Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate. Contents: Introduction This is a guide to using logical fallacies in debate. And when I say "using," I don't mean just pointing them out when opposing debaters commit them -- I mean deliberately committing them oneself, or finding ways to transform fallacious arguments into perfectly good ones. Debate is, fortunately or not, an exercise in persuasion, wit, and rhetoric, not just logic.
In a debate format that limits each debater's speaking time, it is simply not reasonable to expect every proposition or conclusion to follow precisely and rigorously from a clear set of premises stated at the outset. Instead, debaters have to bring together various facts, insights, and values that others share or can be persuaded to accept, and then show that those ideas lead more or less plausibly to a conclusion. Logic is a useful tool in this process, but it is not the only tool -- after all, "plausibility" is a fairly subjective matter that does not follow strict logical rules. Complex question. Rhetoric 101: Three Parts Of Rhetoric And Three Types Of Debates. Public relations means walking a high wire in the media. A mistake in the media can be fatal.
Politicians have seen their careers crash and burn. Baseball players have been traded for making racist remarks. The right words can also propel relative unknowns into world prominence. Barack Obama was a state senator that nobody knew before he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. Rhetoric gives public figures the tools to avoid mistakes and court success. Thousands of years before the Greeks, rhetoric was being developed in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. The ideas identified by the ancient masters are the foundations of a communication toolbox that every modern public figure and public relations professional should bring to any job, whether it's publicizing a book tour or running the press operations for a White House campaign.
Aristotle organized the art of rhetoric into three parts: Ethos -- how the character of the speaker affects the audience; Rhetoric 401: Logos. You could take the most beautiful piece of journalism today, a front-page story that one the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, and if you read it as a speech, it would bomb. I don't mean stand up at a podium and recite the thing, word for word. Hire the best stage actor possible from Hollywood or Broadway and give the man a week to memorize the story and practice it.
Send that man out there and the story would still bomb, because the structure -- the logos -- is all wrong. Line by line, there'd be nothing wrong with the story. The facts would be right. There'd be plenty of conflict and drama, and the writing would be top notch. It's simply the way news stories are built -- using the inverted pyramid -- is bad for anything persuasive. To persuade, you need a different type of animal. There are reasons for this. Building a speech or an oped, though, means saving the best for last, and not giving it all away in the opening sentence. How far do you take the audience? Outline it. What's your hook?
Rhetoric 301: Pathos. Modern science gives us proof that the ancients were right when they said pathos was the most powerful part of rhetoric. Our emotions rule our brains. This isn't a bad thing, or a weakness. We need emotions to assign value to choices and weigh them. They're essential to making a decision. Doctors have studied patients who've suffered construction accidents or strokes that precisely disabled the emotional center of their brain.
They performed just as well on intelligence tests, and otherwise were uninjured. When these patients made bad decisions, like losing money on a stock deal, they'd repeat the mistake, because it was logical to them to make that same decision and there was no emotional cost to failing the first time. Why are emotions so critical? Because facts and arguments mean nothing if you have no way of weighing them against each other. It's not wrong to appeal to emotions. Pathos is important because persuasion, in the end, comes down to inspiring people to do something. Rhetoric 201: Ethos. Ethos is how the character, sincerity and credibility of the speaker affects the audience. The first of Aristotle's three parts of rhetoric, ethos is an essential idea for public figures and public relations professionals. If your credibility is damaged -- by errors, omissions, miscommunications or acts of God -- nothing else matters.
The press and public won't listen. Here are some of the building blocks of ethos: Authority Is the speaker and expert on this issue? This doesn't have to be an academic degree or a professional position. Fairness Does the speaker have a stake in the outcome, or are they impartial? Audiences are more willing to believe and be persuaded by someone who doesn't have something at stake. Reputation Does the speaker have a track record of being honest and correct? If you're the boy who cried wolf, it doesn't matter if you have photographic proof that the wolf is eating chickens at grandma's farm and bringing six of his friends tomorrow.
Rhetoric 202: Ethos Boosters. Credibility is incredibly important in the field of public relations. Anyone in the public eye lives and dies by their reputation. You could argue that's true for politicians and business leaders, but that actors and professional athletes need only focus on how they perform on the field.
Except that's not true. Actors and athletes get much of their income -- sometimes the majority of it -- from endorsements. If you're a public figure, your reputation and credibility are the biggest assets you have. Even actors and athletes who aren't selling watches or handbags need to build up and protect their credibility. What director wants to hire an actress who's quite talented and quite drunk all the time? Credibility matters in public relations, from the CEOs and the celebrities to the people in the media shop talking to reporters and putting together press packets.
So how can you build credibility with the press and public? Here are three ways: 1) Deflect praise and embrace blame. Rhetoric 102: The Right Kind Of Persuasion. It's important to define -- and study -- the difference between rhetoric and propaganda, especially for anyone involved in public relations. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. It's about getting people to do something that's in their self interest. Propaganda is about getting people to do something that's not in their best interests. Anything is fair game with propaganda. It's easy to be tempted by the dark side.
But the techniques of propaganda are off limits for practitioners of rhetoric and public relations. If you're in the public eye, you've got to do the hard word of applying rhetoric rather than taking the shortcuts of propaganda. Whatever short-term gains that could be had by using the tools of propaganda and manipulation are outweighed by the damage those tricks and techniques do to the reputation of you, your client and your organization. Rhetoric 103: Avoiding Fallacies. You've heard fallacies before. They're the kind of thing that tend to end a debate, not because they're great, but because they're not supported by facts and arguments.
They tend to bring a debate into an endless and unproductive loop. Students of rhetoric have examined these false arguments for centuries, and there's a long list of rhetorical fallacies and how to combat them. Below are some of the more common fallacies to avoid when you're trying to persuade an audience -- typically in a speech, oped or a public debate. It's also useful to study fallacies so you know how to combat them when you see the opposition using them against you. Argument from authority -- "Because I'm your mother" is simplest example of this fallacy.
Straw man -- "Some politicians say we should let people define marriage however they want -- marry two women, marry your dog, whatever. Argument from force -- "Do it or I'll hit you with this rock. " False choice -- "You're either with us, or against us. " Rhetoric 104: Know Your Audience. It's easy to fall into the trap of writing what you'd like to read, or giving the speech you'd want to hear. But the audience isn't you. Most public figures are experts in their field.
A county sheriff can tell you all about police procedures and flaw in the criminal justice system. A professional football player can confuse the average person with defensive schemes and terminology from his team's playbook. Politicians can get lost in the weeds of policy wonkitude and legislative maneuvering. The first question to ask before writing any speech or oped isn't to ask about the topic. Most people tend to think about the audience when it comes to speeches. 1) How much does the audience know? Think about the age and educational level of the audience, and how much they know about the topic. A public figure may have given a speech just last week about the same topic -- let's say it's global warming -- and the temptation is to dust that speech off and do it again. 2) How long?
Length is a killer. Rhetoric 105: Speeches Are Seen, Not Heard. People listen to speeches with their eyes. Now, that sounds strange at first. Here comes the science: in the first five seconds, with the sound off, you can predict how an audience will like a speaker. Five seconds. No sound. They've done this with professors, who get rated by students. The researchers didn't want to watch every lecture ever again, in their natural lives, so they cut it down to the first month's lectures, then the first lecture, then the first ten minutes of the first lecture -- and finally the first five seconds. Different researchers have done taped job interviews and predicting who'd get hired by looking at the first five seconds. In politics, the rule that people listen with their eyes got driven home by the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first presidential debate to get televised. If you showed the first five seconds of that debate to people who didn't know who Kennedy and Nixon were, and turned the sound, you'd get the same result.
There are clues in different studies. Rhetoric 106: Why You Must Cross-Train Public Speaking Muscles. Public figures are different than other speakers. Somebody who speaks for a living -- whether they're the local news anchor, a professor who lectures all day or a motivational speaker -- is usually a specialist. They don't need to cross-train with different types of speeches. In public relations, you can't rely on being good at one type of public speaking. One day might be packed with at press conference in the morning, a television interview at noon and a debate at 7 p.m. The next day might have a keynote speech, a panel and a radio appearance. Cross-training is crucial.
I bet you've watched a famous movie actor host the Oscars show and bomb, or seen a them do a press conference where they seemed nothing like the smooth and confident superhuman they are on the big screen. It's because being really good at movies -- where you memorize lines and get two dozen takes to do it right -- is nothing like performing live or getting interviewed by a reporter. Rhetoric 107: How To Prepare For Different Speeches. Every public figure needs to be comfortable speaking in different situations. There are three basic types of situations: 1) Impromptu You're at a meeting and somebody asks you to say a few words. You walk outside and get surprised by a TV reporter with a microphone and film crew.
Or you're on a panel and get asked a question you hadn't prepared for at all. Impromptu speaking is speaking without any notes or preparation. 2) Extemporaneous This is speaking with a little time to prepare -- maybe five minutes or half an hour. Or it's a situation where you don't know exactly what you'll be asked to say: a press conference, a forum or a panel. 3) Full text A longer speech on a known topic for a known length. It takes practice to get comfortable reading page after page of text without LOOKING like you're reading text -- or to read from a teleprompter. Using the Tools of Rhetoric in Public Relations. It's rare for students to learn rhetoric these days, unless they go out of their way to take elective classes or compete in high school and college debate. Yet the skills involved in rhetoric are invaluable for public figures and public relations. Journalists are trained to inform people. They know how to communicate facts and events quickly and concisely.
Rhetoric is about persuading people to act. It's a different skill set, and the techniques used by reporters and editors to communicate to inform don't work when it comes to writing speeches or op-eds on the opinion page. For the basics of rhetoric, it's smart to study what the ancient Greek masters of rhetoric studied and refined 2,000 years ago. Rhetoric 101: Three Parts Of Rhetoric And Three Types Of Debates Ethos, pathos and logos are concepts developed by Greek masters of rhetoric more than 2,000 years ago, yet those ideas are just as important today.
Rhetoric 102: The Right Kind Of Persuasion Rhetoric 103: Avoiding Fallacies. A Field Guide to Critical Thinking. Feature James Lett Skeptical Inquirer Volume 14.2, Winter 1990 There are many reasons for the popularity of paranormal beliefs in the United States today, including: the irresponsibility of the mass media, who exploit the public taste for nonsense,the irrationality of the American world-view, which supports such unsupportable claims as life after death and the efficacy of the polygraph, andthe ineffectiveness of public education, which generally fails to teach students the essential skills of critical thinking.
As a college professor, I am especially concerned with this third problem. Most of the freshman and sophomore students in my classes simply do not know how to draw reasonable conclusions from the evidence. At most, they've been taught in high school what to think; few of them know how to think. In an attempt to remedy this problem at my college, I've developed an elective course called “Anthropology and the Paranormal.” Falsifiability Logic Comprehensiveness Honesty Replicability. Critical Thinking Skills and Applications. Activities to Improve Critical Thinking.