Stalking the Wild Fallacy
A "wild" fallacy example 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" example is one created specifically to be an example of a fallacy, such as many of those found in textbooks.
This file contains examples of logical fallacies from the written media: books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and fundraising letters. I have included enough context so that the arguer's intention is not misrepresented, but excluded information irrelevant to the specific argument.
Some points to keep in mind:
- The level of difficulty of these examples varies from the obvious to the difficult, but each should be self-explanatory when read in conjunction with the fallacy entry which is linked to at the end of the example. Should you find an example that is not self-explanatory after reading the appropriate entry, let me know.
- Sometimes the fallacy is not committed by the writer, but by someone else, and only reported in the written passage.
- Some of the examples are not full-fledged fallacies, but linguistic boobytraps which might trick the reader into committing such a fallacy.
- You can test your knowledge of the fallacies by reading each passage, identifying the fallacy committed, then clicking on "Fallacy" at the end, which will take you to the file for the specific fallacy committed.
If you have any good examples of logical fallacies, 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, which is notoriously unreliable.
Monsieur Lebec: (To Chuck) I'm afraid your friend hasn't told you everything. He promised to take us to a lost diamond mine, you see. (To Fearless) What kind of diamonds are in it?
Fearless: Lost diamonds.1
The earthquake that has so far claimed 11 lives here was caused by the sacrilegious act of a group of Europeans who stripped naked on the peak of Mount Kinabalu, according to Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan. … “Whether other people believe this or not, it’s what we Sabahans believe. When the earthquake happened, it’s like a confirmation of our beliefs. It is a sacred mountain and you cannot take it lightly,” he said in a press conference to announce the latest death toll at the Sabah Parks headquarters here today. … “To me, when something like this happens, it is a clear connection of the incident to the earthquake that has brought about so much damage and loss of lives,” he said. … "The last time we had an earthquake was so long ago. This is more than a coincidence. I think that the spirits were deeply offended by the insolence,” said another local villager who declined to be named.2
The 29 students in Mr Strang's classroom gravely considered the two sentences scrawled across the freshly washed blackboard:
All A's are C's.
All B's are C's.
"The apparent conclusionthat all A's are B'sdoes have a certain allure, a kind of appealing logic."
Mr Strang blinked myopically, his wrinkled face resembling that of a good-natured troll. Then he whirled, and his chalk drew a large screeching X through both sentences.
"Of course," he snapped, "it's also dead wrong. Its error can easily be verified by substituting 'teenager' for A, 'ostrich' for B, and 'two-legged' for C in the original premises. Thus, all teenagers are two-legged, all ostriches are two-legged, and therefore all teenagers are ostriches. I doubt you'd accept that conclusion."3
…"What 'scriptural authority' is there for Christians to oppose pornography?"
No scriptures exonerate Christians from resisting and defeating the pornographic abuse of God's gift of sex.4
One day late in December…[Charles] Dickens announced that he couldn't travel by train anymore that year, "on the grounds that the average annual quota of railroad accidents in Britain had not been filled and therefore further disasters were obviously imminent."5
…[T]he acceptance of abortion does not end with the killing of unborn human life. It continues on to affect our attitude toward all aspects of human life. This is most obvious in how quickly, following the acceptance of abortion, comes the acceptance of infanticide―the killing of babies who after birth do not come up to someone's standard of life worthy to be lived―and then on to euthanasia of the aged. If human life can be taken before birth, there is no logical reason why human life cannot be taken after birth.6
We hated the war, but we loved it too. Vietnam made us special, a generation with a mission. Vietnam gave the semblance of moral shape to what was actually a formless hatred of "the system." The war justified every excess, every violent thought and deed. Heaving a rock at some corporation's window, we banished guilt by the thought: This is for the Vietnamese. Trying to set fire to a university library, we said to ourselves: This is for the Vietnamese. If the war gave us license, it also gave us an addictive sense of moral superiority: we were better than the circumstances in which we were forced to live. If we committed small misdemeanors of indecency, they were in the long run justified by the much larger and more obscene crime in Southeast Asia.7
A major problem in dealing with [David] Irving as a cross-examiner lay in the fact that he would frequently build into his often lengthy and elaborate questions assumptions that themselves rested on his falsification of the evidence, and so had to be disputed before the question itself could be dealt with. This tactic, whether conscious or not, did not escape the attention of the judge. "No, Mr. Irving, that will not do, will it?" he exclaimed on one such occasion: "You cannot put a question which has as its premise a misstatement about the date when gas chambers began operating . If you are going to ask that question, and it is a relevant question, you must premise it correctly."8
The march was organised by the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, who estimate that 20,000 people turned up. It kicked off with a rally outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to demand that the Bush administration ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Here, the demonstrators followed in the footsteps of that other well-known progressive Osama bin Laden (and numerous others, of course) who in a ‘Letter to America’ in 2002 accused it of having ‘destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history, [yet] you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries’. This was almost the exact same argument made by most of the demonstrators, though I’m pleased to report that there was no ‘Al-Qaeda against climate change’ contingent.9
Bob Murch, spirit board collector: "There's been thousands of years of accounts of ghosts and hauntings, and if those are true, you know, surely a spirit board can work."
Penn Jillette: "So, if those aren't true, a spirit board can't work? Cool!"10
Renault…says pedestrian safety takes a high priority, but that it has chosen not to make its cars safer for pedestrians because of uncertainties over a forthcoming European Pedestrian Safety Directive. "We are waiting to find out which direction the EU wants to go in," a spokesman says.
The directive will force car makers to meet minimum standards for pedestrian safety…. In Phase 1 of the directive, new models sold in the EU must meet preliminary standards from October 2005, and all new cars must meet the standards by 2012. …
Phase 2 imposes more demanding tests, which apply to new models from 2010, and to new cars from 2015. … EU-wide, Phase 2 is expected to prevent 854 deaths a year among pedestrians and cyclists, and 36,917 serious injuries.
However, the European Commission is under pressure from Europe's car makers and their representative body, ACEA, to make the Phase 2 tests less stringent. … ACEA's proposals have been calculated to lead to 443 additional deaths and 9,746 additional serious injuries every year, relative to the original proposals.11
Three distinguished psychiatrists, Drs. Marmor, Bernard, and Ottenberg, have observed: "The reactions of some of these individuals [who criticize psychiatry or psychiatrists] seem to reflect a fear that any psychiatric insights may expose their own underlying mental instability, much as a patient who fears that he has cancer of the lung may be terrified of a chest X-ray."12
The case of the ecologist who linked the cycles of the Canadian lynx and its prey, the snowshoe rabbit, with the sunspot cycle is instructive. The ecologist analyzed records of the Hudson Bay Company, which had been collecting pelts of the two species since 1735; he found that the two populations fluctuated up and down, displaying a periodicity of approximately ten years. Not surprisingly, the variations in the predatory lynx population tended to follow the ups and downs in the rabbit population with a time lag of a couple of years.
Then the ecologist superimposed the two curves atop a similar graph representing the concurrent sunspot activity: voilà! The three cycles approximately coincided over a good portion of their range. The ecologist leaped to the conclusion that the annual fluctuations of the lynx and rabbit populations were controlled by the eleven-year sunspot cycle .13
If "experts" could always be trusted to make the right moral decision, then public participation would not be necessarybut they cannot be, and so it is.14
Instead of beating your chest over the current political-contribution system, why don't you advocate a solution? The last thing our political system needs is Time magazine sermonizing about "how the little guy gets hurt." I'm sure there are a lot of "little guys" in the magazine business that have been flattened by Time's fat feet too.15
Every human group is born, grows, declines, and dies, as it must if it is an aggregation of individual living beings.16
How do we know that we have here in the Bible a right criterion of truth? We know because of the Bible's claims for itself. All through the Scripture are found frequent expressions such as "Thus says the Lord," "The Lord said," and "God spoke." Such statements occur no less than 1,904 times in the 39 books of the Old Testament.17
BLURB BLURRING: In both the May 1 and May 8 issues of TNR, an ad for Gregory A. Fossedal's The Democratic Imperative, published by New Republic Books, quoted Sidney Blumenthal of the Washington Post as follows: "Many consider Fossedal the most promising journalist of his generation." What Blumenthal had actually written, in a profile of Fossedal that appeared in the Post on November 22, 1985, was: "On the right, Fossedal is widely regarded as his generation's most promising journalist, propitiously placed at the heart of the nation's largest circulation newspaper." We apologize for the mistake.18
Quebec environment minister Lise Bacon pledged the PCBs would be moved out and broken down somehow within 18 months. She also said that PCBs couldn't be all that dangerous because her father had washed his hands in PCBs but lived to an old age.19
[The Mayor] said the biggest problem for the city administration has been fighting people who have protested such things as industrial development.
"We've had people fight highways, the school corporation and county zoning," he said. "I didn't notice any of these people coming up here on horses and donkeys. They all drove cars up here, spewing hydrocarbons all over the place."20
Among the various celebrity-endorsed items being advertised inside Madison Square Garden on a recent Sunday afternoon were the following: one candidate for president of the United StatesBill Bradley, endorsed by some two dozen retired basketball legends, four Hollywood actors, one tempestuous former tennis star, and one R&B singer.
Surely John Sweeney's recommendation of a presidential candidate carries more weight than Dr. J's. After all, does Jim Palmer's low ERA really make him a reliable guide to home mortgages?
Well, yesat least according to the associative logic that drives this country's multimillion-dollar celebrity-endorsement industry. If Pete Sampras shills for Pizza Hut, then their pizza must be the best. And if a champion athlete is possessed of certain ineffable qualitiesgrit, say, or sportsmanshipand that athlete happens to speak fondly of a certain Lean Mean Fat-Grilling Machine, then the Lean Mean Fat-Grilling Machine must also be imbued with the fat-grilling equivalent of grit and sportsmanship.
If we pick our presidents in much the same way that we pick our underwear, then Michael Jordan's preference for Bill Bradley is precisely as relevant as his preference for Hanes.21
In 1995 a classic Dobson firestorm broke out on the pages of a highly respected magazine within Dobson's religious community, Christianity Today. A member of the academic community questioned the belligerent battle language used by some Christian political activists like Dobson in an article .
John D. Woodbridge, Ph.D., author of the first article offered five examples of why he had come to believe that warfare rhetoric in the political arena is hurting the work of the Christian church:
"First, culture-war rhetoric can be self-fulfilling prophecy, exacerbating the very conflicts it seeks merely to describe. Second, culture-war rhetoric leads us to distort others' positions, to see enmity in place of mere disagreement. It leaves no room for nuanced positions, or for middle ground. Third, culture-war rhetoric distorts our own position too . Fourth, culture-war rhetoric plays into the hands of extremists on the Left . Fifth, culture-war rhetoric tends to create division among Christians ."
Several issues later, Christianity Today published Dobson's rebuttal.
[Dobson:] " there are those who wish we would ignore the social issues altogether and seem to resent our refusal to do so."
Several issues of Christianity Today went by and then came the Woodbridge response to Dobson.
"In my article, I cited Dr. Dobson of Focus on the Family as an example of a Christian leader who has chosen to use warfare rhetoric to describe the "ongoing civil war of values." But neither Dr. Dobson nor Focus on the Family was the focus of the article. But like a man who sees his profile transformed beyond recognition in a distorting mirror, I did not recognize a number of Dr. Dobson's characterizations of my essay."22
- The Road to Zanzibar (1941).
- Julia Chan, "Pairin: Naked tourist brought on mountain’s wrath", The Malay Mail Online, 6/6/2015. Thanks to David McRobert for this example.
- William Brittain, "Mr Strang Accepts a Challenge", in The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, pp. 349-50.
- Neil Gallagher, The Porno Plague (New, updated edition, 1981), p. 155.
- K. C. Cole, The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty (1998), p. 30.
- Francis A. Schaeffer, "It is Your Life that is Involved", Who is For Life? (1984), p. 39.
- Peter Collier, "Something Happened to Me Yesterday", in Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties, with David Horowitz (Summit Books, 1989), p. 264.
- Richard J. Evans, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (Basic Books, 2001), p. 202.
- Brendan O’Neill, "A March of Middle-Class Miserabilists", Spiked, 11/7/2006. Thanks to Peter Wilkinson for this example
- Penn & Teller, "Ouija Boards/Near Death Experiences", B.S.!.
- Oliver Tickell, "Crash Course in Safety", Guardian Unlimited, 7/7/2005.
- Morris Kominsky, The Hoaxers (Branden Press: 1970), p. 111.
- Lawrence E. Jerome, "Astrology: Magic or Science?", in Bart J. Bok & Lawrence E. Jerome, Objections to Astrology (Prometheus, 1975), p. 57.
- Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), p. xv.
- Rob Windoffer, Chicago, "Letters", Time, February 28, 2000.
- From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process (Johns Hopkins, 1940), p. 80. Cited by S. Morris Engel in Analyzing Informal Fallacies (Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 28.
- Gilbert W. Kirby, "Is the Bible True?" Decision, Vol. 1, Jan. 1974, p. 4. Cited by S. Morris Engel in Analyzing Informal Fallacies (Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 55.
- The New Republic, May 15, 1989, p. 12.
- Merritt Clifton, "PCB Homecoming", Greenpeace, November/December, 1989, p. 21.
- Terre Haute Tribune-Star.
- Nicholas Confessore, The American Prospect, December 20, 1999, pp. 24-5.
- Gil Alexander-Moegerle, James Dobson's War on America (Prometheus Press, 1997), pp. 75-8.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Stefan Cooper for pointing out a dead link.