In Defence of Abused Fallacies


Y’know, if you don’t think that a horse is defined as such due to some innate form of ‘horseness’, then you should go read some Aristotle.*

If you don’t think that Evolution has any basis in reality, then Darwin has some things to tell you.

If you think that we can’t know anything at all about the origin of the universe, then you should listen to Victor Stenger.

I’m appealing to authority here? Well… Yes, I am. And this is not a problem at all. Let me break it down for you…

Fallacies

So the ‘skeptic community’ is pretty enamoured with ‘fallacies‘. I’ll often hear people call out the fallacies when listening to a creationist babble on about their nonsense, or if a homeopath is waffling on about how happy they are when they use their products. You can even find ‘fallacy bingo cards‘ on the internet for when you attend a talk. It’s great. I love this stuff. I’m very happy to see people taking some ancient and basic Philosophical content and applying it to modern life. Aristotle identified roughly 140 fallacies (many of which are sub-divisions of higher order fallacies, so are pretty redundant). Since Aristotle, a few more were added, but it’s really Aristotle’s fallacies that are the core of any critical thinking course.

Unfortunately… Many skeptics don’t understand fallacies. They seem to use them as a “you are wrong” declaration, as if the mere declaration that ‘the speaker has committed a fallacy’ means that the conversation is over, and ‘the speaker’ needs to A) apologise, and B) shut up.

Formal Fallacies

Fallacies come in two flavours: formal and informal.

A formal fallacy is an actual logical error, such that the details of what the person has said (and the context in which they are speaking) is irrelevant: the actual form of the argument is in error. For example:

1) If all swans are white, then this particular swan is white
2) This particular swan is white
Conclusion) Therefore all swans are white

This can be generally stated as:

1) If P then Q
2) Q
C) Therefore P

The reason this is a formal fallacy is that if premise 1) is true and premise 2) is true, it is possible that P is false. It does not follow that P is true, ergo this argument is logically false. (This is a technically term meaning ‘the argument cannot be true for any combination of the truth values of P and Q)

But notice that my claim here still requires an explanation. In a real conversation, it’s likely that the speaker has made a number of claims. I can’t merely stand up in the Q&A of a lecture and declare that the speaker has committed the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent and sit down: I need to identify the problematic premises, and I need to show that the speaker’s conclusion is primarily dependent upon those premises.

Just making the declaration is nothing more than merely asserting that the speaker is incorrect. In that situation, declaring that the speaker has committed a fallacy is no different (practically speaking) from just standing up and declaring that one disagrees with the speaker. Something which, I hope, most of the readers of this blog will recognise as generally pointless. (Please note that I’m speaking of the context of a formal presentation, not of a popular rally where standing up to disagree (i.e. Presenting a dissenting view) is absolutely important).

So, even in the case of a Formal Fallacy, it’s necessary to explain your position.

Informal Fallacies

An Informal Fallacy is, on the other hand, focused on the content of the argument. And since the content is often context dependent, an argument may often have the form of an Informal Fallacy and not be false.

For example:

1) I found a strange lump on my body that wasn’t there before.
2) My doctor told me to have it removed.
C) Therefore, I should have it removed.

Appeal to Authority? Absolutely. Problematic? Absolutely not.

1) Either Beethoven is better than Mozart or Mozart is better than Beethoven.
2) My doctor told me that Beethoven is better than Mozart.
C) Therefore, Beethoven is better than Mozart.

Appeal to Authority? Absolutely. Problematic? Absolutely.

Appealing to an Authority is only problematic when the person in question has no relevant skill in the area. Furthermore, what makes the Appeal acceptable is not merely that the person is recognised as an expert in the relevant area, but also they can explain their decision and provide you with the warrant for their position. The non-expert is unable to do so (pretty much by definition).

So simply declaring that someone is Appealing to Authority is not the end of a discussion. Yes, congratulations, you have noticed that when someone says “go talk to Aristotle” when discussing Essentialism they are invoking the name of a famous, known expert in a particular field (the person who quite literally invented that particular field). Now that you have invoked the Appeal to Authority Fallacy, the onus is on you to explain what the problem is. Fallacies don’t operate like the umpire in baseball: declaring a ball to be out may make it so, but declaring something to be a Fallacy does not make it so.

If explaining your position is important when declaring something to be a Formal Fallacy, it’s even more so when making a declaration of an Informal Fallacy as an Informal Fallacy is highly contextually dependent.

*Incidentally, Aristotle is completely wrong about the nature of ‘things’. However, I’ll still refer people to Aristotle simply because reading that while wrestling with how you explain his errors will teach you about a million more things than reading most anything else…

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Comments

  1. karmakin says

    I don’t know if this counts, but if I never hear blind accusations of strawmanning and hypocrisy again it’ll be too soon.

  2. smrnda says

    I tend to find accusations of ‘appeal to authority’ are used to discredit anyone who has real credentials, done real research, or made meaningful contributions to a field way too often by people who are citing some bizarre, unsubstantiated theory. I see it sometimes like a blame game – you say citing the Pope is appeal to authority, so you say appealing to Darwin is.

    The major difference is “authority” is kind of vague – a person can be an ‘authority’ in the sense of just being viewed as the arbiter of good taste or whatnot, where the authority is just a custom some people have of deferring to someone else.

    But expertise is not ‘authority’ in the same way; it would be like arguing that if I ask someone who just walked out of a bar if my friend Sarah was inside, I’m committing a fallacy by asking someone who walked out of the bar instead of someone just passing by. Some people are likely to know a fact more than someone else.

  3. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Unfortunately… Many skeptics don’t understand fallacies. They seem to use them as a “you are wrong” declaration, as if the mere declaration that ‘the speaker has committed a fallacy’ means that the conversation is over, and ‘the speaker’ needs to A) apologise, and B) shut up.

    It seems to me that logical fallacies are very often used as strawmen, and the alleged fallacy doesn’t actually apply to the argument in question. For example, not all references to external sources are appeals to authority, and not all personal attacks are examples of the ad hominem fallacy (only if the personal attack is presented as a reason why the other person is wrong). Correlation may not equal causation, but if the correlation still stands up after controlling for variables, it does indeed point toward causation, and dismissing such a conclusion is every bit as fallacious as naïvely inferring causation from correlation. Ironically it’s even possible to attack strawmen by accusing others of attacking strawmen (accusing atheists of arguing against a bearded old man sitting on a cloud etc.). Used responsibly, lables like “argument from authority”, “strawman” etc. are useful shorthands, but lazily tossing out the names of fallacies is no substitute for analysing the details of what’s actually being said.

  4. Bjarte Foshaug says

    “blind accusations of strawmanning and hypocrisy”

    Another one of my favorite hates. If a person’s argument only supports his/her conclusion (or only makes sense at all) given an unstated premise X, it is perfectly legitimate to criticize him/her for holding premise X even if (s)he hasn’t made it explicit, and to call this “strawmanning” because “I never said anything about X ” (or “I didn’t use those exact words“) is just intellectual dishonesty.

  5. screechymonkey says

    I think the most useless instance of Fallacy Bingo is when someone cries out “Category Error!” It almost always just leads to a convoluted debate about what exactly a category error is, when it would have been much simpler if the arguer had simply explained his point rather than relying on the catch-phrase.

  6. wes says

    I’ve always found that they more a person clings to an Appeal to Authority the less likely they actually know the subject matter. They hope that {insert famous persons name here} will win the discussion for them not the logic or position itself.

  7. says

    Fallacy accusations make a good short-hand, especially when all parties understand what’s up and can accept or argue the point as needed, but problems abound. I figure that if you can explain the problem without using the term itself, then you are good to go. If you can’t then you shouldn’t just toss it out there.

  8. Wowbagger, Deputy Vice-President (Silencing) says

    The most popular one I’m aware of at the moment is false equivalence. It’s used by nearly every person who’s jumped on the #FTbullies bandwagon to justify why problems shouldn’t be dealt with.

  9. says

    One of the things about fallacies that I love is that there’s a fallacy about using fallacies wrongly. It’s called the fallacy fallacy (yes, I am serious). I find fallacies here interesting, and after a certain point you stop playing the fallacy bingo and start applying it introspectively. Knowing about fallacies doesn’t mean you’re immune to them and can gave you a false idea of how smart you actually are. Instead, we should be charitable by attempting to work with whatever opponent we have in fixing fallacies so that we can try to create the best possible arguments on both sides. When being ungenerous and strict under the name of rigor, citing fallacies are often themselves forms of a non-sequitur because you may ignore salvageable parts of an argument that are *interesting*. Over time, people in arguments will learn how to avoid committing some of the more common fallacies, but we don’t need to shame and bully people for mistakes that even professional philosophers make…they *will* get better. It’s kinda like spelling and grammar nazis dismissing someone for mixing up their/there/they’re a few times. Also, by building up your charity reputation with other people, they’ll be more charitable to your arguments…they’ll point out problems in your reasoning, but still take on a better version of your argument than you yourself made. You can move on to substantive issues much more quickly and find more rewarding arguments and points of view when you add a little charity. While knowing about fallacies makes us think we’re smarter because we have this secret knowledge, we need to counter that by making sure we humble ourselves in the knowledge that knowing fallacies doesn’t make that much of a difference in committing fallacies.

  10. Mike de Fleuriot says

    I always suggest checking to see if the person actually was born in Scotland, because there are times when he really is a Scotsman.

  11. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Beware confirmation bias.

    If someone hasn’t filled in the details of their argument, but has instead name-dropped, then this is indeed a problem, but the problem isn’t the name-dropping, the people is the failure to provide an argument.

    It is a mistake to infer/assume/whatever-word-you-want-to-use-here a lack of knowledge when someone appeals to a particular authority. I’m not asserting that you are doing that, but your comment certainly implies it.

  12. wondering says

    Regarding fallacies: Is it an Appeal to Authority when someone says something to the effect of “I’m right because I’m older than you and have more experience and oh, by the way, I’m a man” because the person is setting himself up as an authority, or does it have some other name? (Besides the common term of mansplaining, that is.)

  13. says

    Alex Songe:

    we should be charitable by attempting to work with whatever opponent we have in fixing fallacies so that we can try to create the best possible arguments on both sides. When being ungenerous and strict under the name of rigor, citing fallacies are often themselves forms of a non-sequitur because you may ignore salvageable parts of an argument that are *interesting*. Over time, people in arguments will learn how to avoid committing some of the more common fallacies, but we don’t need to shame and bully people for mistakes that even professional philosophers make…they *will* get better.

    I think this is an excellent point. I like to say that we should provide our opponents with the finest armor and weaponry we can make out of the arguments they bring to us. If we can defeat our opponents in their strongest armour then we may be confident in our own positions. It’s far less use to be ungenerous and to attack where your opponent is weakest just to “win”: you don’t get to hone your weapons and they don’t get to practice their footwork.

    I felt a lot of fallacy-spotting was going on in people’s responses to Alain de Botton’s book. Sure, there were some seriously flawed arguments in there, but there were also some valuable and intriguing ideas which did not get a fair airing because of the immediate search for flaws. We actually aren’t served by that – we should seek to find balance in our critique, seeking ideas of value as well as things to change or reject.

    Peter Elbow, Professor of English at UMass Amherst, mad=kes an intriguing distinction between “the doubting game” and the “believing game”:

    The doubting game represents the kind of thinking most widely honored and taught in our culture. It’s sometimes called “critical thinking.” It’s the disciplined practice of trying to be as skeptical and analytic as possible with every idea we encounter. By trying hard to doubt ideas, we can discover hidden contradictions, bad reasoning, or other weaknesses in them–especially in the case of ideas that seem true or attractive. We are using doubting as a tool in order to scrutinize and test.

    In contrast, the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them. We are using believing as a tool to scrutinize and test. But instead of scrutinizing fashionable or widely accepted ideas for hidden flaws, the believing game asks us to scrutinize unfashionable or even repellent ideas for hidden virtues. Often we cannot see what’s good in someone else’s idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it. When an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs–or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated—we often cannot see any merit in it.

    Source: http://works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1019&context=peter_elbow

    I think we could sometimes play the believing game a bit more in our community.

  14. says

    Appeal to Authority is not a fallacy when the authority in question is the defining authority

    If I argue that the fourth planet from the sun is named Mars and I cite the authority of the IAU then I have won the argument, no matter how many want to argue it is named Barsoom.

  15. roland72 says

    I think you’re wrong about the argument from authority. Arguments from authority are always fallacious. It’s the flip side of the ad hominem. Ad hominem arguments say “Person A has irrelevant quality X, therefore Person A is wrong”. Authority arguments say “Person A has irrelevant quality X, therefore person A is right”.

    A couple of arguments have been offered as valid arguments from authority, but they are actually not.

    The first one was by Bryan: pretty much by definition the only person who can decide what you “should” do is you, so although the doctor may have an opinion the conclusion is not implied by the premises. What if you are likely to die soon anyway for unrelated reasons and the treatment is invasive and uncomfortable? The doctor might think it’s worth going through with but you might not.

    A real argument from authority from the doctor would be:

    1) I found a strange lump on my body that wasn’t there before.
    2) My doctor told me it was cancer.
    C) Therefore, it is cancer.

    Even if it is cancer, and that’s the reason the doctor told you it was, the argument is invalid because the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. If my doctor told me I had cancer, I would ask “how do you know?” It’s probably wise to take the doctor’s opinion seriously, and indeed the doctor’s statement makes it pretty likely that you actually do have cancer, but the argument as stated above is formally fallacious. In practice, in that situation, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to argue the toss about this; but when it comes to religious arguments the distinction gets a lot more important.

    Another one was Keith’s appeal to the IAU about Mars. Because, as you said, the official statements of the IAU are the definition of what constitutes a planet, I wouldn’t call this an argument from authority. It’s just citing the definition. A real IAU argument from authority would be:

    1) The President of the IAU told me Mars is a planet at a party
    C) Therefore, Mars is a planet

    (C) doesn’t follow from (1).

  16. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I think you’re wrong about the argument from authority. Arguments from authority are always fallacious. It’s the flip side of the ad hominem. Ad hominem arguments say “Person A has irrelevant quality X, therefore Person A is wrong”. Authority arguments say “Person A has irrelevant quality X, therefore person A is right”.

    I look forward to your citation supporting your new, non-standard definition of an ‘authority argument’, and your non-standard definition of Ad Hominem. Scholarly sources are preferred, but I’m open to a rigorously argued case.

    The fallacy that you, yourself, are engaging in is the Begging the Question Fallacy: because you are framing ‘irrelevance’ into your premises, of course the conclusion comes out ‘irrelevant’.

    An Appeal to Authority is an argument that claims one should listen to a particular speaker (and accept their position) because they are an expert on that particular topic.

    If you want to claim that “expertise” is not a relevant quality to have when it comes to knowledge of a particular topic: that’s kinda of awesomely terrible, and we don’t really have anything further to discuss.

    The first one was by Bryan

    My name is Brian. With an ‘i’. Spelling it with a ‘y’ makes me tetchy. It’s an Irish/British thing.

    pretty much by definition the only person who can decide what you “should” do is you, so although the doctor may have an opinion the conclusion is not implied by the premises.

    This is nonsense on it’s face.

    There are a multitude of things that we ‘should’ all do. The only person who decides what is personally important or a personal priority is me. I get to rank those things in order of personal preference. The example I provided follows, with the unstated premise “I should follow the advice of experts, all else being equal and assuming that I am not an expert in the relevant field”.

    There are things I ‘should’ do, assuming that I have certain goals in that those things are of varying degrees of efficacy. I can choose amongst them. Choosing one of those things doesn’t mean that that is the only thing that I should do, it simply means that that is the one thing that I have chosen to do.

    The doctor might think it’s worth going through with but you might not.

    Then there are two competing things you should do, and you have prioritised one over the other.

    Preferring one thing over an other does not entail that you no long ‘should’ do the other things. You are trading off things, which may be mutually exclusive, but that does not eliminate them as ‘things one should do’.

    Also, this is a good example of some points above, as to why interpretations should be made in the most charitable ways: your argument is regarding a particular niche case (i.e. I’m likely to die from something other than cancer), so fails to address the core point that I’m making. A.k.a. The Fallacy of Irrelevancy.

    It’s probably wise to take the doctor’s opinion seriously, and indeed the doctor’s statement makes it pretty likely that you actually do have cancer, but the argument as stated above is formally fallacious.

    I see. I have emboldened the relevant claim.

    Please: map out this argument in general form. Justify your assertion. I’m bordering the opinion that you are blowing smoke and have no idea what you are talking about, but it’s possible that you are not merely throwing words around.

    Please demonstrate that this argument is formally fallacious. I’m intrigued.

    Another one was Keith’s appeal to the IAU about Mars. Because, as you said, the official statements of the IAU are the definition of what constitutes a planet, I wouldn’t call this an argument from authority.

    You would be incorrect in that case.

    If the IAU are the final word on what is and is not a planet (and they are), then they are the relevant authority to appeal to in disputes regarding whether something is or is not a planet.

    Appealing to what the IAU said is appealing to what the relevant authority said, which is (by definition) an argument from authority.

    QED.

  17. Brian Lynchehaun says

    This is a subset of the Ad Hominem Fallacy, known as the Appeal to Provincialism. “If you were from around here, you’d understand people’s objections”, and so on.

    Here, however, people need to take extra care with the accusation of Fallacy: “I’m right because I’m a man/woman” is a Fallacy, but “I understand this because I’m a man/woman” may not be a Fallacy.

    If the topic at hand is something that happened in the 80s, and the person is old enough to have experienced what went on in that particular time and place, then “I’m right because I’m older than you” has some relevance. But I’m with you that 99% of the time, it’s fallacious.

    When talking about life-experiences of sexism “I understand this problem better than you because I’m a woman” is absolutely not fallacious (all else being equal).

    This is why it’s an Informal Fallacy.

    [Edited to correct spelling error, and add link]

  18. Brian Lynchehaun says

    In (good) critical thinking courses, this is taught as the ‘principle of charity': one should interpret any ambiguities in the best possible light, and attempt to bolster the opposition’s argument as much as possible.

    There is an entirely selfish aspect to this too (for those that need it): being as charitible as possible means that, when the argument is destroyed, you have pre-empted the majority of ‘yes, but…’ objections and saved yourself a lot of hassle.

  19. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I fully agree with both of you. Alas, it is often the case that the premise is unstated because the speaker is genuinely unaware that they hold that particular premise.

  20. roland72 says

    Brian, I apologise for misspelling your name. I’m mortified. I won’t do it again.

    Thanks for your detailed reply.

    An Appeal to Authority is an argument that claims one should listen to a particular speaker (and accept their position) because they are an expert on that particular topic.

    Yes. In other words, Person A has (irrelevant*) quality X, therefore they are right. With the additional observation that expertise isn’t the only quality which is used to confer authority.

    *”irrelevant” doesn’t beg the question – I talk about this in a bit.

    Incidentally, the claim that one should listen to experts because they’re experts is uncontroversially true. The issue here is whether one should accept their conclusions unquestioningly.

    because you are framing ‘irrelevance’ into your premises, of course the conclusion comes out ‘irrelevant’

    I’m not begging the question. Really I shouldn’t have said “irrelevant”; I said it because there are a few conclusions which really do depend on the qualities or identity of the person making a statement. Like

    (1) Jill says she agrees with me
    (C) Jill agrees with me

    I think you can argue C follows from 1 here, but I wouldn’t call it an argument from authority. I said “irrelevant” because I wanted to exclude cases like this, but I think I just muddied the waters.

    There are a multitude of things that we ‘should’ all do. The only person who decides what is personally important or a personal priority is me. I get to rank those things in order of personal preference. The example I provided follows, with the unstated premise “I should follow the advice of experts, all else being equal and assuming that I am not an expert in the relevant field”.

    Well if you add these other premises then you do get a valid argument:

    1) The doctor is an expert
    2) The doctor said I should have the lump removed
    3) We should follow the advice of experts
    C) I should get the lump removed

    That argument is valid. It also isn’t an argument from authority. But is its conclusion true? Only if the premises are true. In particular, we might need some evidence for (1) – the doctor might be a specialist in some other field and not know much about lumps – and I think you could easily have a debate about (3). And also as we seem to be finding, it’s quite hard to assign a truth value to a “should” statement. The additional premises of the new argument remove the “should” truth-value issue.

    If you want to claim that “expertise” is not a relevant quality to have when it comes to knowledge of a particular topic: that’s kinda of awesomely terrible, and we don’t really have anything further to discuss.

    I’m not claiming that.

    Please: map out this argument in general form. Justify your assertion.

    I asserted that this argument:

    1) I found a strange lump on my body that wasn’t there before.
    2) My doctor told me it was cancer.
    C) Therefore, it is cancer.

    was fallacious. I can’t draw a map here, but my justification is that there are lots of ways in which the doctor might be wrong. He or she could have picked out the wrong test results, or might be drunk or high, or maliciously playing a trick. Obviously these things are unlikely in the real world, but that doesn’t affect the *formal* attributes of the argument.

    Appealing to what the IAU said is appealing to what the relevant authority said, which is (by definition) an argument from authority.

    Well I think this expands the definition of “argument from authority” in an unproductive way. According to this idea, asserting anything which depends on a definition which is maintained by a recognised organisation is an argument from authority. Such as “hydrogen atoms have one proton” or “concert A is 440 hertz”. I don’t think that’s a correct use of the term.

  21. Tim Riches says

    I wonder if the old “mind your P’s and Q’s” warning from Grandma has it’s root in Aristotelian logic?

  22. roland72 says

    I’ve just reread the post, my reply and yours and I wanted to add something about “formal” fallacies.

    Me:
    formally fallacious.

    Brian:
    I see. I have emboldened the relevant claim.

    Please: map out this argument in general form. Justify your assertion. I’m bordering the opinion that you are blowing smoke and have no idea what you are talking about, but it’s possible that you are not merely throwing words around.

    Please demonstrate that this argument is formally fallacious. I’m intrigued.

    I am suggesting that the argument

    1) Person X says A
    C) A is true

    (where A is not something – like Person X apologises, or disagrees with me – which is true simply by virtue of X saying it) is always invalid. That’s because what people say and what the world is like are not formally correlated.

    Even if Person X says A, and A is true, and Person X said A because it was true, the argument is still invalid. That’s a formal fallacy, isn’t it?

    I’m quite happy to be proved wrong here :-)

  23. Donovan says

    When appealing to authority, I try to do two things to keep myself honest:

    1) I refer my audience to as exact a place as I can for the information, so that early an late Einstein ideas on a static universe, for example, are not twisted to my own ends.

    2) I admit ignorance on the specifics for myself. If I have the facts, I don’t need to appeal to authority. I then withdraw myself from the debate on those specifics. Creationist and homeopathy junkies often try to jump on that, but I refuse the discussion and point out that it’s dishonest of them to claim expertise.

    I cannot tell you how tempting it is, too often, to fumble through some jargon and name dropping and try to lie about being an expert myself. Honesty is the greatest weakness in a debate.

  24. Richard Wein says

    I’d hardly heard the names of any fallacies before I first got involved in internet discussions. That’s not to say I couldn’t distinguish a valid argument from an invalid one. I think if you’ve internalised a grasp of what constitiutes a valid argument then you don’t need a list of all the ways that an argument can fail to be valid. Still, fallacy names can be useful for identifying what kind of error we’re talking about.

    One important distinction that’s not made sufficiently is between deductive and non-deductive (or inductive) arguments. Few arguments outside maths and formal logic should be taken as strictly deductive. In particular, scientific and other empirical arguments tend to be inductive inferences to the best explanation. An appeal to authority would be obviously fallacious if taken as strictly deductive: it’s obvious that the truth of a proposition does not necessarily follow from the fact that authorities believe it. But sensible appeals to authority are not deductive. They are inferences from evidence. The fact that authorities believe the proposition is evidence of its truth. Whether it’s sufficient evidence to justify believing the proposition depends on the circumstances. Sometimes an appeal to authority is appropriate and sometimes it isn’t. Instead of calling appeals to authority a type of fallacy, it would be better say that they are not automatically good arguments. Each one has to be judged on its merits. The same applies to many other listed fallacies.

    That said, I think there’s one type of fallacy which deserves to be made more prominent, and not buried in a boring list. That’s the fallacy of equivocation. It seems to me to be very common, and the fallacy which most often goes unspotted. It’s difficult to spot because, when we see the same word twice, we naturally assume that both occurrences refer to the same concept. But a fallacy of equivocation conflates two different senses of the same word (or expression). It’s “informal” in the sense that you can’t spot it just by considering the logical structure (or form) of the argument. You have to think about the meanings of the words within the structure.

  25. John Horstman says

    For example, I rarely hear the argument, “I oppose gay marriage because gay people squick me out and I don’t want to be confronted with their existence in any way. They should render themselves invisible for the sake of my comfort.” That’s basically what most of the opposition for legal equality boils down to, though.

  26. Brian Lynchehaun says

    The issue here is whether one should accept their conclusions unquestioningly.

    I don’t know why you are inventing this issue. I am sure as hell not going to argue that one should accept the conclusion of anyone unquestioningly.

    Incidentally, the claim that one should listen to experts because they’re experts is uncontroversially true.

    [order reversed for purposes of rhetoric]

    Then what is your point? You seem to be in complete agreement with me, but insisting that you disagree with me. It’s baffling.

    Like

    (1) Jill says she agrees with me
    (C) Jill agrees with me

    I think you can argue C follows from 1 here, but I wouldn’t call it an argument from authority.

    Ok. Let’s back up a second.

    I appreciate the point that you appear to be trying to make, but I’d like to ask you to just slow down a minute. I can appreciate your interest in this topic, and I want to make sure that we’re moving forward together. I’m saying all this, because I’m about to level some fairly sharp criticism, but I want to ensure that you understand that I don’t think you’re stupid, or dumb, or anything along those lines. This is not a personal attack in anyway. Understand that I wouldn’t write the following mini-essay if I didn’t value this discussion.

    You are using a lot of terminology from formal academic logic, but… You don’t seem to know much about logic. This is not a dismissal: I’ve spent the last 90min writing out the basics of a 2nd year Philosophy course here, outlining how logic works. Please read this over carefully before responding, and if there’s something that strikes you as terribly, obviously wrong: please read the links prior to responding.

    An argument is defined as comprising of a minimum of two premises and a conclusion. A single premise (taken as true) gives you nothing but that single premise. Unless otherwise stated, I am referring to Deductive arguments.

    There are then three things which can be said about an argument: the argument can be Valid (or not), each premise can be Sound (or not), and finally the argument can be Good (or not).

    ‘Valid’ in this case means that if we ignore the content of the argument, and substitute in placeholders (traditionally P, Q, R, S) for the main points, that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. If it is possible to construct a different conclusion (even if it’s in addition) to the original conclusion, then the argument is not Valid.

    ‘Good’ in this case means that a premise is, to the best of our knowledge, True. Or at least tentatively acceptable. (this is where the prinicple of charity can kick in)

    ‘Sound’ in this case means that we have an argument that is logically Valid, with all Good premises. This does not mean that there are no mistakes, or that the conclusion isn’t ridiculous, or that we have to accept the argument (there may be alternative, more persuasive arguments out there), but that this argument merely isn’t automatically garbage.

    So with all that in mind, I cannot accept that the conclusion “Jill agrees with me” follows from the premise “Jill says she agrees with me”. With a missing premise added in: (2) “If Jill says she agrees with me then Jill agrees with me” then you have a logically valid argument.

    Now.

    I would really like you to define what you actually consider “an argument from authority” to be, exactly. You keep listing things and declaring them not to be arguments from authority, but you’ve not made out any kind of positive argument. And I’m not seeing any consistency, bar your consistent denial of every argument.

    For the record: Jill is an expert on Jills thoughts, ergo Jill is reporting according to her relevant expertise: this is an argument from authority. An entirely valid argument from authority.

    Well if you add these other premises then you do get a valid argument:

    1) The doctor is an expert
    2) The doctor said I should have the lump removed
    3) We should follow the advice of experts
    C) I should get the lump removed

    That argument is valid.

    For sure. I wasn’t aware that we were going to be rigorous.

     It also isn’t an argument from authority.

    If this isn’t an argument from authority, then such an argument does not exist. This is, in fact, an exemplar of an argument from authority.

    Please lay out what you believe is an argument from authority so we can actually make some headway.

    But is its conclusion true? Only if the premises are true.

    The topic of the post is about Fallacies. The truth of the matter is not relevant. I am, in this post, concerned only about logical form.

    I can’t draw a map here, but my justification is that there are lots of ways in which the doctor might be wrong. He or she could have picked out the wrong test results, or might be drunk or high, or maliciously playing a trick. Obviously these things are unlikely in the real world, but that doesn’t affect the *formal* attributes of the argument.

    Then you have no grounds to claim that it is formally fallacious. What you have outlined are the critieria that make something an informal fallacy. Please see the definitions that I have already laid out in the original post.

    I am suggesting that the argument
    1) Person X says A
    C) A is true
    (where A is not something – like Person X apologises, or disagrees with me – which is true simply by virtue of X saying it) is always invalid.

    You are incorrect, for a number of reasons. The dominant reason being: that is not an argument. The concept of validity doesn’t even apply.

    Secondly, “always invalid” means that when rendered formally, when you have all true premises, the conclusion is always false. That means without those little caveats you stuck in there. Once you start sticking in those little caveats, the concept of validity no longer applies because you are not speaking of the logical form of the argument, but of the actual content.

    It’s late, and I’m tired, and it’s dark out, yet it’s like 28 degrees still. If there’s a typo in the following, give me a heads up and I’ll fix it. I’m pulling the truth tables from this link http://homepage.usask.ca/~wiebeb/TruthTable.html

    The argument I’ll be using is as follows (a modified traditional one).

    1. All people are mortal.
    2. Socrates is a person.
    C. Socrates is mortal.

    Rendered into more ‘logic-friendly’ English:

    1. If Socrates is a person, then Socrates is mortal.
    2. Socrates is a person.
    C. Socrates is mortal.

    P: Socrates is a person
    Q: Socrates is mortal
    ⊃ is the logical operator representing “if ….. then….” where “if P then Q” is represented by “P⊃Q”

    Logic
    1. P⊃Q
    2. P
    C. Q

    (Incidentally, this is known as the Modus Ponens, a basic logic form that has been around… I don’t know how long, but basically forever. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modus_Ponens )

    Truth Table 1

    In order to determine whether or not an argument is valid, we need to look a the rows where the premises are true, and then check if the conclusion is true in all of those rows. In this case, because it’s a ridiculously simple argument, we only need to look at Row 1. In Row 1, Premise 1 is true and Premise 2 is true (see the column labeled “All premises together”), and the Final Value (of the final, outside, ⊃) us true.

    Valid argument form. One may fill it with nonsense, but nonsense is not a formal fallacy. I.e.

    1. If Brian says that he is the son of Krypton, then Brian is the son of Krypton.
    2. Brian says that he is the son of Krypton.
    C. Brian is the son of Krypton.

    Same argument form, 100% valid, complete nonsense. No Formal Fallacy committed.
    So, a formal fallacy. We’ll switch the conclusion and premise 2:

    1. All people are mortal.
    2. Socrates is mortal.
    C. Socrates is a person

    Rendered into more ‘logic-friendly’ English:

    1. If Socrates is a person, then Socrates is mortal.
    2. Socrates is mortal.
    C. Socrates is a person

    P: Socrates is a person
    Q: Socrates is mortal
    ⊃ is the logical operator representing “if ….. then….” where “if P then Q” is represented by “P⊃Q”

    Logic
    1. P⊃Q
    2. Q
    C. P

    (Incidentally, this is a Formal Fallacy known as Affirming the Consequent http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirming_the_Consequent )

    Truth Table 2

    Now, there are two relevant rows, Rows 1 and 3. Row one is all hunky dory, but Row 3 screws everything up. According to this Truth Table, it is logically possible to have true premises and a false conclusion, ergo this argument is not valid.

    Invalid argument form, meaning that even if we fill it with true things: it doesn’t matter.

    Even if Person X says A, and A is true, and Person X said A because it was true, the argument is still invalid. That’s a formal fallacy, isn’t it?

    No, that’s an informal fallacy. Using the argument form already provided:

    1. If Neil DeGrasse Tyson says that Pluto is not a planet, then Pluto is not a planet.
    2. Neil DeGrasse Tyson says that Pluto is not a planet.
    C. Pluto is not a planet.

    This is a Valid argument. This follows the Modus Ponens form laid out above. Furthermore, Premsie 1 is true (and thus Good), Premise 2 is true (and thus Good), and the conclusion is also true. Ergo, not only is this argument Valid, but also Sound.

    I’m quite happy to be proved wrong here

    Here’s hoping…

    This comment is about twice as long as my original post. I’m not sure how I feel about that…

  27. roland72 says

    Thanks for replying at such length. It’s clear now where I was wrong – I said that you can have an argument with only one premise, and I misunderstood “formal” and “informal” fallacies. It’s most helpful to have it pointed out so clearly. I’m not stupid – just ignorant. Happens to the best of us :-)

    I understand where we disagree now.

    1. If Neil DeGrasse Tyson says that Pluto is not a planet, then Pluto is not a planet.
    2. Neil DeGrasse Tyson says that Pluto is not a planet.
    C. Pluto is not a planet.

    This is a Valid argument. This follows the Modus Ponens form laid out above. Furthermore, Premsie 1 is true (and thus Good), Premise 2 is true (and thus Good), and the conclusion is also true. Ergo, not only is this argument Valid, but also Sound.

    I agree (with my new found logic powers) that this is a valid argument. Where I disagree is with the truth of Premise 1. I think statements of this form are always false unless (as I said before) the truth of the statement and what the speaker says are the same thing (“Jill agrees with me”). That’s why I think this distinction is worth making.

    In practice, would you believe something if the *only* evidence for it was the pronouncement of an authority?

    Richard Wein @15 put it better than I would:

    An appeal to authority would be obviously fallacious if taken as strictly deductive: it’s obvious that the truth of a proposition does not necessarily follow from the fact that authorities believe it. But sensible appeals to authority are not deductive. They are inferences from evidence. The fact that authorities believe the proposition is evidence of its truth. Whether it’s sufficient evidence to justify believing the proposition depends on the circumstances.

    Brian:
    Here’s hoping…

    I think this is just a little bit unfair.

  28. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I think this is just a little bit unfair.

    You’re right. I apologise, I allowed my cynicism to gain the upperhand.

    I’ll respond to the rest tomorrow.

  29. Richard Wein says

    I think Brian has given a good account of strictly deductive arguments. But to me it misses the point. Most inferences in the real world are not strictly deductive. In trying to force the examples into a strictly deductive mould, Brian has taken the main point in question as a premise, instead of something to be decided. What we want to know is whether the alleged authority (Jill or Neil) is reliable. But Brian’s examples take that reliability as a premise. Reliability is something about which we must make a fallible, evidence-based inference.

    Taking “argument” in a broader sense than just strictly deductive arguments, we can make an argument from just one premise. Indeed, I would say an argument needn’t use any words at all! It could take the form of a picture, or even a gesture. Let’s say we’re in dispute over what time it is. I can make an argument in support of my position just by pointing at a clock.

    To me, an over-emphasis on deductive arguments has been the bane of much traditional philosophy. I favour a more scientific, “naturalized” approach to philosophy, which puts more emphasis on inferences to the best explanation, and recognises that most inference occurs at a subconscious level, not through conscious deductive reasoning.

  30. Brian Lynchehaun says

    But Brian’s examples take that reliability as a premise.

    Absolutely not.

    “Reliability” is relevant to whether or not the premises are Good, not with regards to Validity.

    Deductive or Inductive is entirely irrelevant on that point. An Inductive argument is Valid or Invalid independent of the truth of the premises, just as a Deductive argument is In/Valid.

    Anyone who looks at an argument, sees that a premise is false (or unreliable, or unknown) and then declares that a Fallacy is in play is using the word “fallacy” incorrectly.

    Fallacies pertain to logical structure not truth/reliability.

    (Sorry for any repetition in this post, it’s 3am here and I’m a bit bleary-eyed)

  31. ischemgeek says

    Speaking of fallacies: I find ad hominem is often thrown about falsely. For something to be argumentum ad hominem, my understanding is that it must take the following form:

    1) A says X
    2) A is Y
    3) Therefore X is false.

    (where Y is some trait that has no bearing on X and is usually considered unsavory).

    An example:

    1) Genie Scott says creationism is incorrect.
    2) Genie Scott is an atheist.
    3) She can’t be trusted on such matters, therefore creationism is right.

    In this case, Genie Scott’s atheism is unrelated to whether or not creationism is valid, and atheism is stigmatized in our society, so bringing up her lack of religion may reasonably be seen as an attempt to make her seem less reliable. Anti-vaxers often do this regarding medical research. “Paul Offit is a Big Pharma shill who works at a university funded by pharma companies!” (which has nothing to do with whether or not the evidence supports vaccination as a good thing).

    Simply writing a vitriolic reply does not necessarily mean the person is using an ad hominem attack. If I call Kent Hovind a dumbass as I dissect creationism and prove it wrong, I’m not engaging in an ad hominem. If I instead say “Kent Hovind says evolution is wrong, but he’s a convicted criminal so how much do you want to believe him?” that is an ad hominem if that sentence represents the bulk of my argument.

    Which brings me to my next point: A notion is not necessarily wrong if the argument for it is fallacious. I can (and just did) erect a fallacious argument in favor of something that is likely true. If I say, “Vic Toes supported the internet spying bill and he said all critics supported pedophiles, so the internet spying bill is obviously the product of deranged paranoia and shouldn’t pass,” my argument is wrong, but that does not meant the bill should have passed unchallenged. There were legitimate concerns over privacy invasions the bill would have legalized (and may still legalize, if it gets past committee again). So saying, “logical fallacy therefore your argument is wrong!” makes sense. Saying “logical fallacy therefore what you’re trying to prove is wrong!” does not.

  32. Richard Wein says

    Brian,

    You misunderstood me. I wasn’t referring to the reliability of the premise, but to the reliability of the source (Jill or Neil).

    1. If Neil DeGrasse Tyson says that Pluto is not a planet, then Pluto is not a planet.

    This premise is asserting Neil’s reliability as a source.

  33. wondering says

    Thank you!

    Unsurprisingly, the incident I was referring to was a professor (not of any relevant subject) mansplaining about women’s attitudes in the 1970s (to three women who had experienced the 70s). I called him on the fallacy, but named the wrong one. Fortunately, he didn’t notice.

    By Cromm, I LOVE “phallusy”. Well done, sir.

  34. RuQu says

    You make an excellent point. I think too often people are more concerned with winning than they are with being correct or having an actual discussion.

    I often try and rephrase the part of what they are saying that I am replying to. “I think you are saying that if X and Y, therefore Z.” You can often see what they are getting at, even if they are not articulating it well. By rephrasing it, you also give them an opportunity to correct you if you made a false assumption about there intentions.

    Of course, some people are simply more interested in scoring points, and you eventually just have to abandon any attempt at discussion with them.

  35. RuQu says

    I would suggest that this is true in the strict sense of formalized logic, but that it is incorrect when applied to arguments as they occur in nature.

    If, to use your example, you call Bob an idiot while dissecting his argument, that is not an ad hominem.

    If, however, you spend 2/3 of your essay/article/comments insulting Bob, demeaning his intellect, etc and only lightly touch on any of his points, the intent of your argument is clearly to discredit the author and distract attention away from the argument itself. In this case the structure is not as formal as the strict form you gave, but the result and purpose is the same. You are ignoring/dismissing their argument on the grounds of some irrelevant attribute of their character/intellect and then using insults and character assassination to both bolster that claim and distract the audience.

    Is it formal ad hominem? No, but the intent and result are the same, and it is certainly a bad argument and should be avoided out of common decency if for no other reason. The person doing so should certainly be called out for it, even if it is a slightly inaccurate use of the term.

  36. Brian Lynchehaun says

    If, however, you spend 2/3 of your essay/article/comments insulting Bob, demeaning his intellect, etc and only lightly touch on any of his points, the intent of your argument is clearly to discredit the author and distract attention away from the argument itself.

    You are confusing ‘rhetorical techniques’ for ‘fallacious argumentation’.

    You are free to ascribe any term you like to what the person is doing. You are as entirely free to claim that the writer is ‘ice-cream sandwiching’ Bob, as you are free to claim that the writer has committed ‘an ad hominem attack’. In both cases, you are just using existing words sloppily. Sure, in a casual conversation, sloppy usage is usual. That does not make it either accurate, appropriate or correct.

    In this case the structure is not as formal as the strict form you gave, but the result and purpose is the same.

    Irrelevant.

    ‘Ad Hominem’ is a technical term that describes an error in the form of an argument. It’s completely irrelevant whether the argument is formal, or not: if the conclusion of the argument largely rests on an irrelevant premise, and that premise is asserting that some personal characteristic of Bob indicates that Bob is wrong, then this is an Ad Hominem attack. It doesn’t even have to be negative, it can simply be “Bob is wearing a hat, therefore Bob is wrong”.

    I think we may have a difference in understanding in what a ‘formal argument’ is, versus an ‘informal argument’. The difference is not that the former adheres to a whole list of rules and regulations, and the latter doesn’t: that’s the difference between a well-put argument, and word salad.

    The primary difference between a ‘formal argument’ and an ‘informal argument’ is that in the latter case, many of the premises aren’t directly stated, and that it’s often presented as a block of prose (as opposed to Spinoza’s Ethics (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3800/3800-h/3800-h.htm ) which (on the surface) appears to be both a formal argument and word salad.).

    If the bulk of the argument is a smear of Bob, but the conclusion doesn’t actually connect with those premises (i.e. they could be stripped out, and the argument remains fully intact), then the argument (while abusive) is not an instance of the Ad Hominem Fallacy.

    Is it formal ad hominem?

    It’s not an Ad Hominem, at all. Unless you want to just use whatever words you want, in which case it’s also an ice cream sandwich.

    The person doing so should certainly be called out for it, even if it is a slightly inaccurate use of the term.

    It’s not “slightly” inaccurate. The term has a highly precise meaning. That people use it badly is the point of the article. Stop abusing fallacies. Thanks.

  37. Richard Wein says

    Ruqu, I think you’re right to distinguish between formalized arguments and real-world arguments. In the real world I don’t think one is likely to encounter a “formal” ad hominem fallacy, in the sense of one that clearly identifies the personal remark as the premise of an argument. Generally we would have to make a judgement as to whether the speaker intends the remark to be interpreted as evidence in support of his conclusion. Since it’s a matter of intention, it could be a very difficult judgement to make.

    In practice I don’t think I’ve ever accused anyone of committing an ad hominem fallacy. I don’t find the term useful. I would rather just say that the personal remark is irrelevant (and possibly counterproductive, inflammatory, etc).

  38. RuQu says

    Brian, you are absolutely correct that it has a precise meaning in a formal context (structured argumentation).

    I also understand that this is exactly the point of the article. I thought the article was good, and made some excellent points.

    I especially appreciated the parts of the article that were about elevating our discourse. If you use “Fallacy!” as a way to stop discussion, you aren’t using them properly. You need to point out the fallacy, and then point out why it is a problem, and then proceed.

    In the comments, though not the article, you also talk about the principle of charity, another concept that helps elevate our discourse.

    No, obviously with the article you have written, you are personally offended by this abuse of fallacies.

    I, on the other hand, am more far more interested in two things: 1) promoting communication, and 2) more civil discourse.

    When the other person understands you, communication has happened. Words or phrases often have both formal definitions, sometimes within a specialized field, and a more general usage. Perhaps the general usage is technically wrong, but so long as communication happens, it was effective.

    It is in this case that I think ad hominem in particular gets used. It is a more general shorthand for “please refrain from personal attacks and focus on the discussion.” Formally misused? Yes. Does communication happen? Indeed it does.

    My second general concern is with the quality of discourse. The internet has a high tendency towards comments and discussion that you would never encounter in the real world, because the real world includes a risk of retaliatory violence.

    “Real” conversations are more likely to adopt the principle of charity because you are attempting to make a connection with people. Identifying what they meant promotes empathy and connection. In contrast, the internet promotes condescension and rhetorical dodges, as you have little connection with the other person. They are simply your opponent and the goal is “winning.”

    Online conversations also quickly devolve into insults on a scale rarely seen in the real world except right before a bar fight. “Rational” people having online discussions are no different than any other community. So long as a community behaves in this way, promoting constructive and peaceful discourse is more important than being technically correct. If using ad hominem as a shorthand accomplishes that goal, I say abuse away. Ad hominem really doesn’t care, it is a concept not a person. Once we can handle not abusing each other, then we can come back and comfort ad hominem for the decades of abuse.

    And, while conceding that you know your fallacies better than I do, I would point out that ad hominem is an informal fallacy, not a formal one. As you yourself point out, this means it often relies on context. It can be difficult in a real discussion to identify if the attacks are used as the basis for the conclusion, especially as real people rarely layout all of their assumptions and premises in a nice clear logic table.

    I commend the parts of your article that focus on encouraging discussion. I understand your disagreement with me and that I am technically incorrect. I simply have priorities in other places, and I think promoting better interpersonal interaction is more important than avoiding the abuse of a term. If you prefer, you can read that sentence as “I choose to be wrong because it supports my goals,” but I would maintain that the stance is rational in context and that any prioritization of my goal (elevated discourse) and yours (technical correctness in language use) is a subjective one.

  39. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I, on the other hand, am more far more interested in two things: 1) promoting communication, and 2) more civil discourse.

    You’re absolutely right: I’m interested neither in promoting communication, nor more civil discourse. Well spotted.

    It is a more general shorthand for “please refrain from personal attacks and focus on the discussion.”

    That is entirely not my experience. But hey, what do I know, it’s not like I’ve ever had an informal conversation in my life.

    My second general concern is with the quality of discourse. The internet has a high tendency towards comments and discussion that you would never encounter in the real world, because the real world includes a risk of retaliatory violence.

    Riiiight…. While I appreciate you illustrating the first half of this with your post, full of passive aggressive slanders as it is, if you are assuming that people refrain from being assholes because of the risk of violence, you are drastically A) under-estimating the amount of people who happily act like assholes in the real world (which you claim to have buckets of experience with), and B) over-estimating people’s tendency towards violence in response to verbal aggression.

    In contrast, the internet promotes condescension and rhetorical dodges, as you have little connection with the other person.

    Yes, yes, you’ve illustrated this nicely.

    If using ad hominem as a shorthand accomplishes that goal, I say abuse away.

    So, to sum up:

    In the choice between “being technically wrong” (otherwise known as “being wrong”) and saying X when you mean Y, versus being correct, and meaning X when you say X, you have chosen to go with “being wrong, and saying X when you mean Y”.

    Yet your goal is the promotion of communication, you say?

    It can be difficult in a real discussion to identify if the attacks are used as the basis for the conclusion, especially as real people rarely layout all of their assumptions and premises in a nice clear logic table.

    I’m sorry that communication is hard for you. This is no excuse for being passive aggressive and obnoxious.

    I make an effort to actually follow what people are saying, to look for the links between the various things that they say, and check in with them to confirm that I’m following things correctly.

    No shit, people don’t lay things out in logic tables. You understand that pretending my education hinders my ability to understand people is obnoxious and condescending, right?

    I commend the parts of your article that focus on encouraging discussion. I understand your disagreement with me and that I am technically incorrect. I simply have priorities in other places, and I think promoting better interpersonal interaction is more important than avoiding the abuse of a term. If you prefer, you can read that sentence as “I choose to be wrong because it supports my goals,” but I would maintain that the stance is rational in context and that any prioritization of my goal (elevated discourse) and yours (technical correctness in language use) is a subjective one.

    Right. Thanks for the pat on the head. Let me know where ‘being condescending and obnoxious’ fits in with “promoting better interpersonal interaction”.

    Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    You are absolutely entitled to disagree with me. Dismissing my existence, asserting that your experiences supercede (in all ways) mine, assuming (incorrectly) that you know my goals, and that mine are dismissable? Absolutely not cool.

    Incidentally, for the person (or two) following this thread, RuQu just engaged in the Circumstantial Ad Hominem Fallacy (‘you are a Philosopher, not a Real Person (TM), therefore you are wrong’), and the Prejudicial Language Fallacy (use of the word “technical”, and it’s variants, to dismiss the opposing view). And yes, there’s a world of difference between saying that something is “a technical term”, and saying that something is “technically correct”. One is providing a definition, the other is a dismissal.

  40. RuQu says

    I think you are being uncharitable, and intentionally reading the worst interpretation of my statements.

    Allow me to be as clear as possible, not out of condescension but because it seems I am being misunderstood.

    Fallacies are abused. This article was well-written, I enjoyed it, and I think it makes very good points.

    While admittedly anecdotal, I don’t think real discussions always naturally fit in the structures that govern formal logical argument, and I think there is a lot of subjectivity to declaring what is an informal fallacy and what isn’t within the context of natural communication.

    I admit that I do make certain assumptions about your goals, although I think they are reasonable ones. If your goal is not to stop abuse of fallacies, please correct me. If you think that this is applicable across a broader spectrum of communication, I’d be interested in hearing how you would suggest applying it in the context of people who don’t generally speak in terms of fallacies, correctly or otherwise.

    I can also see how you might infer that my saying my goal was improving the quality of discourse implies that you somehow do not share this goal. This is one of the cases where I think you are being uncharitable, or choosing to see offense where none is intended. The two are not mutually exclusive, and I even explicitly mention that your points about identifying fallacies are a starting point not a stopping point actively promote better discussion.

    I am not sure where the hostility is coming from, but my guess is that it is largely a misunderstanding. I think if you reread what I wrote without looking for attacks, if you exercise that “principle of charity” you talked about earlier, we might be able to have a calm discussion on the matter. While your “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” dismissal makes it clear you likely have little interest in engaging me in discussion or attempting to convince me that colloquial use of the term is harmful, the opportunity is there. This discussion could easily have been something constructive about how using these terms inaccurately might seem beneficial (a crude summary of my position), but it really produces additional harm in the long-term that offsets that benefit.

    It’s a conversation I’d be interested in having, but it’s no skin off my back if you’d rather just insult me and end the discussion.

  41. ischemgeek says

    I disagree. Some words and phrases are formal terms with specific meanings. To illustrate: I’m currently writing my thesis. If I say in my thesis that homopolar hydrogen-hydrogen interactions play an integral role in the supramolecular chemistry of a class of compounds I’ve studied, and therefore that I have a theory that if we keep in mind these supramolecular considerations and design a compound that fits a set of criteria, we could succeed in the object of the overall project I’m working on, I would be incorrect: It’s not a theory, it’s a hypothesis to be tested with future work.

    Ad hominem, likewise, is a formal term with a specific meaning. People misuse the word theory all the time, even in talks of scientific subjects. That doesn’t mean that calling a hypothesis a theory is correct. Same with ad hominem: That someone calls a vitriol-filled piece of writing full of personal attacks an ad hominem does not make that vitriolic piece a proper ad hominem. That it’s common use to call an argument that makes excessive personal attacks while acutally pulling together an argument supported by evidence an ad hominem does not mean that it’s an ad hominem. One is phrasing an argument in nasty terms. The other is a fallacy. Equating the two is false equivalence.

  42. RuQu says

    Certainly true, and scientists should be far more careful of using “theory” and “hypothesis” correctly.

    But what of more colloquial usage? When a non-scientists (Joe) says, in a non-scientific setting, “I have a theory that if I do X, then Y?” This is incorrect usage, but it is outside of the technical sphere where the jargon originated.

    Should we correct Joe? Or should we accept that communication has happened, and understand his intent that he is making a prediction of a causal relationship?

    Within the confines of communities where people tend to throw out fallacy flags, we absolutely should ensure they are being used correctly. Outside of those, in more general discussion, is it harmful to re-appropriate these terms, to use them incorrectly, if it communicates something understood by the audience?

  43. RuQu says

    It occurs to me that my entire point may simply be one of different audiences.

    The article specifically starts out with the line:

    So the ‘skeptic community’ is pretty enamoured with ‘fallacies‘.

    While I am talking about application to a general population who may have heard of some of these fallacies, but not be intimately familiar with them.

    Within the “skeptic community,” or any of the other secular communities that focus on this sort of discussion such as the “rationalists,” everything said here is quite on point. If you are going to use them, use them right, and use them to promote conversation, not as a kill-switch.

    Outside of those communities, in the “lay-population” if you will, I would argue that less rigor is necessary, but that is perhaps another discussion.

  44. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I don’t think real discussions always naturally fit in the structures that govern formal logical argument

    Of what relevance is this?

    Given that no-one has made the claim that you are disagreeing with, I can interpret this in only two ways: irrelevant padding, or passive aggressive undermining.

    Y’know, I had a long response typed up, but screw it, I’m not wasting my time with you.

    Do you understand how bizarre it is to, on the one hand, claim that your words only matter in so far as they facilitate communication, and then (on the other) complain that I’m making incorrect inferences?

    Do you understand that lazy, sloppy communication means that people are unlikely to interpret you the way you want to be interpreted?

    You want to use words incorrectly because people who don’t understand the correct terminology will magically understand you better? Fine, go knock yourself out. I’ll be over here, explaining to people that instead of saying “That’s an Ad Hominem!”, they can achieve the more, as no-one will call them on their ignorance, with saying “that’s just abusive”.

    But while you babble on, pretending that words mean only what you want them to mean, you don’t get to whine about people misunderstanding you. That’s just ridiculous and contemptible.

    ischemgeek is right on the money. I’m done with you.

  45. Medivh says

    It’s a reference to Pints and Quarts in English pubs, just before ugly words turn to ugly actions, typically said by the landlord.

  46. ischemgeek says

    RuQu, I hate having to repeat myself, but in this case, I will:

    People misuse the word theory all the time, even in talks of scientific subjects. That doesn’t mean that calling a hypothesis a theory is correct.

    Futher, you’re creating a false dichotomy: Why can’t I both point out that it’s not a theory and then move on to the body of the other person’s argument?

    As for re-appropriation, no, it’s not okay to knowingly misuse a formal term. The reason is that as the colloquial meaning of a term becomes more and more divorced from its formal meaning, you have to spend more and more effort explaining the common misconceptions about said term.

    See also: theory =/= wild-ass guess.

  47. RuQu says

    To repeat myself, scientists should absolutely only use the term correctly.

    You certainly can do both, pointing out that it is not a theory and then move on, so long as you don’t dismiss their argument due to the improper usage.

    As for colloquial usage, I think we are just going to have to disagree on this one. If a person learns the term colloquially and then enters a professional field where the formal usage is needed, then they should learn the proper usage during their education.

    Over in a recent B&W thread, there was a good discussion started by the poster Improbable Joe over the lack of awareness of privileged status when it comes to class. Expecting jargon to be used correctly universally, regardless of background and education level, is a good example of this.

    This country, and the larger world, does not have equal access to education resources. A person may never know that they are using the word wrong. Is it not still better for them to think critically and attempt to apply the scientific method, even if they use the jargon incorrectly?

    And, if you feel the need to correct a layperson using technical jargon wrong, but otherwise making a good argument, what is the purpose of that correction? Certainly it is better to be right than wrong, to use the word correctly than not to. However, might there also be a risk, especially depending on tone, that your correction leads to greater insecurity in the face of your superior education and serves to silence them?

  48. ischemgeek says

    As for colloquial usage, I think we are just going to have to disagree on this one. If a person learns the term colloquially and then enters a professional field where the formal usage is needed, then they should learn the proper usage during their education.

    My point is not that it’s somehow wrong for people who don’t know they’re using a word incorrectly to use them, but rather that it’s wrong for those who do know to knowingly use it incorrectly.

    Over in a recent B&W thread, there was a good discussion started by the poster Improbable Joe over the lack of awareness of privileged status when it comes to class. Expecting jargon to be used correctly universally, regardless of background and education level, is a good example of this.

    Except that I never made that expectation. I expect that those who do know the proper meaning use it properly. By misusing a word, you perpetuate the incorrect usage and you increase the chances of misunderstanding between yourself and the person you’re trying to communicate with.

    This country, and the larger world, does not have equal access to education resources. A person may never know that they are using the word wrong. Is it not still better for them to think critically and attempt to apply the scientific method, even if they use the jargon incorrectly?

    You misrepresent me. I said that it is wrong for someone to knowingly misuse a word. Knowingly is the key word there.

    And, if you feel the need to correct a layperson using technical jargon wrong, but otherwise making a good argument, what is the purpose of that correction?

    The purpose is to make sure we both mean the same thing when we use the same word. Otherwise miscommunications happen.

    Certainly it is better to be right than wrong, to use the word correctly than not to. However, might there also be a risk, especially depending on tone, that your correction leads to greater insecurity in the face of your superior education and serves to silence them?

    Depends on the context and tone of a correction. If someone says, “I have a [incorrect term] that…”, I can reply with, “In science, we’d call that a [correct term], so if I use [correct term], that’s what I mean. [Reply to their original point].” Nothing says I have to be condescending or silencing. Making sure that both parties to an argument know what the other means with terms is vital to understanding. Consider all the arguments of “Evolution is just a theory”. These come from a core misunderstanding of what science means when it uses the word theory. Correct terminology in technical discussions matters, but in informal discussions, precise terminology matters. If I say theory meaning scientific theory, and you mentally hear ‘wild-ass guess’, there will be a fundamental misunderstaning that will make it impossible to communicate constructively.

  49. Richard Wein says

    Let me second Ruqu’s call for more charity. I think he’s made some good points, certainly enough to show that he has something to contribute to this discussion. If he’s made errors too (as do we all) those can be pointed out politely.

    Precision is generally a matter of degree. And “ad hominem” is not nearly so precise a term as some. It’s worth distinguishing between “ad hominem” and “ad hominem fallacy”. It’s not clear that we must necessarily restrict the term “ad hominem” to fallacies. Words get their meaning from how people use them. If enough people are using “ad hominem” as a near-synonym for “insult” or “making an insult in the course of an argument” it may be reasonable to recognise this as a new term, or new sense of an existing term. Many terms have both technical and colloquial senses.

    Of course, when people do use “ad hominem” to imply a fallacy, they should be held to the standard of whether a fallacy has actually been committed. Also, when people use the term “ad hominem” in place of “insult”, they are probably doing so just because they perceive that it is a technical term and think it will therefore carry more prestige and force than the plain word “insult”. I think this sort of pretentious language use should be discouraged in favour of plain speaking.

    At the risk of repeating myself, I think that the terms “ad hominem” and “ad hominem fallacy” have little constructive value, even when used in the technical sense. For the reasons I gave earlier, the question of whether a particular case qualifies as an ad hominem fallacy will nearly always be a questionable matter of judgement (about intention). Instead of using the term “ad hominem” and provoking a pointless argument about whether the term was applicable, it would be better to say something plainer, like “that remark contributes nothing to your argument”. Calling it an “ad hominem” should not carry any extra force. True, regrettably, it does for some people. But taking advantage of people’s tendency to be impressed by technical jargon will only encourage the unnecessary use and abuse of such jargon.

    I hope this will be seen as agreeing with Brian’s original point. Too many people concentrate on naming the fallacy instead of more clearly identifying what’s wrong with the argument.

  50. RuQu says

    Your additional charity is certainly appreciated.

    I think your post also demonstrates another reason to avoid ad hominem in colloquial usage. When used as a loftier term for “insult,” the person who is being accused of the ad hominem may not be familiar with the term at all, formally or colloquially. In that case, it is serving to establish an educational superiority, and to discourage argument. This may seem trivial here, but in parts of society where higher education is rare there can be anxiety when confronted with your lack of education. Intentionally triggering that anxiety to discourage conversation should be avoided. It is exploiting someone’s disadvantaged social class for your own benefit.

  51. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Richard:

    Let me second Ruqu’s call for more charity.

    You are free to pretend that an obnoxious and condescending comment is not. You are free to pretend that it’s totally cool to notice someone making a mistake and not correct it, thus confirming (in their mind) their usage of the term. You are free to pretend that maintaining a power imbalance (in the form of an inequality of education) is, somehow, good.

    You are not free, however, to deny/dismiss the calling out of this condescending and obnoxious behaviour.

    The Principle of Charity that I mentioned above means interpreting someone’s easily-refuted statement as a less-easily-refuted statement. For example, if someone were to make the (obnoxious and wrong) statement that “women are weaker than men”, one would charitably interpret that as “there exists some women who are weaker than some men” (which usually means that it’s irrelevant to most discussions).

    The Principle of Charity does not mean that one pretends that insulting behaviour is cool and fair game, nor that one pretends that being dismissed as ‘not talking about reality’ is acceptable.

    You are free to enable such behaviour, of course. But it’s a bit ridiculous to call others to condone it.

    As for the rest of your post, we’re pretty much on the same page (minus the “about intention” part: either the premise in question supports the conclusion, or it doesn’t (meaning it’s an Ad Hominem, or just noise)). As the Ad Hominem Fallacy is a sub-category of the Fallacy of Irrelevancy, nothing is really lost by declaring the comments to be merely irrelevant.

  52. RuQu says

    You are not free, however, to deny/dismiss the calling out of this condescending and obnoxious behaviour.

    If you think this is important, we certainly should do so. We wouldn’t want such behavior to be perpetuated.

    My first post has nothing in it condescending or insulting. It does have some room for improvement. I use vague language like “when applied in nature” when I should say “colloquially” or “to the layperson.” It is also perhaps, as Richard demonstrated, wrong to use it even colloquially.

    So now, having committed no offense except poor communication and the crime of being wrong, we come to your first response to me.

    You are immediately a condescending prick. Your suggestion of “ice cream sandwich” as an alternative is absurd and condescending. You intentionally take my use of informal, which in context clearly meant an informal setting and choose to instead apply the definition of a fallacy not dependent on the form of the argument. This is uncharitable at best, intentionally dishonest to further your condescension at worst.

    Note that Robert clearly understood this context. His reply starts with commenting on the value of distinguishing between formal and real-world arguments. Certainly better worded than mine, as it avoids the confusion with my poor use of informal. It also shows that basic reading comprehension was sufficient to understand me.

    In my second post, after you have been abusive, I attempt to smooth things over. I specifically make a point to compliment the article and show agreement with the points you are making.

    In your second response you ignore my compliments and attempts at bringing the conversation in a more positive and constructive direction. Instead you construe them as attacks.

    You also use the word “informal” in exactly the way I did in the first post, further suggesting your misinterpretation of it was intentional.

    You then take the opportunity to both insult my intelligence directly, and then dismiss me entirely.

    This is the first post where you decide to project the label of “condescending and obnoxious” onto me.

    In my third post I continue to attempt to smooth things over. I suggest you are being uncharitable. I compliment you yet again, and go into detail about how I see where I may have been seen as condescending and explicitly say that was not intended.

    I explicitly state that I think your hostility is due to misunderstanding, and invite us to start over without the insults.

    Your third post comes back with more condescension, more insults, and another dismissal, apparently uninterested in an insult free discussion or entertaining the idea that you may not have actually been insulted and that your reaction may have been uncalled for.

    That brings us to your latest post.

    This is where you crank the victim complex up to 11, and insist that no one can possibly suggest that you weren’t attacked here. You repeat that I was condescending and obnoxious, and insist that it is only correct to call me on it.

    In point of fact, I have been nothing but charitable with you, ignoring repeated and excessive insults and attempting to steer the conversation back in a constructive direction. At every turn, you have responded with insults and condescension, and intentionally misconstrued my comments.

    Now, after all of that, you play the card of the victim.

    You are either highly dishonest or highly deluded. You are certainly both a hypocrite and an asshole. As you said, it is only right to call you on it, and it would be out of line to deny or dismiss your behavior.

    It is sad when they let trolls pose as authors.

    It is a shame they allow abusers to feign victimhood.

    It is a shame you know of no better way to communicate than abuse and brow-beating.

    You should be ashamed.

    Good day to you, sir.

    I said, “Good day!”

    [Edited by Brian to close an open html tag]

  53. Brian Lynchehaun says

    My first post has nothing in it condescending or insulting.

    False.

    I would suggest that this is true in the strict sense of formalized logic, but that it is incorrect when applied to arguments as they occur in nature.

    You opened with a fairly typical anti-intellectual false dichotomy: ‘I see how what you’re saying applies to yon ivory tower conversations, but it’s not applicable to the real world. I know this, because I live in the real world, and you don’t.’

    I use vague language like “when applied in nature” when I should say “colloquially” or “to the layperson.”

    This continues to assert that I do not know how to communicate colloquially, and that I do not speak to ‘laypeople’. This, right here, is the condescension and obnoxious behaviour that I have been referring to.

    You are immediately a condescending prick.

    Clearly stated disagreement, and correction of points is being a condescending prick? But personal abuse (I’m referring to your behaviour prior to your most recent post) is cool? Seriously?

    Your suggestion of “ice cream sandwich” as an alternative is absurd and condescending.

    This is a standard substitution.

    If you don’t really care about the meaning of words, then you are free to substitute any expression you like in. Of course it’s absurd. That was the whole point, to demonstrate, through substitutions, that using words with a given meaning when you intend something else is absurd.

    I could, instead, have played along with your ignorance and pretended it wasn’t. Like you have continually advocated. That is, in fact, the very definition of condescension.

    You intentionally take my use of informal, which in context clearly meant an informal setting and choose to instead apply the definition of a fallacy not dependent on the form of the argument.

    Because these two things are the same. I even started out, very gently, pointing out that we may be using the terms differently. Where I said:

    I think we may have a difference in understanding in what a ‘formal argument’ is, versus an ‘informal argument’.

    How dare I check with you to see if we’re on the same page!

    I haven’t misinterpreted you. If you believe so, the appropriate response is to clarify the difference between them, rather than ignoring the perceived misunderstanding.

    Y’know, that whole ‘improving communication’ thing…

    Note that Robert clearly understood this context.

    I agree that Richard was making the same point as you. You both made precisely the same point, which I was responding to.

    That you (and possibly he, he doesn’t go on about at length) see some distinction between where I live (the ivory tower) and where you live (“the real world”, as Richard puts it) is something that requires support.

    Arguments are arguments. There are differing levels of rigor by different people, but they are not fundamentally different, as you keep insisting.

    I specifically make a point to compliment the article and show agreement with the points you are making.

    Yes, I agree that you went into full-power pat-on-head-and-condescend-mode.

    You seem to be under the impression that an adult would take this well. I can’t speak to your experiences elsewhere, but this particular adult does not take being treated as a precocious 6 year old well.

    You also seem to be under the impression that stating what you do in the form of a contrast doesn’t implicitly declares that the other person does not do that. (there’s a string-and-a-half of negatives…)

    For example (and it’s in single quotes to indicate that I’m not *actually* saying this):

    ‘I don’t know about you, but I have made a significant effort to be frank and direct’

    This sentence implicitly declares that you have not made a significant effort to be frank or direct. Of course, since it’s implicit, the speaker is free to deny any such interpretation and is free to make a series of comments like this, where they repeatedly and implicitly insult the person they are speaking to.

    A single comment (or even two) like this can be ignored/tolerated. A post infused with them? Obnoxious.

    How dare I be insulted by your insulting behaviour…

    You are either highly dishonest or highly deluded. You are certainly both a hypocrite and an asshole. As you said, it is only right to call you on it, and it would be out of line to deny or dismiss your behavior.

    I appreciate you finally being direct about this.

    I fully accept (and am aware) that I was sarcastic. I explicitly laid out my complaints with your post.

    You then patted me on the head, declared all problems were on my side of the computer, and continued to piss all over me.

    Perhaps, when dealing with other folk, you might find it productive to interact with their specific complaints, rather than dismissing their complaints as a problem of their comprehension. Whoa, my bad, accusing people of failing to comprehend you isn’t insulting at all… My mistake. I was claiming to be a victim of insulting behaviour here, there I go, falsely claiming to be a victim again…

  54. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I also, already, laid out a specific list of complaints with your behaviour, high-lighting the problematic areas.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2012/07/30/in-defence-of-abused-fallacies/#comment-66806

    You ignored it, as you have every other specific criticism.

    Once you start ignoring people’s specific criticisms, and continue to engage in the behaviours they have pointed out is problematic, they are going to consider you with scathing contempt. They may not be as restrained as I (those posts you didn’t like? They were not my first draft). They may be more restrained than I.

    But the correct response to “Hey, you’re actually being kind of insulting here” is not to ignore it, and to continue engaging in the behaviour. Unless you don’t actually care about shitting all over people.

  55. RuQu says

    That is a very deep-seated sense of victimization.

    I don’t know where it comes from. Perhaps you were repeatedly called stupid as a child? Perhaps, as a grad student in the “soft sciences” you have an innate intellectual inferiority complex since they are frequently not as respected as the “hard sciences.”

    I don’t know.

    It is clear that your skin is very, very thin, and you are prone to reading condescension everywhere. While I’m not a psychologist, and perhaps as a student of the “softer” sciences you know more about this, but it certainly suggests more than a passing fear of inadequacy.

    You also project pretty heavily. Obnoxious posts laden with condescension and direct insults at little provocation, and then labeling the targets of your conduct as instigating it and behaving the same. As in the suspicion of a cheating spouse, you seem very quick to see passive-aggressiveness and condescension everywhere.

    It is certainly clear that we have little to gain from any attempt at communicating. Even the most innocent of posts would surely be a trigger for your traumas, and I would not want to be responsible for that. I also see no need, after trying so many times to engage in polite discourse, to continue enabling your poor behavior. I have communicated here in good faith and with an open mind, even being convinced by Robert’s post that my position was correct and offering additional support for the harm my position held.

    I hope that you can eventually learn to interact with people as a mature adult, and avoid the tantrums. Intensive therapy may help, although those most in need of it often fail to see that there is anything wrong with them.

    This blog is supposedly intended to further the goals of social justice, yet it creates an exceptionally hostile space for any new members. You have already lashed out at anyone attempting to rear in the emotional level when you turned your condescension on Richard and insisted he was not free to ask you to cool off. Any other reader who might disagree is certainly far less likely to do so.

    Allow me to make one attempt at a more formalized argument on my way out:

    1) To spread your message, people have to listen to you.
    2) People who ignore you, don’t listen to you.
    C) To spread your message, you need people to not ignore you.

    1) Emotional people are less likely to be rational.
    2) Being an asshole makes people emotional.
    3) Irrational people tend to ignore the arguments of assholes, despite this being an ad hominem fallacy.
    4) To spread your message, you need people to not ignore you.
    C) To spread your message, you need to try not being an asshole.

    Hiding behind “It’s a fallacy to ignore my points just because I’m an asshole” doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

    So congratulations. As a newcomer here who has repeatedly said no insult was intended and attempted to act in good faith, you have made it quite clear that this is not a place where I will find anything of value.

    You have also amply demonstrated that it is a hostile space for anyone new to the movement or this particular community to even attempt to join in the discussion, effectively denying them any voice.

    Before you attempt to suggest that this is unique to me, I asked some people in another community about their experiences here. A common theme was that they read, but they would never comment. I was told some are better than others, but commenting was generally best avoided as it was hostile. I was even specifically told to avoid commenting at Crommunist.

    It certainly isn’t isolated to me, I just made the mistake of attempting to participate a little too soon. Had I read more in advance, I would likely have learned as others did through observation that it was a hostile place to comment, and certainly hostile to express anything with the faintest hint of dissent. That it is a known thing to not comment here should be of some concern for anyone with any interest in social justice at all.

    Certainly an odd choice for a social justice blog, but it is your little chunk of the internet to do with as you will.

    Best of luck with that.

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