In my previous post on fallacies, I discussed a common problem in analyzing argument – incorrectly identifying a fallacy. While the reasons why one incorrectly identifies a fallacy can be complex, generally it is a result of intellectual laziness or an emotive reaction to the argument.
In this post, I will discuss another problem encountered in analyzing argument – misdiagnosing fallacies.
In this scenario, the arguer is not necessarily overcome by emotion, overmatched, or lazy; rather, in labelling an argument as fallacious, they fail to take into account one of or a combination of factors. One such factor is the context in which the argument occurs. One does not operate in a vacuum, and an argument is not an island unto itself. Every argument that is put forth is in response to or in reaction against an issue that arises in a particular culture, society, or group. Something(s) occurred that gave rise to one making a claim for or against it. As such, when critiquing an argument, it behooves you to understand the how, why, when, and where of the opposing argument before making a final determination on the argument’s soundness.
Another factor that plays a significant role in one’s support for a claim is the intended audience of the opposing argument. The audience to which one write determines what one can safely assume without explanation and what needs to be made explicit. Take for instance an article written by atheist H. J. McCloskey (1968) titled “On Being an Atheist.” In his defense of atheism and critique of the classic arguments for God’s existence, McCloskey intentionally writes to fellow atheists of his day. Because McCloskey limits his audience to other atheists, he does not need to state that he does not accept the Bible as God’s word or that it is authoritative. Further, he can safely assume that fellow atheists hold to the same beliefs basic to atheism. Therefore, for a Christian to claim that McCloskey’s critique of the classic arguments for God’s existence fails to take into consideration Scripture fails to address the issue at hand in McCloskey’s argument. It places unnecessary expectations upon McCloskey’s argument, thus rendering the arguers critique of McCloskey inept.
Finally, one can incorrectly diagnose a fallacy by missing their opponent’s purpose. When someone makes a claim and offers premises in support of that claim, they are driven by some purpose that requires them to exclude certain issues for the sake of time, space, and clarity. One who seeks to cover all of their bases in a single argument runs the risk of making their argument dense, convoluted, and confusing. As such, when critiquing an argument, seek to understand the arguer’s purpose behind their argument such that if a fallacy is detected, it is not misapplied.
In the next part of this series on fallacies, I will address the scenario where one correctly identifies a fallacy but fails to correct the error. As we will see, this is akin to a dentist removing a cavity without replacing it with a filling.
 H. J. McCloskey, “On Being an Atheist,” in Question 1 (1968): 51-54.