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We're bound to bump into logical fallacies


August 10, 2018

I don’t have a clue what the rules are now at most universities regarding graduate/teaching assistants. I do know that when I was working on a master’s degree and serving in that capacity, teaching assistants actually taught. A lot.

It was not unusual for me to teach three or more sections of English 101 (freshman composition) per semester. The departmental goal for English 101 was that each student write ten 500-word essays.

Somehow I managed to get through college and a graduate degree without taking a single math course, but I can tell you that if each of three classes had 20 students (we often started out with more), that translates into 600 essays per semester for the TA under my hat to grade. For obvious reasons, we didn’t always make it to the ten, but we got so close that my own spelling suffered from running in such bad company. I almost began to believe that “alot,” as in “My students used that non-word word alot,” was a word. As I recall, when I was sitting in the labor room with my wife as she was doing the work of getting our first child here, I was grading essays and/or working on my thesis until her groans became distracting.

English 101 students will drive a teacher to distraction/despair with spelling and grammar errors, but a big problem with many of those essays was not mechanical; it was a problem some of my fellow TAs and I tried to address with a unit on “logical fallacies.” (We meant breakdowns in logic, not fallacies that were logical.) Good writing not only needs to be free of grammar errors, it needs to make alot of sense alot (even most) of the time. (Oops.)

Logical fallacies abound. Whether we’re writing or not, we all bump into them or fall over them regularly. Once we learn to recognize a few, we’ll be a bit more wary and a lot more humble, even as we begin to see more of them lurking about than we’d ever dreamed existed. I’ll list a few below. (A Wikipedia article lists more than 100.)

Either/or sets up two extremes as the only possibilities when many others actually exist. “If we don’t elect Senator Bluster as president, the country is doomed.”

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” jumps to draw conclusions from coincidences. We chuckle about the rooster who noticed that the sun came up every day after he crowed. He developed serious neurosis, paranoia that he might oversleep and, at great inconvenience to the world, the sun would not come up because he forgot to crow. To assume that since many children who develop autism received vaccines, the vaccines cause autism is no more logical, but it is more dangerous.

Non sequitur, Latin for “it does not follow,” means that your conclusion does not necessarily logically follow your premise, as in, “If you hate this column, you are mean and ignorant.” (And here, I jump right into the ad hominem, “to the man” fallacy, too, by resorting to name-calling rather than rational discussion.

Oh, and don’t forget the fallacy fallacy. Reasoning for an argument may be fallacious, but that does not necessarily mean the conclusion is false. (Even a broken clock is ...)

Jesus says that we are to love the Lord with “all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.” I’m not sure which is hardest, and I’d like to avoid the either/or fallacy, but I’ve not found the “mind” part to be the easiest.

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at


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