One of the most crucial parts of evaluating information, is being able to tell if the argument presented by the author is good, bad, or full of fallacies. However, identifying a good argument is not always easy. In this guide, we will give you some tips on how to recognize a well-structured argument as well as what are some of the most common fallacies you will run into, even in scholarly articles.
A good argument needs a good structure and good support. This means that the claims, proofs, and rebuttals, all need to be organized in such a way that an average adult will be able to follow the argument from beginning to end, and that those same claims, proofs, and rebuttals are backed up by data. A good argument will likely follow a basic structure consisting of five parts:
1. Introduction to the problem
This should be the first part of the paper where the author clearly defines what the problem is that they will be addressing in the article. If after the introduction, you still don’t know what the paper is about, the author hasn’t done a good enough job setting out the problem.
2. Presentation of the claim
This is also going to be at the beginning of the article, where the author should clearly define the thesis statement or what they will be arguing for. Once again, if after the introduction you don’t know what the author is trying to prove or disprove, it will be hard to tell if the following arguments are good or bad if you do not even know what it is they are arguing for or against.
3. Supporting the claim
This is going to be the body of the text where the author should provide well researched factual information and data to support their claim. If there is a lack of references or if the data seems shoddy, the author’s claim is likely to be poorly supported. If you want more information on how to check the claims and the data to see if it is factually accurate or not, check out the other information skills guides titled, “Assess the original dataset,” “Lies and statistics,” “Quality check,” and “Avoiding bias” which are linked in the "Related" box to the right.
4. Acknowledging objections and the opposing argument
This part of the argument generally comes after the author has presented their claims as they attempt to answer or rebut any objections to their claim that already exist in the academic literature. Here too, you should see reasoned answers to any objections against the author’s claim that do not fall into logical fallacies such as ad hominems. If in an article, objections to the claim or main argument are not mentioned or only briefly and then brushed aside, this might make you consider if the author’s argument is actually strong if they cannot answer the objections that already exist.
5. Restating the claim
An article should end with a conclusion that restates the original claim as well as providing a balanced summary of the arguments. It should be a measured and careful evaluation of all of the points brought up in the article without overstating or exaggerating the evidence for the original claim. If the conclusion of the article states more than what was presented in the body of the text, it’s probably not a strong argument.
A fallacy is a failure in reasoning which renders an argument invalid. Fallacies, however, are not factual errors. For example, saying that more people are harmed in plane crashes every year when compared to injuries from car crashes, this statement is not fallacious, it’s just plain wrong. According to social psychologist Dr. Bo Bennett, fallacies have three characteristics (Bennett 2021):
Depending on how one classifies fallacies, there are dozens to hundreds of them. Here, we will give six examples of some of the most common fallacies based on the Fallacies handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s writing center.
1. Slippery slope
Definition: The arguer claims that a sort of chain reaction, usually ending in some dire consequence, will take place, but there’s really not enough evidence for that assumption. The arguer asserts that if we take even one step onto the “slippery slope,” we will end up sliding all the way to the bottom; he or she assumes we can’t stop partway down the hill.
2. Appeal to authority
Definition: Often, we add strength to our arguments by referring to respected sources or authorities and explaining their positions on the issues we’re discussing. If, however, we try to get readers to agree with us simply by impressing them with a famous name or by appealing to a supposed authority who really isn’t much of an expert, we commit the fallacy of appeal to authority.
3. Straw man
Definition: One way of making our own arguments stronger is to anticipate and respond in advance to the arguments that an opponent might make. In the straw man fallacy, the arguer sets up a weak version of the opponent’s position and tries to score points by knocking it down. But just as being able to knock down a straw man (like a scarecrow) isn’t very impressive, defeating a watered-down version of your opponent’s argument isn’t very impressive either.
4. Red herring
Definition: Partway through an argument, the arguer goes off on a tangent, raising a side issue that distracts the audience from what’s really at stake. Often, the arguer never returns to the original issue.
5. Begging the question
Definition: A complicated fallacy; it comes in several forms and can be harder to detect than many of the other fallacies. Basically, an argument that begs the question asks the reader to simply accept the conclusion without providing real evidence; the argument either relies on a premise that says the same thing as the conclusion (which you might hear referred to as “being circular” or “circular reasoning”), or simply ignores an important (but questionable) assumption that the argument rests on.
6. Ad hominem and tu quoque
Definitions: Like the appeal to authority and ad populum fallacies, the ad hominem (“against the person”) and tu quoque (“you, too!”) fallacies focus our attention on people rather than on arguments or evidence. In both of these arguments, the conclusion is usually “You shouldn’t believe So-and-So’s argument.” The reason for not believing So-and-So is that So-and-So is either a bad person (ad hominem) or a hypocrite (tu quoque). In an ad hominem argument, the arguer attacks his or her opponent instead of the opponent’s argument.
There are of course many other types of fallacies. You can read the rest of the fallacies handout linked in the suggested box to the right, or check out the book "Fallacies and Argument Appraisal" for a deep dive into the world of fallacies and arguments.
Source: Bennett, B. (2021). Logically fallacious: the ultimate collection of over 300 logical fallacies. Archieboy Holdings, LLC.
Fallacies handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s writing center: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/fallacies/