An argument from age is a fallacy

Argumentative fallacies

As we mentioned at the beginning, argumentation in science should always be rational. This not only means that it must be comprehensible, but also that it must meet logical criteria and not be based on fallacies. Fallacies are argumentative errors that seem to support (or reject) a controversial thesis. In this last part of the learning unit "Arguing and Explaining" you will learn what the most common fallacies are and how they can be avoided.


The audience of an argument is deceived or misled by fallacies and is not rationally convinced. However, fallacies are repeatedly used by those who argue without misleading intent and then lead to self-deception.

Both should be avoided in science. Therefore, you should avoid fallacies in your seminar paper, because they can not only lead you to come to wrong conclusions, but they can also be reflected in a poor assessment of your work.

Appeals to authority

In scientific texts in particular, one often invokes the authorities in a field in order to support one's own position and to give more weight to one's own arguments (you can find out more about how this works in a scientific text in the learning unit "Referencing and quoting" ). But caution should also be exercised in appealing to scientific authorities. Because especially in the humanities and social science disciplines there are a number of competing scientific schools (and thus also theories) in many areas, which deal with certain phenomena and bring them into theoretical context. Often authorities are only generally accepted in certain schools, i.e. the appeal to an authority can only ever be successful in a certain field and / or within a certain theoretical direction.

A good example is the well-known linguist Noam Chomsky, who with his linguistic work has significantly influenced the development of theory in other areas of theoretical linguistics since the 1950s.

If you are writing a thesis in the field of theoretical linguistics, the reference to Chomsky is in many cases a weighty argument that supports your own point of view. But Chomsky's positions are already controversial in many areas of applied linguistics. Therefore, if you are writing a paper in the field of applied linguistics, referring to Chomsky as the authority to support your position does not necessarily have to be productive, as there are a number of other authorities who reject Chomsky's viewpoints.

Chomsky's example in particular can be carried further. Because Chomsky is not only an authoritative theorist in broad areas of linguistics, he also repeatedly takes a public position on political and social issues in the USA and around the world and has also published a number of political books and articles. Chomsky represents a decidedly left-anarchist political position that is highly controversial among many social scientists. Therefore, if you are writing a thesis in the field of political science and referring to Chomsky, then you must be aware that Chomsky's position may be only weak or no support for your argument, since he is not an authority in this area, at most is a loud but controversial voice.

These two examples show you that you should always use authority arguments with great care and that before you use such an argument you must carefully check whether an author actually has authority status in the field in which you are writing your work.

Post hoc arguments

In the case of post hoc arguments (or correctly in the case of post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc ("after and therefore therefore" arguments)), a temporal sequence (or simultaneity) inadmissibly implies a causal relationship between two events or facts. It ignores the fact that events can occur one after the other or at the same time for different reasons (also by chance) and that, especially in science, cause-effect relationships usually have to be formulated within the framework of a theoretical approach that should actually avoid such a fallacy. Post-hoc arguments therefore often arise in the case of hasty and theoretically insufficiently reflected interpretation of one's own data, which were collected in the context of exploratory case studies.

A popular example of such a fallacy among statisticians is the coincidence of the arrival of the storks with an increased birth rate in spring in many areas of Austria. Naive minds might conclude from this that this correlation is actually an empirical argument for storks bringing the young children. In fact, the increased sexual activity of many couples on summer vacation leads to an increased birth rate the following spring. This example also shows that post-hoc false conclusions often also occur when intervening factors (variables) that are not or not sufficiently taken into account by the investigator have an influence on events.

Ad hominem arguments

Ad hominem arguments are arguments that are not aimed at a point of view but on the person who made it and cast doubt on the person's credibility, honesty, or in general the character of that person in order to weaken their point of view. In science in particular one would not expect such fallacies to occur at all, because here - as mentioned above - it is about rational argumentation and not about personal attacks and defamation.

However, one also finds a variety of this fallacy again and again in science, namely when the expert status of an author is questioned or her “justification” to be able to give a relevant opinion on a certain problem or question at all is questioned. This fallacy is therefore used relatively often between representatives of different theoretical positions (schools), who then mutually classify their positions as irrelevant, as ignoring the matter or otherwise as not worth discussing. A look from “outside” can often help to uncover deadlocked theoretical positions and blind spots in arguments.

For your work, this not only means that you should avoid ad hominem arguments as much as possible, but also that you should be attentive when reading the publications that you read for your work and to the variety of ad hominem arguments just described in the Science should be critical. Because often it is precisely the authorities in a field who use their undisputed expert status to deny others the right to participate in the scientific discourse in a certain area at all. You shouldn't be blinded by this, even if you “still” belong to the students of a subject, because critical questioning of positions is one of the fundamental scientific activities and some experts in a subject have based their reputation on “unquestionable” points of view To have questioned the subject.

Ignoring counter-evidence

This fallacy occurs when a number of arguments are put forward for a position, but known counter-arguments are simply ignored. Avoiding this argumentation error is therefore particularly relevant in the phase of collecting the pros and cons, which was explained above. For you, this means that you should review the literature on the topic / problem you are working on as comprehensively as possible, because this is the only way to ensure that you do not overlook any relevant negative arguments to your position. This also means that you always have to narrow down your topic in such a way that it can actually be worked on in the course of a semester. In research areas with a very extensive research literature, you can of course also fall back on literature reviews ("state-of-the-art" publications).

The following example illustrates how the author of a seminar paper explicitly tries to avoid the accusation of ignoring counter-evidence (or counter-arguments). In his work "Vom Schilling zum Euro" (which was written before the introduction of the euro as the European single currency) he discusses the consequences of the upcoming introduction of the euro from an economic point of view. In the introduction he wrote, among other things:

A politically often launched argument for the monetary union is that the countries within the EU have to refrain from devaluations that promote competition due to the fixed exchange rates and thus future protectionism (trade barriers) can be averted. This integration-political argument is understandable, but cannot be seen as the only reason. Monetarists like Milton Friedman wrote the exact opposite in the 1950s, namely that only free exchange rates could guarantee free trade (2).

In the first sentence he describes an argument that, according to him, is often used in support of a monetary union. In the following sentence, however, he immediately limits the fact that counter-arguments against this position were formulated as early as the 1950s (the 20th century). He does not elaborate on them, but is content with a reference to the literature (footnote 2) and he does not attempt to refute them at this point, but he does mention them and does not expose himself to the accusation of arguments against a monetary union speak of having ignored.

The circular argument

In the case of a circular argument, the contested thesis, which is to be proven by the argument, is also made the starting point of this argument. That sounds - in a nutshell - absurd and everyone thinks that this could not happen to you with well thought-out, rational argumentation. The danger of circular inference, however, often arises when the conclusion and the premise (which is identical to it) are formulated differently and so the author himself does not notice that she has committed a circular argument. There is also the risk of circular conclusions if a research question is formulated too specifically and alternative questions are no longer considered. Therefore, in quantitative-empirical studies, a set of alternative hypotheses is often formulated as a starting point, one (or some) of which are then accepted and others rejected in the course of the investigation.

If the author of the work on recording health-related quality of life mentioned above in the section on “Pros and Cons” had already started from the premise that interviews are more suitable for recording quality of life, and she would have had exactly this premise in the course “Proved” of her work, she would have made a classic circular argument. However, your initial question was to develop an instrument for recording health-related quality of life that takes into account the needs of patients and doctors alike. Only in the course of the discussion of the research literature on this topic in the second section of the thesis does she come to her thesis that an interview is superior to a questionnaire. She then supports this thesis with empirical data.

The author of the following explanation made a circular argument within a few sentences. He "concludes" from the fact that the business term "implementation" is also defined, among other things, by the fact that an implementation must be successful in order to be able to be described as such that an implementation process is successful:

“Successful” is already in the definition of implementation according to Reiss (1995, p. 292). Implementation always pursues a goal that should be achieved as well as possible. Success is then derived from this. Following the definition by Reiss (1995, p. 292), one cannot speak of an implementation if the goal has not been achieved or if success does not materialize.

The straw man fallacy

This fallacy often occurs when someone argues against a position and skews or biases it to make it easier to argue against it. As you are certainly familiar from your own experience, this argumentative fallacy often occurs in political or mass media communication, but unfortunately scientists are not always immune to it.

Straw man arguments do not always have to be used with distorting intent, but can “happen”, especially in scientific texts, when authors have not dealt thoroughly enough with the position they are arguing against.

The easiest way to avoid straw man reasoning (or the accusation of having carried it out) is to find a verbatim quote that clearly expresses the position you are arguing against. Put this quote at the beginning of your reasoning, then systematically develop your counter-arguments using the method you learned about in the reasoning section.

This procedure is of course not always possible, because not in all cases a position against which you want to argue can be expressed by a concise literal quote. In this case, you must present the opposite position to your argument as comprehensively as possible and try not to omit any relevant details so that you do not expose yourself to the accusation of straw man argumentation. It is often better to present the opponent's point of view too extensively than too briefly, because with short presentations the risk of leaving out relevant details is greater than with more extensive presentations.

Here you have got to know those argumentative fallacies that can appear in (bad) scientific texts. There are also a number of fallacies that have been examined and described by argumentation theorists, but which can hardly or never be found in scientific texts. In addition, we have also tried to make you aware of how you can avoid these fallacies in your work.
The seminar group before which you give a lecture on your work is also an important corrective. Your colleagues will also point out possible fallacies or fallacies and also pay close attention to such errors in your colleagues' presentations. The seminar discussion gives you the opportunity to draw each other's attention to the weaknesses of the work that is being done. Always formulate criticism in such a way that it relates to the matter and not to the person (so avoid ad hominem arguments) and always try to combine criticism with showing alternatives.

The following works provide further literature on this topic:
 Naess, Arne (1975): Communication and Argumentation. An introduction to applied semantics. Kronberg: Scriptor Verlag.
 Walton, Douglas (1987): Informal Fallacies. Towards a Theory of Argument Criticism. Amsterdam: John Benjamin.
 Mitchell Sally & Riddle, M. (2000): Improving the Quality of Argument in Higher Education: Final Report, School of Lifelong Learning and Education, Middlesex University.