Manipulative Appeals to Ethos

Learning Objective

  • Recognize appeals 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; however, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, and Brian Williams all lost their jobs for plagiarizing or fabricating 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 Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was revoked after it was discovered that she made up “Jimmy,” an eight-year-old heroin addict (Prince, 2010).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 appear in the chart below. When you recognize these fallacies being committed you should question the credibility of the speaker and the legitimacy of the argument.

Fallacy Description Example
Ad Hominem Attacking the person making an argument rather than the argument itself. 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. 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. My opponent is a card-carrying member of the K.K.K.
Poisoning the Well Undermining an opponent’s credibility before he or she gets a chance to speak. The prosecution is going to bring up a series of 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. In politics, decorating a stage with red, white, and blue flags and bunting.
Name-Calling Labeling an opponent with words that have negative connotations in an effort to undermine the opponent’s credibility. He’s just a dumb jock.
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. 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 Inserting an endorsement of the argument by someone who is popular or respected but who lacks expertise or authority in the area under discussion Eat this cereal because Beyonce eats it, too.

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