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Fallacies of Ambiguity

Ambiguous Language

In addition to the fallacies of relevance and presumption we examined in our previous lessons, there are several patterns of incorrect reasoning that arise from the imprecise use of language. An ambiguous word, phrase, or sentence is one that has two or more distinct meanings. The inferential relationship between the propositions included in a single argument will be sure to hold only if we are careful to employ exactly the same meaning in each of them. The fallacies of ambiguity all involve a confusion of two or more different senses.

An equivocation trades upon the use of an ambiguous word or phrase in one of its meanings in one of the propositions of an argument but also in another of its meanings in a second proposition.

Really exciting novels are rare. But rare books are expensive. Therefore, Really exciting novels are expensive.

Here, the word "rare" is used in different ways in the two premises of the argument, so the link they seem to establish between the terms of the conclusion is spurious. In its more subtle occurrences, this fallacy can undermine the reliability of otherwise valid deductive arguments. Amphiboly

An amphiboly can occur even when every term in an argument is univocal, if the grammatical construction of a sentence creates its own ambiguity.

A reckless motorist Thursday struck and injured a student who was jogging through the campus in his pickup truck. Therefore, it is unsafe to jog in your pickup truck.

In this example, the premise (actually heard on a radio broadcast) could be interpreted in different ways, creating the possibility of a fallacious inference to the conclusion. Accent

The fallacy of accent arises from an ambiguity produced by a shift of spoken or written emphasis. Thus, for example:

Jorge turned in his assignment on time today. Therefore, Jorge usually turns in his assignments late.

Here the premise may be true if read without inflection, but if it is read with heavy stress on the last word seems to imply the truth of the conclusion. Composition

The fallacy of composition involves an inference from the attribution of some feature to every individual member of a class (or part of a greater whole) to the possession of the same feature by the entire class (or whole).

Every course I took in college was well-organized. Therefore, my college education was well-organized.

Even if the premise is true of each and every component of my curriculum, the whole could have been a chaotic mess, so this reasoning is defective.

Notice that this is distinct from the fallacy of converse accident, which improperly generalizes from an unusual specific case (as in "My philosophy course was well-organized; therefore, college courses are well-organized."). For the fallacy of composition, the crucial fact is that even when something can be truly said of each and every individual part, it does not follow that the same can be truly said of the whole class.

Similarly, the fallacy of division involves an inference from the attribution of some feature to an entire class (or whole) to the possession of the same feature by each of its individual members (or parts).

Ocelots are now dying out. Sparky is an ocelot. Therefore, Sparky is now dying out.

Although the premise is true of the species as a whole, this unfortunate fact does not reflect poorly upon the health of any of its individual members.

Again, be sure to distinguish this from the fallacy of accident, which mistakenly applies a general rule to an atypical specific case (as in "Ocelots have many health

problems, and Sparky is an ocelot; therefore, Sparky is in poor health"). The essential point in the fallacy of division is that even when something can be truly said of a whole class, it does not follow that the same can be truly said of each of its individual parts.
Avoiding Fallacies

Informal fallacies of all seventeen varieties can seriously interfere with our ability to arrive at the truth. Whether they are committed inadvertently in the course of an individual's own thinking or deliberately employed in an effort to manipulate others, each may persuade without providing legitimate grounds for the truth of its conclusion. But knowing what the fallacies are affords us some protection in either case. If we can identify several of the most common patterns of incorrect reasoning, we are less likely to slip into them ourselves or to be fooled by anyone else.

Fallacies of Presumption, Ambiguity, and Grammatical Analogy

The final set of fallacies are largely concerned with problems of deductive reasoning. As with the other groups we have studied, it will be important both to learn to recognize the fallacy and to distinguish it from similar but legitimate arguments. The fallacies of presumption occur when an argument rests on some hidden assumption that, if not hidden, would make it clear that there is insufficient evidence for the conclusion.

Begging the question

The fallacy of begging the question is one example of a fallacy of presumption; it is committed when the arguer uses some device to conceal the fact that a key premise in the argument is unsupported. One device the author may use in committing the fallacy of begging the question is omission of the key premise: Of course Dr. Kevorkian is immoral. Hes been killing dying people, hasnt he? Another device the author may use in committing the fallacy of begging the question is so-called circular reasoning. Circular reasoning is committed when one of the premises is really just a disguised version of the conclusion itself. Such an argument will, of course, be valid, but it is still fallacious and illegitimate since it assumes the very thing it is supposed to prove. Clearly we need the ability to raise additional sources of revenue, not only to meet the demands of growth but also to maintain existing levels of service. For, without these sources those demands will not be met, and it will be impossible to maintain services even at present levels. Of course hes telling the truth: he said he would.

Complex Question
Another fallacy of presumption is the fallacy of complex question, committed when a question contains a hidden assumption that any response would automatically grant. Such questions are generally designed to trap the respondent into admitting something damaging. Have you stopped beating your wife yet? What did you do with the knife after you stabbed him with it? Why wont you even try to understand me? Clearly, you just dont care about me. Notice that complex questions do not necessarily take the form of an explicit argument.

False Dichotomy
Another fallacy of presumption is the fallacy of false dichotomy or false dilemma, which is committed when the argument contains a premise which presents two alternatives as mutually exhaustive of all the possibilities when in fact they are not. Arguments that commit this fallacy may well beand usually arevalid arguments. They are fallacious because of their content, not their form. Im not against immigrants or immigration, but something has to be done soon. Weve got more people already than we can provide necessary services for, and

at the current rate, well have people standing on top of one another by the end of the century. Either we control these immigration policies or there wont be room for any of us to sit down.

Suppressed Evidence
The final fallacy of presumption is the fallacy of suppressed evidence, which is committed when the argument ignores contrary evidence which calls the truth of the conclusion into doubt, or even shows it to be false. This fallacy is difficult to recognize because the arguer trades on ignorance and our inclination to believe that the evidence presented is complete. Brand X is the painkiller hospitals use most. Therefore it is the best painkiller. EARN MONEY STUFFING ENVELOPES! You can earn thousands of dollars a week! Just send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to this address The two fallacies of ambiguity trick the reader by relying on some ambiguity in wording or phrasing as a link between the premise and the conclusion.

The fallacy of equivocation occurs when the arguer makes use of the fact that some word or phrase has more than one standard meaning: Almost every person in the U.S. has two arms. That alone shows the tremendous need for gun control laws in this country. The jury found her not guilty. Therefore, she definitely did not commit the crime.

The fallacy of amphiboly occurs when the author makes use of some grammatical ambiguity in order to prove his or her conclusion: Former California governor Pat Brown did a really terrible job in office. Even he admitted it. According to Lou Cannon in the Washington Post, when Pat Brown viewed an area damaged by flooding, he said, This is the greatest disaster since I was elected governor. Joe told his worst enemy Sam that he was a lying cheating creep. Joe must have a lot of character to make an admission like that to his own worst enemy. The fallacies of grammatical analogy occur when a bad argument appears to be good because it mimics the grammatical form of a legitimate argument.

One example of a fallacy of grammatical analogy is the fallacy of composition, in which the attributes of the parts are wrongly attributed to the whole constructed from those parts: Cells are tiny. Elephants are made of cells. Therefore, elephants are tiny. Martina Hingis and Jana Novotna are the two best womens singles tennis players in the world. Therefore, they would be the best womens doubles team. Although sometimes the characteristics of the whole cannot be inferred from the characteristics of the parts, sometimes they can, in which case no fallacy of composition is committed: Grains of sand contain silicon. A sand dune contains grains of sand. Therefore, a sand dune contains silicon. The difference is that in the sand/silicon case, the attribute contains silicon is one which is transferable from part to whole, whereas the attributes tiny and

best are not. The sand/silicon example demonstrates an important fact: the fallacy of composition is not just a matter of form, but of content.

The fallacy of division is the inverse of the fallacy of composition, committed when the arguer incorrectly assumes that the characteristics of the whole are also characterisitics of the parts of the whole: The faculty of UCBS deservedly enjoy a reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Therefore, Professor Feeble deservedly enjoys a reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Auto thefts are occurring at an alarming rate this month. New technology must be responsible for this new spate of speedy robberies.

1. Every member of the United States Congress is less than 100 years old. Therefore, the United States Congress is less than 100 years old. 2. Florence said that she painted a cat in her art class. Florences teacher should be censured for tolerating such animal abuse. 3. Are you still cheating on your taxes? 4. Clearly cats are smarter than dogs, since they refuse to do tricks. 5. The Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Therefore, every piece of steel in the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. 6. His father made a good living repairing typewriters. Therefore, he can probably make a good living in the same way. 7. Fred has been a sculptor most of his life, so he knows a lot about carving. Therefore, he should be the one to carve the turkey. 8. Either dinosaurs are extinct or there is at least one dinosaur still in existence. There are no dinosaurs still in existence. Therefore, dinosaurs are extinct.

More Examples
To cast abortion as a solely private moral question,is to lose touch with common sense: How human beings treat one another is practically the definition of a public moral matter. Of course, there are many private aspects of human relations, but the question whether one human being should be allowed fatally to harm another is not one of them. Abortion is an inescapably public matter. Helen M. Alvar, The Abortion Controversy WASHINGTON (AP)--The only exterminator in Congress told his colleagues Wednesday that it would be a short-sighted move to ban use of chlordane and related termiticides that cause cancer in laboratory animals. Supporters of the bill, however, claimed that the Environmental Protection Agency was "dragging its feet" on a chemical that could cause 300,000 cancers in the American population in 70 years. "This bill reminds me of legislation that ought to be introduced to outlaw automobiles" on the grounds that cars kill people, said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who owns an exterminating business. EPA banned use of the chemicals on crops in 1974, but permitted use against termites because the agency did not believe humans were exposed. Chlordane does not kill termites but rather drives them away.Associated Press, June 25th, 1987 One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know. Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers

While some believe it's impossible to know whether there is life after death, belief in immortality is a timeless phenomenon. From the pyramids of the Egyptians to the reincarnation of New Age thinking, people of all times and places in history have believed that the human soul survives death. If there is no consciousness or laughter or regret beyond the grave, then life has fooled almost everyone from the Pharaohs of Egypt to Jesus of Nazareth. 10 Reasons To Believe in Life After Death Should we not assume that just as the eye, hand, the foot, and in general each part of the body clearly has its own proper function, so man too has some function over and above the function of his parts?" Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics [E]vidence shows that even state and local handgun control laws work. For example, in 1974 Massachusetts passed the Bartley-Fox Law, which requires a special license to carry a handgun outside the home or business. The law is supported by a mandatory prison sentence. Studies by Glenn Pierce and William Bowers of Northeastern University documented that after the law was passed handgun homicides in Massachusetts fell 50% and the number of armed robberies dropped 35%."Fact Card", Handgun Control, Inc. Why should merely cracking down on terrorism help to stop it, when that method hasn't worked in any other country? Why are we so hated in the Muslim world? What did our government do there to bring this horror home to all those innocent Americans? And why don't we learn anything, from our free press, about the gross ineptitude of our state agencies? about what's really happening in Afghanistan? about the pertinence of Central Asia's huge reserves of oil and natural gas? about the links between the Bush and the bin Laden families? Mark Crispin Miller, "Brain Drain", Context Gerda Reith is convinced that superstition can be a positive force. 'It gives you a sense of control by making you think you can work out what's going to happen next,' she says. 'And it also makes you feel lucky. And to take a risk or to enter into a chancy situation, you really have to believe in your own luck. In that sense, it's a very useful way of thinking, because the alternative is fatalism, which is to say, "Oh, there's nothing I can do." At least superstition makes people do things.'" David Newnham, "Hostages to Fortune"