It’s A Trap!

Admiral Ackbar knew the battlefield, always wise to look out for his opponents tactics. The arsenal at the Empire’s disposal was wide, and sometimes includes indirect thrusts in the form of a trap—things he knew well. Not a lot of thought has to go into setting up a booby trap since the tactic is fairly static. You set it up, you leave it there, and you let the rebel scum do all the work. The same thing applies in argumentation (in the classical sense).

A booby trap isn’t an outright fallacy since it doesn’t exist in the normal riposte of an argument. The booby trap is more like the groundwork for an indirect fallacy; it is a tool that results in the recipient (henceforward referred to as “reader”) coming to a conclusion that the presenter (henceforward referred to as “writer”) hasn’t really established.

Here are a few common booby traps that result in an informal fallacy:

Vagueness: This is when the boundary of meanings isn’t distinct. Yeah, that was as clear as a newborn’s first productive diaper. Language, by its nature, contains vagueness which might not be able (even if that intent were desirable) to be removed.  Sometimes the fog of the vague brings out the color of language as to portray its beauty.

And yet, some writers employ (and hide behind) vagueness to give the appearance of a sound argument without that actually being the case; it leaves the reader traversing the field and falling into a fallacy without such a real argument ever having been presented.

For example, one million granules of sand is a heap of sand. Imagine removing one granule from this heap—does this now change the heap of sand to something else?

Well, no, it’s still a heap of sand. But at what point does it stop being a heap? How do you even know?  And that’s the problem. You might come to the strange conclusion that one grain of sand is still a heap, or you may say that there are no such things as heaps.

Ambiguity: You would think this is the same thing as vagueness, but it isn’t (well, not so much anyway). This is when one uses terms, or sentences, that have more than one meaning without clarifying which meaning is intended. It is context-driven, unlike vagueness which can be employed in any case where the boundary of whatever concept is difficult to define.

Here’s an example, “Believing that the Gospel is for salvation is well and good” uses two terms with ambiguous meaning, and the sentence by itself can be read as an ethical statement, a statement of value, or even a statement of what is desirable. And yet, if the next sentence starts with a “But” then you know that “well and good” wind up not being terms that mean something like “fine for those who don’t know better”.

Another example is Groucho Marx when he said “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas.” By itself the statement can mean a couple of things, which he quickly brings to light when he says “What he was doing in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

Over-precision is an ironic version of vagueness; when an argument treats information as more precise than it actually is. Math and Science can be intimidating; more so when they’re brought into a discussion. So imagine your yearly elections when you get the news stating that X-Candidate is leading Y-Candidate with a 43% v. 41% split. In small print you’ll see something like “a +/- 5% margin of error” Well, that’s really precise with something that can be anything from (38%-48%) v (36%-46%). Heck you might find out that the actual numbers are 38% – 46% completely flopping how close the election actually is!

Loaded Language: This one comes up often enough on TV that you should realize it but you’ll probably only pick it up when you hear it coming from a news source you don’t like. This occurs when someone refers to something with terminology that will make the reader weigh against the position without ever having had read the actual position much less understand the logic that makes the position wrong.

This isn’t so much an ad hominem (which would be more like a direct attack) as question begging. So instead of speaking of an animal, one speaks of it as a beast; instead of speaking of plants, one refers to them as weeds; instead of referring to bacon, you refer to it as swine-fat: all of which are supporting the arguer’s point that the position is wrong without ever having had presented a single point.

In Christianity we have favorable terminology like “historical”, “holistic”, “Christ-centered” and “Biblical” versus unfavorable terminology like “Western”, “Modern”, “Dispensational”, “Institutional”, and “Systematic”. There’s more, surely, dependant on whatever is in vogue.

False Comparisons are part of loaded language but deserve a section on their own. This is when someone purposefully compares something to something negative without validating such a comparison. Now it is important to note that this isn’t a matter of comparisons; it is a matter of selectively choosing comparisons that result in begging the question.

For example when speaking about the assembly line, one can say that it has been used in everything from Roman arsenal production, women’s clothing, building manufacturing and book production. This is establishing a range of similarity to the overarching concept of “assembly line”. That’s fine.

But if one were to say that “assembly lines have been used by Roman arsenal production, the Nazi Regime and the focal point of communist ideals” the idea of an assembly line becomes pretty scary. The language wasn’t technically loaded but the comparison was.

Appeal to the Natural: This is what happens when someone points to what something is and then concludes that it is how it should be. But the problem here is that there is no basis for concluding that. I mean, it’s unnatural for humans to wear shoes—and yet no one would argue that humans shouldn’t wear shoes. Likewise a statement like “to err is human” might lead the reader to conclude “therefore humans ethically- should err.” (As if erring were a good thing since it is only natural.)

Now, there is a formal version of this which David Hume called the naturalistic fallacy whereby someone makes the connection to what is and what ought to be explicit—but we’re not worrying about that.

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3 replies on “It’s A Trap!”

Nice article. Just want to stress out a few things. First, none of the techniques is inherently fallacious. I can use vagueness, ambiguity and make dubious analogies without laying the grounds for a charge of fallacy usage. One should always take the context into consideration; in some contexts, such argumentative moves are ignored and passed over, in some, they become fallacies.

Second, question-begging ephitets and nouns are (again) not fallacious in themselves. If I call refer to the President as “that pig”, the other party might get the point and disregard my name-tag, but it will not be a fallacy. Let us remember that a fallacy is an ARGUMENT. Name-callings are not arguments. Begging the question becomes a fallacy only when it involves circular reasoning and evades proof when arguing (as opposed to ‘when describing’)

Anyway. Nice post! :)

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