Clarity is not only crucial when writing paper, but also in speaking and thinking. Words tend to take on meaning based on the user and the audience. Therefore, it is important that we clarify what we present by avoiding words that can appear vague or ambiguous. In other words, we need to avoid language that can easily be misinterpreted.
A term is considered ambiguous if it can be understood in more than one way.
Example: A woman calls a museum and asks if taking pictures is allowed. The museum curator says yes. Two hours later the woman walks into the museum and takes a picture from the wall and walks out.
The term "picture" was interpreted differently by the caller and the museum curator. Therefore, the curator may have assumed he was giving permission to take photographs and the woman assumed she had permission to take one of the pictures from the wall.
The term amphibole is used to identify such ambiguity in language whether it is referring to a single term or a sentence that is grammatically structured in a way that makes the meaning unclear.
Example: I put my money on the desk that I got for mowing lawns.
In this example it is unclear as to whether it was the money that came from mowing lawns or the desk.
Some specific fallacies that result in ambiguous and vague language include: Begging the Question
This is also known as circular reasoning: the argument introduces a premise that equates to the conclusion. In other words, to accept the conclusion, you must accept the conclusion. A frustrating example we encounter using dictionaries is when a word is defined using the same word root. For instance, we look up darkness and the definition is: the characteristic of being dark. With this definition we are still in the dark about what dark means! We are still begging the same question because the circular reasoning did not provide an answer.
Example: Abortion is murder and therefore, immoral.
Considering that very few would argue for the morality of murder, accepting the first premise is the same as accepting the conclusion. Because the commonly accepted connotation of "murder" already implies immorality, the premise is the same as the conclusion.
Equivocation refers to an argument that uses one term but that term has different meanings depending on how it is used. Although the appearance of the same term may make it appear like the evidence is relevant, the inconsistent use of the term makes the argument invalid. Example: All stars are in orbit in outer space. Brad Pitt is a star. Therefore, Brad Pitt is in orbit in outer space.
If the term "star" was used in the same way in each premise this would be a valid deductive argument. However, because "star" has a different meaning in each premise, there is no connection between the premises to allow them to legitimately support the conclusion.
Loaded language occurs when a term or terms known to have negative or positive connotations are deliberately placed in an argument to evoke favor toward your conclusion.
Example: Religious fanatics should not have a say in secular policy.
The term "fanatic" implies that people who are religious are unreasonable or fanatical about things and should be disregarded in rational discourse.
Example: Separate classrooms for boys and girls are a form of apartheid and should not be tolerated.
Apartheid is technically an apt term because it has to do with differential treatment and separate classrooms treat genders differently. However, the term 'apartheid' is more commonly synonymous with ‘evil’ based on the political events in Africa and thereby if a practice is described as such it is considered deplorable.
Note how these terms have meanings and connotations far beyond their dictionary definitions. They are presented as neutral terms when, in actuality, they are highly charged with emotion and values. These targeted appeals to pathos and ethos can often leave logos or reason out of the discussion.
Not only specific terms, but also entire questions can be "loaded." A loaded question puts the person being addressed in a position to not be able to answer without accepting the implications within the question. The most famous example is:
"Have you stopped beating your wife?"
This question requests a yes or no answer. However, if answered 'yes', you admit to having beaten her previously. If you answer 'no', you are admitting that you beat your wife. A no-win situation is presented by loaded questions.
Arguments from analogy are perfectly legitimate, as we learned earlier. In such an argument, evidence of the similarity of two things in a relevant way, allows the conclusion that they should be considered or treated the same. However, using a false analogy is a fallacious argument. When the two things in the argument from analogy are not sufficiently alike, it does not provide a relevance that allows you to clearly communicate your message.
Example: Getting my two year old into bed is like pulling teeth.
Although most of us would assume that this means it is a difficult task, that is not what this analogy clearly relates. And if that is the correct conclusion we are to draw, how does this analogy support that conclusion?
False dilemma (either/or thinking; also called the black-white fallacy)
In either/or thinking we create a false dilemma, a choice between only two things when in fact many more options could exist.
Example: I can either finish this reading tonight or I can fail the test in class tomorrow.
This is a false dilemma because there are many more possible outcomes or courses of action than those presented. Even if you do not finish the reading, you may still pass the test. Even if complete the reading, you may fail the test. You could postpone the reading until in the morning.
A rationalization fallacy is an attempt to make it appear that reason is being used when in actuality excuses are being made. It is like reverse critical thinking. A critical thinker employs reason prior to taking action. Someone who rationalizes waits until they must answer for their actions and then tries to determine what caused them to take that action and offer whatever they deduce as excuses for the action they have taken.
Example: It is true that I stole from this store. But, I was abused as a child and no one ever told me it was wrong.
A critical thinker would have employed reason prior to taking action and would have weighed the consequences and consciously determined what was right or wrong for him or her.
A slippery slope argument implies that by conceding to one thing, all sorts of negative things will be set into motion; just like climbing up a slippery slope, it is difficult to go back and change things once you start down a certain path. This is also called the domino effect argument.
Example: We can't let kids listen to rock an' roll or the next thing you know they will all be worshipping Satan.
In this example, the slippery slope argument is used in an unreasonable or fallacious sense. There is no relevant connection between rock an' roll and Satan worship. So, it is unreasonable to think that conceding the first step – allowing kids to listen to rock and roll – will actually conclude in Satan worship. Example: Cloning cannot be legalized because if it is, then we will have to devalue all of human life in order to justify using human clones for body parts.
In this example, the slippery slope argument introduces a legitimate concern that should be taken into consideration before moving too quickly in this new technology.
Reductio ad absurdum
This is actually a very strong argument first used by Aristotle to refute Plato's Theory of the Forms. Aristotle posed a question to Plato's reasoning that implied his argument must continue to the point of absurdity and endless forms. Basically, reduction ad absurdum does just what it says, reduces an argument down to the point of absurdity.
By accepting the argument and extending it out you reveal the absurdity of the argument in various contexts.
Example: Reparations for past inequality are totally justified. Since inequality is perpetuated by the inability to have a voice in how you are governed, it is reasonable to assume that the governing body is responsible to make amends. However, based on voting rights, those that have had a voice in American
government the least amount of time is women. Therefore, if reparations are due then every person who is the child of a woman is due them.
This technique can become fallacious when reduction ad absurdum is a form of straw man or weak opponent. When one exaggerates or unfairly distorts the opponent’s argument to make it appear ridiculous, one does not have a strong argument, but has committed a fallacy.
Example: My teacher asked me to give a full explanation in my answers. But I could explain some things forever. Then, I would never finish the assignment. Therefore, my professor is asking of me an impossible task.