At some point mid-semester, in my intermediate and advanced classes in ESL writing, it occurs to me that students really need to be taught the logical fallacy and how to avoid it.
This is after listening to them in discussion making statements like “Women are weaker than men,” with other students often accepting that without further questioning: “Weaker how? All women? Which men?” Or they will write something about The Occupy Movement and how it must be valid because “so many people are involved in it.” Clearly, some introduction to the logical fallacy is warranted. Not only will students learn about these basic errors in thinking, but they also will develop analytical and critical thinking skills and improve discussion and writing skills.
What is a Fallacy and Which Fallacies Should We Teach?
A fallacy is a logical error: something went wrong, or is missing from, a chain of reasoning. It’s important for student to learn these to recognize these in one’s own and other’s arguments. To be able to write and debate effectively, students need to know what a fallacy is. Critical thinking skills are also improved in the ability to take apart an argument and look for the fallacies.
I like to begin by introducing the concept and then using examples drawn from student experience if possible.
Both of these involve applying to the individual the traits of the whole group; a stereotype applies specifically to people, an overgeneralization to things. I like to use stereotypes about my own group, “All Americans are fat and lazy,” which usually gets a laugh from students; apparently they have been exposed to that particular stereotype, and I avoid potentially offending a student. I point out because of its sweeping nature, a stereotype can be defeated by pointing out one exception: I’m American and neither fat nor lazy; therefore, the stereotype does not hold. I also offer students a “cure” for fallacies: in this case of stereotypes, modifying language to be less all-inclusive: e.g., it is fair, less fallacious to say “Many Americans struggle with weight control due to mostly cultural factors, like lack of exercise and fast food.”
Ad Hominem Attack
“Ad Hominem” literally means “to the person,” when the argument focuses not on the opponent but on the opponent’s personal life or appearance. I might offer an example from student life: e.g., “Professor Johnson is such a bad teacher. He’s so fat and sloppy, and his shoes are unpolished,” is an ad hominem attack because it focuses mostly on the poor guy’s physical appearance. It would be more fair and valid to discuss his ability to lecture or his grading policies, which go to the argument on his abilities as a professor being discussed.
Confusing Timing with Cause
This can be a difficult one to approach because even skilled critical thinkers make the rather easy mistake of thinking that because two things occurred together that they must be causally related. An example I offer from campus life is “I stayed up all night, drinking coffee while I studied, and I got an ‘A’ on my test. Therefore, caffeine improves grades.” I work with students to examine this by asking “What else might be going on here? Can we really say it was coffee that caused the good grade? Maybe it was the studying, and coffee had nothing to do with it? Or the causation was the other way, perhaps: the studying all night caused the need for coffee?” This also models questioning claims based on poor reasoning.
The bandwagon fallacy is the “everyone’s doing it; therefore it must be good” falsehood. An example the teacher could offer is that at one time not very long ago almost “everyone” in the U.S. smoked—a majority of adults, that is. “Everyone” could be wrong. This could be applied to student life today in the Occupy movement: if students choose to do it, fine—they should, however, know why beyond “everyone” doing it.
This fallacy predicts far-reaching, disastrous results from one event: e.g., “If the professor doesn’t give us extra time for studying for the exam, we’ll fail the test and then fail out of school. We won’t get jobs, and we’ll wind up homeless. And the terrorists will have won!” This usually gets laughs from students because of its obvious extremeness—it would be more reasonable to simply say “The teacher should give us extra time to study so that we have a chance to do well on the exam.”
A favorite example I offer for this is drawn from my own life: on receiving a parking citation from the local university campus police in the mail, I responded in writing with two claims:
“This is not my car, and I wasn’t on campus on the day in question.” I forgot about it, considering the matter resolved, until receiving a return letter from the campus police: “Parking laws are enforced every day at Cal State.” This leaves students either laughing or scratching their heads because it’s a classic non sequitur, “it doesn’t follow”; in this case, the campus police’s rebuttal about the laws being enforced everyday did not follow or address the claims I made about not being on campus and not owning that car but seemed rather to address some claim I didn’t make, like “It was only a Sunday.” It is likely the campus police didn’t even read my letter but was offering a standard response. In discussing this event, I am also able to review some key vocabulary for arguments, like “claim” and “rebuttal.”
How to Teach the Fallacy?
First introduce an academic argument (as opposed to the everyday use of the term): a claim that is supported.
Introduce the concept of “fallacy” and draw on examples from campus life, as above. Often students are eager to share fallacies they’ve encountered.
Start with an example of poor reasoning and fallacies. Just looking through the newspaper’s section of letters to the editor will reveal fallacies from ad hominem to non sequitur.
It’s a campaign year in the U.S.: plenty in the papers, in support of a candidate or against one. “She’s a good businesswoman; therefore she’d make a good governor” was a fallacy in a recent California election. Or ad hominem attacks (to the person): “Obama has suspected Muslim background; therefore, he wouldn’t make a good president.” Often a candidate’s personal life comes under examination: “Former New York Mayor Giuliani went through a divorce. He can’t handle his marriage, how he can be a good president?” These kind of ad hominem attacks are rampant in the public dialogue. Have students question these fallacies by asking critical questions that go to the premises that the fallacies are based on through modeling questioning such as the following: “Do you then believe Obama is lying about his religious faith? A lot of evidence, such as long-term church membership and his own testimony, suggests he is Christian, not Muslim. Even if Obama is lying about his religious faith, what of it? What would suggest a Muslim cannot be President?”or “Do success in marriage and in political leadership really draw on the same skills? Aren’t being successful in marriage and in politics really different things? If I have a successful marriage, does that mean I can lead the country? If we limit our presidency to only those who have successful marriages, are we really limiting our base of candidates?” From this dialogue, students will be more informed and thoughtful than much of the American public, and they will learn the habit of questioning the statements that often rest on unfounded assumptions that really permeate the public dialogue. The teacher should, of course, in this exercise remain focused on the exercise of critical analysis of the candidates and beliefs of them—for example, in this exercise, Giuliani and Obama are of opposing parties, and I am only of one of them—but I did not, I hope, favor one over the other in analysis of the criticism leveled at them; they were equally unfair attacks.
It’s time for students to examine fallacies in their own writing. Have students write a paragraph arguing from a particular perspective—for or against gun control, for example, and give reasons for their position They should then examine their writing for fallacies, then trade with a peer and do the same.
It takes time to teach the fallacy, time out of the regular curriculum, perhaps, and time to prepare examples.
However, the results in helping students improve critical thinking skills and the habit of critical examination of arguments are invaluable and will serve students the rest of their college careers and beyond.
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