post

How to Recognize Logical Fallacies by Type

How to Recognize Logical Fallacies by TypeWith all the ridiculous reasoning being thrown around the news, internet, and more, I’m constantly reminded that people don’t recognize logical fallacies. With each reminder, I’d start thinking, maybe, if more people knew how to recognize logical fallacies (& resist), there’d be less bad reasoning in the world.

So I thought I’d write an article about a handful of extremely important logical fallacies. I’ve done it before for work, so why not?

Then, I started researching (I didn’t want to miss a really important logical fallacy simply because I didn’t think of it right off the top of my head). And I found out that there are waaaay too many logical fallacies for me to try to cover in an article! Seriously. I wrote down 104 that I might want to cover (not including duplicates with different names), and I skipped quite a few from each site I looked at (such as “The Master List of Logical Fallacies,” “The Skeptics Guide to Logical Fallacies,” “The Logical Fallacies Handlist,” and even the Purdue OWL article on Logical Fallacies).

The more I read, the more I started to see patterns – links between different logic errors. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe instead of encouraging people to memorize or even learn to recognize ALL logical fallacies (or even the main ones), what if I talked about those commonalties. Seeing the underlying motives of the fallacies might be just as helpful as being able to call out each error by name.

Plus, it could be useful for characterization and plotting, so win-win, right?

Recognize Logical Fallacies by What They Do

After looking at a lot of logic errors back-to-back, it seems like they all have one of two purposes: to distract from the facts or cause commotions with your emotions (or both).

Distraction & Redirection

When a magician doesn’t want you to see his trick, he directs your focus elsewhere. These logic problems do the same thing – they move your attention away from the facts that might make you disagree. They can do this by subtly switching the topic, distracting you with emotion, skipping a step (or 3), or playing with words.

Topic Changes You Never Even Notice

There are a lot of logical fallacies that allow people to change the topic while pretending that they’re not changing the topic. Yeah. It’s really infuriating if you catch them at it, but, unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Red Herring: responding with a fact that seems important but isn’t really related to the argument
  • Straw Man: oversimplifying the opponent’s argument to defeat it makes you seem like you’ve won, but you weren’t actually defeating their argument – you were defeating the oversimplified version.
  • Faulty Analogy: a good analogy helps explain something. A faulty analogy works about the same way as a Straw Man argument because it makes you think you’re arguing against one thing when really you’re arguing against something else.
  • Overgeneralization: Like the others, this statement can be true, but it’s usually too general to justify making a decision based off of it or to defeat the opposition. Since it is true, however, sometimes it’s seen as a winning statement regardless of those other pesky details (*sigh*). Interestingly, it’s also known as a cognitive distortion (thinking errors that can effect your world view and emotional health).
  • Calling “Cards”: this is like saying that someone is playing the “race card” or “gender card,” which suddenly changes the argument to whether the person is pretending there’s an issue to get his/her way rather than the argument of the issue itself.

There are many, many more. To catch them, though, pay attention to whether the statement is actually 100% relevant to the argument or has the strength to prove the point. Looking for examples where the argument isn’t true or scale differences (like 1 side arguing that disabled vets should have ways to get help through government aid, and the other side arguing that people should work for a living – the second side is arguing a much larger scale, so it’s not directly arguing against the specific situation).

Making It a Personal or Emotional Issue

Yes, this could fall under the “playing with your emotions group”; however, there are times when the subject is changed through an unrelated point that pulls on people’s heart strings enough that it feels both related and significant.

  • Patriotic Ad Populem: linking an action with patriotism or being against patriotism when patriotic feeling is not actually part of the equation
  • Ad Hominem: attacking the person instead of the topic (and suddenly they’re trying to defend themselves instead of their position)
  • Appeal to Tradition: although “It worked before,” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way, it can feel like it does. In reality, the argument about whether it worked before is a different argument than whether there is a better way for the future.
  • Measurability: This changes the topic of the argument by saying that something isn’t measurable; therefore, it is not important (which is not grounded in fact but emotion).
  • Tone Policing: “You’re being emotional.” Yes, and? That doesn’t devalue the points the person has made. It’s also not always/often true.

These are particularly hard to counter because they can feel important even though they’re not motivated by logic.

Skip That

Skipping facts that argue against you, jumping straight to say a conclusion when you don’t have the facts to back it up, etc. If you’re not paying close attention or don’t know a topic very well, it can be really easy to miss the fact that someone glossed over a few steps to make an argument.

Sometimes, people think the step is so obvious that they don’t have to say it (but they really do need to). Other times, people drop the facts on purpose.

Doubletalk and Trickery

Then, there’s when people play with the words and the word meaning to confuse the issue and trick people into believing something. This is stereotypically thought of with lawyers and politicians, yet anyone can use it.

  • Equivocation: using a different definition of a word than the other person did to make the original argument seem flawed
  • Loaded Question: closely related to passive aggressiveness, this asks a person a seemingly-simple question that assumes something negative about them. Like, “Have you stopped drinking too much?”
  • Circular Reasoning: when the support for your argument is really the same as the argument – it just uses different words. Some people do this and don’t even know, especially school kids. “Drugs are bad because illegal substances have negative effects,” is basically saying the same thing twice. There’s no support.
  • Passive Voice Fallacy: using passive voice to shift attention. Like talking about “the book was stolen” rather than “he stole the book.” One shifts the attention to the theft, the other to the thief (also associated with victim shaming).
  • Moving the Goalpost: “I’ll admit your product is better if it can do x.” The product does x. “Oh, well, it really needs to do y to be better.”

These tactics bother me more than many because they feel more deliberate – let’s be sneaky and change the topic with my language skills because I know I can’t defeat your points. It’s also the annoying habit of some of my teenage students, so that could be part of my dislike, as well.

Playing with Your Emotions

In addition to the distraction tactic above that tugs on your heart strings, there are plenty of logical fallacies that use emotional appeals to try to override facts and logic. The most common reasons are to alarm, excuse an action, or rile the emotions so much that reason is virtually impossible.

Scare Tactics

Yes, “scare tactics” is a specific fallacy. At the same time, it’s a really good way to describe this general tactic of alarming people into belief.

Here are some other examples:

  • Slippery Slope: a small negative act will soon and inevitably lead to a much worse, end-of-the-world-as-you-know-it type action
  • Misleading Statistic: this has a bit of distraction in it – it’s using a statistic to scare someone through their ignorance or lack of context (Over half of the people in this study died within weeks! Granted, there were only three people…)
  • Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.
  • Argument ad baculum: using a threat of force to get your way (like threatening to fire someone if they don’t do x, y, or z unreasonable demand)

Unfortunately, scaring people into belief works. Equally unfortunately, people either don’t feel there’s anything wrong with using these or don’t recognize them as incorrect (because they get forwarded around the internet a lot).

Excuses, Excuses

You know how kids always have excuses for their behavior even when they know (or knew to start with) that the behavior is wrong? Yeah. Apparently, people don’t really grow out of this. They just find new, more socially acceptable ways to try to falsely justify their behavior.

  • Appeal to Heaven: “It’s God’s will.” (Always followed in my mind with “He told me so. Yesterday. At lunch.”)
  • Appeal to Nature: “It’s unnatural.”
  • Default Bias: we can’t change anything, so there’s no reason to try.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: “It’s ok when I don’t do the chores because I’m tired, but when you don’t do them, you’re just being lazy” (also known as hypocrisy).
  • Moral Licensing: “It’s ok to do this bad thing because I did a good thing earlier.”
  • Moral Superiority: “He deserved it.” OR “She deserved it.”
  • Appeal to Privacy: “what I do in private is my business” (even if it involves, say, murder).
  • Sending the Wrong Message: “We can’t do that because it would send the wrong message to ____.”
  • Silent Majority Fallacy: a lot of people agree with me even if they don’t say so (and they don’t)
  • Venting/Locker-Room Talk: “He didn’t really mean it. It was just locker-room talk.”
  • Diminished Responsibility: “I was really tired, or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Yep. Lots and lots of excuses that don’t actually justify the behavior at all. Beware these errors!

Trigger Words

I know that people have heard a lot about trigger words and safe environments lately (a discussion that’s sadly included too many logically fallacies), so let me clarify what I mean when I use “trigger words.” Basically, I’m talking about words that bring on such a strong emotional response for a group or individual that emotion overrides logic, and any chance of debating a topic with reason is lost.

Do you have any friends that become completely irrational when a certain word or phrase is brought up? For example, maybe, an ex-girlfriend’s name makes Leroy so angry that he can’t stand to hear about any possible reasons behind her behavior (let alone any possibility that he shared any of the blame).

That’s a trigger. Here’s some ways they’re used:

All these amount to is knowing how to push someone’s buttons at the right moment (which, honestly, counts as a different kind of distraction IMHO).

Long story short? Watch out for emotional appeals and logic gaps or tangents. That’s what most logical fallacies are trying to do. 

Is it really that simple? No. Probably not. But if you keep in mind that it isn’t really that simple, the two tactics may work out. As far as I’m concerned, recognizing more logical fallacies is a good thing. Falling for fewer of them is even better.

Any questions?

 

post

The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

Unlike many other quotes falsely attributed to Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word” is truly a Mark Twain quote. It is also (IMHO) an excellent metaphor to illustrate the vital importance of word choice.

Word Choice Makes Writing an Art

Like sense of urgency and frame story, word choice can be defined by its name – it’s the words you choose when writing (*gasp* No!). As obvious and redundant as that seems, this literary device is actually the core of not only what makes writing an art but also what makes one writer different from another.

Think about it. No, seriously, picture a scene from real life. Interesting, banal, recent, historic – it doesn’t matter as long as you can clearly picture what happened. Now, think about how many different ways you could write that scene. You could turn it into horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical realism, romance, etc. You could write it from first person, second person, third person limited, or even narrate it. You could use elaborate descriptions or lean, mean sentences that are cut down to the action alone.

Hundreds of ways to write the same scene.

And all those differences come from the words you choose and how you put them together. The mood you want to create, the tone of the piece, and even your personal style as a writer, it all comes down to this one literary device.

Down to “the difference between the right word and the almost right word…”

Don’t believe me? Well, imagine if Mark Twain said this quote today in today’s language. Would he have said, “lightning and a lightning bug” or “fire and a firefly”? They have the same relationship, right? And “lightning bug” and “firefly” are words for the same insect.

But doesn’t that word choice change the characterization of the speaker? Could it change the setting? If you write the same story with different words, is it the same story?

Or is it as different as “lightning and a lightning bug”?

post

Breaking Hyperbole as Writing Inspiration

breaking hyperbole as writing inspirationBreaking hyperbole as writing inspiration is one of the mainstays of creative writing. Especially genres like fantasy and science fiction. And since this tactic is so common, I’m guessing it’s not going to be a totally unfamiliar idea for most writers. That’s why this article isn’t meant to be a treasure trove of new ideas.

Although that would be cool. 

My goal instead is to make you more conscious of how you’ve used hyperbole as a worldbuilding or inspiration technique. Analyzing the techniques we use helps us be more deliberate in our methods – it lets us consciously choose to use them (or not) based on our goals and what we want to achieve.

How to Break Hyperbole for Writing Inspiration

All You Need Is Hyperbole and a Literal Mind 

Like most figurative language, hyperbole (when used correctly) works because the reader knows not to take it literally. It’s great for making people aware of details (without blatantly pointing them out), adding humor, and writing dialogue for characterization. 

Here’s an example:

Milly: Oh, I used to dance and flirt the night away. But that was a thousand years ago!

When the character says this, we don’t assume that she’s over a thousand years old. Instead, we understand that the situation happened a long time ago and that the character either likes using sayings or exaggerations (or doesn’t want to say specifically how long ago it was).

In short, a hyperbole gives us an impression of the truth without being the actual truth.

But what if the character were speaking literally? What if it actually has been a thousand years since she danced and flirted the night away? It’s possible in fantasy stories, right? Possibly even science fiction.

Well, in that case, there is no exaggeration, which means there is no hyperbole. It’s not even figurative language at that point. Instead, the statement is the literal truth.

So when you take hyperbole literally, it’s not hyperbole anymore.

That’s why I called this activity breaking hyperbole. If hyperbole were the goal, you wouldn’t want to do this. For this exercise, however, hyperbole is a means to an end – not what you were aiming for.

Exaggerate Reality to Create Fantasy

Many of my writing prompts involve using elements of real life in the story (people watching, the library inspired writing prompt, Food as a Writing Prompt, etc.). And, oddly enough, when writing for them, you may have also used this one (What?)

As I said before, breaking hyperbole is a common part of the creative process. In other words, it’s a way of transforming reality into something new for your world or your story. Here’s how it works:

  1. Pick something from real life.
  2. Write a hyperbole about it.
  3. Take the hyperbole literally.
  4. Expand that literal interpretation to create something new.

Lizards could inspire dragons, speed trains could inspire instantaneous travel by train, and a lush garden could inspire a flower world. Or 50 other things. Whatever style or genre you write in can find inspiration by exaggerating reality to form new truths – even romance exaggerates reality for the sake of the story (and we all know to never let the truth get in the way of a good story).

It’s pretty obvious that most writers do this in one way or another. Now that I’ve made you think about it (theoretically), though, you can choose to use it deliberately on days when you’re at a loss for ideas. If nothing else, may it get your creative engine started and lead you in new directions.

Happy writing! Have fun breaking hyperbole – or storming the castle, whatever!

post

Sense of Urgency Is Like a Splinter

sense of urgency is like a splinter

No, not the rat.

It wasn’t until discussing the either or mentality a few months ago that I realized that I had somehow overlooked talking about sense of urgency (In a writing blog – how is that even possible?). Immediately, I put it on my list for later. Today, later is here, and it comes with a simile: sense of urgency is like a splinter.

Sense of Urgency:
Importance, Attention, & Deadlines

Talking about a sense of urgency has grown more and more popular not only in writing but also in business. Books must have a strong sense of urgency to be more gripping and fast-paced, and people must have a strong sense of urgency to make their businesses take off.

Ok. But what does that mean?

What Is a Sense of Urgency?

Well, in business, it’s your motivation and your level or intensity of caring. The elusive emotion drives you to get tasks done and tackle more. In years past, it would’ve been called “ambition.”

In writing, it’s fairly similar; however, you (the reader) are not the one feeling a sense of urgency – the main character is. Yes, we as readers respond to the main character’s need to succeed at a goal, but it isn’t our need (although, for extreme fans or those with major empathy, it can be hard to tell the difference…).

Uh-huh. And it’s like a splinter how?

Gotcha covered. It’s time to take this simile to the next level: the analogy. Don’t worry – all silliness aside, the comparison does actually make sense.

What Do Splinters and Sense of Urgency Have in Common?

I’m glad you asked. Here are a few of the items I’ve put together. Before I get into them, however, I’d like you to stop a moment to think about the splinters you’ve had over the years. From least to most memorable. Think about the irritation, the random pain when you first discovered it was there (How do they get there without being noticed?!), the intense concentration of operating on yourself to get it out – you know, the whole shebang. Got it in your head? Ok. Here we go.

Sense of urgency is like a splinter because both…

  1. Vary in size and importance (A small wood splinter versus bamboo under the fingernails. Big difference. Oh, and ever get a metal splinter? You know, the type Bruce Willis pulled out of his arm to use as a lockpick in Die Hard with a Vengeance? I have. Believe me, a normal splinter’s got nothing on that!)
  2. Hold your attention (even when you’re trying to focus on other things)
  3. Have a deadline (However vague – such as “before I type anymore because ow” or “before gangrene sets in, and I lose this finger”)
  4. Grow in importance the longer the issue remains (AKA, the closer you get to the deadline or the more side problems crop up because of it. And you thought it had your attention before it was red and swollen! Ha!)

Yes, a sense of urgency does all of those things.

Take #1, for instance. When a teacher tells you that your book needs a sense of urgency, you think of the main goal – the problem to be resolved in the climax. But there are plenty of little problems and conflicts that need a sense of urgency, too. A scene where a character has no driving need to do anything is a scene that’s dead in the water. Even if it’s as simple or small as a need to entertain themselves while waiting for someone, the character always has some motivation.

And, don’t forget, the character’s the one driving the plot, right?

As far as number 2, a sense of urgency is a splinter in your brain. Instead of pain distracting you, it’s ideas or a feeling that you need to get it done. It’s like having trouble concentrating at work because you have a million things to do at home. Or how artists tends to find ideas for their art in everything – because their art is never far from their minds!

Oh, and as far as #3, if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll understand the next sentence perfectly: you can’t have a sense of urgency without a deadline. If you can wait to do it tomorrow, why would you do it now? What’s in it for you?

The ticking clock is a cliche because it works. Having a deadline automatically creates at least some sense of urgency. In fact, the only way the ticking clock doesn’t work as a tool is if the character doesn’t care about the consequences.

Speaking of consequences, that’s also a way of heightening a sense of urgency, and it’s part of why the deadline is important as well as the variation idea (and #4). What’s the difference between homework due tomorrow and stopping a villain from destroying the Earth? Well, other than genre or trope, namely the scale of the consequences.

That’s how you differentiate between your conflicts and increase the sense of urgency for the climax. As a general rule, the main conflict should not only have more deadly or frightening consequences, but those consequences should also increase or get worse the closer the character gets to the climax. That can be simply because the result will be much worse if not taken care of before the deadline, or it could be because the situation grows increasingly complicated, resulting in worse dangers.

It’s particularly powerful if the actions that the main character takes to stop the dangers actually increases them (or, at least, the ancient Greek writers thought so…).

Hubris aside, though, that’s how motivation is like a splinter.

Speaking of which, *may your personal sense of urgency to write be like a long, nasty metal splinter that aggravates you so thoroughly you have no choice but to face it down (AKA: I hope you write.)

*A little Ray Bradbury-esque, but I meant it as a blessing.