Argumentation and communication

On 1 November 2019, the server Echo24 published an article entitled “11 thousand liters of water, 50 firemen. Work on extinguishing crashed Tesla takes 3 days and still no end in sight.” This article was then carefully analyzed by the server Manipulátoři.   

You might think from the headline that when a Tesla brand electric car crashes, it will take dozens of firemen and a huge amount of water to put it out, creating a long-term problem of how to extinguish the flame. The automobile thus becomes a mini-Chernobyl, whose past and complex process of extinguishing is known from the beautiful HBO series.  

What is problematic about the article? Let’s just have a look at the headline. First it lists 50 firemen – is this too many, or too few? How many of us know how many firemen it takes to extinguish other kinds of accidents? This very much depends on where the accident takes place, what consequences it has, etc. This is not a small number, but not exceptional either. It is true that extinguishing an electric car is more difficult than extinguishing a vehicle with a combustion engine, but not dramatically so. Those 11 thousand liters of water is a big number – can you imagine it? This would be a cube-shaped swimming pool with each side roughly 22 meters in length. The data in the article has no serious source and also no comparison. How much water is necessary to extinguish a normal car? Again, this is heavily dependent on the situation. What does it mean to extinguish a fire for three days and see no end in sight – well, it means that you’ve picked up the car, taken it to a dump, and put it in water until it cools off. Again, nothing sensational or shocking. If you didn’t already know it, the Echo24 daily is not a fan of electric cars.  

What’s happening in this article? Primarily, an emotional situation is being created – electric cars are dangerous (i.e. they can crash), we don’t know how to extinguish them and, what’s more, they are not ecological, because extinguishing them requires a large amount of water. All of this can of course be true, but if the truth was really at stake here, it would probably be treated differently. You may have heard the sayings that “If someone lies, they also steal” and “people who steal can also kill”. But, if we accept the highly probable situation that everyone has lied at some time or other, we get a whole population of criminals and killers that we should avoid by fleeing for the forests. 

What we’re describing here are so-called logical fallacies – these are thought constructions that we create against our opponents so we don’t have to measure up our arguments, knowledge or experience with them at all. We try to intimidate the other person or manipulate them into believing us. This can be a one-time activity, or it can be systematic and elaborate (if you’re interested in why the Czech President has been speaking vulgarly, we recommend watching this longer but analytically meticulous and interesting video).  

What an argument should and shouldn’t look like is to a large degree a philosophical question, and we won’t be delving into this here. We can say in brief that an argument is a succession of thoughts, the goal of which is to convince the other party of something. We work with facts (i.e. information about the world) in arguments, which we layer and chain together in a certain manner. Using logical fallacies is a method in which our argument isn’t after the truth, but aims to offend someone else or manipulate people. We would like to point out several basic examples of fallacies that appear often and should be looked out for:  

  • Emphasis on an unknown or unsuitable authority – “American scientists found” or “doctors claim” are nice statements, but at the same time they don’t say anything about the core of the problem. The fact that someone is a scientist or a doctor doesn’t mean they have the complex competence to talk knowledgably about everything. News articles are often warped and simplified. Try to get as close as you can to the original source.  
  • Playing on emotions – the example from the Echo24 article shows how ill-will towards a certain technology can be misused. In other cases, we find that we’re being threatened by refugees or Judes. Articles are often linked to fake news or completely distorted contexts. Once again, when we see that a certain text is trying to evoke emotions in us or urging us to act, it’s quite suspicious to say the least.  
  • Emphasis on reason – this is something that at first glance might not seem bad. But, if you say that “all reasonable people know that...”, you’re basically excluding any discussion. No one wants to be an unreasonable fool.  
  • Attacks on someone’s person – do you remember when David Rath was taking part in televised discussions? His favorite opponent was Marek Šnajdr, who he consistently addressed as “Mr. bachelor of the arts”. No such address exists in etiquette, and Rath used this to show people that one person had a doctorate and the other a bachelor’s degree, and thus the doctor was right. Our president spoke similarly when he called someone a pornographic actor instead of having to deal with their arguments.  

There are many more logical fallacies, and we can go through them on this nice poster. We shouldn’t forget to relate this to something that we know and use in reality.  


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