I am not a philosopher. Logic and reason were things I mostly figured out on my own. It is only recently, when debating online with fundamentalists of every stripe, be they religious, homophobic, global warming deniers, conspiracy theorists or even some vegans, that I came upon logical fallacies in their official form.
There are hundreds of them, and it seems fundamentalists use a significant proportion. Everything from special pleading, non-sequiters, straw men and ad hominem attacks, arguments of popularity and tradition, sunk cost fallacies, to suppression of evidence, confirmation bias, slippery slope, arguments from ignorance and of personal incredulity, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lying.
Many of the less honourable acts on the Internet are fallacies of some sort – trolling is a form of poisoning the well, quote-mining is a form of misrepresentation, and ad hominem is a well understood phrase in the faceless Web.
Bullshit (American) or bollocks (UK) is perhaps a new addition. A common argument based on bullshit is the infamous Chewbacca defence – it is an argument of attrition, a tide of nonsense put forward with enough vigour and volume that a rational opponent must either exhaust themselves refuting it, or withdraw from the argument, which is claimed as a victory by his opponent.
The Internet has been a phenomenon – I think of it as the Information Revolution. Perhaps it will herald a new Age of Reason. One thing for sure is that it tests our ability to vet and evaluate information in quantities we have never experienced before. Thus we need to learn reasoning skills at a far earlier age, in favour of raw knowledge. The knowledge is all around us – it is now a cheap commodity, though the quality is variable. It is how we assess that information that is now the premium skill.
This brings us back to fallacies. I blogged a few months back about David Cameron’s proclamation that “Britain was a Christian country” – the implication being that Britain should uphold Christian values for no other reason than our ancestors did. This is a fallacy straight out of the list above, the appeal to tradition – a popular one with Conservatives, as a cursory read of the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail reveals. My usual response to an appeal to tradition is the example of geocentrism, which was considered by most to be the correct model of the Universe until Galileo Galilee put forward evidence for the Copernican heliocentric model, at the cost of his freedom. Just because most people believe something, does not mean it is true.
If our own Prime Minister, a privileged man with the finest education one could hope for in the UK, can commit such basic errors, what hope for the rest of us? Well, learning how to spot false arguments is a good start (here’s a PDF poster of common fallacies). Teaching our children how to think clearly and rationally is another. And perhaps most importantly, we need to rip asunder fallacious arguments as soon as they are uttered, by the myriad means we now have at our disposal.