The Two Most Misunderstood Logical Fallacies

I’ve heard, time and time again, a couple informal fallacies that are drastically misunderstood and used to try to invalidate perfectly good arguments; the person who shouts them proudly walks away with a pseudo-intellectual air of ignorant superiority. It’s been rather irritating, to put it mildly. So I’m gonna try to fix it.

Ad Hominem

An ad hominem fallacy occurs when you attack the person instead of the argument. The key words here are “instead of.”

So, say you’re arguing with a Christian who is convinced you’re going to hell. You give him evidence indicating that the Bible is a very unreliable source when it comes to its claims about hell, and then you call him a “cruel, ignorant asshole” because he ignores or disregards this evidence and continues to think you’re going to hell. He responds, “You just committed the ad hominem fallacy and have lost the argument.”

He’s wrong. That’s not an ad hominem attack. It might be rude. But it’s not ad hominem.

An ad hominem attack only can be done when you attack the person instead of the argument. If you attack the person as a consequence of the argument, it’s not an ad hominem attack. It might be a bit insulting, true. But because the insult came AFTER the argument, the argument is not an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem attack would be, “You are a cruel, ignorant asshole, and therefore you are wrong about hell,” not “you are wrong about hell, and therefore you are a cruel, ignorant asshole.”

Additionally, the ad hominem argument itself has to either be false or irrelevant to the overall argument in order to be fallacious. For example, someone who has an MD might be more trusted for medical advice than someone who doesn’t. Calling out the difference when you’re making a decision as to which advice you will choose is not necessarily an ad hominem attack.  So if the background of the person is clearly relevant to the argument, that’s not an ad hominem argument.  The attack on the person has to be either irrelevant to the argument or false for it to be an ad hominem attack.

And if the argument is ABOUT the person you’re debating, then your attack of the person in the context of the argument isn’t an ad hominem attack. So if, in the course of your argument, the person says that they are a kind-hearted, knowledgeable individual as part of their argument and you attack that characterization, you are not necessarily making an ad hominem attack. You may be being rude. But you are not necessarily committing the ad hominem fallacy, because part of the person’s argument has to do with their character; you’re just refuting a claim in the argument.

So let’s review.

You are only committing an ad hominem attack when you attack the person instead of the argument.

You’re not necessarily committing an ad hominem fallacy if you make conclusions on the person’s character that are rationally based on an argument; if you remark about the person’s character in addition to making an argument; if the attack concerns merits (like relevant experience or education) that are clearly relevant to the credibility of the arguer, and does not overstep the credibility that these merits (or the lack thereof) should give or take away to individuals in the conversation; or if your attack on a person is a response to an argument the person made about themselves.

Straw Man

A straw man argument occurs when someone you are talking to makes an argument that is difficult to refute, and you have to mischaracterize the argument in order to make it easier to attack.

Saying someone is committing a straw man is a really easy way out of an argument. If someone paraphrases your position accurately and attacks it effectively, you can always change your original position and say the one they attacked is not what you meant (even if it was). Also, people are generally reluctant to admit, even to themselves, that their original argument was wrong, so when it’s proven wrong they’ll say they never meant it and actually meant something else. By the way, this itself is a fallacy called “moving the goalposts.”

Anyways, unfortunately, the accusation that you’re committing a straw man often is going to devolve into a back-and-forth as to whether you were actually attacking the person’s argument, or mischaracterizing it. For this reason, I usually prefer to have many of these discussions in writing — there’s a clear public record, in that case, as to exactly what the person said, so that they can’t change it as easily later.

But oftentimes it’s easier than that. Say I make an argument about Christianity and say, “Well, one Christian doctrine is that same-sex sex is a sin,” and the Christian responds, “Well, that’s a straw man. Actually [fill in theology here].”

That is not a straw man. Many Christians do, in fact, believe that same-sex sex is a sin; that’s simply an accurate statement. I have not mischaracterized the position of the Christian I am talking to because he has not made it yet. He has to make it before I critique it. If you make an accurate statement about a general position, and someone comes in and presents nuances, you cannot be accused of constructing a straw man argument until after the person has made his more nuanced, more rare position, not before.

You cannot mischaracterize an argument that hasn’t been made yet.

The “straw man” attack is often used by Christian apologists and is extremely frustrating. Because they all have different ways of defending Christianity, Christians often think that if you are not attacking their particular view of Christianity, you’re committing a logical fallacy straight out of the gate. Hogwash. You have not committed a fallacy until after they make their argument, and only if you are mischaracterizing what they say.

Because they would have to explain how you are mischaracterizing what they said, they shouldn’t just say “straw man” by itself — it should nearly always be accompanied with a correction of the misconception that will continue the conversation. Merely repeating “straw man” without further clarifying or correcting the other person’s characterization of the argument looks suspiciously like an attempt to avoid an argument of your own.

Comments on informal fallacies in general:

Keep in mind that a lot of the informal fallacies work, even if you label them. So perhaps the bandwagon fallacy (everyone believes x, therefore you should believe it, too) is an obvious fallacy — but people still want to be with the majority, so the fact that it’s a fallacy doesn’t completely take away its effectiveness, necessarily. Your being a woman may have nothing to do with how good of a scientist you are, but it still may influence the way people look at you as a scientist. So, that’s another reason why dismissing the argument with a label often doesn’t work — frequently, it’s necessary to go into some detail as to why a particular argument is a red herring or inaccurate.

After all,  informal fallacies are INFORMAL — they’re more like informal (though often very helpful) guidelines of sound arguments than hard-and-fast rules that determine truth and falsity. The terms, then, are shorthand for common mistakes in argumentation, and they mostly exist for you identify these mistakes in your own argument and the arguments of others so that you can correct them, not just use them to end the argument. And you would correct them with a substantive explanation that makes rational sense, not just a label. So I would concentrate on understanding informal fallacies and why they are informal fallacies well enough so that you can point out and explain why a specific argument is a fallacy in a convincing manner, without necessarily hiding behind the label. If you get good enough at it, you may find that this is just the way you think and explain errors in arguments, and that you often don’t really even need the labels at all.

Thanks for reading.

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