Stalking the
Wild Argument

A "wild" argument is not one that is unusually weird, rather it is one that is found in the "wild", in the natural habitat of argumentation. In contrast, a "tame" argument is one created specifically to be an example, such as many of those found in textbooks.

This file contains examples of arguments from the written media: books, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and fundraising letters. I have included enough context so that the arguer's intention is not misrepresented, but excluded information irrelevant to the specific argument.

The arguments included in this file are those difficult enough to require some analysis and explanation. For fallacious arguments that are self-explanatory, see the sibling page "Stalking the Wild Fallacy", which is available from the main menu under "Examples". If you have any interesting examples of arguments, please send them to me! I prefer documented, as opposed to anecdotal, examples—that is, arguments drawn from some source that can be cited rather than from memory.


Argument:

Twice a year, in April and October, I remind you of the market's remarkable seasonality, the popular version of which is known as "Sell in May and Go Away." It calls for getting out of the market on May 1 and getting back in on Nov. 1.

As with most investment strategies, most investors have only short-term thoughts regarding it…. If it didn't work out the previous year then clearly it's either just a silly theory, or a strategy that may have worked in the past but the pattern has obviously come to an end.

And like all strategies…it doesn't work in every individual year. But it doesn't have to in order to produce remarkable outperformance over the long term. That's because in years when the market makes more gains in the unfavorable season when a seasonal investor is out, the seasonal investor doesn't have a loss, but merely misses out on additional gains. But when the market does have a correction in the unfavorable season, its losses can be well into double-digits which the seasonal investor avoids.

Source: Sy Harding, "'Tis the Season" quoted in "Market Watch", Barron's 92, No. 42 (October 15, 2012), p. M16.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Professor Lee C. Archie for providing this example. His analysis follows:

Analysis: Since Harding states his premise by discounting stock market gains, the argument is circular:

Premise: When markets go up and when markets go down, the strategy of not owning stocks never leads to losses, but the strategy of owning stocks does lead to losses.

Conclusion: Thus, over the long term, the strategy of never losing by not owning stocks is better than the strategy of losing by owning stocks.


Argument:

…[H]igh-density development [doesn't] reduce congestion. The superficially appealing idea is that if we all live closer to where we work and shop, shorter car trips and mass transit will replace all those long car rides. But the real world doesn't work that way. Try this thought experiment. What happens at a cocktail party when a new wave of people shows up and the population density of the living room doubles? Is it harder or easier to get to the bar and the cheese tray? Is it harder or easier to carry on conversation and move around the room? As urban population density rises, auto-traffic congestion gets worse, not better, and commute times get longer, not shorter.

Source: Steven Hayward, "Suburban Legends", National Review, March 22, 1999, p. 36.

Analysis: Hayward's conclusion is in the first and last sentences: High-density development doesn't reduce congestion, rather higher density produces more congestion and longer commutes. His argument for this conclusion is based on a "thought experiment", which is an analogy between high-density development and a cocktail party. This is where the argument goes wrong.

If you do the "thought experiment" suggested by Hayward, you may imagine yourself at a cocktail party when a lot of newcomers arrive. Does it become easier for you to get around the room, or harder? Of course, it gets harder! Does that mean that Hayward is right? Not at all.

Try the experiment a different way: Suppose that you're not already at the party, but are one of the newcomers yourself. Does your arrival make it easier for you to get at the wine and cheese? Of course it does!

In other words, when more people arrive at a party it becomes harder for those already there to get to the refreshments, but it's easier for those who just arrived. Similarly, if you already live downtown, more people moving in will no doubt make it harder for you to get around, and it will take longer for you to get to work; but if you live out in the suburbs and move downtown to be closer to your job, your commute time will shorten.

The only way to determine whether increased density shortens commute times, lengthens them, or leaves them unchanged, is to look at its effect on the average commutes of everyone affected. That is, while commute times for those who already live downtown may increase, commutes for those newcomers who move downtown will decrease. Whether the average decreases, increases, or the two balance out, I don't know. But this is not the sort of thing that can be decided by a thought experiment; only a real-life statistical study could provide an answer.

Now, this doesn't mean that high-density development does reduce congestion―perhaps Hayward is right that it doesn't and he just needs a better argument―but the cocktail party analogy is either just a poor analogy for urban development, or it doesn't show what Hayward thinks it shows.―Gary N. Curtis

Fallacy: Weak Analogy


Argument:

…[S]harp-tongued Benjamin Disraeli, so the story goes, was ordered in the last century to withdraw his declaration that half the Cabinet were asses. "Mr. Speaker, I withdraw," was Disraeli's response. "Half the Cabinet are not asses."

Source: Sarah Lyall, "The World; The Right Hon. Twerp Debates the Windbag", New York Times, 2/26/1995

Analysis: Disraeli's statement that "half the Cabinet are not asses" was intentionally ambiguous and could mean one of two things:

  1. "It's not the case that half the Cabinet are asses." On this meaning, Disraeli is indeed withdrawing his previous statement that half the Cabinet were asses by denying it. Here, the negation―"not"―in Disraeli's statement has wide scope, that is, it negates the entire statement that half the Cabinet are asses. That this is one possible meaning of the statement is shown by the familiar adage that "all that glitters is not gold", which means that not all that glitters is gold―in other words, some glittery things aren't golden.
  2. "Half the Cabinet are non-asses." On this interpretation, the negation has narrow scope, only negating the statement's ass, so to speak. However, this meaning does not deny Disraeli's original claim that half the Cabinet were asses; rather, it is a consequence of it, since if exactly half of the Cabinet are asses then the other half must be non-asses.

By making this amphibolous claim, Disraeli was able to have his cake and eat it too: he could seem to obey the order to back down from his original claim by denying it, while actually intending the second meaning.―Gary N. Curtis

Fallacy: Scope Fallacy


Argument:

On the campaign trail, [John Kerry]'s in favor of raising taxes on everybody who makes over $200,000 a year. Unless, of course, he's the one being asked to pay more, in which case, forget about it.

We know this because of a little whoopee cushion recently inserted into the income tax forms of his home state of Massachusetts. … [A]n anti-tax group managed to place a line on the tax form giving Bay Staters the option of paying at the old, since-repealed 5.85 percent rate, rather than at the current 5.3 percent rate.

For two years now, John Kerry has had the opportunity to pay his "fair share." But…the Democratic Party candidate for president has taken the money and ran.

"Why do you even call asking about this?" his spokesman, Michael Meehan, said Saturday morning. "He has made the same decision as 99.9 percent of his fellow Massachusetts residents."

Source: Howie Carr, "A Flying Squirrel", New York Post, 4/19/2004

Fallacy: The Bandwagon Fallacy

Reader Response: A pseudonymous reader writes:

Upon reading this, I was sure that this was a classic example of the Tu Quoque fallacy. The article's author is attacking John Kerry's position that the tax rate on the wealthy should be increased, by pointing out that Kerry did not take the option to voluntarily pay at a higher rate. Whether Kerry, personally, is consistent with his position doesn't have any weight on the strength of his arguments for that position (and I don't think not voluntarily paying taxes at a higher rate is even inconsistent, but that's not relevant). I agree that his spokesperson's reply is a bandwagon justification. However, in today's political climate, where image and character are held above, or at least equal to, position and merit, it is not tenable for a politician to respond to a fallacious argument in such a way. In my opinion, the more glaring example of fallacious logic was the author's attack on Kerry's position. The spokesperson's response, while logically fallacious, was probably deliberately pragmatic.

Three points in reply:

  1. In a Tu Quoque, a person defends themselves against a charge by turning the accusation back on the accuser. That doesn't appear to be what's happening in this case, since as far as we know the author has not been accused of what he's accusing Kerry of doing.
  2. Rather than attacking Kerry's position on taxes, it seems to me that he is attacking Kerry personally as a hypocrite. If he were arguing against Kerry's position by pointing out his hypocrisy, that would be a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy, rather than a Tu Quoque.
  3. Not every personal attack is fallacious. The example is from an article written while Kerry was "on the campaign trail" running for President. While candidates for public office often campaign on platforms, it is ultimately a person who is elected, and broken campaign promises are all too familiar. For this reason, the character of a candidate is not logically irrelevant. Certain types of character attacks may indeed be irrelevant, for instance, a candidate's private sexual peccadilloes may not have any bearing on how he governs. However, Kerry's failure to pay a higher tax rate when he had the chance and could easily afford it does call into question his sincerity in advocating higher rates. Of course, how much weight one should put on this evidence is debatable, but it was some evidence about what kind of man Kerry was and how he was likely to govern. As a result, though the article is indeed a personal attack, I don't think that it constitutes an ad hominem fallacy.―Gary N. Curtis

Argument:

There are very few general laws of social science, but we can offer one that has a deserved claim: the restriction of the concept of humanity in any sphere never enhances a respect for human life. It did not enhance the rights of slaves, prisoners of wars, criminals, traitors, women, children, Jews, blacks, heretics, workers, capitalists, Slavs or Gypsies. The restriction of the concept of personhood in regard to the fetus will not do so either.

Source: Phillip Abbott, quoted by Helen M. Alvaré in "Abortion is Immoral", from The Abortion Controversy, Greenhaven, 1995, p. 25.

Analysis: Abbott denies that restricting the concept of human by race, ethnicity, economic class, or age has enhanced a general respect for human life―presumably, this is an understatement, and Abbott actually thinks that such restrictions have reduced respect for human life. Of course, this is not surprising, since all of the groups he gives as examples are groups of human beings.

Abbott goes on to conclude that restricting the concept of person with respect to human fetuses will have the same effect of reducing the general respect for human life. However, for this argument to work by analogy with the example of the other groups, it must be the case that fetuses are a type of human being. This can be seen by applying the same pattern of reasoning to groups that are obviously not human.

For instance, if we restrict the concept of the human to leave out pigs, does that diminish respect for human life? Some vegetarians may think so, but should a non-vegetarian find this argument persuasive? Of course, it reduces respect for porcine life, but pigs are not human. Similarly, if we restrict the concept of human being to exclude human sperm cells, does that reduce general respect for human life? Perhaps some Catholics believe this, but should non-Catholics change their view of contraception?

So, for Abbott's argument to be effective, it must assume that human fetuses are fully-fledged human beings, deserving equal respect with adult humans. If that's the case, then the conclusion goes without saying: of course leaving any human beings out of the concept of humanity reduces respect for human life, by definition. However, if fetuses are not fully-fledged people, then the argument has no force, any more than the argument with "pig" or "sperm cell" replacing "fetus". In other words, if you already accept the idea that fetuses are fully human, then Abbott's argument is unnecessary; if you don't accept that idea, then the argument is ineffectual.―Gary N. Curtis

Fallacy: Begging the Question


Argument:

Hate based on skin color and/or ethnic and cultural differences still festers among us. It's an aggressive monster that actively seeks putrefaction like itself so it may commune and spawn. It spreads like a fungus, seeking to multiply.

The Internet has been a fertile ground for groups to plant evil seeds. As ways to interact on the Internet have grown, so grow the hate groups. Online communities, which so innocently attempt to bring like-minded individuals together for virtual socializing, created a nice breeding ground for venom.

Source: "Google Should Act", Contra Costa Times, 3/10/2005

Analysis: When this passage is stripped of its metaphorical language, here's what's left:

Racial, ethnic, and cultural hatreds still exist. People with such feelings wish to spread them to others. As the internet has grown as a way of socializing, so has its use to attempt to spread such hatred.

Of course, racism and ethnic hatred still exist, and it's hardly surprising that as more people in general use the internet to socialize, so do more bad people. The editorial that the passage comes from was attempting to argue that the internet search engine company Google should censor its results in an attempt to curb the spread of such hatred. However, whatever force the passage has comes from its loaded language: racism is called a "monster", a "putrefaction", and compared to a fungus. In this way, the editorial attempts to manipulate the reader's emotions rather than appealing to reason.―Gary N. Curtis

Fallacies:

  1. Emotional Appeal
  2. Loaded Words

Argument:

…Scientology textbooks sometimes refer to psychiatry as a "Nazi science".

Well, look at the history. Jung was an editor for the Nazi papers during World War II. … Look at the experimentation the Nazis did with electric shock and drugging. Look at the drug methadone. That was originally called Adolophine. It was named after Adolf Hitler.

Source: "Q&A: Tom Cruise", Entertainment Weekly, 6/9/2005

Analysis: This passage is taken from an interview with the actor Tom Cruise, who is a well-known Scientologist. Scientology takes a negative view of psychiatry, and here the interviewer raises the issue of Scientology texts referring to psychiatry as a "Nazi science". Cruise defends the accusations by claiming two things: first, that psychiatrist Carl Jung edited Nazi papers and, second, that the psychiatric drug methadone was originally named for Adolf Hitler.

As a matter of fact, neither of these claims appears to be true, but even if they were true the argument would fail logically. Modern psychiatry makes little if any use of Jung's theories, and the drug methodone is used to relieve pain and suppress withdrawal symptoms. Even if the drug had been discovered by German scientists who named it after Hitler, that would have nothing to do with whether it is a useful drug. Cruise and other Scientologists are trying to tar psychiatry by associating it with Nazism, which is like arguing that the Volkswagen must be a bad car because Hitler promoted it.―Gary N. Curtis

Fallacy: The Hitler Card


Resource: Stalking the Wild Fallacy gncurtis@fallacyfiles.org