4 Fallacious Arguments to Avoid


In this type of argument, a negative spin is placed in a trivial fashion on something that is true about another culture or person. “Trivial,” in logic, refers to an argument that is true of just about anything. “The performance of automobiles made in Japan is severely limited by the law of gravity” would be a trivial statement. Nonetheless people can easily fall for this argument.

See if you can determine what is out of line in the arguments below:

  • “In the rigid societies of Africa, children are always taught that they should obey their parents and the authorities.”
  • “The Chinese government, always anxious to control private initiative, unified the currency and forbade private persons to mint money under pain of imprisonment!”
  • “Women often perform poorly on the SAT math section.”



In this argument, you compare the past unfairly with the present. People fall for this one all the time.

Find what is shaky in the following remarks:

  • “While Americans like Ben Franklin and Herman Melville wrote with simple quill pens, most authors in hi-tech Japan prefer to write with a computer.”
  • “Although it is true that Galileo invented the telescope, in fact his Italian instrument was inferior to American telescopes. The lens was weak and uncoated, and there was no digital drive.”
  • “In twelfth-century China, civil office was open to most men, but, unlike Western nations, women still were excluded from civil service examinations.


3. THE “NATIONAL CHARACTER” ARGUMENT: “They did it because they’re Chinese!”

This argument is derived from the nineteenth-century belief that each nation had a set of unchanging characteristics and that its history was the unfolding of the possibilities inherent in these characteristics. You can probably guess that nationalistic historians tend to attribute more noble characteristics to their own nation than to rival nations. This view was once considered to be perfectly respectable. Today, few historians would openly subscribe to any such doctrine, but the “national character” argument still survives. You can usually recognize these arguments because they try to explain a historical process by saying that the Chinese (or Japanese or Africans) are biased, rigid, authoritarian, etc. Historical processes cannot be explained in this way. Every nation has its fair share of narrow minded, greedy, or simply mean people. No one has a corner on that market, and nations change too often to attribute any unchanging characteristics to them.

See if you can detect the faulty reasoning in the following examples:

  • “Chinese artists rejected naturalistic, courtly styles because they were biased against realistic painting.”
  • “People in business were prohibited from holding public office in early modern China because the Chinese government has always tried to suppress free enterprise.”



In this argument, you raise the bar so high that hardly any society could meet your stated criteria, but you do not mention that. As a result, important historical developments can be dismissed because they were—inevitably—in some sense imperfect.

Find the problem in the arguments below:

  • “Although today women in China are more active in government than is the case in many countries, no woman has ever held the highest executive office in China.”
  • “People claim that China developed a secular morality quite early; for example, political documents make no appeal to supernatural authority. But, in fact, they did not have a truly secular morality because, if you read through the biographies of famous scholars, you’ll find some who were quite religious.”
  • “Scholars hold that intellectuals in early modern China abandoned ceremonial behavior in most aspects of life, tending to favor informality whenever possible, but new research into scholars’ behavior at state ceremonies shows that intellectuals were still quite ceremonious!”


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