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Glittering Generalities

by Hans Bluedorn

Kids and teens under 15, read this very carefully. There is something for you to do further down.

Advertisers often use words that stir up certain emotions in us. Sometimes, these words glitter and sparkle to attract our eye, or sometimes they make us angry or repulsed.

“NEW!” . . . “Fresh” . . . “Pure” . . . “Home-made.”

Often these words are used in a vague way; they don’t give us specific details: How new? How fresh? Pure what? Made in whose home?

We could call these words “glittering generalities” because they use words that glitter and sparkle, while only stating generalities. That is, they give us a general, or vague sense of what they are trying to sell; they just LOOK good. Glittering generalities are used for their emotional value, not their logical value.

Example: “Pure, fresh, mountain spring water. Bottled especially for you in Utah from only our purest mountain springs.”

When you read an ad like that, it’s good to ask some questions: What makes mountain spring water better than Midwestern spring water? What makes this water fresher than other water? What makes it pure? How did they bottle it “especially for you?” And so on. Lots of questions, but the ad doesn’t answer any of them. It only gives you glittering generalities.

Example: “Miracle Diet Tea! Loose weight just by drinking tea! Our Miracle Diet Tea helps you to lose weight by absorbing most of the fat you eat before it is digested. Studies have shown that Miracle Diet Tea has helped millions of Americans! Thousands of doctors attest to the effectiveness of Miracle Diet Tea!”

What are some questions you could ask about this example?

1. What does it mean by “absorbing most of the fat?”

2. How much tea do you have to drink for it to do this?

3. How many people were in these studies?

4. HOW has Miracle Diet Tea helped millions of Americans? (it didn’t say they lost weight)

5. How did these doctors attest to the effectiveness of Miracle Diet Tea? (maybe Miracle Diet Tea Company sent letters to a thousand doctors saying: “if you DON’T think our product helps loose weight, send us a ten page letter saying why. By not responding, the doctors attested to the quality of Miracle Diet Tea by default).

This ad is using vague, flashy claims – glittering generalities – to make you feel as though their product will help you loose weight.


By now, you should have some idea of what a glittering generality is. Here is a little research project intended for kids and teens 15 and under. If you are older than that, you can’t participate; sorry.

Your turn!

1. Find an example of glittering generalities in an advertisement, or anywhere else (it has to be real).

2. Type it out, and say where you found it.

3. Include your name and mailing address, so I can send you the prize if you win.

4. Then list some questions you would like to ask the advertiser, as I did with the examples above. List as many questions as you can think of.

5. Then think of some possible answers to your questions. [For example: “Why does it say: ‘three out of four doctors chose our product over the competition.’ How many doctors did they ask? Answer: Probably only four.”]

6. Send it all to the Logic Loop at the above return email address.

I will mail a free copy of our book, “The Fallacy Detective,” to the person who sends what I believe is the best example with the best questions.

I am looking at originality and accuracy, and at how interesting it is. Respond to this email with your example, questions, and name and address before July 12th.


From: Mindi Wilhelm,

Dear Hans and Nathaniel,

We are still working our way through the book ["The Fallacy Detective"]. Our detectives are wondering about the exercise on page 150, #12. The answer given is the genetic fallacy. How did you come up with this? In our minds, it would be okay to state the genetic fallacy, if the theory advanced by the individual was discounted because of it's source. We feel that it should be discounted on its own merits, even without the notoriety of the "source" (Freud).

It looks to us like maybe a weak analogy between the struggle to survive (killing a deer) and the desire to always have more (robbing a bank).

We would appreciate your insights and clarification on this. Thank you, The Wilhelms PS We love the book.


I guess this exercise can be a little confusing because it isn't your usual genetic fallacy.

Patient: “Doctor, I’ve been having these urges to go out and rob a bank lately. Should I be worried about this?

S. Freud: “I don’t think so. You see these urges come from your evolutionary past. The survival of the fittest dictates that we try to gain an advantage over other life forms by destroying their means of living. Robbing the bank destroys other people’s means of living and helps you to survive. Your desires are just outworkings of the epic struggle for survival.”

[The above, by the way, was not a direct quote from Sigmund Freud, but was inspired by something he wrote.]

Usually a genetic fallacy discredits somebody else's viewpoint because of where it came from: If it came from a bad source, it must be bad. However, in this case, the doctor is APPROVING his patient's urges and feelings by saying the source they came from is good: It's OK to rob a bank because it's what your evolutionary past is telling you to do. This, of course, is not only fallacious, it is immoral.

So, I called it a genetic fallacy because the doctor in the example said this man's urges were OK because of where they came from. I guess, as you pointed out, it also could be a weak analogy. The doctor is saying it is OK to apply the primitive rules of the jungle to modern civilized society. That is, what is right for the wild beasts is right for us. This also is fallacious and immoral. I would say S. Freud's reasoning, presented here briefly, could be knocked down in many ways.

When you go through "The Fallacy Detective," remember that some exercises can be examples of more than one fallacy. Also remember that it is OK to disagree with me. Just have a very good reason, and be able to back it up. And be sure to let me know about it. I learn from every criticism.

Hans Bluedorn

From: Bartlett Family

Subject: Circular Reasoning? Red Herring?

Dear Logic Loop,

The rhetoric on the need for women in science and engineering seems to have at least one logical fallacy. Every conversation that I have heard and every article that I have read on this topic seems to say the same thing....WE NEED MORE WOMEN IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING BECAUSE WE NEED MORE WOMEN IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING. Perhaps someone could further comment on which logical fallacies are being used. Circular reasoning? Red herring? Or just not having a philosophical rationale to justify the need?Sincerely,Jim and Jonathan Bartlett Below is an example: Reference was:

“Women have come a long way in such areas as business, law and many science disciplines, but not as much progress has been made in the male bastion that is engineering,” says Donovan. “More women need to enter this field, and it’s not enough to have women who are ‘examples.’ We need more leaders in our colleges and universities who will actively work to bring both younger and older women into this profession.”

Department of Labor statistics estimate that by 2005, there will be a shortage of about 500,000 engineers in the U.S. job market. Consequently, starting salaries for engineers are excellent. The starting salary for University of Akron engineering graduates in 2001 averaged $49,800, with paid moving expenses.


Do any of you Logic Loop subscribers know what fallacy this could be?

Hans Bluedorn

From: Ted and Robin


I would like to suggest a fallacy for you to discuss. It's very easy to identify it, but for the sake of those who are sensitive to peer pressure, it bears a little attention. I don't know the Latin name, but a reasonable English name might be "Appeal to Ridicule." I have seen two forms:

(1) ridiculing the person, which is a form of argumentum ad hominem; and (2) ridiculing the idea. It is the second form that I want to mention. Example:

On the TV show "Politically Incorrect," someone was trying to make the point that abortion is immoral because it kills unborn humans. Someone interrupted – and got the last word, if I recall correctly – by saying, "Yes! UNBORN humans!" in a loud and sarcastic voice. The obvious but unstated implication is that unborn humans do not deserve legal protection. (And that the person who said they do is an idiot for saying they do.)

This argument reminds me of some conversations from the 1960's. A: Negro people (for you under age 20, that's a term that used to be used for "African-Americans") aren't treated the same as white people. B: (laughing) Of course not! They're Negroes! We don't accept that kind of illogic against African-Americans, and we ought not accept it against the unborn.

Thank you!!

Ted Shoemaker

Last time we had a quiz challenge, everybody had to guess which quotes were examples of red herrings. Here are the answers taken from the person who won.

QUESTION 1. Son: "Can I go to see the movie "Bug Eyed Warthogs From The Deep?"Dad: "No, definitely not. You would get scared out of your socks and wouldn't be able to sleep for a week."Son: "But, Dad, it's in 3-D." [RED HERRING!! The fact that it's in 3-D doesn't mean it won't be scary or cause insomnia.]

QUESTION 2. Mount Everest is slowly growing taller. Geologists have been measuring the mountain for the past few years and have discovered that it increases in height by about one and a half inch per year. [Not a red herring.]

QUESTION 3. Social scientists now believe northern European countries are among the best to live in. This conclusion was reached after a 2001 study of sub-Saharan countries. The study found that the average life expectancy for sub-Saharan Africa is 55 years. [RED HERRING!! Life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa does not in any way prove that northern Europe is the best place to live.]

QUESTION 4. "I think all MIT students are smart. It seems like every one I meet is smart." [Not a red herring.]

QUESTION 5. "I think the government should reinstate the draft. A ten year study of military research and development expenditures found that 45% of the defense budget went to projects which were later discarded because they didn't amount to anything – projects such as one called "GFB" where scientists tried to genetically modify people to make them stronger and more ruthless. After $2 billion, the project was scrapped." [RED HERRING!! How would reinstating the draft solve the problem of money wasted on discarded projects? These are two different issues altogether.]

QUESTION 6. "There's little doubt anymore that vegetarianism is going mainstream. In the United States alone, more than 12 million people are vegetarians, and 19,000 more make the switch to a meat-free diet every week. Many others have greatly reduced the amount of animal products they eat." – PETA website. [Not a red herring.]

QUESTION 7. Son: "My friends are going caving tomorrow. Can I go with them?"Dad: "No, it's too dangerous. You always get panicky in tight places. I figure you would have about a 50% chance of surviving with all your body parts in place."Son: "But, Dad, we would have so much fun. It's a really neat cave." [RED HERRING!! The fact that caving is fun does not have any bearing on whether or not it is dangerous.]

QUESTION 8. "Many researchers believe that vegetarianism is the only way to feed a growing human population. A Population Reference Bureau report stated, "If everyone adopted a vegetarian diet and no food were wasted, current [food] production would theoretically feed 10 billion people, more than the projected population for the year 2050." – PETA website [RED HERRING!! The reasoning doesn't prove that vegetarianism is the ONLY way to feed a growing human population. It only shows that it is one way. No evidence is given to show that a growing human population cannot be fed in a non-vegetarian way.]

QUESTION 9. "I've noticed over the years that the kind of foods that are healthiest for you generally taste the worst. Oatmeal, grits, and squash all taste bad, but are good for you. So, I figure, if I can find something which tastes the worst of anything, then I've found the healthiest food. Yesterday, I was walking though the woods when a leaf blew into my mouth – boy did it taste terrible. I thought "I've just discovered the miracle health formula!" Let's go rake the yard. I'm having milk over leaves for breakfast." [Not a red herring.]

Copyright July 01, 2003, all rights reserved. 249126 views

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