How to Spot Flaws in Arguments

Every day we’re bombarded with information via our twitter feeds, news sites and in-boxes. Being able to discern truth from fiction is a constant battle. To help us write persuasive reports, make informed decisions and to clarify our points of view on the world, an ability to spot flaws in arguments is essential. This is what to look out for.

1 Beware the false correlation

Just because trends move in the same direction, does not mean there is a correlation between them.

For example, you may read data that shows here’s been a growth in single person households, whilst at the same time, other studies may indicate that loneliness is on the rise.

Ask yourself - are these trends correlated? Check the ways in which they may be linked. Is this coincidental? As they linked as cause and effect? Are they linked by a third cause?

2 Look for the supporting evidence

In order to prove an argument, having the supporting reasons or evidence is essential. 

For example, you may read or hear ‘young people today are not as resilient as previous generations’.

Ask yourself, (a) whether there is any supporting evidence for such a claim (b) if so, is the supporting evidence reliable or believable. Always check the source of the information. Is it trustworthy?

3 Check whether it’s a false analogy

An analogy is a comparison to draw similarities between things. It can be really helpful to enable understanding and to prove a point.

Here’s a couple of analogies ‘caffeine addiction is as serious and damaging as alcohol addiction’ and ‘investing in stocks and shares is as risky as gambling on horse racing.

Always ask yourself whether analogies you read are helpful in proving an argument. It becomes a false analogy if the two items are not sufficiently similar or if the comparison is misleading or inaccurate.

4 Don’t be swayed by tricks of language

As I wrote previously, emotion is a powerful tool of persuasion, so watch out for the following words or phrases which can be deceptive. The use of this kind of language should raise alarm bells.

a) deflective language

Words such as ‘obviously’‘clearly’ or ‘naturally’ suggests that the argument is already valid and there is no need to explain.

b) encouraging complicity

Phrases such as ‘everybody knows’‘anyone with any sense’ or ‘people like us’ assumes that we’re a group of like-minded people who share similar points of view.

Focus on the power of the argument. Don’t get misled by the persuasive language that underpins it.

5 Watch out for unwarranted leaps

Otherwise known as ‘jumping to conclusions’.

An argument needs a structure, and a logical flow in order for it to be powerful. Look out for gaps in information or the lack of supporting evidence (see point 2)

For example, you may read that ‘the growth of knife crime amongst young people is a direct consequence of absent fathers’

Ask your yourself whether this a logical conclusion to make, whether the evidence is sound or if the writer has simply made an unwarranted leap.

6 Don’t be fooled by tautology

Tautology means repeating the same point in different ways, without advancing the key thrust. It makes the argument feel more powerful than it really is. The example below is just the same argument, repeated twice.

 ‘Young people are lazy because they sit around playing video games all day. This is because video games make young people sit around all day and become lazy''.

7 Two wrongs don’t make a right

Just because someone else did it or said it, doesn’t make the argument valid. For example, the fact that someone stole something from you, doesn’t justify the argument that you have the right to steal from them.

Another example. If a previous leader declared war on a neighbouring country it doesn’t necessarily justify the current leader’s decision to attack another neighbour.

8 Attacking the person

An easy way to undermine an argument is to undermine the credibility of the person making it. This is such an easy mistake to make. However, to refute the argument purely on the basis that you don’t like the person making it lacks rigour. Assess the argument, not the person making it.

So, in summary.

To become a more effective critical thinker we need to constantly look out for flaws in the arguments that are put before us. Maintain a critical eye. Whenever you hear or read a point of view being expressed, don’t accept it at face value. Watch out for all the pitfalls outlined above. It will help us draw more accurate conclusions, develop more informed perspectives and make better, more rational decisions.