Fallacies, Episode III: Misdirection

The previous two posts about logical fallacies have discussed problems with premises and confusion of conclusion – mistakes in reasoning that arise when there is some issue with the building blocks of our arguments, or the way we put them together.

But in some instances of flawed “reasoning”, the problem is that argument is sidestepped altogether. Instead of supporting claims with reasoning, a speaker or writer distracts from the real claim by misdirection, confusing the issue or playing on our emotions.


In one sense, these are the most dangerous types of fallacies, because they allow people to make any claims they want, and hide the fact that they have no support for what they’re saying. Fortunately, since they’re often less subtle than other forms of fallacious reasoning, they’re easy to identify and avoid, once you know what you’re looking for.

False Analogy

We commonly use analogies to help explain complex ideas or situations by comparing them to something the reader is already familiar with. Maybe when you learned about the structure of atoms, your science teacher explained that the electrons orbit around the nucleus like the planets in the solar system orbit around the sun; since you’re already familiar with the solar system, this gives you an instant idea of how the structure of atoms work.


While analogies can be useful for explanatory purposes, people often run into problems when they try to reason by analogy—to argue that two situations are similar and therefore what is true in one case is necessarily true in the other.

Sometimes, when two situations or ideas really do have a lot in common, it makes sense to reason by analogy. In many cases, however, this kind of reasoning is an oversimplification. It can significantly obscure an issue when the analogy rests on weak or superficial similarities.

Consider this example:

Medical Student: No one objects to a physician looking up a difficult case in medical books. Why, then, shouldn’t students taking a difficult examination be permitted to use their textbooks?

This med student draws an analogy – both situations he cites involve people looking things up, so he argues that they are essentially the same.

But this similarity is only superficial, and leads the student to ignore the much deeper differences—that the goal of an examination is to test a student’s mastery of material and completion of coursework, neither of which are necessary for the doctor (because she was tested on these things when she was a med student). In reality, the two situations are more unalike than alike.

We'll start your surgery in a moment. Just let me look up

We’ll start your surgery in a moment. Just let me look up “vasectomy” on Wikipedia.

Ad Hominem

Ad hominem is Latin for “to the man” or “to the person.” An argument ad hominem is a form of fallacious counterargument: instead of critiquing or refuting a claim, you attack the person making the claim.

Lawyer: Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the witness claims that he saw my client commit the crime. But you can’t believe anything this man says— he’s a convicted felon and he cheats on his wife.

While it is reasonable to examine the credibility of someone making an argument, that doesn’t take away the responsibility to address the claims being made by the other person.

Ad hominem attacks are often smear techniques used to distract from real issues. Many go far beyond questioning the credibility or motives of someone making an argument, bringing up totally irrelevant information simply to make the person look bad.


Bandwagon Technique

Some people feel most secure going along with what the majority think (jumping on the bandwagon), rather than making up their own minds. This desire to conform, coupled with the pressure to go with a winner, is the basis of the bandwagon technique.1

The bandwagon technique is another way that people can use statistics—like polling or survey data—to mislead or manipulate. Remember that poll about climate change2 we discussed in episode II? Let’s take another look:


The numbers supposedly show that the majority of people feel scientists may have falsified their data. Assuming you don’t agree, does it surprise you to be told that you’re in the minority? Do these numbers make you feel pressured to doubt your own opinion?

Not all uses of the bandwagon technique include data or statistics. “Arguments” of this kind basically take the form: Everybody else is doing it. Why aren’t you? They sidestep presenting actual reasons to support their claims, instead arguing that you should have some belief or opinion because it is popular. They often rely on making you feel that you are an outsider, or that something is wrong with you, if you disagree with what “most people” supposedly think.

Transfer Technique

Through the transfer technique, the propagandist tries to associate himself and/or his arguments with people, ideas, or institutions that already have our respect3 OR associate his opponent with people or institutions that we hate or disdain. In this way, it can often go along with ad hominem attacks.

Ever notice how politicians always have at least one flag in the background when they give a speech?

Ever notice how politicians always have at least one flag in the background when they give a speech?

The transfer technique often makes use of labels and symbols.4 It can use explicit claims, but can also be indirectly implied through the use of images.

The image implies that George W. Bush is like Hitler, but doesn’t actually provide any reasons.

The image implies that George W. Bush is like Hitler, but doesn’t actually provide any reasons.

Red Herring Tactic

The story goes that the red herring fallacy got its name from the ancient rivalry between tracking dogs and odoriferous seafood. If you’re being chased by bloodhounds, you can drag a smelly fish (a herring, perhaps) across your path, and this will cover up your trail and throw the dogs of the scent.


Dog, you had one job.

Like this fallacy, that story is probably a load of crap, but the explanation does help us understand how the red herring tactic works.

This tactic is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the real issue by dragging in a decoy.5

For example, a politician accused of accepting bribes might attempt to distract from the issue by pointing out that she has served her community tirelessly for 20 years, or might try to generate sympathy by claiming she and her family are being harassed by investigators. But neither of these claims answers the charge – she’s not demonstrating that she didn’t take bribes.

As this example shows, red herrings frequently makes use of pathos in an unethical and manipulative way; when someone knows her argument is unpersuasive, she drags in an emotional issue to distract from the holes in her argument.

Appeal to Ignorance

An appeal to ignorance makes the claim that something must be true if it hasn’t been proven false. For example:

Bigfoot must exist; if it didn’t, surely after a hundred years someone would have found evidence to prove that.

It’s certainly important to examine what evidence there is on all sides of an issue. Our Sasquatch enthusiast might be right to point out that until it’s proven otherwise, there’s always a possibility that the missing link is out there.

How can you doubt me?

How can you doubt me?

However, not having evidence to disprove a statement is not the same as having evidence to support a statement. The lack of contrary evidence is never, in itself, a reason to support a claim. In fact, in general, the lack of evidence can’t support anything; only the existence of evidence can support a claim.

Slippery Slope

The slippery slope fallacy relies primarily on scare tactics rather than argumentation.6 It claims that a single action will lead to a domino effect, setting off a series of events that will ultimately end tragically:

If you start letting doctors remove terminally ill patients from life support, this means that doctors can decide for us who should live and who should die. Next, they may decide that those with chronic pain would be better off dead. They might not stop at sick individuals; they could start killing babies with birth defects “for their own good.” With advances in genetics, they could seek out people with disease risk factors and “mercifully” kill them before they have to suffer from their illnesses. Before you know it, they may start making the case that healthy individuals should be “removed from the population” because they are unintelligent, or unattractive, and won’t pass on the “right” genes.7

Slippery slope arguments may sometimes sound persuasive because each step in the story can sound plausible on its own. But often the possibility of them all happening relies on massive coincidences, and the initial action being debated would not be sufficient in itself to cause all of the negative consequences.

“Slippery slope” has become a common figure of speech in debate surrounding social and political issues, with people often worrying that some policy or other is the first step towards a tightening or loosening of regulations that will eventually produce disastrous results.

Depending on how the argument is made, the appeal to the “slippery slope” notion may or may not be fallacious. In legal matters, for instance, there is a real possibility that one court case could lead to a domino effect: since legal rulings rely on precedent, a decision in a single court case can and does impact the outcome of later cases.

For this reason, concerns about a “slippery slope” often come up in the debate surrounding the First Amendment. Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School, once wrote an op-ed for the New York Times warning that attempts to criminalize hate speech are a slippery slope that could end in tyranny:

No government agency should be permitted to punish or censor freedom of expression, but the courts have sometimes allowed public employers to punish, even fire, employees for expressing views deemed to be incompatible with their roles as “representatives” of the people. This is a dangerous and slippery slope, incompatible with the spirit of the First Amendment… The First Amendment was designed to protect “bad” speech — especially bad speech disapproved of by the government…

Were we to go down the slippery slope of permitting the firing of public employees who burn Korans, we would be getting into the dangerous business of deciding what kinds of speech are sufficiently offensive to warrant government censorship. If a public employee were then to draw a cartoon of Muhammad and not be fired, this would be taken as government approval of his anti-Islamic actions. It is far better to send a clear message that the views expressed by public employees in their spare time are neither approved nor disapproved by our government.

They represent only the individual opinions of citizens who are free to express bigoted views without these views receiving the imprimatur of our government. That is the American way, unlike the way of repressive governments, that control the speech of their citizens. We should keep it that way.8

Given that a Supreme Court decision that rules to limit free speech could then be cited as precedent in other court cases involving First-Amendment rights, Dershowitz might seem to have a legitimate concern here.

And yet, even in such cases, the slippery slope argument has been cited as fallacious. In regards to an earlier court case, Joshua Muravchik (fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies) wrote disparaging such arguments about free speech:

The Times notes that the court previously affirmed the right of Nazis to parade through Skokie, Ill., and upheld the antics of Hustler magazine… [T]he essential argument is the “slippery slope” analogy. If we countenance some constraints on freedom, why not others? Where does it end?

This argument has canonical status, but does it make any sense? The Times has little patience for this logic when the gun lobby advances it regarding the second amendment. The right to a gun needn’t mean the right to own an assault rifle…

Moreover, a wealth of political history suggests that the slippery slope is a phantom. Almost all European countries ban “hate speech” and many ban Holocaust-denial. This goes against the American grain, but those countries have not sacrificed any other freedoms as a result…

To argue by imagery and analogy, as does the conventional wisdom apotheosized by the Times, rather than by logic and history, is, you might say, to step onto a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies lots of freedom of thought but very little thinking.9

We’ll leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Muravchik himself is arguing by analogy when he cites gun regulation and European speech restrictions as analogies for limitations on First Amendment rights. Whether you are more persuaded by Muravchik or Dershowitz, their competing claims demonstrate that it can be extremely difficult to determine where legitimate concerns about the future implications of our decisions cross over into scare tactics and fallacious arguments.


Straw Man

In the middle ages, people used to have festivals in which they built giant people out of straw (like hay), which they would set alight to mark the celebration—basically an old school Burning Man.


In rhetoric, someone makes use of a “straw man” when they purport to cite or summarize the argument of the opponent, but in doing so totally distort that position in order to make it easier to attack.

Thus, they are building up that argument only for the purpose of destroying it or tearing it down. Like the medieval structures, it was never really meant to bear weight.

Someone “builds up a man of straw” by focusing on only the weakest part of an opponent’s argument, or sometimes by completely misstating the argument to make it appear weaker than it is:

Student: The teacher says that to pass the math test, students will have to do a lot of work outside of class to master the concepts. But this isn’t a fair requirement: not everyone can afford to pay a tutor!

If, in fact, the teacher were requiring every student to pay a private tutor in order to pass the class, this would be an unfair requirement. But of course, that’s not actually what the teacher is saying.


For more info on logical form and logical fallacies, check out the other posts in this series:

1. Robert B. Donald, et al. Writing Clear Essays. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, 1996. p. 307.
2. Simon Maloy. “Fox News fiddles with climate change polling.” Media Matters for America. 8 Sept., 2009. mediamatters.org/blog/2009/12/08/fox-news-fiddles-with-climate-change-polling/157839. Accessed 20 Oct., 2016.
3. Robert B. Donald, et al. Writing Clear Essays. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, 1996. p. 307.
4. Robert B. Donald, et al. Writing Clear Essays. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, 1996. p. 307.
5. Robert B. Donald, et al. Writing Clear Essays. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, 1996. p. 307.
6. Robert B. Donald, et al. Writing Clear Paragraphs. 6th ed. Prentice Hall, 1999. p. 340.
7. Robert B. Donald, et al. Writing Clear Paragraphs. 6th ed. Prentice Hall, 1999. p. 340.
8. Alan M. Dershowitz. “A Dangerous Slippery Slope.” The New York Times. 10 Feb., 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/09/19/can-speech-be-limited-for-public-workers/a-dangerous-slippery-slope. Accessed 22 Oct., 2016.
9. Joshua Muravchik. “Free Speech and the Myth of the Slippery Slope.” World Affairs. 15 Oct., 2010. http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/joshua-muravchik/free-speech-and-myth-slippery-slope. Accessed 22 October, 2016.


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