3.2 Fallacies of Ambiguity

The next set of fallacies relies on the fact that many terms have multiple meanings. Switching between meanings without acknowledging that one is doing so is a way of making invalid reasoning look valid. Closer examination reveals arguments that do this to be weaker than at first glance. Here we will consider just a few examples. Many more often appear in debates and you can find out about many more examples by following the links at the end of this chapter.


People in jail are really free.

This is because if you can think whatever you want, then you are free and people jail can certainly think whatever they want.

Equivocation is using multiple meanings of a word as if they were the same. We start out with one meaning of a word like “freedom” and end up with another meaning, in the attempt to fool the person who is listening to us that our reasoning is valid. Since many words have multiple meanings it is important to watch out for subtle shifts as an argument progresses.

Straw person

The senator who suggested cutting funding for the new Air Force attack drone system really wants to leave us defenseless against our enemies.

Thus we should reject such cuts.

This fallacy often appears in the context of a debate in which one person misrepresents his or her opponent’s view in order more easily to knock it down, like a person made of straw. This is a fallacy of ambiguity in that it relies on a superficially similar version of the view that is being attacked rather than the view itself. One can often “win” debates by using this strategy, but such victories are hollow in that they do not really engage with the real issues. If you really want to demonstrate that some view you are attacking is worthy of rejection, it is far better to rely on the “principle of charity” and present your opponent’s view in as favorable a light as possible. If it still fails, then your position may look even better. The drawback, however, is that if you represent your opponent’s views in a more fair and favorable light, your objections to them may themselves not hold up. But that is really only a drawback if you care more about winning debates rather than in figuring things out.

Cherry picking

This study of 12 children clearly shows a link between childhood vaccination and autism.

Thus vaccines cause autism.

This one is really no joke – in fact the whole of the current scare about childhood vaccinations and autism was “established” by a single study of twelve children! The fact that the paper was retracted, and its author was barred from medical practice didn’t matter since its influence only grew since the date of its publication. The logical mistake here is that of selectively reading the evidence in favor of your own hypothesis, or “cherry picking” the data to get the juiciest bits while ignoring anything that contradicts it. The other name for this fallacy, “Texas sharpshooter” refers to the related practice of proving your worth as a target shooter by first shooting random holes in the side of a barn, and then afterwards drawing your target around a cluster of holes so that it looks like you are a great shot. Is this done in Texas? Probably not, but whoever named it must have had a low opinion of Texans – no offense intended and if you are from Texas, substitute your state of choice.

Fallacy of misplaced concreteness

I feel so agitated after I watch the news.

That is not so surprising though, since the media is trying to scare us all.

How often have you heard someone say something like “it’s the media’s fault?” While this may be a common way of talking about things, it makes a subtle mistake in reasoning. It treats an abstract noun, “the media” which refers to many different organizations, publications, companies and their vast numbers of employees, owners, stockholders, etc, as if it were a concrete noun: the kind of thing that could meaningfully be referred to as being at fault for something. Concrete things, such as individual people can of course be at fault. Some organizations, such as corporations, can be at fault in a legal sense that they are liable for damages if they do something that is illegal. But can “the media” really be at fault for anything? What would this even mean? To be at fault for something, I for example, have to knowingly and willingly do something that is illegal or otherwise wrong. But this requires that I can know things and will things, that is, that I am person with a functioning mind.

When we talk about abstractions like governments, the media, society and so on, were are no longer talking about particular concrete things, however. Instead we are talking about collections of organizations, institutions, and of course all of the many particular people who run them. And such collections are just not the kinds of things that can do anything on their own. This is not to say that individual news agencies, reporters, publishers or whoever, wouldn’t be responsible for knowingly publishing false or misleading information. Of course they would be. It is also not to say that there might not be general trends – clearly governments run by one particular political party tend to do things that governments run by another party would not. It’s just that we have to be careful about talking about these abstractions – the government, the media, society – as if they were real agents making deliberate decisions. To do so would be to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.