As a reader and a listener, it is fundamental that you be able to recognize how writers and speakers depend upon ethos, logos, and pathos in their efforts to communicate. As a communicator yourself, you will benefit from being able to see how others rely upon ethos, logos, and pathos so that you can apply what you learn from your observations to your own speaking and writing.
Evaluate an Appeal to Ethos
When you evaluate an appeal to ethos, you examine how successfully a speaker or writer establishes authority or credibility with her intended audience. You are asking yourself what elements of the essay or speech would cause an audience to feel that the author is (or is not) trustworthy and credible.
A good speaker or writer leads the audience to feel comfortable with her knowledge of a topic. The audience sees her as someone worth listening to—a clear or insightful thinker, or at least someone who is well-informed and genuinely interested in the topic.
Some of the questions you can ask yourself as you evaluate an author’s ethos may include the following:
- Has the writer or speaker cited her sources or in some way made it possible for the audience to access further information on the issue?
- Does she demonstrate familiarity with different opinions and perspectives?
- Does she provide complete and accurate information about the issue?
- Does she use the evidence fairly? Does she avoid selective use of evidence or other types of manipulation of data?
- Does she speak respectfully about people who may have opinions and perspectives different from her own?
- Does she use unbiased language?
- Does she avoid excessive reliance on emotional appeals?
- Does she accurately convey the positions of people with whom she disagrees?
- Does she acknowledge that an issue may be complex or multifaceted?
- Does her education or experience give her credibility as someone who should be listened to on this issue?
Some of the above questions may strike you as relevant to an evaluation of logos as well as ethos—questions about the completeness and accuracy of information and whether it is used fairly. In fact, illogical thinking and the misuse of evidence may lead an audience to draw conclusions not only about the person making the argument but also about the logic of an argument.
Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Ethos
In a perfect world, everyone would tell the truth and we could depend upon the credibility of speakers and authors. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. You would expect that news reporters would be objective and tell new stories based upon the facts. Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Brian Williams all lost their jobs for plagiarizing or fabricated part of their news stories. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was revoked after it was discovered that she made up “Jimmy,” an eight-year old heroin addict (Prince, 2010). Brian Williams was fired as anchor of the NBC Nightly News for exaggerating his role in the Iraq War.
Others have become infamous for claiming academic degrees that they didn’t earn as in the case of Marilee Jones. At the time of discovery, she was Dean of Admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After 28 years of employment, it was determined that she never graduated from college (Lewin, 2007). However, on her website (http://www.marileejones.com) she is still promoting herself as “a sought after speaker, consultant and author” (para. 1) and “one of the nation’s most experienced College Admissions Deans” (para. 2).
Beyond lying about their own credentials, authors may employ a number of tricks or fallacies to lure you to their point of view. Some of the more common techniques are described below. Others may be found in the appendix. When you recognize these fallacies being committed you should question the credibility of the speaker and the legitimacy of the argument. If you use these when making your own arguments, be aware that they may undermine or destroy your credibility.
Fallacies That Misuse Appeals to Ethos
Ad hominem: attacking the person making an argument rather than the argument itself.
Example: “Of course that doctor advocates vaccination—he probably owns stock in a pharmaceutical company.”
False authority: relying on claims of expertise when the claimed expert (a) lacks adequate background/credentials in the relevant field, (b) departs in major ways from the consensus in the field, or (c) is biased, e.g., has a financial stake in the outcome.
Example: “Dr. X is an engineer, and he doesn’t believe in global warming.”
Guilt by association: linking the person making an argument to an unpopular person or group.
Example: “My opponent is a card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
Poisoning the well: undermining an opponent’s credibility before he or she gets a chance to speak.
Example: “The prosecution is going to bring up a series or so-called experts who are getting a lot of money to testify here today.”
Transfer fallacy: associating the argument with someone or something popular or respected; hoping that the positive associations will “rub off” onto the argument.
Examples: In politics, decorating a stage with red, white, and blue flags and bunting; in advertising, using pleasant or wholesome settings as the backdrop for print or video ads.
Name-calling: labeling an opponent with words that have negative connotations in an effort to undermine the opponent’s credibility.
Example: “These rabble-rousers are nothing but feminazis.”
Plain folk: presenting yourself as (or associating your position with) ordinary people with whom you hope your audience will identify; arguers imply that they or their supporters are trustworthy because they are ‘common people’ rather than members of the elite.
Example: “Who would you vote for—someone raised in a working-class neighborhood who has the support of Joe the Plumber or some elitist whose daddy sent him to a fancy school?”
Testimonial fallacy: inserting an endorsement of the argument by someone who is popular or respected but who lacks expertise or authority in the area under discussion.
Example: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”—a famous example of a celebrity endorsement for a cough syrup (Deis, 2011, n.p.).
Evaluate an Appeal to Logos
When you evaluate an appeal to logos, you consider how logical the argument is and how well-supported it is in terms of evidence. You are asking yourself what elements of the essay or speech would cause an audience to believe that the argument is (or is not) logical and supported by appropriate evidence.
Using the STAR Method to Assess Appeals to Logic
The STAR Criteria—Sufficiency, Typicality, Accuracy, and Relevance—is a technique for assessing whether an argument and its evidence has sufficient depth and clarity.
|Measure||Question||Examples & Notes|
Is there enough evidence cited to support the conclusion?
Generally, only “strongly” and not “weakly” supported conclusions should be accepted. The more controversial a claim is, the more evidence authors should provide before expecting an audience to accept it. If the evidence is not sufficient, the author may need to modify or qualify the claim, by stating that something is true ‘sometimes’ rather than ‘always’.
Is the cited evidence typical or representative?
If an author makes a claim about a whole group but the evidence is based on a small or biased sample of that group, the evidence is not “typical.” Similar problems stem from relying just on personal experiences (anecdotal evidence) and from “cherry picking” data by citing only the parts that support a conclusion while ignoring parts that might challenge it.
Is the cited evidence up to date and accurate?
Authors using polls, studies and statistics must ask whether the data were produced in a biased way and also ask whether the sample was large and representative of its target population so that results were outside the “margin of error.” (Margin of error: If a sample is too small or not well chosen, results may be meaningless because they may represent random variation.)
Is the cited evidence directly relevant to the claim(s) it is being used to support?
An author may supply lots of evidence, but the evidence may support something different from what the person is actually claiming. If the evidence is not relevant to the claim, the author may need to modify or qualify the claim—or even to acknowledge that the claim is indefensible.
Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Logos
Diagramming the argument can help you determine if an appeal to logos is manipulative. Are the premises true? Does the conclusion follow logically from the premises? Is there sufficient, typical, accurate, and relevant evidence to support inductive reasoning? Is the speaker or author attempting to divert your attention from the real issues? These are some of the elements you might consider while evaluating an argument for the use of logos.
Pay particular attention to numbers, statistics, findings, and quotes used to support an argument. Be critical of the source and do your own investigation of the “facts.” Maybe you’ve heard or read that half of all marriages in America will end in divorce. It is so often discussed that we assume it must be true. Careful research will show that the original marriage study was flawed, and divorce rates in America have steadily declined since 1985 (Peck, 1993). If there is no scientific evidence, why do we continue to believe it? Part of the reason might be that it supports our idea of the dissolution of the American family.
Fallacies that misuse appeals to logos or attempt to manipulate the logic of an argument are discussed below. Other fallacies of logos may be found in the appendix.
Fallacies That Misuse Appeals to Logos
Hasty generalization: jumping to conclusions based upon an unrepresentative sample or insufficient evidence.
Example: “10 of the last 14 National Spelling Bee Champions have been Indian American. Indian Americans must all be great spellers!”
Appeal to ignorance—true believer’s form: arguing along the lines that if an opponent can’t prove something isn’t the case, then it is reasonable to believe that it is the case; transfers the burden of proof away from the person making the claim (the proponent).
Example: “You can’t prove that extraterrestrials haven’t visited earth, so it is reasonable to believe that they have visited earth.”
Appeal to ignorance—skeptic’s form: confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence; assumes that if you cannot now prove something exists, then it is shown that it doesn’t exist.
Example: “There’s no proof that starting classes later in the day will improve the performance of our high school students; therefore, this change in schedule will not work.”
Begging the question: circular argument because the premise is the same as the claim that you are trying to prove.
Example: “This legislation is sinful because it is the wrong thing to do.”
False dilemma: misuse of the either/or argument; presenting only two options when other choices exist
Example: “Either we pass this ordinance or there will be rioting in the streets.”
Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Latin phrase meaning “after this, therefore because of this”; confuses correlation with causation by concluding that an event preceding a second event must be the cause of that second event.
Example: “My child was diagnosed with autism after receiving vaccinations. That is proof that vaccines are to blame.”
Non-sequitur: Latin for “does not follow”; the conclusion cannot be inferred from the premises because there is a break in the logical connection between a claim and the premises that are meant to support it, either because a premise is untrue (or missing) or because the relationship between premises does not support the deduction stated in the claim.
Example (untrue premise):“If she is a Radford student, she is a member of a sorority. She is a Radford student. Therefore she is a member of a sorority.”
Smoke screen: avoiding the real issue or a tough question by introducing an unrelated topic as a distraction; sometimes called a red herring.
Example: “My opponent says I am weak on crime, but I have been one of the most reliable participants in city council meetings.”
Straw man: pretending to criticize an opponent’s position but actually misrepresenting his or her view as simpler and/or more extreme than it is and therefore easier to refute than the original or actual position; unfairly undermines credibility of claim if not source of claim.
Example: “Senator Smith says we should cut back the Defense budget. His position is that we should let down our defenses and just trust our enemies not to attack us!”
Evaluate an Appeal to Pathos
People may be uninterested in an issue unless they can find a personal connection to it, so a communicator may try to connect to her audience by evoking emotions or by suggesting that author and audience share attitudes, beliefs, and values—in other words, by making an appeal to pathos. Even in formal writing, such as academic books or journals, an author often will try to present an issue in such a way as to connect to the feelings or attitudes of his audience.
When you evaluate pathos, you are asking whether a speech or essay arouses the audience’s interest and sympathy. You are looking for the elements of the essay or speech that might cause the audience to feel (or not feel) an emotional connection to the content.
An author may use an audience’s attitudes, beliefs, or values as a kind of foundation for his argument—a layer that the writer knows is already in place at the outset of the argument. So one of the questions you can ask yourself as you evaluate an author’s use of pathos is whether there are points at which the writer or speaker makes statements assuming that the audience shares his feelings or attitudes. For example, in an argument about the First Amendment, does the author write as if he takes it for granted that his audience is religious?
Recognizing a Manipulative Appeal to Pathos
Up to a certain point, an appeal to pathos can be a legitimate part of an argument. For example, a writer or speaker may begin with an anecdote showing the effect of a law on an individual. This anecdote will be a means of gaining an audience’s attention for an argument in which she uses evidence and reason to present her full case as to why the law should/should not be repealed or amended. In such a context, engaging the emotions, values, or beliefs of the audience is a legitimate tool whose effective use should lead you to give the author high marks.
An appropriate appeal to pathos is different than trying to unfairly play upon the audience’s feelings and emotions through fallacious, misleading, or excessively emotional appeals. Such a manipulative use of pathos may alienate the audience or cause them to “tune out”. An example would be the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) commercials featuring the song “In the Arms on an Angel” and footage of abused animals. Even Sarah McLachlan, the singer and spokesperson featured in the commercials admits that she changes the channel because they are too depressing (Brekke, 2014).
Even if an appeal to pathos is not manipulative, such an appeal should complement rather than replace reason and evidence-based argument. In addition to making use of pathos, the author must establish her credibility (ethos) and must supply reasons and evidence (logos) in support of her position. An author who essentially replaces logos and ethos with pathos alone should be given low marks.
See below for the most common fallacies that misuse appeals to pathos.
Fallacies That Misuse Appeals to Pathos
Appeal to fear: using scare tactics; emphasizing threats or exaggerating possible dangers.
Example: “Without this additional insurance, you could find yourself broke and homeless.”
Appeal to guilt and appeal to pity: trying to evoke an emotional reaction that will cause the audience to behave sympathetically even if it means disregarding the issue at hand.
Example: “I know I missed assignments, but if you fail me, I will lose my financial aid and have to drop out.”
Appeal to popularity (bandwagon): urging audience to follow a course of action because “everyone does it.”
Example: “Nine out of ten shoppers have switched to Blindingly-Bright-Smile Toothpaste.”
Slippery Slope: making an unsupported or inadequately supported claim that “One thing inevitably leads to another.” This may be considered a fallacy of logos as well as pathos but is placed in this section because it often is used to evoke the emotion of fear.
Example: “We can’t legalize marijuana; if we do, then the next thing you know people will be strung out on heroin.”
Appeal to the people: also called stirring symbols fallacy; the communicator distracts the readers or listeners with symbols that are very meaningful to them, with strong associations or connotations.
Example: This fallacy is referred to in the sentence “That politician always wraps himself in the flag.”
Appeal to tradition: people have been done it a certain way for a long time; assumes that what has been customary in past is correct and proper.
Example: “A boy always serves as student-body president; a girl always serves as secretary.”
Loaded-Language and other emotionally charged uses of language: using slanted or biased language, including God terms, devil terms, euphemisms, and dysphemisms.
Example: In the sentence “Cutting access to food stamps would encourage personal responsibility,” the god term is “personal responsibility.” It might seem as if it would be hard to argue against “personal responsibility” or related god terms such as “independence” and “self-reliance.” However, it would require a definition of “personal responsibility,” combined with evidence from studies of people’s behavior in the face of food stamp or other benefit reductions, to argue that cutting access to food stamps would lead to the intended results.
Fallacies can crop up whenever definitions, inferences, and facts are at issue. Once we become familiar with fallacies we may start to see them everywhere. That can be good and bad. Since persuasion is ever-present, it is good to be on guard against various hidden persuaders. But whether a persuasive strategy is considered fallacious may be dependent on context. Editorials and advertisements—both political and commercial—frequently use such strategies as transfer and appeals to popularity. We need to be critically aware of the techniques of persuasion being used on us, but since we expect advertisements, political speeches, and editorials on public policy or ethical issues to try to sway us emotionally, perhaps only extreme examples deserve to be judged harshly for being fallacious.
In addition, something that looks as if it is a fallacy may turn out not to be on closer examination. For example, not everything that smacks of slippery slope is fallacious. There are indeed some genuine slippery slopes, where an initial decision or action may have both great and inevitable repercussions. So whether that fallacy has been committed depends upon what the author has done (or failed to do) to support his claim. Similarly, while personal attacks (ad hominem) in most cases are unfair and considered fallacious, there are special situations in which a person’s character may be directly relevant to his or her qualifications. For example, when somebody is running for political office or for a judgeship, casting doubt on his or her character may be appropriate—if one has facts to back it up—since it relates to job expectations. But wholesale character assassination remains a rhetorical ploy of the propagandist or demagogue.