• SumoMe

Every man needs to know how to persuade. Everything from buying a car, asking for a raise, advocating for a client, or convincing your significant other to go to the steakhouse over the French bistro involves the subtle art of persuasion. This eight-part segment is dedicated to teaching men how to argue by explaining the most common weaknesses in arguments, and hopefully how to avoid them.

1. Anecdotal

An anecdote is simply a story, or a narrative, of something that happened. Anecdotal arguments are wildly popular in political debates, yet are always subject to scrutiny. The logical fallacy is that an isolated story or experience is never compelling evidence to prove a larger or more overwhelming fact or pattern.

For example, if the argument was over whether or not tanning booths cause cancer, and you argue that you “know a friend who has used tanning booths for 30 years and still doesn’t have cancer, therefore tanning beds don’t cause cancer,” your argument is fundamentally flawed. While an anecdote can be compelling evidence in situations like providing an alibi in court over whether someone committed a murder, anecdotal arguments fail when they are used to prove an overarching scheme or pattern.

These types of arguments are compelling and believable because narratives and stories are easier to understand than quantitative scientific data, and this ease of grasping the concept is often (wrongly) believed to be truth. Not everything that is easy to understand is true, and specific instances which prove or disprove a point are rarely compelling pieces of evidence.

2. The Texas Sharpshooter

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy often arises when a person has a large amount of data to view, but nevertheless only focuses on a small subset of that data. Random chance may give all the elements in that subset some kind of common property, so if the person fails to account for the likelihood of finding some subset in the large data with some common property strictly by chance alone, that person is likely committing a Texas Sharpshooter fallacy.

For example, a 1992 Swedish study tried to determine whether or not power lines caused some kind of poor health effects. The researchers surveyed everyone living within 300 meters of high-voltage power lines over a 25-year period and looked for statistically significant increases in rates of over 800 ailments. The study found that the incidence of childhood leukemia was four times higher among those that lived closest to the power lines, and it spurred calls to action by the Swedish government. The problem with the conclusion, however, was that the number of potential ailments, in this case over 800, was so large that it created a high probability that at least one ailment would exhibit statistically significant difference just by chance alone. Subsequent studies failed to show any links between power lines and childhood leukemia, neither in causation nor even in correlation.

These types of arguments are popular in pseudoscience and marketing, because they allow you to draw whatever conclusion you want without taking into consideration a very important mantra in life: correlation does not equal causation.

3. Middle Ground

This type of argument is largely used in negotiation or compromise contexts as a form of “agreeing to disagree,” if you will. The middle ground logical fallacy is that choosing a point between two extremes or differing views is the correct answer to the dispute.

For example, to recycle the hypothetical anecdotal argument, imagine the following scenario. You argue that Snooki told you tanning booths don’t cause cancer, but your well-read dermatologist opponent says they do. Therefore, you claim “tanning booths cause some cancer, but not all cancer.” This conclusion (whether or not it’s true, I have no idea, this is just a mental exercise), based on a middle ground between two opposing views, is intrinsically flawed in that it’s based on a point between a lie and a truth. Halfway between a lie and a truth is still a lie.

Much of the time the truth does indeed lie between two extreme points, but this can bias our thinking: sometimes a thing is simply untrue and a compromise of it is also untrue.

What are some examples of bad arguments you’ve heard that fit into these classifications? Let’s talk about them in the comments below.