How to avoid logical fallacies

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.


In the next few posts in this series I intend to discuss some of the more common logical fallacies you are likely to encounter in academic writing and other forms of communication. But first, some tips on how to uncover and avoid fallacies in your own work:[1]

    1. If you are applying deductive reasoning in your argument, ask yourself whether your conclusion is a logical one based on the underlying premises you have stated. To be sure, write out your argument in the form of a syllogism, and confirm that both the major and minor premises are true.
    2. If you are applying inductive reasoning, ask yourself whether you have included enough examples to justify the conclusion you have drawn. Will your readers be able to make the inductive leap from the examples to the conclusion you propose? If not, perhaps you need more or better examples, or a revised conclusion.
    3. List your main points. Under each one, list the evidence you have presented for it. Seeing your claims and evidence laid out in this manner may show that you have no good evidence for a particular claim, or it may help you look more critically at the evidence you are using.
    4. Pretend you disagree with the conclusion you’re defending. What parts of the argument would now seem fishy to you? What parts would seem easiest to attack? Give special attention to strengthening those parts.
    5. Note that broad claims need more proof than narrow ones. Claims that use sweeping words like “all,” “no,” “none,” “every,” “always,” “never,” “no one,” and “everyone” are sometimes appropriate—but they require a lot more proof than less-sweeping claims that use words like “some,” “many,” “few,” “sometimes,” “usually,” and so forth.
    6. Double-check your characterisation of others, especially opponents, to ensure fairness and accuracy. [2]
    7. Learn which fallacies you are especially prone to, and check for them in your work. Some writers make lots of appeals to authority; others are more likely to rely on weak analogies or set up straw men. Read over some of your old papers to see if there’s a particular kind of fallacy you need to watch out for.
    8. While writing your own work, refer to explanatory lists of fallacies (such as in the next three posts in this series), looking for any breakdown in the logic of your argument.
    9. Test your skill at spotting logical fallacies using the worked example here.
    10. Take a critical look at a persuasive television commercial or political address, or something similar, looking for logical fallacies.[3]

Are there helpful tips you use that are not listed above? If so, I’d love to hear from you and possibly add to this post.

 


This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1] Some of these tips are based on advice in Annette T. Rottenberg & Donna Haisty Winchell, The Structure of Argument (9th edn; Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2018), 325.

[2] https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/fallacies/

[3] For more on fallacies see https://www.yourlogicalfallacyis.com and https://theethicalskeptic.com/2009/11/02/the-tree-of-knowledge-obfuscation/ and the links to suggested reading at https://www.weasydney.com.au/course/FPBA

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