Informal Fallacies: Definition, Nature, Types, and Examples

What is Informal Fallacy?

Informal fallacies are errors in reasoning that we fall into because of carelessness or inattention or because we want to trick others into accepting our position based on convictions that are not factual. Informal fallacies can be divided into fallacies of relevance and ambiguity. An argument commits the fallacy of relevance if the premises are not related to the conclusion, while an argument is ambiguous if it denotes more than one meaning.

1. Argumentum ad Baculum (Appeal to Force)

The argumentum ad baculum is the fallacy committed when one appeals to force or the threat of force to cause the acceptance of a belief or position. It is usually resorted to only when evidence-based rational arguments fail. The ad baculum is epitomized in the saying "might is right.".

Examples:

  • School Bully: "If you don't give me your lunch money, I'll beat you up after school."
  • Political Dictatorship: "Obey the new laws, or face imprisonment and torture."
  • Religious Extremism: "Convert to our faith, or suffer eternal damnation in the afterlife."
  • Abusive Relationship: "Do as I say, or I'll leave you and take the kids."
  • Corporate Threat: "Agree to these unfair contract terms, or we'll outsource your job to a cheaper country."

2. Argumentum ad Hominem (Abusive)

It translates literally as "argument directed to the man." It is committed when, instead of trying to disprove the truth of what is asserted, one attacks the person who made the assertion. For example, Jane will be a bad journalist because she had a failed love affair. Sometimes, this kind of argument is said to commit a genetic fallacy—it attacks the source or genesis of the opposition's position rather than that position itself.

Examples:

  • Political Debate: "Candidate X can't be trusted to lead the country. They lied about their military record." (Focuses on character flaw instead of policy arguments)
  • Movie Review: "This film is obviously terrible. The director's last movie was a colossal flop." (Attacks the director's past work instead of evaluating the current film)
  • Workplace Argument: "Don't listen to Sarah's suggestions. She's always been bad at her job." (Discredits an idea based on past performance instead of merit)
  • Family Disagreement: "You only want that because you're still mad at Dad." (Attributes a position to personal emotions instead of logical reasoning)
  • Internet Argument: "You wouldn't be saying that if you weren't a troll." (Insults the person making the argument instead of addressing their points)

3. Argumentum ad Hominem (Circumstantial)

This pertains to the relationship between a person's beliefs and his circumstances. The classical example is the reply of the hunter when accused of barbarism for sacrificing unoffending animals for amusement. The reply is to ask the critic, "Why do you feed on the flesh of harmless cattle?"

Examples:

  • Animal rights debate: "You can't possibly care about animal welfare while eating meat yourself! Your actions contradict your words." (Focuses on the critic's dietary choices to discredit their argument)
  • Environmental activist promoting electric cars: "Of course you advocate for electric cars, your family owns a coal mine. You just want to protect your own interests." (Attributes the activist's position to their familial background rather than environmental concerns)
  • Anti-war politician criticized for past military service: "How can you truly oppose war when you served in the armed forces? You're just hypocritical." (Discounts the politician's anti-war stance based on their previous role)
  • Vegan restaurant owner wearing leather shoes: "Your restaurant promotes animal-free products, yet you wear leather shoes. Aren't you being inconsistent?" (Attacks the owner's personal choices instead of focusing on the restaurant's values)
  • CEO advocating for wealth redistribution criticized for their own high salary: "How can you claim wealth inequality is unfair while earning millions yourself? You benefit from the system you criticize." (Questions the CEO's sincerity based on their personal wealth)

4. Argumentum ad Ignorantiam (Argument from Ignorance)

This fallacy is committed whenever it is argued that a belief is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false. Or that it is false because it has not been proved true. But our ignorance of how to prove or disprove a proposition clearly does not establish either the truth or falsehood of that proposition.

Examples:

There must be ghosts because no one has ever been able to prove that there aren't any, or ghosts do not exist because I have not seen any.

  • "Nobody's ever seen Bigfoot, so it must not exist." This assumes absence of evidence equals evidence of absence, which isn't always true.
  • "We can't explain what dreams mean, so they must be meaningless." Just because something is currently beyond our understanding doesn't mean it has no value or significance.
  • "There's no scientific evidence for God, therefore God doesn't exist." This argument ignores the limitations of scientific inquiry and the nature of faith and belief.
  • "We don't know any other life forms exist in the universe, so we must be alone." The vastness of the universe makes such a definitive claim impossible based on our current knowledge.
  • "Alternative medicine hasn't been proven effective by conventional science, so it must be useless." This overlooks the potential for different forms of knowledge and healing practices to have merit even if they haven't been fully researched yet.

5. Argumentum ad Misericordiam (Appeal to Pity)

This fallacy is committed when pity is appealed to for the sake of getting a conclusion accepted, where the conclusion is concerned with a question of fact rather than a matter of sentiment. This type is frequently encountered in courts of law.

It's a tricky fallacy because it plays on our natural empathy and desire to help others, potentially causing us to overlook the actual merits of an argument.

As I mentioned, this fallacy is often encountered in legal settings, where defendants might try to sway the jury by highlighting their personal hardships or unfortunate circumstances. For example, a defendant facing a heavy sentence might plead for leniency by recounting a tragic family illness or financial struggles.

Examples:

A convicted armed robber pleading for leniency because nobody will take care of his dependents when he is executed; and

A youth accused of the murder of his father and mother, pleading for leniency on the ground that he is an orphan.

More examples:

  • "You have to give me an A on this paper! I worked so hard all semester and I really need this good grade to keep my scholarship." (Focuses on effort and potential consequences instead of the quality of the work)
  • "Please don't fire me! I have a young family to support and this is my only source of income." (Appeals to the employer's sympathy without addressing the reasons for possible termination)
  • "You can't possibly believe in climate change! Think of all the jobs that will be lost if we switch to renewable energy." (Highlights potential negative consequences for specific groups but ignores the broader benefits of addressing climate change)

6. Argumentum ad Populum

Sometimes defined as the fallacy committed in directing an emotional appeal "to the people" or "to the gallery" to win their assent to a conclusion unsupported by good evidence, But the popular acceptance of a policy does not prove it to be wise. Also, wider-spread use of certain products does not prove them to be satisfactory. And general assent to a claim does not prove it to be true.

Examples:

  • "Everyone's buying the new phone, it must be the best!" Popularity doesn't equate to quality. This overlooks individual needs and preferences, potentially leading to unnecessary purchases.
  • "The majority voted for this policy, so it must be good for everyone." Majority opinion doesn't guarantee universal benefit. Ignoring potential minority disadvantages or neglecting alternative solutions can be a pitfall of this fallacy.
  • "Everyone uses social media, so it must be essential." Widespread adoption doesn't necessarily make something indispensable. Analyzing individual needs and exploring potential alternatives for communication or information gathering is key.
  • "My competitor uses harmful chemicals, everyone else does it, so it's okay." Following the crowd doesn't justify unethical practices. Recognizing and promoting responsible behavior, even if unconventional, is crucial.
  • "This celebrity promotes this diet, so it must work for everyone!" Celebrity endorsements, while influential, often lack individual consideration and health expertise. Consulting a qualified professional before embarking on any dietary changes is essential.

7. Argumentum ad Verecundiam (Appeal to Authority)

In attempting to make up one's mind on a difficult and complicated question, one may seek to be guided by the judgment of an acknowledged expert on that matter. However, when an authority is appealed to for testimony in matters outside the province of that authority's special field, the appeal commits the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam.

Examples:

  • "A famous actor endorsed this political candidate, so they must be the best choice." While celebrities might be influential, their expertise rarely lies in politics. Evaluating candidates based on policies and qualifications is crucial.
  • "My doctor says organic food is always healthier, so I won't eat anything else." While doctors are medical experts, their knowledge of nutrition might be limited. Researching evidence and individual dietary needs is key.
  • "This scientific paper was published in a prestigious journal, so it must be true." Publication in a respected journal indicates quality control, but doesn't guarantee the correctness of every finding. Analyzing the research methodology and evidence is essential.
  • "My teacher says video games are bad for the brain, so I'll never play them again." While educators hold authority in the classroom, their personal opinions might not reflect broader research or individual benefits of specific games.
  • "A religious leader preaches against climate change, so it must not be real." Religious views don't necessarily align with scientific consensus on environmental issues. Examining scientific evidence and considering diverse perspectives is important.

8. Fallacy of Accident

The fallacy of accident consists in applying a general rule to a particular case whose "accidental" circumstances render the rule inapplicable.

An example is saying that it is compulsory to keep promises in all circumstances. We should think of an insane man who wants to have his gun kept with somebody when he was sane.

Examples:

  • "Eating fruits is healthy, so I'll eat this entire bowl of grapes, even though I'm allergic to them." While fruits are generally nutritious, ignoring individual allergies can have serious consequences.
  • "Exercising is good for you, so I'll run a marathon even though I'm recovering from a broken leg." Disregarding injuries or physical limitations can cause further harm, even when pursuing healthy activities.
  • "Honesty is the best policy, so I'll tell my friend her new haircut looks terrible, even though it will hurt her feelings." Absolute honesty without considering tact or empathy can damage relationships.
  • "Rules are meant to be followed, so I'll drive the speed limit even though there's a medical emergency in my car." Rigidly adhering to rules without considering exceptional circumstances can lead to undesirable outcomes.
  • "All students must take the final exam, so I'll insist my student with severe test anxiety take it, even though it triggers panic attacks." Applying standardized rules without addressing individual needs or accommodations can create unfair and harmful situations.

9. Converse Accident (Hasty Generalization)

This is when you generalize on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Examples:

Saying that every Nigerian leader is elitist because past Nigerian leaders have been elitist.

Considering the effect of alcohol only on those who indulge in it in excess, one then concludes that all liquor is harmful and urges that its sale and use should be forbidden by law.

More examples:

  • "I saw one rude tourist at the beach, so all tourists must be disrespectful of local cultures." Generalizing entire groups based on single experiences is unfair and overlooks individual diversity.
  • "My first attempt at baking a cake was a disaster, so I must be terrible at cooking." Judging one's competence in a broad skill based on a single instance ignores potential for learning and improvement.
  • "My neighbor got mugged late at night, so it's too dangerous to walk anywhere in this city after dark." Extrapolating isolated incidents to encompass entire areas promotes fear and overlooks safety precautions like well-lit routes and travel companions.
  • "My classmate failed the exam because they only used social media for studying. So, using social media is always bad for academic performance." Attributing an individual's performance to one factor without considering other variables and diverse learning styles can be misleading.
  • "I saw a news report about a dog attack, so all dogs are inherently aggressive and should be banned." Basing judgments on single, often sensationalized media portrayals ignores the vast majority of responsible dog owners and misjudges entire animal species.

10. False Cause

This fallacy is committed when you say that something is the cause of another thing when, in fact, it is not. There are two varieties of this fallacy:

(A) Non-causa-pro causa

This is when you attribute the wrong cause to an event.

Examples:

  • "I got sick after eating chili, so it must be the chili that caused it." (Other factors like pre-existing illness or bad ingredients could be the actual cause.)
  • "The rise in crime rates must be caused by video games making people violent." (This ignores complex social and economic factors that contribute to crime, while failing to consider the positive impacts of video games for many individuals.)
  • "My child started doing poorly in school after their new neighbor moved in. It must be their influence." (Attribution errors can be misleading. Consider other potential factors like academic challenges or personal struggles before assigning blame.)

(B) Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

It occurs when you say that A is the cause of B, simply because A precedes B.

Examples:

  • "My team won the game after I wore my lucky socks, so they must bring good luck." (Correlation doesn't imply causation. Other factors like skill level or the opponent's performance could be responsible for the win.)
  • "The stock market crashed after the full moon, so the full moon must cause economic downturns." (Economic fluctuations have numerous complex causes, and astronomical events like moon phases are unlikely to have a direct impact.)

Remember, just because two events occur close together or one follows the other doesn't automatically mean there's a causal relationship.

11. Petitio Principii (Beginning the Question)

If one assumes as a premise for an argument the conclusion to be proved, the fallacy committed is that of petitio principii, or begging the question. An example is that God is the Creator of everything that exists because, without Him, nothing will exist.

Examples:

  • "You should avoid lying because it's wrong to lie." This statement simply restates the conclusion in a different form, offering no real explanation or justification for why lying is wrong.
  • "My theory must be true because it explains all the observed phenomena." This assumes the truth of the theory as a basis for arguing its own validity, creating a closed loop rather than providing independent evidence.
  • "Science can't explain everything, so there must be supernatural forces at play." This argument begs the question by assuming all things must have a scientific explanation, without considering alternative frameworks or the limitations of current knowledge.
  • "This book is a must-read because it's a bestseller." Popularity doesn't automatically equate to value. This statement assumes the book's quality based on its sales instead of presenting compelling reasons why it's worth reading.
  • "Free speech is essential because it allows us to express our opinions freely." This simply rephrases the conclusion rather than justifying the importance of free speech. It fails to address potential challenges or limitations to ensure a nuanced understanding of the issue.

12. Complex Question

In a complex question, there is a presupposition that a definite answer has already been given to a prior question that was not asked. Thus, the first assumes that the answer "Yes" has been given to an unasked question.

Examples:

"Have you stopped beating your wife?" "Have you stopped cheating in exams?"

Questions of this sort do not properly admit a simple "yes" or "no" answer because it is not a simple or single question but a complex one that consists of several questions rolled into one.

More examples:

  • "When did you stop cheating on your exams?" This question presupposes that the person has, in fact, cheated at some point, without any evidence to support that claim.
  • "Why are you so obsessed with your appearance?" This question assumes that the person is indeed obsessed with their appearance, potentially shaming them and dismissing any valid concerns they might have about their presentation.
  • "Have you stopped wasting time on social media yet?" This question frames social media usage as inherently wasteful and implies that the person should have already quit, disregarding any potential benefits or enjoyment they might derive from it.
  • "Do you still believe in those ridiculous conspiracy theories?" This question assumes that the person's beliefs are false and ridiculous without engaging in a genuine discussion of their perspectives or evidence.
  • "Do you realize how much you're embarrassing yourself with those clothes?" This question presumes that the person's clothing choices are objectively embarrassing, imposing subjective standards of fashion and taste without considering their personal preferences or expression.

13. Ignoratio Elenchi (Irrelevant Conclusion)

This fallacy is committed when an argument purporting to establish a particular conclusion is directed at proving a different conclusion.

Examples:

(I) When one infers from such remarks about the horribleness of murder that a defendant is guilty of it.

(II) Suggesting a cut in the number of students because of unemployment.

More examples:

  • "We shouldn't invest in public transportation because it would take away business from taxi companies." While supporting taxi drivers is a concern, it doesn't address the broader social and environmental benefits of a strong public transport system.
  • "Evolution can't be true because the Bible says the Earth is only 6,000 years old." This argument attempts to disprove scientific evidence with religious beliefs, while failing to engage with the actual scientific arguments for evolution.
  • "You shouldn't eat meat because factory farms are cruel to animals." While animal welfare is an important issue, it doesn't necessarily mean everyone should stop eating meat, as there are alternative farming practices and dietary choices to consider.
  • "This candidate shouldn't be elected because their opponent has more experience." Experience is one factor, but focusing solely on this aspect ignores other important qualities and qualifications the candidate might possess.
  • "Modern art is pretentious and meaningless. I prefer landscapes and portraits." Personal preference for specific art styles doesn't invalidate the value or meaning of modern art. This argument fails to engage with the artistic merit or historical context of modern art forms.

14. Fallacy of Equivocation

When you use a word or term in different senses in the same argument.

For example:

The end of a thing is perfection; death is the end of life.

Therefore, death is the perfection of life.

Note: The end is used in two different senses:

(i) As a goal.

(ii) as cessation or termination.

More examples:

  • "Everyone should be free to exercise their rights. Therefore, I should be allowed to park wherever I want." The word "rights" carries different meanings here – in the first instance, it refers to fundamental human rights, while in the second, it's used more loosely to justify personal convenience.
  • "Smoking is bad for your health because it leads to lung cancer. Therefore, we should ban all smoking, including incense and vaping." Equivocating between different types of smoking ignores their significant differences in health risks and personal choices.
  • "This new law restricts freedom of speech, so it's unconstitutional. But it also prevents hate speech, so it's necessary." The term "freedom of speech" is used both for absolute freedom and with limitations to protect others. This equivocation creates a false dichotomy and hinders a nuanced discussion about balancing rights and responsibilities.
  • "My competitor's product is a cheap imitation. Therefore, they're stealing my ideas." The word "cheap" can mean both inexpensive and of low quality. This argument conflates affordability with plagiarism, potentially making unfair accusations without clear evidence.
  • "This book advocates for a healthy lifestyle, so it must be promoting veganism." Equivocating between general healthy choices and a specific dietary approach ignores the diversity of healthy lifestyles and personal preferences.

15. Fallacy of Division

It is committed when the characteristics of a whole are thought to necessarily apply to its parts.

Examples

(I) Nigeria is great.

Therefore, every Nigerian is great.

(II) Nigeria is a member of the UNO.

Therefore, all Nigerians are members of the UNO.

Other examples:

  • "This company has a bad reputation. Therefore, all employees must be incompetent." Attributing an organization's negative traits to every individual within it ignores the diversity of people and contributions within the company.
  • "My city is unsafe at night. So, it must be dangerous to leave the house anywhere after dark." Applying the perceived danger of one area to an entire city overlooks safer neighborhoods and ignores the importance of specific context and cautionary measures.
  • "My family loves spicy food. You must too!" Generalizing preferences within a family doesn't guarantee individual tastes. Assuming shared characteristics based on familial relationships can be inaccurate and insensitive.
  • "This website has fake news. So, all information online must be unreliable." Judging the entire online world based on one negative experience overlooks the vast amount of valuable and accurate information available online.
  • "My favorite musician had a mental health struggle. So, all musicians must be mentally unstable." Extrapolating individual experiences to an entire profession paints an unfair and inaccurate picture of a diverse group of people.

16. Fallacy of Composition (Opposite of Division)

When you attribute the qualities of parts to the whole, e.g., all the actors are good, Therefore, the film must be good.

The fallacy of composition, the opposite of division, occurs when we assume that the characteristics of individual parts automatically translate to the whole group or object. 

Here are five examples:

  • "All the ingredients in this recipe are healthy, so the entire dish must be good for you." While individual ingredients might be nutritious, their combination might create a different nutritional profile, and neglecting factors like portion size and cooking methods can lead to misleading conclusions.
  • "Each chapter in this book was insightful, so the whole book must be a masterpiece." Individual chapters might be strong, but the structure, flow, and overall message of the entire book might not hold the same consistency.
  • "My team has the best players, so we're guaranteed to win the championship." Individual talent doesn't guarantee team success. Factors like teamwork, coordination, and strategy play a crucial role in determining the outcome of a game.
  • "Each individual song on this album is catchy, so the entire album must be a hit." While catchy tunes are appealing, they don't automatically guarantee an album's overall success. The cohesion of the songs, lyrical depth, and artistic expression contribute to the overall listener experience.
  • "Every individual tree in the forest is beautiful, so the forest must be breathtaking." While each tree possesses its own unique beauty, judging the entire forest solely based on individual trees overlooks the complex ecosystem, natural formations, and overall visual impact of the forest as a whole.

Is It Possible To Avoid Fallacies Totally?

The answer is 'No'. This is because, as humans, we are beings of emotions and sentiments. However, knowledge of fallacies will help us recognize fallacies when they occur and avoid them as much as possible. The knowledge of fallacies helps to enhance our critical thinking and positive communication. Critical thinking simply means subjecting information to objective analysis without sentiment or prejudice and making a reasoned judgment. It helps us to understand the connections between events and ideas, evaluate arguments, detect errors, and solve problems systematically.

Tips For Spotting Informal Fallacies

Pay attention to the language that is being used. If someone is using emotional language or making personal attacks, it's a sign that they might be using an informal fallacy.

Ask yourself whether the argument is relevant to the topic at hand. If it's not, it's probably a red herring.

Be careful of generalizations. Just because something is true for one person or group of people doesn't mean it's true for everyone.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. If you're not sure what someone means, ask them to clarify.

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