Fallacies in Student Thesis Statements
Robert Oscar López
No matter how long or short a piece of college-level writing is, it will not work if its main point is weak or incorrect. Sometimes finding a thesis statement is the hardest part. It helps when the assignment asks you to frame your writing as the answer to a question, but for longer papers you can’t rely entirely on the professor’s opening question to guide you, because you need a broader point to sustain your argument for so many pages. Papers that ramble, flop, contradict themselves, or don’t say anything, are the most common results of a writer who doesn’t have a thesis.
The hard part for professors showing students how to do thesis statements is that you can spend years trying to teach someone else how to come up with them, with no success. There is no pat way to force another person how to have a point, and moreover, most of the greatest writing in history has not followed a clear formula in presenting main ideas. Sometimes the thesis is introduced blatantly, right at the beginning, while at other times, the main point doesn’t crystallize until the conclusion. Sometimes, too, the thesis is hidden or camouflaged, as in satire. Nobody can show you how to make a point, any more than anybody could tell you what to believe. Your rhetorical style, including the way that you convey a thesis, has to grow out of your peculiar voice, and it has to adapt to the specific circumstances of each writing assignment. Because it is so hard to teach thesis statements, your professor believes wholeheartedly that the only way for a student to get good at stating a thesis is through trial and error. You have to try many different ways, through many separate assignments, before you gradually come into a mode that works for you.
Even if I cannot tell you how to make a thesis, I can still tell you how not to make a thesis. Certain manners of making a point are universally bad. They can all be called “fallacies,” or “arguments in which the conclusion does not follow from the premises.” No matter how you try to dress up a fallacy and make it work, it will never be a thesis because its core logic is illegitimate. If your thesis is a fallacy, you begin at the C level (at the highest), and then you slowly sink lower. Naturally, you will want to figure out what fallacies are and avoid them at all costs. The list below details eight of the worst.
1. Straw Man
Creating an exaggerated or oversimplified version of the counterpoint against you. For instance, if you say, “some people believe that the Bible is a useless piece of trash, but I believe it is holy,” you are using a straw man tactic. Who are “some people”? Who actually made such a reductive and closed-minded comment? And if some people would say such a thing, why mention them in this paper? You’re making it too easy on yourself. Have a debate with sound, intelligent, but imaginary adversaries, whose views are different from yours, but grounded in textual evidence. Don’t make up adversaries that are easy to defeat.
Forcing the argument on a one-track line of reasoning, in a contrived and oversimplified way, without addressing the multiplicity of other interpretations. For instance, jumping from “Sarah believed in God and had a child,” to “Deborah believed in God and defeated an army,” to the conclusion that “belief in God is everything and with it all problems are solved.” The conclusion is forced, tracked too impatiently. You need to be patient and spend time thinking seriously about alternative interpretations on your topic. This type of fallacious reasoning has often been criticized for convincing leaders and their advisors, for example, to rush into war before verifying that their rationale is authentic.
3. Tampering with the evidence
Choosing passages that are lopsided and which may be refuted by other parts of the same text. For example, let us imagine that you want to make a Biblical argument against gay marriage by looking at the destruction of Sodom, the campaign against male prostitutes under Josiah, a line from a prophet about “abominations” in general, and then a letter from St. Paul condemning sodomy. The seemingly airtight status of your argument is actually only an illusion; you’ve merely hidden the other side. What about the mysterious vow between David and Jonathan? The fact that St. Paul spent a lot of time with unmarried men and never got married himself? The fact that Christ never condemned it? You would be doing a better job if you discussed the David-Jonathan vow and then explained, for instance, that the vow is overridden by Mosaic law, or a similar approach that acknowledges the diversity within the source of your evidence.
4. Hung Jury
Quoting a lot of experts or outside sources that are ideologically on the same side of an argument, while consciously omitting or ignoring those who represent other sides of the argument. For instance, if you are a Socialist Christian, only quoting Socialists and then concluding – lo and behold! – that the Bible is a socialist manifesto. Or if you are a neo-conservative, quoting Bill O’Reilly and Bill Bennett and miraculously proving that universities are unpatriotic.
Using a lot of big words or terminology specific to one field or critical camp, in order to seem authoritative. If you write in your paper that an apostolic convention in the 1300s decreed the principle of “transpathotic deiconfiguration” as a way of intimidating your reader into accepting your argument, you are guilty of jargonfogging.
Quoting someone famous as a way to force your conclusion. If you wish to quote Jerry Falwell or Jesse Jackson, or even John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr., just remember that the fame of the person you’re quoting doesn’t get you off the hook. You still have to prove your point.
Manipulating semantics, so that you present an argument that is only true because you’re defining it as true through circular logic. For example, “Adultery is sin, and sin is a crime against God. Therefore those who commit crimes against God are adulterers. Ahab and Jezebel are therefore adulterers, even though they never slept with other people.”
Making a trite, cliché, or banal statement that is so obvious that it isn’t telling the reader anything he or she doesn’t already know. For example, “God is good, as I’ve proven in 7 pages.” “People should do good things for other people, as my contemplations have proved.” “People who have faith in God find happiness.” Go for something more controversial than any of these.