You say you want a free English course? Okay, here we go. This will be the first installment of my own personal free English course. My qualifications? I’ve got a BA in English and graduated magna cum laude. I never received anything less than A in a class taught by Dr. David Baulch. That may not mean anything to you, but Baulch’s classes always ended with roughly half as many students taking the finals as were there on the first day of class, so that should tell you something.
This free English course will focus on recognizing logical fallacies so that you can avoid them in your own English term papers. What is a logical fallacy and why should you avoid them? Fallacies are flaws in reasoning that in turn lead to illogical statements and theses. You will be most likely to use a logical fallacy in an argumentative paper, but they can be found in any kind of writing, really. For instance, in just about any comment left on a political article on the internet you are likely to find a logical fallacy. So you see, my free English course won’t just get you a better grade, it may even make you a better commentator on articles with which you disagree.
A false analogy is when you make a comparison based on differences or similarities that are irrelevant but appear to contain wisdom. “Pres. Bush needs to be impeached immediately because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Both things may very well be true; in this case they are. But since Pres. Bush is not a dog, the analogy is false. It may very well be impossible to teach a 15 year old dog to roll over, but that is just simply not the same as teaching George W. Bush or anyone else geopolitics at middle age.
Not to be confused with the false analogy, the irrelevant argument does not even contain the germ of reason that the false analogy does. The irrelevant argument has absolutely no connection. (This is what you often see on comments, by the way.) The irrelevant argument is often known as the non sequitur, which means “it does not follow.” “The candidate is a god-fearing man so he will make a fine President.” This differs from the above in that there is no analogous connection between religion and leadership. There have been just as many murderers who believed in God as leaders, if not more.
Often you will see this termed a hasty generalization. “Women are poorer drivers than men.” “Blacks are lazier than whites.” “Islam is bloodier than Christianity.” You can usually spot these, but not all the time. These examples are things that have and are said and most people recognize them, eventually, as unfair generalization. But let’s say you are writing an English paper about British history and your thesis is that everybody considers Shakespeare to be the finest dramatist in history. Well, a lot of people do. But not everybody. That is just as much a generalization as the other examples.
Not to be confused with the red herring in a mystery story. A red herring as it relates to an English course has to do with ignoring the real question. For instance, let’s say you have been assigned to write a paper about the reality or unreality of global warming. Rather than doing the research to discover whether global warming is factually evident or a massive hoax, you instead write a paper that says it doesn’t really matter either way since whether it is real or not there’s nothing anyone can do to control the weather. This is a subtle example of a red herring. A more obvious one can be found in the comments section on political argument. For instance, on my articles calling attention to Pres. Bush’s lies about WMDS, many people decide rather than address the real issue, they will try to turn it onto the issue of Pres. Clinton lying about Miss Lewinsky. Both men were wrong, but that’s not the issue. Likewise, an article about Pres. Clinton’s lies cannot be argued by bringing up Pres. Bush’s lies.
This is a favorite one used in political debate, but pops up often in English papers as well. It also goes by the name false dilemma. For instance, “America, love it or leave it.” Or the one used by Pres. Bush on many occasions: “Either you are for the terrorists or you are for us.” Well, no, in both cases. When writing an argumentative or persuasive paper, especially, it is important to avoid the false dilemma. For instance, let’s say you are given the assignment to write about the importance of getting a college education. The temptation will be at some point to break it down to the either/or proposition that either you go to college or you can forget about getting a good-paying job. Well, that may very well be the case in many circumstances. But it’s a not a hard and fast rule. The either/or fallacy is far easier to fall into than to recognize. It can, in fact, be dangerously subtle. Either you support the President or you are unpatriotic. Either you believe in the First Amendment or you don’t. Shades of gray exist in every argument, so look for them if you can’t find them. A recent example of this was when a spokesman for the ironically titled web site AmericanThinker.com suggested that opponents to Stanford University’s plan to award a fellowship to Donald Rumsfeld who have bumper stickers calling for a celebration of diversity are either interested in celebrating diversity by giving Rumsfeld the honor or else they aren’t interested in diversity at all. Well, no. Perhaps they feel the same way that conservatives felt when the leaders of Iran and Venezuela were given a world stage in America from which to speak; that a man whose lives have resulted in the needless deaths of thousands should be heard…but not from a place of honor among the academic community.
Jumping on the Bandwagon
Everybody else is doing it, so why not you? I remember a classic Bloom Country comic strip in which Opus the Penguin tells a little story about his youth on the Falkland Islands. Every day British jets used to sweep across the sky and eight million penguins would tilt their head back until they all fell over on their butts. The moral of the story: If eight million people do a stupid thing, it’s still a stupid thing. Don’t make your argument rest on the fact that a majority of people do or believe it. This is a logical fallacy that we tend to use only when the eight million people are doing something we support. A good example of how meaningless this is would be to use Pres. Bush again. 80% of Americans once support the war in Iraq. Now only 30% do. It was the same war then as it is now. It was wrong when 80% supported it and it’s wrong now that only 30% support it. Remember, the truth is never determined by a majority opinion any more than it is by a minority opinion. As further evidence, simply consider that if you only had access to research written before 1500 AD, the “truth” would be that the sun revolved around the earth.
This is the greatest fallacy you can understand in either a free English course or by paying for the privilege. Card-stacking exists in almost every term paper because you want to make your case. Let’s say you’re writing a paper on The Grapes of Wrath and your thesis is that it is leftist propaganda rather than a fair and balanced treatment of the Depression and that you have to use at least five sources. The temptation will be to use only sources that already agree with your thesis and ignore sources that offer an opposing view. To avoid this logical fallacy and make your paper even better, try to find two sources that disagree with yours but make strong arguments, and then provide evidence that undermines that argument. It is way too easy to find and use only sources that already agree with you. I guarantee you will get a better grade if you actively engage strong arguments against your thesis and provide a solid foundation to argue against them.