Identifying Common Flaws in Arguments


Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle upset by logical fallacies

Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle upset by logical fallacies. Click on the image to reveal 24 logical fallacies.

In order to evaluate a test taker’s writing and logical reasoning, both the GRE and GMAT contain a 30 minute argument analysis essay. Based on a short argument, test takers must identify errors in logic, explain why these are errors, and ultimately, discuss how these flaws negatively affect the conclusion or recommendation of the argument.

To prepare for this portion of the test, you need to be comfortable identifying and naming common flaws in logic. But, what is an argument flaw (sometimes called a logical fallacy)? Simply put, these are either intentional or unintentional mistakes made in reasoning. Often, people will sacrifice rigorous reasoning for brevity and commit these errors; others intentionally exploit these flaws to convince an unwitting public to do or buy something. Whatever the case may be, we need to be able to identify these flaws to be successful on the written portion of the test. And the bonus of studying these flaws is that you will be able to root out deceivers, provocateurs, and soothsayers.

Some people have a knack for spotting these errors while some of us have to work a little harder. If you find yourself in the latter group, fret not because there are a lot of great resources available to you. One of my favorite resources is a website with a catchy title: Thou Shall Not Commit Logical Fallacies.

This is a great website that identifies 24 common flaws made by everyone. Jesse Richardson, Andy Smith and Som Meaden did a great job of putting all these flaws together on one poster with definitions and examples (They also will print you a poster and mail it to you for $20). The site has a webpage for each of these flaws making it easy to focus on one flaw at a time, and of course, to send your friends the link of the flaw that they committed. :)

For the GRE and GMAT, though, you will not need to know all 24 of these flaws. Many of these are not common on the test, so I have created a list below, with links, to the most common flaws found in arguments given to students. Spend some time looking over each of these. Try and think of a time where you have heard one of these flaws; search for them in news stories you read, advertisements you see, or in a politician’s speech you hear. You are bound to start seeing them all over the place. The more you look the more you see.

Disclaimer: This is not an extensive list of the flaws that appear on the GRE and GMAT argument analysis essays. So, don’t end your search; this is where it begins.

1. False Cause - Sometimes called confusing causation with correlation, this is one of the most committed flaws. Cause-and-effect is generally extremely hard to prove whether you are talking about a business plan, a historical event, or a chemical reaction in the body. When humans see two events coincided, they tend to think that one caused the other, but this is not necessarily true. Most likely, these events are correlated, not causal.

2. Ambiguity - Who hasn’t been ambiguous when arguing a point or writing an essay? This happens often when people are not well versed in the topic, or don’t want to take the time to explain themselves. On the test, you will find all kinds of phrase and words that lack a clear meaning. This is a flaw you should point out.

3. Composition/Division –  By another name, this is stereotyping. If you assume that a characteristic of a member of a group is representative of all members (or vice versa), you are committing this flaw. Don’t stereotype individuals or groups based on your narrow experience, and don’t let other people get away with it either.

4. Black-or-White – Sometimes called a binary argument, or assuming that two courses of action are mutually exclusive, this flaw happens often. Humans have to simplify the world in their mind in order to make sense of it. When we do this, we tend to ignore the middle ground, or grey area, in a situation.

5. Anecdotal – Just because your grandmother had a bad experience once in eastern Kentucky doesn’t mean that you should think that eastern Kentucky is a bad place. In reality, it is probably really nice. Don’t let your narrow experience of something, or someone else’s, influence your opinions or conclusions, so don’t let them get away with it on the test. Demand rigorous and verifiable evidence.

6. The Texas Sharpshooter – Humans will unconsciously ignore information that contradicts their beliefs while actively seek out information that confirms their beliefs. A sort of mental cherry picking that allows us to feel comfortable with our decisions and beliefs. But, this is flawed. No using partial information or data to support conclusions.

Your journey has just begun. Continue to better yourself and those around you by demanding a little more rigor in their arguments.

49 thoughts on “Identifying Common Flaws in Arguments

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