Here on the interwebs, you run into idiocy of all stripes. Some people are too dumb to make a response worth giving, while others aren’t clearly stupid as much as they appear to be trolling for attention or to get a guy expending effort he needn’t (they won’t change their opinion anyway). Some vapidity is in tone, other times stubbornness in the face of the facts. The one that I would like to briefly address today doubles as logical fallacy. Before I begin this rant, let me note briefly that a fallacy does not an untruth or irrelevance make – but fallacy often skirts the issue at hand and diverts attention to details that have nothing to do with the veracity of the first statement. Fallacious reasoning is not an argument against the original thesis, it is a way of cleverly sidelining that thesis without having to deal with the claims made. More to come on that point, I am sure…
The fallacy of my particular interest today is present in many forms: argumentum ad hominem, the fallacy of motivation, the genetic fallacy, the argument from desired belief, the price of tea in China, argumentum ad thralldom, name-calling, the appeal to authority, argumentum ad populum, et tu quoque, character assassination, the race card, Godwin’s Law, the argument from offense, poisoning the well, guilt by association, et cetera, et cetera. Aiming our criticism at a person, why they believe a certain thing, how they came to believe it, what others believe, how they act versus what they claim to believe, or anything except the argument or belief itself fits this fallacy. It is an extremely popular logical mistake, and if you watch politicians and media figures, you will find this fallacy in nearly every argument made. We live and die by this fallacy in the USA:
“He is right because he is a Nobel Prize winning economist.”
“Everybody is doing it.”
“The belief came from economic theory, therefore it is wrong.”
“Hitler was a vegetarian, like she is.”
“She is wrong because she has a deep insecurity about what the world would look like if the belief was false.”
“Belief B is correct because everyone believes it.”
“She likes believing claim C, so claim C is wrong.”
“You are wrong about action Z being wrong, because I saw you do action Z the other day.”
“They are white men, so their beliefs can’t be right.”
“He is a drunk, so his belief N is absurd.”
“That group of young people don’t know what it is like to be old, so they are wrong”
“He wants to believe X is true, so X isn’t true.”
“She hangs out with a communist, so she doesn’t understand the topic.”
“He needs authority Y, so what authority Y says is wrong.”
“You are a thrall.”
“I am offended, so that is false (and you should stop talking).”
You can probably dream up your own versions of these responses to beliefs and claims. It is easy, due to our familiarity with them in everyday life. In fact, I know people whose entire worldview depends on these fallacies (and arguing with them is like trying to swim against the Nile in its futility, since they cannot escape this line of thinking). Put forth a claim of any mundanity or controversy, and I can promise you that some idiot will come out of the woodwork with an assertion similar to those above, believing his assertion to have forcefully and completely won the argument. Ah, the confident fool. When you see this type of “refutation,” it is the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. Think chess and pigeons: Debating [these fallaciously insistent types] is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory. People who believe they have conquered your thinking with nary but a comment about how you are a lawyer, not a doctor with 6 PhD’s: it can be funny, when it isn’t completely banal and exasperating…
The problem, of course is that these types of argument are baaa-a-a-a-a-a-aaaaaad. Embarrassingly terrible, in fact. Because they can appear effective to those who don’t have their eye on the logical ball, and generally work to silence the claim-maker without the slightest reference to the claim being made. This is the premise of a poltroon, not a reasoned individual. The truth of the matter is, to refute belief or claim K, you must show that claim K is probably false. This does not entail throwing the speaker under the bus or merely laughing with your buddies over what was said. It entails analyzing K, finding instances where it is not true, considering the meaning and circumstance of its opposite, conducting experiments to prove it incorrect (or providing examples of those who have), et cetera. Yelling “look at your haircut!” and running away is the mark of an incompetent thinker, in one way or other.
The fallacies you see above are not always made in bad faith – some people do not actually realize that these arguments aren’t disproof of the claim being made. But in intelligent individuals who should know better often do employ this method to silence and ridicule opposition, a which is poor form and bad faith. Be wise, not merely clever. You are not entitled to what you believe. You are only entitled to what you can argue for. And that means that if you can’t directly rebut the assertions of someone being made, you should keep out of the argument and leave it to those who have the prowess and tenacity to do so. Argumentation takes some rigor when the purpose is as it should be, that is, about learning – and if you do it with the motivation of always being right, you are doing it wrong. Where you must sacrifice truth and discovery for your own self-esteem promoted by this sad concept of “winning” the argument, you have already lost.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that on rare occasion tossing in an evaluation of someone’s reasoning ability with your arguments is always off limits. Polemic has a place in argumentation (and it makes these things fun), and some people truly are soft in the head (at the same time, I have never been a fan of unprovoked, below-the-belt insults of a person – so be prudent in your distribution of barbs). But don’t let the occasional insult or fallacy support the weight of your arguments. You owe yourself more than to think that type of shenanigans passes as sophisticated or sufficient.
So now you that you know, here is my advice. If someone tells you they believe vaccination of children is wrong, don’t just call them a dolt. At least give them some evidence of why and how their statement is wrong, to go with the true assessment of their intelligence…