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony leaned heavily on the emotional appeal to pity. He talked about threats to his family, vicious emails received by his wife, “smears” against him, his friendships with other women who were sexually assaulted, his “shyness” about his virginity which he says was later than his peers, and his “unfair” treatment by Democrats and the press. None of these arguments directly disproved the point – the accusation that he sexually assaulted Dr. Blasey Ford while they were high school students.
How to combat Appeal to Pity arguments:
  • Acknowledge the other’s feelings, then point back to the argument: I don’t think anyone wins by being a jerk or inhumane. If they are appealing to pity, generally there is something to be pitied and some real emotion behind it. Acknowledge that what the person has experienced has been hard for them. But also don’t let it distract from the point – turn back to the facts of your argument and recenter your point in the conversation.

9. Bandwagon

The Bandwagon fallacy is when an argument is deemed true, because the majority believes it.

If the whole electorate jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump too?

How it shows up now:
  • Studies done in the 1990s, and now accepted by most political analysts as fact, says that people want to vote for the winning side. When polls say that a particular candidate is winning, more people are willing to believe that that person is the right choice – increasing their polling margins even further.
  • Social media plays a role in the bandwagon fallacy, as well. By providing increased access to fringe opinions, we see growth as people justify dangerous stances by the number of other people (including those using their fame to spread messages) who are supportive. The increasingly pervasive QAnon conspiracy theories and the anti-vaxx movements are prime examples of this kind of bias.
How to combat Bandwagon arguments:
  • Overwhelm them with facts: Show them the counterevidence. With the anti-vaxx movement in mind, this is an opportunity to show all of the scientific data that shows how wrong they are.
  • The Socratic method: Make them reason themselves out of it. Ask questions that get the arguer to question the validity of the argument and the effects on their own life.
  • Walk away: Because this fallacy is also psychological, it can be difficult to break through to reason. Sometimes, you’re not going to change someone’s beliefs – and as in any circumstance, you can walk away and place your energies somewhere more productive.

10. Anecdotal Evidence

Anecdotal evidence fallacy is when an arguer uses the experience of one person as having greater weight than is true of the whole.

This can also be known as the “person who…” fallacy.

Cartoon cred: M. Rasheed Cartoons

How it shows up now:
  • This frequently shows up in social media conversations about Black Lives Matter – everyone seems to know “a good cop” who would never. This individualized story is used to discount the data and many experiences of Black people across the US.
  • I have also seen this in conversations about social programs, namely unemployment and welfare. Anecdotally, people will refer to a story or an individual who “gamed the system” and continued living off of welfare, despite no longer needing it. In fact, the error rates for SNAP (formerly food stamps) are around 3.7% and Medicaid at 9.8%, with only 4.8% of overall assistance payments being made in error.
  • Also frequent are counterarguments to the prevalence of sexual assault. When a person close to me bravely shared her experience publicly and cited the widespread problem of rape culture, someone responded that many women claiming sexual assault are lying. The President has also made similar claims about women who have accused him of assaulting them. In each case, the counterarguer points to an example of someone lying about being assaulted. Based on studies conducted, false reporting of sexual assault is between 2-10%.
How to combat Anecdotal Evidence arguments:
  • Exposure: I believe that many anecdotal evidence arguments are born out of a lack of exposure and diversity in their social interactions. It is easy to believe one person’s story when you haven’t heard the stories of others with differing experiences. For people who haven’t had that exposure, walk them through your point, the effects on people with a different experience to their anecdote, and the big picture.
  • Fight anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence: For every anecdote, there is an equal and opposite anecdote (that’s how the phrase goes, right?). If some jerk talks about the anecdote of one person’s false report, tell them your or someone you know’s experience of sexual assault. If someone says that people are gaming the system based on one anecdote, talk about the year you relied on SNAP for groceries, talk about the great people you know who have relied on that assistance and how it helped them get to where they are now.
  • Call it out: Tell them that that person’s experience isn’t the whole; and if they are quoting a news article, sometimes stories make the news because they are an anomaly.

11. Middle Ground

Also known as false compromise, the middle ground fallacy occurs when someone argues that because a point falls between two extremes, it must be correct.

How it shows up now:
  • In party political stances, falling prey to this fallacy is dangerous. As one party becomes more extreme – in this case, Republicans becoming increasingly more conservative under the Trump administration, in order to reach the middle ground, the Democratic party compromises on ideas that are rooted in traditional conservatism, leaving out more liberal or progressive ideals.
How to combat Middle Ground arguments:
  • Stand your ground: In some arguments, compromise is the best and correct option. However, sometimes one side is right and the other is wrong, and a middle ground answer will also just be wrong. If you are right, stand by your principle.

12. Burden of Proof

The Burden of Proof fallacy is when one person makes a claim and, instead of presenting evidence to back it up, places the burden of proof on their opponent.

How it shows up now:
  • Remember the “Birtherism” craze back during the Obama administration? President Trump claimed on social media that former President Obama was not a US citizen and was instead born in Kenya. He demanded that President Obama prove his citizenship by publishing his birth certificate, instead of providing his evidence for his claim.
How to combat Burden of Proof arguments:
  • Tell them to Google it: I’ve seen this on social media quite a bit, where one person responds to a post making a claim about the subject and tells the OP to “prove it”. They made the claim – tell them to prove it.
  • Return the Burden of Proof: Similar to above – if someone else is making a ridiculous claim, make them produce the receipts. “You said it, you prove it.”
  • Accept the burden and prove them wrong: If you can prove them wrong, do it. Shut the claim down right there.

What logical fallacies have you seen lately? How do you approach these arguments? Let us know in the comments!

Liz Hensler, MPA (she/her/hers) is the founder of Do Good, Better. She works in philanthropy in the humanitarian aid sector and has a background in NGO program management, corporate and community engagement, volunteer management, and communications. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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