Monday, November 7, 2016

The “Name a Logical Fallacy” Fallacy

Here’s another item for my “bad comments” list. This is different from the argument from fallacy (or fallacy fallacy), which involves rejecting a conclusion because an argument given for it is fallacious. (“My hair is a bird. Therefor the earth revolves around the sun.”)

In this fallacy, the fallacious reasoner names a logical fallacy, and instead of addressing the argument given or engaging in the discussion, spends all his time speaking about the logical fallacy. I’ve encountered this a few times.

In one thread a few years ago, someone pointed out that the amount spent annually to house a prisoner is more than the cost of year of college. It was in the context of arguing for spending more on college (I think). It’s an irrelevant comparison, and I said so. (Is the argument that we should send the criminal to college instead of prison? Like, even a murderer or a rapist? Is the argument that we should send everyone to college so that nobody ends up becoming a criminal? Is this a plausible strategy for reducing crime?) Someone piped up with “Nice straw-man dude!” without any elaboration. As far as I know I didn’t commit the straw-man fallacy, which is when you attack an argument different from the one that was offered. I asked for clarification. Instead of discussing the topic with me or explaining how I had made an error in reasoning, he kept repeating the words “straw-man” and posting links to internet dictionaries defining the term. There was even a "Take a course in logic, dude."  Someone arguing in good faith would have said, “No, your argument is against *this* position, which nobody has taken. Our actual position is the following…” No such clarifying dialogue happened. My interlocutor was happy to insist that I’d committed a fallacy and to describe the fallacy rather than engage in conversation.

All of this is to just give an example, which is really a composite of several different failed attempts to communicate over the past few years. I’m not picking on any one person. I think it’s good to know about logical fallacies and to worry about committing them, but I’ve seen how they can make people lazy. As in, “Ah ha! That sounds kind of like a logical fallacy, which we all know is wrong. So I win!” I have a book called An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. I plan on reading it to my kids when they're old enough to understand. But I'm going to have to caution them not to just name the fallacy when they spot it. That's not enough. You have to explain how a bad argument fits into a given fallacy category. In fact, if you're having an honest discussion, you should be able to explain why an argument is bad without naming a fallacy, and an honest interlocutor should understand the error without reference to a canonical list of sins. 

No comments:

Post a Comment