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Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies
“Dear opponents, you have just committed the straw man fallacy in your argument by saying that unrestricted access to Artificial Intelligence is harmful to humans’ existence. Our point is that we should relax laws and policies on AI. You are misinterpreting our statements by assuming we are advocating for unlimited access to AI.” I raised my voice and tried to accentuate the problems in my opponents’ arguments. My assertive tone and aggressive body language obviously intimidated them. My opponent tried to interrupt me, but I refused and exclaimed, “Sorry, I think it is our time to ask a question…”
With the two big bolded words “THINK ALOUD” on the blackboard, I did not pause a moment to elaborate on my arguments. I just shouted at my opponents, giving them hardly any time to respond or even think of new arguments to defend. We appeared to dominate the whole process. With a burst of sharp questions to my panicked opponents, I closed my rebuttal with full satisfaction.
I used to be a shy and careful girl who always thought over and over again before speaking. I would never express my thoughts without meticulous consideration first, which often hindered me from publicly expressing my ideas. But debate deeply transformed me. Its core spirit of “thinking aloud” inspired me to shout out my thoughts even if I had not fully considered whether they were flawless or not. Also, the habit of identifying every minor problem in opponents’ arguments and thinking of ways to rebut right away made me become more sensitive to logic when speaking or reading: I cannot help myself in looking for and pointing out others’ logical fallacies during conversations. For instance, when watching Trump’s presidential debate on television, I kept pointing out that he was entering a slippery slope when he accused Mexican immigrants of stealing Americans’ jobs; when reading a report on the internet about a Chinese girl killed by her friend’s ex-boyfriend, I was able to discern bias or prejudice from the background information of the sources. Even when I was gossiping on the street, I would never cease from counting how many logical fallacies my friend had made.
One day, when I was walking from the canteen to the dorm with my friend Coco, she exuberantly talked about her favorite movie star Emma Watson.
“Hey Kelly! Do you know she has just received the honor to give a speech at a UN conference! I am so excited for her! Different from other actresses, she is not only proficient in acting, but also an enthusiastic social reformer! She is definitely the best British actress I have ever known. How could others criticize her for her ‘white feminism’? Those poor hypocrites are just jealous of her honor…”
“Dogmatism, ad hominem…ah, how can she make so many logical fallacies in only a few sentences?” I counted silently in disdain.
Perceiving the indifference in my hollow eyes, she kept talking. “You have no idea about her. Yesterday, I read a news article about her saying that everyone around her said she was a really nice and kind and warmhearted and modest person. And she…”
I interrupted her with a scornful look, “I kinda agree with you. But I still want to say that what you read cannot be totally true. First, you have never met her, so there is no solid evidence…”
I could see her smile on her face immediately fade, replaced by disappointment. But I continued, “Secondly, you are committing the fallacy of ad populum, which means you overgeneralize an unproven fact by only making a reference to others’ words. What other people have said about her is not necessarily true…and it may be different from your standard of ‘kind and warmhearted.’”
I paused for a while, expecting to see her defeated expression. But instead, she walked away angrily. Watching Coco’s receding back, I shouted, “Hey, wait! I haven’t finished! You are also committing the fallacy of ad hominem…”
Confused, I had no idea why she was mad at me.
I thought of another time when I stayed up late working on my AP Language essays. My mother asked me several times to go to bed, but I refused, saying “Writing requires consistency and coherency and I cannot stop it right now. I need maybe another hour to finish it.”
“Now I understand why you did not do well in your last Physics C exam. It must be because you did not have enough sleep! So go to sleep now.” My mother accentuated her tone impatiently.
However, after being interrupted by her and hearing her false accusation, I grew agitated. “You cannot assume that I did not do well in the exam because of staying up late,” I glowered at her. “You only see me doing so today; this does not necessarily mean I do it every day. You are not only overgeneralizing the situation, but also making post hoc logical fallacy. Even though I stayed up late the night before the exam, some other factors might have influenced my performance too.”
My mother was intimidated by my aggressive facial expressions and body language, as I seemed to try to have a debate with her. She shook her head in despair and left my room quietly. Immersed in the pride of my well-elaborated arguments, I did not realize she was actually sighing.
However, I gradually felt strange and uncomfortable as I found that people were starting to be alienated from me.
One time, I heard one of my classmates say, “I don't feel like hanging out with Kelly. Have you guys noticed that she has been too aggressive these days? Whenever we have a conversation, she always makes me feel like a loser at the end. I am not her opponent in a debate round.”
My parents, too, were worried. “What happened to you? It seems that since you participated in debate, you’ve become too serious about every minor detail in our words and often interrupt us before we finish our sentences. Sometimes we are really frustrated as we hardly find any way to peacefully talk to you.”
I was puzzled, insisting that “Through debate, I know how language may be easily distorted and misleading to people in real life; therefore, I feel everyone should be responsible for what he or she says or writes in order to avoid misunderstanding and increase efficiency of communication.”
My mother had nothing to rebut me, so I thought I won this round again.
Another debate regional tournament had begun in autumn. My partner and I believed that we could made it to the final round, as we defeated our opponents in the first seven rounds by showing our “aggressive” attitude. Surprisingly, however, the Con side in our semifinal round consisted of two boys who appeared to be more polite and gentle than we had expected. We thought we were going to beat them easily, as we seemed to dominate the whole round. They were so moderate that it even made me feel kind of embarrassed and ashamed when I tried to interrupt their tedious explanation of a certain argument as I used to do in crossfire by saying “Okay, I get your point and I think now it’s my turn to ask a question…”
Out of our expectation, we lost. My partner and I kept asking each other, “How could they have won? We pointed out so many logical fallacies in their arguments. We proved so many contentions to support our position, but they only had one, which we had already successfully disproven. How could the judge say they won? Besides arguments, I think we were much more like debaters; our aggressiveness should definitely add more points for us. This is not fair!”
Leaving the room with resentment, I was so angry about this unfair judgment. My teacher asked us to watch the final round and I reluctantly went to the auditorium. Hearing them make the same argument again, I hoped to find out what really made them win. In fact, their only argument about economics was very solid and fully supported, as they applied a large number of economic theories which were extremely difficult for those who had never learned economics to break down. Even though they made minor mistakes in their expressions of arguments, I had to admit that their structure and logic were extremely formidable. Since we were so hypercritical of their use of language to the point that we did not even wait for them to finish their speech, we ignored the whole picture of their argument.
This was really the first time for me to question my debate strategies that I used to be proud of. Should I really be self-satisfied about my victories, whether in debate or in daily life? Do I really win with respect from others?
A few days later, I was having dinner with my family at home. My parents began to ceaselessly ask me whether I exercised every week, whether I ate fruits and vegetables, and whether I slept for eight hours a day. When my father said with many worries on his face, “Minkuan, you are not going to study well unless you eat enough fruits and vegetables every day. You should realize their importance in health, especially for students like you who have to learn intensively every day,” I frowned as usual. I was about to rebut him by saying, “Eating fruit and vegetables does not necessarily mean that I’m going to study well, you know? You cannot overgeneralize it…,” but I paused for a second and agreed with him reluctantly, replying, “Okay, I will exercise more, eat more and sleep more.”
I could tell my father was already preparing for my rebuttal, but after hearing my words with surprise, he sighed in relief and his face brightened.
At that moment, I felt it was not that painful to make a “concession” at all. Being unmindful of others’ minor problems in language use is a way of showing understanding and tolerance and gaining new perspectives. Ashamed for what I had once said to my mother, I realized that being aggressive and cruel towards others was never improving efficiency in communication, but actually intensifying conflict, which would only lead to more misunderstanding and blockage of communication.
I eased my knitted brows and gave a delighted smile to my parents. My mother then readily walked into the kitchen and began to peel my favorite oranges for me.
Next time when I am with my friend Coco, I will start up a conversation about Emma Watson and tell her how much I admire Watson as a woman who deeply influences the international community by having the courage to speak up and advocate for gender equality. Logic is an admirable trait, but when it is employed too excessively to the people whom are close to me, it becomes annoying.
Language, in my mind now, is not merely a tool or weapon for critical thinking to defend my position and/or attack others’, but it is also a way of creating emotional appeals that help bring us together.