Stalking the Wild Argument
A "wild" argument is not one that is unusually weird, rather it is one that is found in the "wild", in the natural habitat of argumentation. In contrast, a "tame" argument is one created specifically to be an example, such as many of those found in logic textbooks.
This file contains examples of arguments taken from the written media. I have included enough context so that the arguer's intention is not misrepresented, but excluded information irrelevant to the specific argument.
These arguments are ones difficult enough to require some extended analysis and explanation. For fallacious arguments that are comparatively self-explanatory, see the sibling page "Stalking the Wild Fallacy", which is available from the main menu under "Examples". Many of the arguments here began as examples on the entries for specific fallacies, or on the examples page, but experience revealed that they needed lengthier analysis and explanation than was appropriate for those pages.
Most wild arguments are more like those discussed here than those used as examples elsewhere on this site: they are often sloppy, especially when they contain fallacies. When people reason poorly, they often do so vaguely and ambiguously, thus concealing from themselves and others the mistakes they are making. For this reason, real-life arguments often make for poor examples, as they're just too confusing for the beginner.
Learning to identify logical fallacies by name based on the often cooked-up examples in textbooks is the easy part; applying what you've learned to everyday argumentation is the hard but essential part. Hopefully, the arguments and analysis on this page will help show how to do it.
If you have any examples of interesting arguments, please send them to me! I prefer documented, as opposed to anecdotal, examplesthat is, arguments drawn from some source that can be cited rather than from memory. Nonetheless, feel free to send me any argument, even if you can't cite chapter and verse for it―I may be able to track it down.
[H]igh-density development [doesn't] reduce congestion. The superficially appealing idea is that if we all live closer to where we work and shop, shorter car trips and mass transit will replace all those long car rides. But the real world doesn't work that way. Try this thought experiment. What happens at a cocktail party when a new wave of people shows up and the population density of the living room doubles? Is it harder or easier to get to the bar and the cheese tray? Is it harder or easier to carry on conversation and move around the room? As urban population density rises, auto-traffic congestion gets worse, not better, and commute times get longer, not shorter.1
Analysis: This argument's conclusion is contained in the first and last sentences: High-density development doesn't reduce congestion, rather higher density produces more congestion and longer commutes. The reasoning for this conclusion is based on a "thought experiment", which is an analogy between high-density development and a cocktail party. This is where the argument goes wrong.
If you do the suggested "thought experiment", you may imagine yourself at a cocktail party when a lot of newcomers arrive. Does it become easier for you to get around the room, or harder? Of course, it gets harder! Does that mean that the conclusion is correct? Not at all.
Try the experiment a different way: Suppose that you're not already at the party, but are one of the newcomers yourself. Does your arrival make it easier for you to get at the wine and cheese? Of course it does!
In other words, when more people arrive at a party it becomes harder for those already there to get to the refreshments, but it's easier for those who just arrived. Similarly, if you already live downtown, more people moving in will no doubt make it harder for you to get around, and it will take longer for you to get to work; but if you live out in the suburbs and move downtown to be closer to your job, your commute time will shorten.
The only way to determine whether increased density shortens commute times, lengthens them, or leaves them unchanged, is to look at its effect on the average commutes of everyone affected. That is, while commute times for those who already live downtown may increase, commutes for those newcomers who move downtown will decrease. Whether the average decreases, increases, or the two balance out, I don't know. But this is not the sort of thing that can be decided by a thought experiment; only a real-life statistical study could provide an answer.
Now, this doesn't mean that high-density development does reduce congestion. Perhaps the conclusion is right that it doesn't and all that's needed is a better argument for it. However, the cocktail party analogy is a poor one and this is, therefore, a fallacious argument.
Fallacy: Weak Analogy
…[S]harp-tongued Benjamin Disraeli, so the story goes, was ordered in the last century to withdraw his declaration that half the Cabinet were asses. "Mr. Speaker, I withdraw," was Disraeli's response. "Half the Cabinet are not asses."2
- "It's not the case that half the Cabinet are asses." On this meaning, Disraeli is indeed withdrawing his previous statement that half the Cabinet were asses by denying it. Here, the negation―"not"―in Disraeli's statement has wide scope, that is, it negates the entire statement that half the Cabinet are asses. That this is one possible meaning of the statement is shown by the familiar adage that "all that glitters is not gold", which means that not all that glitters is gold―in other words, some glittery things aren't golden.
- "Half the Cabinet are non-asses." On this interpretation, the negation has narrow scope, only negating the statement's ass, so to speak. However, this meaning does not deny Disraeli's original claim that half the Cabinet were asses; rather, it is a consequence of it, since if exactly half of the Cabinet are asses then the other half must be non-asses.
By making this amphibolous claim, Disraeli was able to have his cake and eat it too: he could seem to obey the order to back down from his original claim by denying it, while actually intending the second meaning.
Fallacy: Scope Fallacy
On the campaign trail, [John Kerry]'s in favor of raising taxes on everybody who makes over $200,000 a year. Unless, of course, he's the one being asked to pay more, in which case, forget about it.
We know this because of a little whoopee cushion recently inserted into the income tax forms of his home state of Massachusetts. [A]n anti-tax group managed to place a line on the tax form giving Bay Staters the option of paying at the old, since-repealed 5.85 percent rate, rather than at the current 5.3 percent rate.
For two years now, John Kerry has had the opportunity to pay his "fair share." But the Democratic Party candidate for president has taken the money and ran.
"Why do you even call asking about this?" his spokesman, Michael Meehan, said Saturday morning. "He has made the same decision as 99.9 percent of his fellow Massachusetts residents."3
Analysis: I originally included this as an example of the bandwagon fallacy, but a pseudonymous reader wrote in:
Upon reading this, I was sure that this was a classic example of the Tu Quoque fallacy. The article's author is attacking John Kerry's position that the tax rate on the wealthy should be increased, by pointing out that Kerry did not take the option to voluntarily pay at a higher rate. Whether Kerry, personally, is consistent with his position doesn't have any weight on the strength of his arguments for that position (and I don't think not voluntarily paying taxes at a higher rate is even inconsistent, but that's not relevant). I agree that his spokesperson's reply is a bandwagon justification. However, in today's political climate, where image and character are held above, or at least equal to, position and merit, it is not tenable for a politician to respond to a fallacious argument in such a way. In my opinion, the more glaring example of fallacious logic was the author's attack on Kerry's position. The spokesperson's response, while logically fallacious, was probably deliberately pragmatic.
Three points in reply:
- In a Tu Quoque, one defends oneself against a charge by turning the accusation back on the accuser. That doesn't appear to be what's happening in this case, since as far as we know the author has not been accused of what he's accusing Kerry of doing.
- Rather than attacking Kerry's position on taxes, it seems to me that he is attacking Kerry personally as a hypocrite. If he were arguing against Kerry's position by pointing out his hypocrisy, that would be a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy, rather than a Tu Quoque.
- Not every personal attack is fallacious. The example is from an article written while Kerry was "on the campaign trail" running for President. While candidates for public office often campaign on platforms, it is ultimately a person who is elected, and broken campaign promises are all too familiar. For this reason, the character of a candidate is not logically irrelevant. Certain types of character attacks may indeed be irrelevant, for instance, a candidate's private sexual peccadilloes may not have any bearing on how he governs. However, Kerry's failure to pay a higher tax rate when he had the chance and could easily afford it does call into question his sincerity in advocating higher rates. Of course, how much weight one should put on this evidence is debatable, but it was some evidence about what kind of man Kerry was and how he was likely to govern. As a result, though the article is indeed a personal attack, I don't think that it constitutes an ad hominem fallacy.
So, in my opinion, the passage does not commit an ad hominem against Kerry, despite superficial appearances. Rather, the bandwagon fallacy was committed in the last paragraph by the spokesman defending Kerry against the charge of hypocrisy. A candidate should not necessarily be held to the same standards as a random citizen, especially when that candidate was married to the heir to the Heinz family fortune.4
Fallacy: The Bandwagon Fallacy
There are very few general laws of social science, but we can offer one that has a deserved claim: the restriction of the concept of humanity in any sphere never enhances a respect for human life. It did not enhance the rights of slaves, prisoners of wars, criminals, traitors, women, children, Jews, blacks, heretics, workers, capitalists, Slavs or Gypsies. The restriction of the concept of personhood in regard to the fetus will not do so either.5
Analysis: The author denies that restricting the concept of human by race, ethnicity, economic class, or age has enhanced a general respect for human life―presumably, this is an understatement, and he actually thinks that such restrictions have reduced respect for human life. Of course, this is not surprising, since all of the groups given as examples are groups of human beings.
He goes on to conclude that restricting the concept of person with respect to human fetuses will have the same effect of reducing the general respect for human life. However, for this argument to work by analogy with the example of the other groups, it must be the case that fetuses are a type of human being. This can be seen by applying the same pattern of reasoning to groups that are obviously not human.
For instance, if we restrict the concept of the human to leave out pigs, does that diminish respect for human life? Some vegetarians may think so, but should a non-vegetarian find this argument persuasive? Of course, it reduces respect for porcine life, but pigs are not human. Similarly, if we restrict the concept of human being to exclude human sperm cells, does that reduce general respect for human life? Perhaps some Catholics believe this, but should non-Catholics change their view of contraception?
So, for this argument to be persuasive to those who doubt the immorality of abortion, it must assume that human fetuses are fully-fledged human beings, deserving equal respect with adult humans. If that's the case, then the conclusion goes without saying: of course leaving any human beings out of the concept of humanity reduces respect for human life, by definition. However, if fetuses are not fully-fledged people, then the argument has no force, any more than the argument with "pig" or "sperm cell" replacing "fetus"6. In other words, if you already accept the idea that fetuses are fully human, then this argument is obvious; if you don't accept that idea, then the argument is ineffective.
Fallacy: Begging the Question
Hate based on skin color and/or ethnic and cultural differences still festers among us. It's an aggressive monster that actively seeks putrefaction like itself so it may commune and spawn. It spreads like a fungus, seeking to multiply.
The Internet has been a fertile ground for groups to plant evil seeds. As ways to interact on the Internet have grown, so grow the hate groups. Online communities, which so innocently attempt to bring like-minded individuals together for virtual socializing, created a nice breeding ground for venom.7
Analysis: When this passage is stripped of its metaphorical language, here's what's left:
Racial, ethnic, and cultural hatreds still exist. People with such feelings wish to spread them to others. As the internet has grown as a way of socializing, so has its use to attempt to spread such hatred.
Of course, racism and ethnic hatred still exist, and it's hardly surprising that as more people in general use the internet to socialize, so do more bad people. The editorial that the passage comes from was attempting to argue that the internet search engine company Google should censor its results in an attempt to curb the spread of such hatred. However, whatever force the passage has comes from its loaded language: racism is called a "monster", a "putrefaction", and compared to a fungus. In this way, the editorial attempts to manipulate the reader's emotions rather than appealing to reason. Perhaps Google and other search engines should indeed censor their results, but this argument doesn't make a case for that conclusion.
…Scientology textbooks sometimes refer to psychiatry as a "Nazi science".
Well, look at the history. Jung was an editor for the Nazi papers during World War II. … Look at the experimentation the Nazis did with electric shock and drugging. Look at the drug methadone. That was originally called Adolophine. It was named after Adolf Hitler.8
Analysis: This passage is taken from an interview with the actor Tom Cruise, who is well-known as a Scientologist. Scientology is hostile to psychiatry, and here the interviewer raises the issue of Scientology texts referring to psychiatry as a "Nazi science". Cruise defends the accusations by claiming two things: first, that psychiatrist Carl Jung edited Nazi papers and, second, that the psychiatric drug methadone was originally named for Adolf Hitler.
Whether these claims are true or not9, the argument fails logically. Modern psychiatry makes little if any use of Jung's theories, and the drug methodone is used to relieve pain and suppress withdrawal symptoms. Even if the drug had been discovered by German scientists who named it after Hitler, that would have nothing to do with whether it is a useful drug. Cruise and other Scientologists are trying to tar psychiatry by associating it with Nazism, which is like arguing that the Volkswagen must be a bad car because Hitler promoted it.
Fallacy: The Hitler Card
Cheating by the Soviets
Barry Schweid of the Associated Press, in his efforts to criticize President Reagan's space-based defense against Soviet missiles, came up with a report from some Stanford University group that claimed to find little evidence of cheating by the Soviet Union on arms-control treaties.
Where were they when Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz, secretary of state, and several members of our military forces went on TV and described and enumerated the different times and ways that the Soviet Union has cheated on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty?
Does Schweid really believe that the group at Stanford is more knowledgeable about U.S. arms-control policy than all our military experts, with Congress thrown in for good measure? If I thought that was true, I wouldn't sleep much tonight. And I doubt if he would either.10
Analysis: This example was previously used on the entry for the fallacy of appeal to misleading authority and, judging from email volume, it is one of the most controversial analyses of an example that I've given. For that reason, I decided to move it to this page for the extended discussion needed to explain the evaluation.
First of all, in judging this argument fallacious, I am not denying the conclusion that the Soviet Union cheated on arms control treaties. Rather, I am evaluating the particular reasoning for that conclusion in the letter to the editor, above. Confusing criticism of the reasoning for a conclusion with criticism of the conclusion itself is a common mistake, perhaps because disagreeing with a conclusion is often a reason for criticizing the reasoning supporting it.
The problem with this argument is that most of the authorities cited were not disinterested11: Weinberger and Shultz were members of Reagan's cabinet, and could be counted on to support his proposals. Similarly, members of the armed forces are not encouraged to disagree with the Commander-In-Chief, especially when the services stand to benefit from the proposal. The one exception in this letter is Congress, which was controlled by the opposition party. In contrast, the Stanford University group cited by Schweid was disinterested, so far as we can tell from the letter.
Some readers have suggested that the Stanford University group might be ideologically biased against a space-based missile defense. However, even if trueand there is no evidence from the letter that it ismembers of the administration were likely to be ideologically biased in favor of such a system. So, ideological bias is a tie between the two sources. The problem with the administration authorities is not ideological bias, but institutional bias in favor of an employer. The Stanford University group lacks that kind of bias.12
I mentioned above that I received email about this example, and here are excerpts from two that warrant individual responses:
The analysis author misses a few critical points, specifically the question of "Is the authority an expert on the matter? If not, then why listen?" and "Is the authority's opinion representative of expert opinion?," focusing only on the fourth item on your checklist13, the matter of bias. The writer in the example given specifically asks why one should consider the Stanford Group (who is not named specifically, nor their members described, unfortunately) to be more "expert" than a few different branches of the US government. As such, he ignores the writer's argument and attempts to make it one of bias, which is all well and good assuming that one considers both Stanford and the US government equally expert on the topic of Soviet weapon practices.
This is one of my pet peeves considering how often one sees on TV and in print "That man is biased, thus his word cannot be trusted even though he is a noted researcher in the field. This layman, however, is perfectly innocent, and happens to agree with me, so let's listen to him." Particularly since it presumes that any interest begets bias enough to spin falsehoods, and that someone can do all sorts of fact finding and research without being the least interested (in the bias sense) in their theories. In other words, people argue over who is getting paid by whom, not actual facts or data.―Eric J. Hammer
You're right that we don't know anything from the letter about the Stanford group other than that they were from Stanford and they were a group. It's possible that they were a group of Stanford students or, more likely, a politicized group of Stanford faculty who were opining outside of their areas of expertise. However, the point of the example is not that the Stanford group was correct or should be believed, but that the letter to the editor makes a poor argument against them. If the Stanford group were in fact unqualified, or were not disinterested, then the letter writer should have challenged their qualifications or disinterestedness, rather than citing other experts who were clearly biased.
I think this is missing from your checklist: If the military is wrong about an opinion such as "the Soviets are cheating" bad things happen to the military (careers ruined, etc.). If the Stanford group is wrong, nothing bad happens to Stanford. So when giving an opinion the military risks a lot of prestige but Stanford risks nothing. What this boils down to is the military would be held accountable where Stanford would not. This seems like it would be a separate checklist question. Because if someone is very accountable it would make an expert opinion more important.―Mitch Hunt
Accountability is certainly something to think about when evaluating expert opinion, especially when trying to decide between "dueling experts". That said, I don't see why accountability would be all on one side in the example. If the Stanford group were publicly shown to be wrong, then that could damage its reputation, the reputations of its individual members, as well as the reputation of Stanford University by association.
Moreover, the accountability of the military is a two-edged sword. The military is ultimately accountable to the civilian government, specifically the executive branch, and the head of that branch is also the Commander-in-Chief. So, a military career could certainly be ruined by taking a public position in opposition to the President's stated policy. For this reason, I think that accountability is a wash in this case.
Fallacy: Appeal to Misleading Authority
- Steven Hayward, "Suburban Legends", National Review, March 22, 1999, p. 36.
- Sarah Lyall, "The World; The Right Hon. Twerp Debates the Windbag", New York Times, 2/26/1995. According to the Quote Investigator, Garson O'Toole, Disraeli probably never said this. The claim that he did comes from the article quoted. Instead, a traditional anecdote, or perhaps an amusing story told about a minor political figure, became attached to a famous politician. See:
Garson O'Toole, Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations (2017), pp. 208-213.
- Howie Carr, "A Flying Squirrel", New York Post, 4/19/2004.
- "Teresa Heinz Kerry", Biography, 4/2/2014.
- Phillip Abbott, quoted by Helen M. Alvaré in "Abortion is Immoral", from The Abortion Controversy, Greenhaven, 1995, p. 25.
- It should go without saying that I am not here claiming that human fetuses are non-human animals, like pigs, nor that they are genetically incomplete, like sperm cells. Unfortunately, I know from experience that one must emphasize this point. I choose pigs and sperm cells as examples because most readers will agree that they are not human beings with a right to life. For those readers who consider human fetuses fully human, the analogy should make it easier to understand why the argument begs the question.
- "Google Should Act", Contra Costa Times, 3/10/2005.
- "Q&A: Tom Cruise", Entertainment Weekly, 6/9/2005.
- Just for the record, here's what I've been able to find out about Cruise's factual claims:
- I haven't found any evidence that Jung edited any Nazi papers, whatever that means. Some have accused Jung of anti-semitism and being pro-Nazi, but these claims are controversial and I haven't bothered to investigate them thoroughly enough to sort them out.
- The claim about methadone appears to be untrue: "Dolophine", not "Adolophine", was a trade name given the drug by the Eli Lilly company after World War Two.
- Middleton B. Freeman, Louisville, "Letters From Readers", The Courier-Journal, April 1, 1987.
- Thus violating rule 3 of the checklist for evaluating appeals to expert opinion; see the entry for the fallacy of appeal to misleading authority.
- Thanks to readers Stephen Beecroft, Brandon Milam, and Sarah Natividad for criticizing the analysis of this argument, which led me to revise it.
- Currently the third checklist item.