What’s the point?
That is the essential question to ask when critically examining arguments. In logic, the point is always what the argument’s conclusion indicates. Thus, the conclusion is also called the central point of the argument. It is what the arguer is attempting to prove and encourage others to accept. The sooner you identify the point of the argument, the better off you are in your critical thinking task.
Since knowing the point is absolutely essential in thinking through an argument, losing sight of the point is logically disastrous. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to careful thinking is distraction. Anything logically irrelevant to the central point of the argument provides no support for that conclusion. The problem of irrelevance is that it tends to throw the reader or listener off track, and thus the point is hidden or lost.
There is a group of informal fallacies (errors or mistakes in reasoning) called fallacies of relevance. Fallacies of relevance include such common errors in reasoning as red herring, straw man, and ad hominem. All three of these errors involve diversion and cause a huge logical problem. Here’s how these three informal fallacies of relevance unfold:
- Red herring: This fallacy misleads the reader or listener by appealing to secondary or extraneous issues (i.e., changing the subject).
- Straw man: This fallacy involves misrepresenting the argument of another, usually by making the argument seem more extreme (distortion).
- Ad hominem: This fallacy is committed when a person ignores the opponent’s argument and instead attacks their character, which is irrelevant to the argument.
All three of these fallacies are quite common and can be detected and corrected by diligently pursuing the genuine point of the argument.
Remember to get into the habit of asking that critical question: what’s the point? This short question is golden in logic. Ask the question and keep on asking it as you evaluate the logical claims that you and others make. Don’t ever lose sight of the point or your ability to evaluate the argument is lost. So arm yourself with this powerful question, and stay tuned for more articles on logic as we attempt to think again!
- My former podcast, Straight Thinking, contains many episodes about the topic of logical relevance. It is archived at reasons.org. I particularly recommend that you listen to “Logic 101H: Straw Man and Red Herring.”
- Two chapters in my book A World of Difference are devoted to the subject of logic. In fact, there is an entire chapter addressing various logical fallacies, including red herring, straw man, and ad hominem. Moreover, the logic chapters are conjoined with a detailed discussion of worldview thinking from the perspective of historic Christianity.