Advanced Writing for the College-Bound

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2010-11: Thursday 9:00 AM to 10:30 AM Eastern Time

Unit 0:
A Preliminary Assessment

Unit 1:
The Right Question

Unit 2:
Purpose and Audience

Unit 3:
Getting Ideas

Unit 4:

Unit 5:

Unit 6:

Unit 7:
Supporting Your Claim

Unit 8:
Bad Reasoning

Unit 9:
Forestalling Counter-Arguments

Unit 10:
Research and Documentation

Unit 11:
Organizing: Overview

Unit 12:

Unit 13:

Unit 14:

Unit 15:
Beginnings and Endings

Unit 16:

Unit 8: Bad Reasoning

“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

— Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland

Avoiding the Traps of Sloppy Reasoning

In our last unit, we looked at a number of techniques we can use to support arguments. This week, we look at problems with particular types of arguments. Emotional appeals do have their place — properly used —but in general, they do not belong in an academic argument such as the ones you would write for a class examination essay. An easy test for whether an emotional appeal is legitimate in any circumstances is to ask whether it turns the audience’s attention to the issues, or to something else.

main points for this unit

Basic Logical Fallacies

There are whole books about errors in reasoning. Here we need to look at a few that commonly show up in essays.

Begging the question

Begging the question (contrary to its popular but mistaken modern use to mean “implies the subsequent question”) is a fallacy that assumes the answer to the question in the argument leading up to that conclusion. It is a somewhat more specific form of the general fallacy of circular reasoning. It can be obvious or it can be subtle.

To allow every man an unbounded freedom of speech must always be, on the whole, advantageous to the State, for it is highly conducive to the interests of the community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly unlimited of expressing his sentiments. (Richard Whately, Elements of Logic, 1826.)

This is merely stating, in somewhat florid terms, that unbounded freedom of speech is advantageous to the state because unbounded freedom of speech is advantageous to the state. It is effectively tautological.

Circular reasoning

Circular reasoning is any line of argument in which a premise is used, however distantly, to prove itself. Small-scale examples are easy to find and dismiss.

God must exist, because the Bible says so, and the Bible was given to us by God.

I personally believe that God exists, and so probably do most students here — the question, however, is not the correctness of the conclusion but the validity of the inference. If one does not accept the premise that the Bible was given to us by God (which presupposes that such a being exists), then it will provide no leverage against the larger question of God’s existence. If one does accept the premise, though, the argument is superfluous, since it doesn’t move us to any position we didn’t already hold.

Circular reasoning can also take a number of steps, and sometimes the fallacy becomes very hard to detect. One could reasonably argue that almost any rational system of expression entails some degree of circularity, but this would be very difficult to prove conclusively.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (sometimes just referred to as the post hoc fallacy) assumes that because event number two happened after event number one, it is a result of event number one.

I gave a dollar to the beggar on the street-corner, and that very day I won a thousand dollars in the lottery.

The two events may well be temporally linked, but there is no evidence showing that they are causally linked.

I’ve been listening to hard rock, and I have a splitting headache.

Although the two facts might be related, there’s nothing here that indicates that they are or that we should strictly assume that they are.

The problem here is obvious: what’s less obvious is its limitation. Repeated observation of correlated phenomena (even if we cannot account for the causal mechanism) is in fact the foundation of inductive reasoning. We observe that if we let an egg go in mid-air, it invariably falls to the floor and breaks. To this day, however, nobody has actually come up with a causal rationale for gravitation. Does that mean that it does not exist? Probably not. One would be reasonable in assuming that it does exist, and acting on the assumption that it doesn’t will not prevent you (or anything else) from hitting the ground. Finding and debunking instances of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is therefore somewhat more difficult than might seem to be the case.

The fact that no causal or logical relationship has been established between two things merely means that it has not been established. It does not mean that such a relationship does not exist, or that a better form of argument couldn’t establish it.

False dichotomy (false dichotomy, either-or fallacy)

The false dichotomy is an oversimplification that assumes that a complex situation can only be explained one of two ways, or that a given action can lead to only one of two results. By discrediting one, the other is apparently proven or validated.

Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. (George W. Bush)

It is entirely possible to be neither.

Emotional Appeals

Emotion is not wrong, but it is no substitute for logical thought. Arguments designed to appeal to the person of the hearer similarly do not necessarily imply that the conclusion is wrong, but one needs constantly to be skeptical.

The bandwagon

A bandwagon appeal suggests (often implicitly) that some great movement is underway, and that the reader or audience is foolish or stupid in not joining it. This approach appeals to the common fear of being left out, and, like other bad emotional appeals, diverts the reader’s attention from the real issues that need to be considered.

Purple shirts with green polka dots are all the rage — everyone is wearing them! Get yours here!

This ignores the fact that you can’t stand the look yourself, whatever other people are wearing.


Flattery appeals to human vanity, and suggests that the reader is particularly astute or wise if he or she agrees with the author.

You have been selected to receive this offer, because your past purchases show that you’re a discriminating and insightful buyer.

Always be skeptical of people who are praising you for free. You might be a discriminating and insightful buyer, but merely telling you that you are doesn’t establish the appropriateness of the product for you.

The “In-crowd” appeal

The in-crowd appeal is a more reserved form of flattery conflated with a kind of elitist form of the bandwagon appeal, inviting the reader to identify with a select group of people.

The more astute fans realize that “Star Wars” is not good science fiction, however appealing the characters or well-executed its special effects.

This may be true — and arguably it is true that “Star Wars” is no kind of science fiction at all — but without reasons, the opinions of unnamed “astute fans” amount to nothing.

Threats and Blackmail

The veiled threat

The veiled threat tries to frighten a reader into agreement with the author’s position, by hinting at dire consequences if the reader fails to do so.

Passage of Initiative 5 will cut funding for prisons. Do you want felons, drug addicts, and child molesters wandering your neighborhoods?

There is of course the possibility that there is a valid connection — but one should respond on the basis of a critical and thoughtful analysis of the evidence.

Passive-aggressive blackmail

Passive-aggressive blackmail is more likely to arise in personal exchanges than in open discourse, but it’s pernicious and sometimes rears its head in public: it is a threat that a given course of argument will personally injure or grieve the speaker.

You don’t need to do what I’m asking. I’m used to being ignored.

This is a kind of personal spin on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. You might have other entirely compelling reasons for not doing what you’ve been asked to do that do not entail ignoring the speaker.

Ad Hominem Arguments

The direct ad hominem argument

The ad hominem argument changes the discussion from having to do with the subject under discussion to the person or character of an interlocutor or opponent. It is ruled out of bounds in reasoned discussion less because it is absolutely wrong — it could conceivably be right — but because invoking it effectively terminates discussion of the issue, and changes it to something else.

You would support this cause, sir, if you were not a selfish pig and an idiot.

The addressee could be selfish and an idiot, but that in and of itself does not establish the validity of the cause being defended.

Of course you don’t appreciate Mozart: you’re tone-deaf.

If the premise is actually true, the conclusion is in fact almost foregone; but it is not an argument for the case.

Guilt by association

This method attacks a person by associating him or her with a group that the essayist considers suspicious or questionable. In its most extreme form, guilt by association is simple prejudice, and again diverts the discussion from the issue to the people who claim something about it.

I can’t stand Wagner’s operas. Hitler liked them.

It’s true that Hitler liked Wagner’s operas, but it’s also not really Wagner’s fault, nor is it clear that every possible opinion held by Hitler — reprehensible as he was on many fronts — was wrong.


  1. Locate examples of at least four different logical fallacies in print or media sources. Explain briefly where you found it, what the piece says, and why it’s a fallacy. Make sure they’re all different fallacies.
  2. Write an essay of about 500 words, either:
    1. rebutting one of these examples, demonstrating how careful logical analysis undercuts the argument, or...
    2. supporting one of these examples, showing how the argument needs to be repaired to make it sound and defensible.
    Make sure that each has a clear statement of thesis, that it identifies and breaks down the logical flaws in the article you are analyzing, and that it has a coherent and logical structure.