Now reading from the top of the page Skip to main content, access key C. Skip to page top, access key T. Skip to right sidebar. Skip to footer.


One of the signs of demagoguery is heavy reliance on fallacies. Whether demagogues use fallacies because they are cynical about their audience (thinking their audience is too stupid to catch them), or whether their own thinking is really so deeply flawed (so that they believe their own fallacious arguments) is a fascinating question, but probably can't be solved. Fallacies are argumentative moves that frustrate the ability of the interlocutors to settle the conflict discursively because they violate basic rules and/or logic; they are, in that sense, unreasonable. (For more on this view of fallacies, see Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst's Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies, especially 102-106).

Fallacies are usually defined formally—that is, "the bandwagon appeal" is an argument that has a certain form—and that's how I'll define them here. But, it should be remembered that it isn't simply a formal question, that what makes something fallacious often has to do with the context in which the argument is made. (For instance, were one choosing a minister, spouse, or room-mate, then a line of argument that might be considered "ad personum" in another context would be quite relevant.)

There are, quite seriously, probably hundreds of different ways of categorizing fallacies, ranging from lists that go into great detail to ones that are minimal. This one is on the minimal side. People use different terms, and some of the names for fallacies come from among the oldest rhetoric textbooks. For purposes of clarity, I'll try to stick with whatever names seem to make the most sense to students. Some of them have several names—a true logician might make subtle distinctions between the ones I clump together—but for our purposes those distinctions don't really matter. That's because, ultimately, the names don't really matter. I won't test you on these terms, or ask that you memorize them; what does matter is that you recognize the move when it happens.

ad personum
ad hominem
Really a kind of red herring. This amounts to personal attack; it generally involves some kind of name-calling (usually of such an inflammatory nature that the person must respond, such as calling a person an abolitionist in the 1830s, a communist in the 1950s and 60s, or a liberal now). It's really a kind of red herring, as it's generally irrelevant to the question at hand, and is an attempt to distract the attention of the audience.
bandwagon appeal
This fallacy arises when one argues that something must be right because it is popular. While popularity is not necessarily a sign that something is wrong, neither is it a sign that something is right.
circular reasoning
begging the question
This is a very common fallacy, but surprisingly difficult for people to recognize. It looks like an argument, but it is really just an assertion of the conclusion over and over in different language. The "evidence" for the conclusion is actually the conclusion in synonyms--"The market is rational" arguments usually fall into this category (because "rational" ends up defined as "how the market works"). It's sometimes called a "definitional" argument because the move is often done by defining the central terms (implicitly or explicitly) in ways that guarantee the conclusion (so, for instance, Hitler implicitly defines "race" as the same as "species," a bad definition that gets him the conclusion he wants).
false dilemma
poisoning the wells
This fallacy occurs when a rhetor sets out a limited number of options, generally forcing one's hand by forcing one to choose the option s/he wants. Were all the options laid out, then the situation would be more complicated, and his/her proposal might not look so good. It's often an instance of scare tactics because the other option is typically a disaster (we either fight in Vietnam, or we'll be fighting the communists on the beaches of California). It is "straw man" when it's achieving by dumbing down the opponent's proposal.
ignoring exceptions
Another very common fallacy, this one results from assuming that what is true of a specific thing is true of every member of that genus, or what is true of the genus is true of every individual member of that genus. For instance, poodles have curly hair, but that doesn't mean that all dogs have curly hair; dogs generally have four legs, but there are three-legged dogs out there.
misuse of statistics
Statistical analysis is far more complicated than one might guess, given common uses of statistics, and there are certain traps into which people often fall. One common one is the deceptively large number. The number of people killed every year by sharks looks huge, until you consider the number of people who swim in shark-infested waters every year, or compare it to the number of people killed yearly by bee stings. Another common one is to shift the basis of comparison, such as comparing the number of people killed by sharks for the last ten years with the number killed by car crashes in the last five minutes. (With some fallacies, it's possible to think that there was a mistake involved; with this one, that's a pretty hard claim to make.) People often get brain-freeze when they try to deal with percentages, and make all sorts of mistakes—if the GNP goes from one million to five hundred thousand one year, that's a fifty per cent drop; if it goes back up to one million the next year, that is not, however, a fifty per cent increase.
non sequitur
This is a catchall category for just about any leap in logic; it simply means that the rhetor has drawn a conclusion that does not actually follow from the argument--it plays to our tendency to ignore the major premise of an argument. For instance, if I argue that you should vote for me because child molesters are bad, that's a non sequitur. But, if you argue with me, the argument will look like this: "People should vote for me because child molesters are bad. Are you going to vote for me?" "No." "Why? You don't think child molesters are bad?" "No, I think they're very bad." "Ah, so you will vote for me." It's a powerful one, since anyone who argues with me will look like they are supporting child molesters.
This is my catchall category for a bad argument that results from over-simplifying a complicated situation.
post hoc ergo propter hoc
confusing causation and correlation
This fallacy is especially common in the use of social science research in policy arguments. If two things are correlated (that is, exist together) that does not necessarily mean that one can be certain which one caused the other, or whether they were both caused by something else. It generally arises in situations when people have failed to have a "control" group in a study. So, for instance, people used to spend huge amounts of money on orthopedic shoes for kids because the shoes correlated with various foot problems' improving. When a study was finally done that involved a control group, it turned out that it was simply time that was causing the improvement; the shoes were useless.
red herring
A very effective fallacy, and one that happens all the time in interpersonal conflict, or in questions of guilt and responsibility. The name comes from the habit that anti-hunting people had to drag a fish across the trail of a fox—the dogs would lose the fox because they would be so attracted by the much more smelly fish. Raising an issue that is actually off the point, but inflammatory in some way, will distract people from the real issues (this is often done in court cases by what is called "putting the victim on trial").
scare tactics
apocalyptic language
Overstating the possible outcomes, describing the possible consequences as the end of the world as we know it, is a scare tactic. It's pretty poisonous to decision-making, but very tempting—as Aristotle remarked, it's hard to get people worked up about a minor or distant danger (how many of you are worried about the worldwide death of frogs?), so the tendency is to try to work people up.
straw man
This is an extremely common fallacy, and it works very well in circumstances when one is talking to an audience that has not heard the opposition argument. It completely backfires with an informed audience (and, in fact, makes you look like a dork or a demagogue). One recasts the opposition to make it really stupid, so it's easy to knock down, rather like jousting with a straw man rather than a real opponent.
tu quoque
Usually a kind of red herring, or moral equivalence. One argues that "you did it too!" While it's occasionally relevant, as it can point to a hypocrisy or inconsistency in one's opposition, it's often irrelevant. It also can depend upon what some people call moral equivalence, or what George Orwell called "the argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all"—treating two things that are different in quantity but the same in quality as identical in all ways.