Being able to distinguish between good and bad arguments is a useful skill to have. As the scourge of fake news dominates our social media feeds, we need to approach things with objectivity and a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Even at work, it’s becoming necessary to keep an eye out for weak arguments. This isn’t easy, as poor arguments are typically packaged very well and are designed to reel you in.

Understanding how to defend against bad arguments and launching a counterattack against them is key to critical thinking. So how can you begin to identify bad arguments?

This is where logical fallacies come in. Fallacies are among the most common strains of bad arguments. Identifying them will help you address issues of faulty reasoning, bad assumptions, insufficient evidence, or irrelevant information. In other words, if you find a logical fallacy in an argument, odds are that it’s a bad one.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, first proposed the idea of logical errors in arguments and came up with an initial list of 13 fallacies. Since then, the list has kept growing, with some books highlighting up to 300 different fallacies! While we won’t go into all of them, here are five of the most common fallacies you would have come across at the workplace: 

Ad Hominem

Have you ever been in a conversation where, instead of focusing on the argument you are making, your boss ends up personally criticizing you? Maybe they start berating your common sense or your intelligence without addressing the merits of your specific argument. 

While we can’t always argue with bad bosses, what should help is knowing that your boss is falling into the trap of one of the classic logical fallacies that one sees at the workplace: the ad hominem fallacy. Also known as a ‘personal attack’, ad hominems involve directly attacking the character of the individual rather than refuting the argument they are making. 

People making the ad hominem fallacy generally don’t really care about refuting the argument. It’s a tactic to take the focus away from the argument itself and put it on the person making it. 

Appeal to Authority

Have you ever come across the phrase, “The boss is always right”? This idea that an argument is true simply because an authority figure supports it is called the appeal to authority fallacy. 

People often use an appeal to authority to overrule any objections. Imagine you’re at work and you notice a major error in your colleague’s report. When you point out the error, instead of trying to fix it, the colleague says, “Oh don’t worry! I got this checked by the boss. If he says it’s okay, it should be fine.”

Did you see how your colleague rejected your argument? This is a key part of the appeal to authority. It doesn’t matter what evidence you have against it,  if the idea is supported by an authority figure, you’re pushed into a corner and feel like you have to concede the point. So try and call your colleagues out about their habit of appealing to authority before it becomes too late!

Appeal to Tradition

We’ve all been frustrated by tedious systems and processes at work. It could be the time it takes to claim reimbursement or even something as routine as the long queue to get something printed. You see the current procedure as a waste of valuable time and you do your best to come up with an alternative. However, when you present the alternative to your boss, they say,  “We’ve always done it this way. Why should we change it?”

Appealing to tradition is a classic logical fallacy that is designed to preserve a pre-existing system or tradition instead of changing it. It is often relied on by people who are resistant to change and don’t want to get out of their comfort zone. 

However, the modern workplace is more dynamic and requires you to adapt to every situation (who could have ever predicted we’d all be working from home?). Which is why it’s even more important to learn how to spot this fallacy

Red Herring

One of the most famous logical fallacies on the list, the Red Herring fallacy, is named after the smelly fish that was used to confuse hunting dogs and throw them off the scent of their intended target. Similarly, we’ve all been in arguments where the other person brings up a completely different problem which ends up shifting the goalposts. In other words, a red herring is an argument that distracts from the core issue. 

Imagine it this way. You’re at work and you notice a lot of errors in your colleague’s presentation. However, when you bring it up with them, they refuse to engage with you on the topic and bring up something unrelated or misleading: “I agree that there were a lot of errors, but you have to understand that I’m working very hard on my other projects.”

Can you spot the red herring? While your colleague is agreeing that there are many errors, they are saying that it’s justified since they are working on other projects. Clearly, the second part of the sentence doesn’t follow from the first. Working hard on other projects is not a valid excuse to shirk your duties in relation to the project at hand. 

Red herrings are very subtle and are used when the other person doesn’t have an actual response to what you’re saying. So they resort to bringing up irrelevancies or brushing the core topic under the carpet with the aim of delegitimizing your argument. Be ready to recognize when you’re being thrown off the scent!

False Binary

Have you ever encountered statements like “It’s my way or the highway” or “You’re either with me or against me”?

We’ve often faced incidents at work where we are forced to pick sides. The argument is presented in a manner where there are just two options presented (either this or that) and any other options are conveniently not brought up. This is an example of the false binary fallacy.

If you’ve ever been caught in the crossfire of office politics, you would have noticed this logical fallacy at play. Presenting something in an “either this or that” format forces people to make a decision, often to the benefit of the person exhibiting his fallacy. People find themselves making a decision in a situation where they should have exercised more caution. So beware of this fallacy and stay on your toes!

Being able to identify these common fallacies is essential if you want to stay ahead and succeed at work. It will mark you out as a critical thinker who is not easily swayed by opinion. Instead, you can come across as someone who calmly analyzes the facts and evidence at hand. If you are eager to build your critical thinking skills as well as distinguish between good and bad arguments, why don’t you check out Harappa Education’s online course on Thinking Critically? Sign up today to hone your critical thinking skills!

Shubhayan is an Associate Specialist in the Curriculum Team. A graduate of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Shubhayan enjoys laughing at his own jokes and playing the bass guitar.

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