An article series on critical thinking


In the inspiring and educational news website „Edasi“ the philosophy lecturer Oliver Laas has penned a six part, fast course in critical thinking. The six part series deals with the most common and important of fallacies or misconceptions as well as bringing out examples in targeting and influencing discussions for the purpose of diversion.

Part 1 – red herring
A red herring is a fallacy or misconception that is purposely manipulated by another party and distantly tied into a publicly and highly discussed topic although the truthfulness or worthiness of the original theme is irrelevant and secondary to their theme. A fraudulent tactic gives the appearance that the other party is part of the discussion, while he is actually changing the theme to avoid giving a direct answer to the question or argument.

Part 2- ad hominem
In an Ad hominem argument the conclusion is based not on the content of the other party’s argument but on the ongoing claim against the individual or situation, with a purpose to discredit them or it. This is a fallacy where the individual’s qualities or situations are not part of the argument. This is an attack seen frequently in political debates. Ad hominem arguments are frequently considered more convincing and stronger than they logically should be.

Part 3 – Slippery slope
Slippery slope is a type of fallacy, where it is claimed that a change in a direction will bring about other changes in that direction as well. Occasionally the slippery slope type of argument is used to show that they are dealing with a lie, because this would cause a whole row of other situations that would accumulate in unwanted or catastrophic consequences. Many via the same sex arguments know this fallacy: „ If we allow same sex weddings then next we will legalize; polygamy, incest, pedophilia and zoophiles. “

Part 4 – Ad populism
Ad populism (in Latin „appealing to the people“) is popular among politicians, salespersons, populist and demagogues. The Ad populism argument claims that something is true because many people believe that it is true. Generally, this argument has two principal forms. Firstly the claim is that everyone or at least very many believe this as a fact. In the last few months the media has been full of President Trump’s block of Moslems entering the United States. He used this in his presidential campaign and based it on the following argument: Regardless of the result of questionnaires, it is clear to everyone that the hate that Moslems have against the United States is beyond the limits of reason. We have to find out where this hatred is coming from and why. Because we cannot understand this problem and its resulting threats, our nation cannot be the victims of horrible attacks from Jihad believing, irrational and non-respective of life type individuals. “

Part 5 – strawman
If the Ad hominem argument tries to overturn a claim or argument due to discredit of the individual making the statement, then  strawman is a fallacy, that tries to overturn the reality of a claim or argument by presenting it in a more extreme and unreasonable way.

In the course of a critical argument, one side will try to convince the other side in the truth of his point of view. The other side will try to overturn the opposition’s argument by showing that it is unbelievable or illogical. For example in a parliamentary debate against the death penalty, the side that is for the death penalty state that life in prison is worse than death. This is overturned by the argument that the statement is absurd because then murders should be incarcerated for life while lesser criminals should receive the death penalty.

Part 6 the appeal of experts
The use of Experts in arguments is based on the total belief of what the expert thinks or the appeal of authority.

Example: In a 1990 study, the claim that 80% of economists agreed with the claim that the rise of minimum wage causes unemployment among youth and lowly qualified workers. Basic and mid level economy textbooks show that there is a consensus on this among economists. Economic textbooks claim that minimum salary causes unemployment among lowly qualified workers. –Walter Williams

The inference is that raising the minimum wage causes unemployment among lowly qualified workers. Based on the popularity of believing in the majority of economists opinions.

Oliver Laas is a visiting philosophy lecturer at the Humanities Institute of Tallinn University. A Graphic arts assistant professor and junior researcher at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Estonian Art Academy, and a visiting philosophy lecturer, Faculty of marketing and communication at the Estonian Business School.

Photo: Rui Fernandes/Flickr/CC