When is a generalization inappropriate?
Two types of sampling fallacies will make generalizing inappropriate:
Hasty generalization: The sample is simply too small to be a reliable basis for claims about the target population. The smaller the sample, the more likely that results will be skewed by atypical results.
Think, for example, about what a student’s class average would look after an initial quiz if he happened to fail it. If you were that student, you would not want your instructor to draw any conclusions based on that one quiz! By the end of the semester, however, an instructor will have more ‘data points’ so that it will be apparent whether or not a particular quiz was an outlier. The sample size will be large enough to swallow up an atypical result so that the instructor can arrive at a realistic assessment of the student’s performance.
Biased sample: The sample is not sufficiently representative of the target population. Perhaps the sample was not randomly selected as it should be in scientific sampling; or if the sample was of a diverse population, perhaps the sample was too small to capture representatives of all subpopulations.
Sometimes a sample is biased because of a poorly designed study or because of procedures that cause one group to be underrepresented (or not represented at all). Until 1993 women of childbearing years were excluded from pharmaceutical testing so medications that were prescribed for both men and women were in fact only tested on men, and even today women are underrepresented in such studies (Moyer, 2010, n.p.).
In other cases, the bias may have been introduced by a researcher who was invested in arriving at a certain result. For example, claims in a report based on case studies of twelve autistic children ultimately were rejected by other researchers in the field when evidence was uncovered that the researcher might have had a financial interest in reaching one conclusion as opposed to a different one.
How do I evaluate a generalization in my source?
First, look for information in the source about the sample upon which the generalization is based. It is a bad sign if you cannot find that information. Second, if the information is present, determine whether the sample is sufficiently large and representative. Has the source avoided the hasty generalization and biased sample fallacies? Third, if possible try to test out the generalization by applying it. Generalizations are reached by looking at a sample and drawing a conclusion that is applicable to all the individuals in that sample. But once a generalization has been reached, it can be applied to individuals who were not in the original sample in order to make predictions about those individuals. Applying generalizations to make predictions in this fashion is a vital tool some fields, such as in the social and behavioral sciences.
Imagine that your source is a large nationwide study that reports that 85% of all college students receive financial aid at some point during their college years. You would infer from that claim that roughly 85% of your classmates have received financial aid. You could test that prediction by surveying your classmates.
Of course, as you test your source’s generalization, you yourself will now be in the business of formulating a generalization. Is your sample size large enough? Is your sample representative of the same types of students who were reported on by the source? Always remember that the strength of generalizations and of the predictions based upon them is not a matter of certainty. Instead, you can only assess degrees of reliability, basing your assessment on the size and quality of the sample.
How do I recognize fallacies?
How can you determine whether a writer or speaker makes sound use of reasoning and evidence and demonstrates fairness toward opponents—specifically, how can you determine whether that author avoids fallacies such as unsupported claims or inappropriate appeals to emotion or authority?
You can begin by using the STAR* criteria (Sufficiency, Typicality, Accuracy, and Relevancy) to assess the logos—the reasoning and evidence—of an argument. At the outset, an argument may at least appear to be rational and well-supported. If so, you may be inclined to evaluate the argument favorably in terms of logos, as well as being impressed by the writer or speaker’s ethos, based as it is on her ability to project authority.
But familiarizing yourself with common fallacies will allow you take a closer look before you decide that an argument is indeed persuasive. For example, the “facts” offered by the author might seem credible, but what if they are framed using dysphemisms that demonize people who sincerely disagree with the position taken by the writer or speaker? Or what if the argument is phrased in god terms that don’t seem to leave room for an honest debate of a complex issue? What if the language evokes excessive emotion or tries to stampede the audience into accepting a position because “everyone else does”? Strategies such as these mark manipulative language and likely signal the presence of fallacies.
What are either/or arguments?
One common type of deductive argument involves examining two alternatives. If one alternative is ruled out, then the second one must be chosen. This is an either/or argument.
Premise: Either the city council votes for stop signs or the city council votes for a traffic circle.
Premise: The city council does not vote for a traffic circle.
Conclusion: Therefore, the city council votes for stop signs.
When is an either/or argument a fallacy?
Remember that a deductive argument may be fallacious if a premise is false. In the case of the either/or fallacy, a premise may set up a false dilemma—that is, a premise may offer a choice between only two alternatives when more exist. Here, for example, is a fallacious premise: Either we allocate the requested amount for the program or we do not fund the program at all.
The premise ignores the fact that the program or some aspects could be partially funded or that funding could be phased in over a period of time. In the context of a budget debate, an argument based on such a premise could be manipulative—an attempt to pressure a vote in favor of funding by suggesting that the only alternative would be a complete shutdown of the program.
How can the premises of an argument affect an author’s ethos?
The previous questions have focused on evaluating logos-based appeals by examining their premises, but as you analyze an argument, also consider what the premises allow an audience to gather about an author’s credibility—that is, about the ethos-based appeal implicit in every argument. Does the author construct his argument on a foundation of poorly sourced (or unsourced) premises? Does the author appeal for support to premises that are based upon insufficient or biased samples? Does the author rely on unstated or suppressed premises that should be brought out into the open and debated? These would be flaws in the logos of an argument, but they also reflect poorly upon the ethos of the author who relies upon such premises. Can you trust an author who ‘plays fast and loose’ with the premises of his argument?
What is a red herring?
A red herring fallacy diverts the attention of the audience from the real issue. It often is considered a logos-related fallacy because it involves the introduction of an irrelevant topic into an argument, but some ethos and pathos-related fallacies may also be classified as red herrings, too, because they operate by introducing elements that distract the audience from the actual issues.
The red herring fallacy is mentioned separately here because it may be treated as a category, with other fallacies listed under it. Fallacies that bring up irrelevant topics or issues and so may be considered red-herring fallacies include the smoke screen fallacy, but may also include the guilt by association and straw man fallacies, and the appeal to popularity (bandwagon) fallacy and other fallacies that appeal to emotion.
What are additional examples of fallacies of ethos?
- Name-calling: labeling an opponent with words that have negative connotations in an effort to undermine the opponent’s credibility.
Example: “These rabble-rousers are nothing but feminazis.”
- Plain folk: presenting yourself as (or associating your position with) ordinary people with whom you hope your audience will identify; arguers imply that they or their supporters are trustworthy because they are ‘common people’ rather than members of the elite.
Example: “Who would you vote for—someone raised in a working-class neighborhood who has the support of Joe the Plumber or some elitist whose daddy sent him to a fancy school?”
- Testimonial fallacy: inserting an endorsement of the argument by someone who is popular or respected but who lacks expertise or authority in the area under discussion.
Example: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”—a famous example of a celebrity endorsement for a cough syrup (Deis, 2011, n.p.).
What are additional examples of fallacies of logos?
- Non-sequitur: Latin for “does not follow”; the conclusion cannot be inferred from the premises because there is a break in the logical connection between a claim and the premises that are meant to support it, either because a premise is untrue (or missing) or because the relationship between premises does not support the deduction stated in the claim.
Example (untrue premise): “If she is a Radford student, she is a member of a sorority. She is a Radford student. Therefore she is a member of a sorority.”
- Smoke screen: avoiding the real issue or a tough question by introducing an unrelated topic as a distraction; sometimes called a red herring.
Example: “My opponent says I am weak on crime, but I have been one of the most reliable participants in city council meetings.”
- Straw man: pretending to criticize an opponent’s position but actually misrepresenting his or her view as simpler and/or more extreme than it is and therefore easier to refute than the original or actual position; unfairly undermines credibility of claim if not source of claim.
Example: “Senator Smith says we should cut back the Defense budget. His position is that we should let down our defenses and just trust our enemies not to attack us!”
What are additional examples of fallacies of pathos?
- Appeal to the people: also called stirring symbols fallacy; the communicator distracts the readers or listeners with symbols that are very meaningful to them, with strong associations or connotations.
Example: This fallacy is referred to in the sentence “That politician always wraps himself in the flag.”
- Appeal to tradition: people have been done it a certain way for a long time; assumes that what has been customary in past is correct and proper.
Example: “A boy always serves as student-body president; a girl always serves as secretary.”
- Loaded-Language and other emotionally charged uses of language: using slanted or biased language, including God terms, devil terms, euphemisms, and dysphemisms.
Examples: For illustrations of loaded-language and other types of emotionally charged language, review the material under How do effective communicators choose language for their arguments?
What are additional examples of manipulative language?
- Weasel words: words or phrases that are ambiguous or vague; clear and critical evidence for a position may be missing and weasel words offered in their place.
In the sentence “This compromise will give you most of what you wanted,” the word “most” is a weasel word. Exactly what is being promised? Similarly, in the statement “Students are almost always offered jobs at the end of their internships,” what is the precise meaning of “almost always”? In your Argument Analysis, consider whether the author relies on such ambiguous or vague language.
- God terms: words or phrases with positive connotations that are meant to give a position a ‘stamp of approval’; god terms are used to imply that supporting a position would be patriotic or virtuous but are not themselves evidence for the position.
In the sentence “Cutting access to food stamps would encourage personal responsibility,” the god term is “personal responsibility.” It might seem as if it would be hard to argue against “personal responsibility” or related god terms such as “independence” and “self-reliance.” However, it would require a definition of “personal responsibility,” combined with evidence from studies of people’s behavior in the face of food stamp or other benefit reductions, to argue that cutting access to food stamps would lead to the intended results.
- Devil terms: words or phrases with negative connotations; devil terms are used to imply that supporting a position would be unpatriotic or hurtful but are not themselves evidence against the position.
For some audiences, “dependency” might have negative connotations and would be inconsistent with God terms such as “independence,” and “self-reliance.” For such an audience, “dependency” would be a devil term in this sentence: “Congress needs to cut welfare payments to discourage dependency.” However, it would require a definition of “dependency,” combined with evidence from studies of people’s behavior in the face of benefit reductions, to argue that cutting welfare payments would lead to the intended results.
- Name-calling: labeling an opponent with a term that the audience would find negative; name-calling is used to imply that an argument may be dismissed because its advocate should not be trusted.
If the word term “radical” has negative connotations for an audience, then labeling someone with that term would be name-calling. Similarly, the term “fascist”, with its negative connotations, would be an instance of name-calling. However, the name flung at an opponent does not prove anything about the strength of his argument. In your Argument Analysis, consider whether name-calling is used and the extent to which it detracts from the argument and weakens the name-caller’s ethos.
- Generalities: broad statements so nonspecific that they do not make a meaningful contribution to a debate over an issue.
The statement “We must do what is best for our children” would be an example of a generality in a debate over high-stakes testing in high schools. This statement is so general that it could be trotted out by either proponents or opponents of high-stakes testing—which means that it is not an argument in favor of anything at all.
- Euphemisms: words used to avoid unpleasant or offensive terms; euphemisms may be used to ‘sugar coat’ elements of an argument
When the word “retarded’ became stigmatized, people began to replace “mentally retarded” with the phrase “developmentally disabled” in order to avoid the use of a word that had become offensive.
When a euphemism has the effect of distracting an audience from important facts, its use may be considered manipulative. A famous example is the phrase “collateral damage,” a term that refers to civilian deaths and injuries without using a word that might make the audience think about the human beings who were affected by a military action.
- Loaded language: words or phrases that carry emotional ‘baggage’; the writer or speaker will use loaded language as part of an appeal to pathos—steering the audience toward or away from a position by means of the strong negative or positive feelings that become associated with certain language.
A prominent contemporary example of loaded language is the use of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” as labels for two sides in the debate over abortion. Each side is attempting to benefit from associating itself with something positive. As with the other instances of manipulative language, the terms themselves are not evidence for a position.
How can poor word choice lead to fallacies?
The use of ambiguous or imprecise language can lead a writer to commit a linguistic fallacy. Two such fallacies are equivocation and amphiboly.
- Equivocation:ambiguity resulting from a shift between two different meanings of a term.
The word “theory” has an everyday sense—captured in the dismissive phrase “it’s just a theory”—but it also has a technical or scientific meaning—captured in the phrase “Theory of Relativity,” in which the term refers to an explanatory description of a certain phenomenon. (Sometimes this explanatory description is ‘written’ in mathematical symbols).
An argument that started out using the word in one sense but then switched to the other meaning would be an equivocal argument. An argument that, without notice, switched back and forth between the two meanings of “theory” would be an equivocal argument.
- Amphiboly:ambiguity resulting from syntax or sentence structure; a phrase or sentence can be read as making two different claims.
Does the sentence “She saw a man with binoculars” mean that she saw a man through her binoculars or that she saw a man who had binoculars of his own? Does the sentence “He shot a tourist with a camera” mean that he used his camera to take a photo of a tourist or that he used a gun to shoot a tourist who was holding a camera?
How are positive words used to persuade?
God term refers to vocabulary with very positive connotations, so much so that the claims they are associated are unlikely to be critically evaluated by the speaker’s audience. Instead, a God term is a word or phrase that a speaker is confident his audience will embrace, along with whatever is attached to them. For example, a politician may describe his record in terms of promoting “freedom,” “progress,” “health,” “safety,” or the “American way.” If the speaker knows that, for his intended audience, these words or phrases come equipped with positive associations, his use of these terms is a rhetorical ploy, a strategy aimed at emotional manipulation.
How are negative words used to persuade?
Like God terms, devil terms are aimed at emotional manipulation. However, devil terms are intended to provoke an opposite reaction: this use of language is meant to bring up negative connotations instead of positive ones. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are terms that refer to two contrasting political perspectives. Put that way, the meaning of each comes across as fairly neutral. However, a speaker trying to make use of devil terms might describe a conservative opponent’s position as “fascist” or, vice versa, might describe a liberal opponent’s position as “socialist.” In the U.S., negative connotations are attached to “fascist” and “socialist.” One is associated with the enemy during World War II; the other is associated with U.S. opponents during the Cold War.
The use of devil terms, as well as of God terms, is rooted in an appeal to pathos. The use of this type of language is therefore related to fallacies that exploit emotional appeals in order to manipulate an audience.
Examples of rhetorical analysis using Letter from Birmingham Jail
Read Letter from Birmingham City Jail (excerpts) written by Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 16, 1963.
Pathos: Persuasion through Passion
1) As the weeks and months unfolded, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. The signs remained. As in so many experiences of the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us.
In example #1 note the use of emotionally charged language that portrays one side in the ethical debate in a particular light. Terms like ‘victims’ and ‘broken promises’ cast a sympathetic light on King and his followers especially when compounded with violent or frightening words like ‘blasted’, or ‘dark shadows’, and ‘deep disappointment’.
2) I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Example #2 reveals the use of pathos in creating the vicarious depiction of the plight of the victims of racial oppression. By layering example after example of experiences and scenes of racial injustice the audience is carried along in a mounting wave of moral indignation and outrage concerning the existence of such conditions. This automatically creates sympathy and identification with the victimized (King’s) side in the argument.
3) The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man in an incurable “devil.”
Example #3 uses the implied threat of violence to play on the popular fears of the black-nationalist movements of the time. Characterizing King’s own faction as the safe and rational alternative to a bloody racial conflagration. While this may have been perfectly accurate in terms of predicting the likely outcomes of the social conditions at the time it is still a strong example of the kind of emotional appeal, in this case to fear, that pathos represents.
Ethos: Persuasion through Authority
4) But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
Example #4 is an example of ethos building by exhibition of character traits an audience will find appealing. The speaker is generous without being deferential and appears to be committed to open-minded and rational appraisal of the merits of the argument. This is in direct opposition to the ad hominem fallacy and its effects on any critically aware audience. This depicts the speaker as intellectually responsible.
5) I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every Southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliate organizations all across the South, one being the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
Example #5 is a classic example of ethos building by reference to the speaker’s professional accomplishments and accolades. In this approach the speaker builds authority by directly describing their fitness to be considered an expert on the topic and therefore the relevance of their judgements.
Logos: Persuasion through Reason
6) Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of them, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.
Example #6 uses the rational strategy of accumulating examples to act as proof. This is akin to the listing of premises that stand in the proper relations of support to a conclusion and thereby act as warrant for its adoption. The terrible history of Birmingham’s violence toward African Americans in a large number of instances make King’s decision to protest there rationally supported.
7) We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
Example #7 uses the rational strategy of comparison to support its conclusion. When King compares the plight of the African American to the social and legal progress being made by much less developed nations toward political and social equality he creates a strong piece of evidence to support his argument.
- What values are important to this stakeholder?
- What is the stakeholder’s financial investment in the situation?
- What is the stakeholder’s emotional investment in the situation?
- Are stakeholders invested because they are likely to benefit from the situation? How would they benefit? How greatly would they benefit?
- Are stakeholders invested because they are likely to be harmed by the situation? How would they be harmed? How badly would they be harmed?
- What are the stakeholder’s primary motivations for being involved in the situation?
- What is the stakeholder’s current opinion about the situation?
- What kind of information does the stakeholder have about the situation? How good is that information? What is its source?
- What kind of information about the situation does the stakeholder want or need? What sources would be most helpful to this stakeholder? How could this stakeholder be encouraged to consult and trust these sources?
- Who influences the opinions of the stakeholder? Is another stakeholder influencing this stakeholder? Who could influence this stakeholder?
- How does the stakeholder communicate to stakeholders who have perspectives or positions that are different from their own? Is the stakeholder’s response effective in terms of winning a respectful hearing from other stakeholders? How could the stakeholder communicate more effectively?
- How firm or flexible is the stakeholder’s position on the situation? What elements of the situation are ‘nonnegotiable’? What elements are subject to discussion?
- How crucial is the stakeholder’s opinion on the situation? Are the stakeholder ‘s concerns central to the decision, or are they peripheral?
- How necessary is it that the stakeholder have a voice in any decision about this situation? If the stakeholder were left out, would a workable and ethical solution or decision be reached, or would leaving out this stakeholder’s perspective or position be a huge mistake?
A university has a parking problem, and a committee is trying to decide what to do to help make parking more convenient for students. Cost, proximity of parking to classroom buildings, and the length of time to implement a solution are among the concerns, although there are others. Before evaluating any proposals, the committee comes up with criteria to address all the issues that it expects may arise. The committee decides that any proposed solution should
- be budget neutral, either not costing anything to implement or immediately recovering any costs;
- be implementable within two years;
- not require anyone to walk farther than 10 minutes to get to a classroom building;
- meet handicap accessibility guidelines;
- provide parking for the entire day, without requiring students to move cars between classes;
- not take away existing faculty parking;
- conform to local zoning laws; and
- keep cars out of flood zones
On the other hand, the following requirement would not be acceptable as one of the criteria: “The solution must include building a parking deck.” This criterion (singular of ‘criteria’) would not be acceptable because criteria are supposed to help people remain open minded, whereas this supposed criterion would show that the committee has already made up its mind about the best solution. Criteria are supposed to be used to evaluate solutions; they are not supposed to be the solutions!
How do you determine how to weight each criterion?
Depending on the problem, it is sometimes useful to rank your criteria, deciding which ones it would be nice to meet and which ones must absolutely be met. In evaluating parking proposals, for example, the committee might decide that legal requirements, such as handicap accessibility, must be met and that the project must stay within budget. On the other hand, the committee might decide the criteria that the project be completed within two years and that students not be required to walk for more than ten minutes, while desirable, may be waived in order to meet other, more necessary criteria. These more necessary criteria might include mandatory ones, such as compliance with handicap accessibility guidelines and local zoning laws, as well as criteria that a group has determined are most vital, such as providing parking for the entire day, without requiring students to move cars between classes.
What are examples of ethical criteria?
In the parking example, the committee did not include any ethical criteria in its list. Instead, the members of the committee were looking at issues such as cost and the convenience. Any ethical criteria on the list, however, would have required committee members to evaluate the morality of each proposal. Imagine that the university was large and influential, a major employer in the area and able to rely upon the favor of local politicians. Without including ethical criteria on the list, it would be easy to imagine the committee settling upon a solution to the parking problem that would have been unfair to vulnerable members of the surrounding community, for example, lower-income residents without much political clout. Ethical criteria in such a case might be drawn up to require that any solution
- not cause permanent damage to the quality of life of the university’s neighbors,
- cause temporary harm for the shortest time possible,
- harm the fewest number of people,
- avoid harming the most vulnerable members of the population, and
- help the greatest number of people.
How can criteria be worded to be measurable and specific?
The more specific criteria are, the more helpful they will be as tools for measuring the success of a solution. How will your group know how well a criterion has been met unless you and your team members used precise wording when formulating that criterion?
Examples of vague criteria:
Upgrade of a facility
- cannot harm the community,
- cannot result in net loss of playing fields, and
- cannot result in net loss of tree cover .
Examples of specific criteria:
Upgrade of a facility
- cannot result in the permanent removal of the bus stop now located outside the building,
- may begin only after a temporary bus stop has been constructed that is no further than two blocks from its current location,
- must be accompanied by the purchase of the adjacent half-acre lot to replace the playing fields that will be covered by the outdoor theater, and
- must be followed by the planting of ten Arbor vitae trees to replace the ones that will be removed from the front of the building.