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Rhetorical Fallacy

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Rhetorical Fallacy

Have you ever engaged in an argument where the person opposite you tries to present their position through a series of statements that didn't relate to the actual discussion? Or perhaps they tried to scare you into agreeing with their stance on the subject, rather than using a logical argument? These are types of rhetorical fallacies, and they feel so frustrating because they are rooted in faulty reasoning and often deceptive intentions.

Rhetorical Fallacy Definition

The word “fallacy” comes from the Latin word “fallere”, which means “to deceive.” The word transformed in the late 15th century with Middle English to “fallacia”, which means “deception and guile.”

A fallacy is a failure in reasoning which results in an unsound argument.

Rhetorical fallacies, also called fallacies of argument, are a deceptive argument that has misleading reasoning at its foundation. You might have been the victim of someone else’s fallacious argument. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is wrong with an argument like this, but you know there’s something not completely fair about it.

People use rhetorical fallacies when the facts and evidence don’t support their perspective. Sometimes people use these intentionally as argumentative strategies because they know they won’t “win” an argument otherwise. Other times, people unconsciously slip rhetorical fallacies into their argument without realizing it.

The word “argument” in a professional or academic setting does not necessarily include connotations of hostility, as it often does with personal arguments. An argument is simply the point you wish to make.

Regardless of the intent, any time you’re engaged in a discussion or argument with someone, it is important to keep an eye out for rhetorical fallacies so you are not misled.

Types of Rhetorical Fallacies

There are three basic types of rhetorical fallacies, which are based on the three major rhetorical appeals.

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined three methods you can use to appeal to an audience when presenting an argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos represents an appeal based on the author’s credibility, pathos is an appeal based on the audience’s emotions, and logos is an appeal based on logic.

Rhetorical Fallacy, Aristotle Statue, StudySmarterAristotle outlined the basic rhetorical modes that we still use and understand today.

These three types of rhetorical fallacies are not mutually exclusive and can overlap in some instances.

Emotional Fallacies

Emotional fallacies are a type of rhetorical fallacy that unfairly appeal to or involve the audience’s emotions. In emotional fallacies, facts can be distorted or exaggerated to have a greater impact on the audience’s emotional response to the topic.

Emotional fallacies are manipulative in nature, and are often connected to a call to action. For example, think of an argument you might hear in a discussion about eating a vegetarian diet versus a diet of animal meat. You might hear someone arguing for vegetarianism by saying something like, “If every person in the world swapped one meal per week for a vegetarian one, think of the millions of innocent animal lives we could save!”

Logical Fallacies

We tend to lump many rhetorical fallacies under the category of logical fallacies because the error in someone’s argument is typically a logical one. Because people typically build solid arguments on logic, someone who wishes to create a solid-looking argument will likely use a tactic that appears logical.

A logical fallacy is a statement that appears true until you apply the rules of logic, and then it can be disproved.

Ethical Fallacies

Ethical fallacies are when the arguer tries to convince the audience of their argument by inflating their authority and character. Someone might do this to seem more important or trustworthy. Think of cult leaders, for example; they try to coerce their followers into believing they are worthy of allegiance by overstating (or flat-out lying about) their abilities, knowledge, or insight.

What is the Most Common Rhetorical Fallacy?

There are hundreds of different types of rhetorical fallacies. While there isn’t necessarily one that is used more often than others, many rhetorical fallacies are logical fallacies. Logic is an effective way to lead someone to agreeing with you about something, and so people frequently misuse logic in their arguments.

Generally, rhetorical fallacies function in the following ways:

  1. Emphasizing the person (Ethical fallacy)

  2. Presenting part of the truth (Logical fallacy)

  3. Arousing fear (Emotional fallacy)

  4. Weakening opposing argument (Logical fallacy)

  5. Inaccurate connections (Logical fallacy)

  6. Twisting language around (Logical fallacy)

  7. Evidence and conclusion mismatch (Logical fallacy)

  8. Unstated assumptions (Logical fallacy)

Keep in mind that there may be some overlap in these instances. For example, someone may be making inaccurate connections in their argument, which is a logical fallacy, but they may be intentionally doing this with a series of highly emotional appeals.

Common Rhetorical Fallacies Examples

Below are examples of how some of the more common emotional fallacies function in discourse, as well as an example of each.

Emotional Fallacy Examples

Remember, emotional fallacies take advantage of the listener’s emotions, typically as a replacement for a logical argument and as a distraction.

Sentimental appeals

Sentimental appeals use emotions to distract from the facts at hand.

There must be objective morals in the universe. Otherwise, how could you justify people torturing kittens just for fun?

This argument brings up an unpleasant image that makes the audience cringe to think about (i.e., torturing kittens for fun). This emotional response is not a substitute for an objective line of reasoning to support the claim that there are universal morals.

Scare tactics

Scare tactics use the audience’s fear through threats of unrealistic predictions to bully them into agreeing with the speaker’s position.

If schools don’t start serving healthier breakfasts, then our children will suffer the consequences of obesity and diabetes.

The outcome of obesity and diabetes in children is not necessarily related to the argument that schools need to serve healthier breakfasts. There may be a correlation among these things, but the arguer is using the audience’s fear of sick and unhealthy children to make the audience agree with their specific point.

Bandwagon appeals

A bandwagon argument encourages the audience to agree with the argument—or some aspect of the argument—because everyone else is doing so.

You should really only eat organic produce because everyone agrees that it is the only way to live a healthy lifestyle.

This argument attempts to use the listener’s desire to fit in to get them to eat organic produce. Surely, there are other logical reasons to persuade someone of this argument, but the bandwagon appeal isn’t one of them.

Logical Fallacy Examples

We often refer to rhetorical fallacies as logical fallacies because of how commonly used they are in argument and debate. A logical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning that results in a faulty argument.

Rhetorical Fallacy, People With Megaphone Heads, StudySmarterPeople hide behind logical fallacies to cover up their weak argument.

Red herrings

A Red herring offers misleading or unrelated information, typically to misdirect the conversation to a subject the speaker is more confident they can argue.

Students are organizing a protest because they want to voice their opinions about the environment. But what about the debt crisis? Don’t they care about that?

The arguer introduces a new topic to try to distract from the original conversation about students organizing a protest about the environment. This rhetorical fallacy makes you want to yell, “Don’t change the subject!”

Slippery slope

A slippery slope occurs when a relatively insignificant event supposedly leads to a more significant event, and it continues to snowball until it reaches an ultimate outcome. With each step, the outcome becomes further and further removed from the original event.

If you don’t learn a foreign language, then you’ll never truly understand your language, and you’ll never be able to enter a profession in an academic setting.

This argument escalated quickly, didn’t it? Learning a foreign language has little to nothing to do with a profession in academia (unless the goal is to teach a foreign language).

False dilemma (either/or choices)

When someone offers two options as the only choices, when in reality the subject is more nuanced, that's a false dilemma. Characterized by “this or that” language, this rhetorical fallacy allows the speaker to corner the audience into believing there are only two choices; one being the arguer’s perspective and the other is usually something egregious.

Either you support Hilary Clinton or you don’t believe in women’s rights.

This is of course a much more nuanced situation because someone might not support Hilary Clinton as a politician, but still believe in women’s rights.

Hasty generalization

A hasty generalization draws a conclusion from a relatively small sample size rather than considering a larger pool of data that may be more in line with reality.

I’ve only read the first chapter, but I can tell this will be a terrible book.

The person reading the book is making a hasty generalization in saying that it will be terrible because they don’t have all the information yet (i.e., they haven’t read a large enough sample of the book).

Post hoc

Post hoc arguments claim that because outcome Y followed event X, event X caused outcome Y without establishing a true causality.

Every time I use Times New Roman font, I get a bad grade on my essay, so I will never use that font again in my life.

Although font choice could be affecting this student’s grade, it’s extremely unlikely and the argument doesn’t illustrate how exactly that might be causing a reduction in grade.

Non-sequitur

Non sequitur literally means “It does not follow.” This is when the conclusion does not logically follow the evidence given to support it.

In Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953), Mrs. Putnam believes the midwife, Goody Osburn, is a witch because she helped deliver three stillborn babies.

“I knew it! Goody Osburn were midwife to me three times. I begged you, Thomas, did I not? I begged him not to call Osburn because I feared her. My babies always shriveled in her hands!” (Act I, scene i)

There is no evidence to support the notion that the midwife had anything to do with the outcome of the births. A different midwife could have been there and still yielded the same result.

Equivocation

Equivocation uses an ambiguous term in more than one sense, causing an argument to be misleading.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is true because we see it constantly happening in the natural world as all living things evolve from an infant to adult.

This example starts off with the word “evolution” meaning species evolving from one thing to another, and uses another definition for evolution (i.e., to grow) to support the claim about Darwin’s theory of evolution being true.

Ethical Fallacy Examples

Ethical fallacies are those that are based on the authority or character of the speaker as a mean to prove an argument is valid.

Rhetorical Fallacy, One Many Sees Six One Man Sees Nine, Study SmarterRhetorical fallacies are often the result of the belief that one's perspective is the only correct way to view something, Pixabay.com

False authority

To use false authority is to make a claim and support it with evidence from an alleged authority which is not actually an authority on the subject.

My friend who is learning Spanish in school says everyone who speaks Spanish should start replacing the gendered “-o” and “-a” in Spanish to “-x” because it’s more inclusive.

In this example, the friend who is learning Spanish is hardly an authority figure in the Spanish-speaking community, so their opinion should not be used as evidence to support this argument.

Ad hominem (guilt by association)

When the source of an argument or information is viewed negatively because of its association with someone or something that is viewed negatively, that's an ad hominem argument.

You believe that immigration should be enforced and there should be only one regulated way to enter the United States? You know who else advocates for enforcing immigration, don’t you? Donald Trump. Do you really want to be in his camp?

In this example, the speaker is attacking the opposition by attaching them to Donald Trump on the subject of immigration, and then suggesting that that is a bad thing.

Dogmatism

The claim positions itself as above reproach, or the only possible way to view a subject. Dogmatism is the refusal to even acknowledge other perspectives as potentially or partially valid.

In The Great Gatsby (1925), Jay Gatsby himself is a dogmatist; he believes that money will bring him happiness, and he follows that fallacy to the bitter end.

If you’ve ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, you might recall Gatsby’s dogmatic devotion to pursuing happiness through material things. Gatsby foolishly believes money will get him the things he ultimately desires—love and friendship.

Moral equivalence

Moral equivalence tries to level the playing field by claiming that two sides of an argument are equal, when in fact they are not. Two actions or behaviors presented as equal, when neither one is better or worse than the other.

Black Lives Matter is just as bad as the KKK.

This fallacious statement exaggerates the degree of similarities between the two groups mentioned and entirely ignores important differences. So they can attack the Black Lives Matter movement, the speaker has put it on the same moral ground as the KKK.

Straw person

A straw person (or straw man) argument substitutes a person’s position for a more exaggerated, distorted version that misrepresents their argument to make it easier to attack.

Elizabeth explains the importance of funding education programs in the United States. Her debate opponent responds, “Wow, I can’t believe that you hate America so much that you would wish to leave her defenseless by cutting military funding in favor of education.”

Elizabeth’s debate opponent made her argument into a straw person—a caricature of her original argument that is an easier target to attack.

Rhetorical Fallacy - Key Takeaways

  • Rhetorical fallacies are deceptive arguments that have misleading reasoning at their foundations.
  • People use rhetorical fallacies when the facts and evidence don’t support their standpoint.
  • There are three basic types of rhetorical fallacies, which are based on the three major rhetorical appeals which are ethos, logos, and pathos.
  • While there isn’t necessarily one that is used more often than others, many rhetorical fallacies are logical fallacies.
  • The three types of rhetorical fallacies are not mutually exclusive and can overlap in some instances.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rhetorical Fallacy

Rhetorical fallacies means a deceptive argument that has misleading reasoning at its foundation. 

An example of a rhetorical fallacy is when someone uses the double meaning of a word to mislead or misrepresent the truth (also known as equivocation).

The three types of fallacies are emotional, logical, and ethical. 

You can identify fallacies in writing by looking for a disconnect between the conclusion and the evidence given.

The difference between rhetorical and ethical is that rhetorical means anything related to the art of rhetoric and ethical means of or relating to a person's authority or standing. 

Final Rhetorical Fallacy Quiz

Question

Circular reasoning is a logical _____.

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Answer

Fallacy

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Circular reasoning concludes that an argument is _____ by itself.

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Answer

Validated

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"A is true because B is true because C is true."


Is this circular reasoning?

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Answer

No, circular reasoning loops back to A again. A is ultimately justified by A.

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Can a circular reason be verified?

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No. 

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What is the problem if a claim cannot be validated?

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The problem is, if an argument isn't validated then it can’t be proven, and if an argument can’t be proven then that argument can’t be proven logically, and if that argument can’t be proven logically then it is flawed to use that argument in a logical argument.

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Can something be so great that its greatness justifies itself?

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No, not logically.

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Is circular reasoning the same as a cycle?

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No. Cycles and interdependence are not examples of circular reasoning because they do not rely on self-justification. 

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What is the danger of humor in a circular reason?

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Humor might lend credence to the fallacious claim in those who are easily swayed emotionally. "Zingers" are only strong if they are also logical.

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Question

Someone might cover up their circular reasoning with _____.

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Misdirection

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When identifying a fallacy of circular reasoning, your job is to what?

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Boil down an argument to its essence. Ignore any misdirection and get to the point.

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In what way can circular reasoning be dangerous?

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When an invalid argument is used as a reason to act, horrible things can happen.

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Is "better" a subjective term?

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Yes, unless it is applied to a narrow case that uses quantifiable metrics.

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Even someone with good intentions might use circular reasoning because _____.

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They lack evidence

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In order to avoid circular reasoning, an arguer should be sure that their claim is not _____.


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Specious

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In order to avoid circular reasoning, an arguer should be _____ in their claim.

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Specific

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What is a fallacy?

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An error of some kind.

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A logical fallacy is employed like _____.

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A logical reason

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What is missing the point?

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When someone misses the point, they attempt to counter a point that they do not actually address.

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Why is missing the point a fallacy?

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If someone misses the point, then they do not address the point. If someone does not address the point, then they cannot counter the point. If someone cannot counter the point, then it is fallacious to use that line of reasoning to try to counter the point.

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A missed point does not counter an argument. It _____ the argument _____ a different argument, and sends the original argument off-track.

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Reshapes, into

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When someone misses the point, and their argument is flimsy, should you bother refuting it?

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Yes, because it might teach that person something.

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A good point never misses the point, in some regard at least."

True or false?

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False. A good point misses the point of an argument it does not address.

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To avoid missing the point, directly address the logic of the argument.

True or false?

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True.

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Missing the point is a(n) _____ fallacy.

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Informal

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Is a straw man argument a kind of "missing the point"?

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No. They are separate fallacies.

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Are opinions a good way to avoid missing the point?

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No. Opinions are often off-topic in an argumentative essay. Try to include objective, verifiable evidence in your essays.

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What is "missing the point" in Latin?

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Inoratio elenchi

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What is another term for missing the point in English?

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Missing the point might be called an "irrelevant conclusion."

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A straw man argument _____, whereas missing the point _____.

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Twists the language of an argument, evades an argument completely

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A logical, scientific argument should be addressed in a _____ manner.

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Logical, scientific

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"A logical fallacy indicates there might be an error in the logic."


True or false?

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False. A fallacy is an error in logic.

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Can a hasty generalization occur in argument involving multiple parties?

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Yes

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"All carpet is carpet."


Is this a hasty generalization?

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No. This is true by definition.

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"Dream. Move Forward. Trust." Is this a hasty generalization?

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No, this is a glittering generalization. 

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Are logical fallacies and propaganda synonymous? 

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No.

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The hasty generalization is a kind of _____.

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Jumping to conclusion

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Which is another name for the hasty generalization?

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Faulty generalization

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Is "sweeping generalization" another term for hasty generalization?

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Yes.

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What is an "argument from small numbers"?

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A hasty generalization.

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A hasty generalization is reaching a generalized _____ about a topic based on a small sample of evidence.

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Conclusion

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If a conclusion is huge about topic Y, and there is some good evidence to indicate this about topic Y, is this a hasty generalization? 

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Yes. "Some" indicates too little evidence. You need more than "some" evidence to say something huge.

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"There’s an awful lot of crime in this part of town. The folks around here are criminals."

Does this contain a hasty generalization?

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Yes, the second sentence is one.

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"To avoid a hasty generalization, move more swiftly through your evidence so as not to get bogged down in the illogic."


True or false?

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False

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What is the "scale test" you can use to identify hasty generalization?

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Big claim = a lot of evidence, small claim = not much evidence.

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Erase _____ to avoid hasty generalizations.

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Preconceptions

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What is the technical name for an argument with at least one unstated assumption?

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Enthymeme

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An unstated assumption and a tacit claim are the same thing?

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False

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An argument is ___ if it is both valid and true?

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Sound

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____ describes an argument in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises.

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Validity

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Paradigmatic assumptions are the most difficult to identify.

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True

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