Fallacio – the act of debunking false arguments

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.

2 thoughts on “Fallacio – the act of debunking false arguments

  1. Raymccatlanta

    It’ll probably be no surprise upon leaving NI for college I started out with philosophy and polic sci to try and figure out wtf was wrong with people, like people do psychology to figure out what is wrong with themselves (joke). Great blog, I shall be returning.
    I mainly read the Irish Times and the NY Times as the BT seemed to have an overabundance of nutters, but with people like you posting I am far more likely to return. My large negative BT rating was from memory I posted that racism was endemic in NI.
    My wife and I ended up in Atl because of all the research that is being done here (pop 5.5 million), we both got academic jobs there years ago. That’s a hard thing to do. She’s in medical research and drug development. It might interest you to know Emory University in Atl developed the HIV drugs used in more that 90% of cases treated in the US. They sold the rights for Emtricitabine for ½ a Billion Dollars and reinvested in the University’s scientific and health-related research and education mission for the benefit of Georgia, the nation and the world. Meanwhile the Coke Cola (Coke was invented in Atlanta and Coke has its HQ here) families donated $200 million to cancer research at the university. That’s all this century, since 2000. It’s insane and governments cannot match this budget. But good is being done.
    But it’s hard to leave that environment and read people quoting the Old Testament at me. You and a few others are a breath of fresh air. We did look at returning QUB or down south (my wife’s job anyway and she had offers), but either they don’t really provide protected research time or they offered big salaries down south but no real research budgets or “here’s where you type your letters” she has actually helped developed drugs in use today and here has 3 PAs while in Ireland “here’s where you type your letters, you might get a PA to share in due course” sorry we can stop here, not interested. Another thing they get defensive over.
    Sorry this is so long. But “we” are not alone, LOL!

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