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A Resurgence of the Fallacy Fallacy

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Saturday Sep 02, 2017 08:07 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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One of the many, many, errors in reasoning, or logical fallacies is called the fallacy fallacy, which is also known as the argument from fallacy. This is when someone suggests, implies, or outright claims that an argument or statement is false because it contains a fallacy. If a creationist were to claim that man rode on dinosaurs a few thousand years ago, and in response to that, I said, "you know, the Flintstones wasn't a documentary," then I could rightfully be accused of committing a strawman fallacy, appeal to ridicule, and perhaps a few others. But what this doesn't mean is that because my response was fallacious, that a) it was false (i.e., the Flintstones must have really been a documentary) or b) that the original claim is true (i.e., man really did ride on dinosaurs a few thousand years ago). What it simply means is that in the spirit of respectful and productive argumentation, my response did not adequately address the argument. Today, new argumentative buzzwords are being created and revived to end conversations and deflect legitimate criticism. These buzzwords are often fallacies in themselves, as they misrepresent the actual argument being made (i.e., they are a strawman). So let's have a look at some of these dismissive buzzwords.

Whataboutery. People are called out on their "whataboutery" when they point out hypocrisy. For example, if a father tells his child not to smoke, and the child says "what about you? You smoke several packs a day!" The argument is that one shouldn't smoke, not that the one making the argument is exempt from that rule. So a "what about you" response does not address the argument, thus, is fallacious. However, it is a valid question that does warrant a response. Perhaps the father would respond "I am an idiot with no self-control." But if the father simply responded "that's 'whataboutery,'" it would be akin to the fallacy fallacy, where the implication is that because the response is a fallacy, then it must be incorrect, unreasonable, or undeserving of a response. This is a deflection and an argumentative cop out. Feel free to point out the whataboutery, but respond to the accusation and don't stop dialog because you have your opponent on a technicality.

Sealioning. Sealioning has been defined as "intrusive attempts at engaging an unwilling debate opponent by feigning civility and incessantly requesting evidence to back up their claims." The question is, how do you tell the difference between someone asking sincere questions and legitimately asking for evidence for unsubstantiated claims, and someone who is simply determined to waste your time and prove you wrong, even if you are right? Consider this the "free speech" equivalent to argumentation. Accusing people of sealioning is like not allowing people to speak because you think they have bad intentions. You may be right, but more often than not due to cognitive and perception biases, you're wrong. Another problem with sealioning is that without really knowing the intent of the arguer, the line of argumentation is indistinguishable from Socratic inquiry, which is a diplomatic and respectful way of helping people realize the errors in their argument or claims without telling them are wrong, but asking questions that help them discover the flaws in their reasoning by themselves. Ignoring questions and requests for evidence to back up claims by shouting "sealioning" is an intellectual cop out.

Trolling. An Internet troll is defined as "a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll's amusement." I see so many good arguments go answered because the person who made the argument is dismissed as "a troll." Granted, the argument could reasonably be seen as inflammatory and provoke a strong emotional response on those who read it. However, this doesn't make the argument bad or even flawed. Good arguments can be made by both eloquent diplomats and Internet trolls alike. Dismissing such an argument with accusations of trolling, is often just another way to shield your argument from criticism and maintain the illusion of truth.

Mansplaining. This is when a man explains something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing. To call someone out on this behavior is appropriate and justified; it's just not a good reason to dismiss their argument, claim, or advice as false. For example, if a man said to a woman, "Listen, Honey. No matter what you learned on The View, vaccines don't cause autism. I can explain it to you slowly if you like," there is no question that the man is a condescending ass. Because he's such an ass and because of the cognitive bias known as Reactive devaluation, the woman is more likely to reject his claim. But once again, the fact that the person who made the claim is a condescending ass is independent of the veracity of the claim itself. Simply dismissing the claim as "mansplaining" without evaluating it, is fallacious.

This is a just a sampling of what I am calling dismissive buzzwords often used to avoid responding to legitimate criticism. Notice that these are different than simple ad hominems where name calling is used in place of addressing the argument. Simply calling someone a "racist," "bigot," or "jackass" rather than responding to their argument is a fallacy. Pointing out one's fallacious tactics, then refusing to entertain the argument because of the fallacious tactic, is the fallacy fallacy, and often goes unnoticed because it is incorrectly assumed that because one commits a fallacy, that anything they have to say could be ignored. Good critical thinking often requires removing emotion from the argument. People can be ignorant, insincere, belligerent, asses, but that does not mean that their criticism can be dismissed based on that fact alone. If you can honestly and unemotionally entertain criticism and conclude that it has no value, then feel free to call a person out on their fallacious tactics, but add that their argument had no value. This will demonstrate that you have separated them and their tactics from their argument.

It's much easier to ignore people with nefarious or inauthentic intentions than to entertain their criticisms without prejudice, but critical thinking is not easy. It feels good to call someone a "mansplaing troll" then block them, but critical thinking isn't about feeling good. It is much more expedient to assume that someone who disagrees with you is engaged in some kind of fallacious tactic with the purpose of making your life a living Hell and boosting their own ego, but critical thinking is not about expediency. Critical thinking is about the often uncomfortable process of entertaining information that might demonstrate your argument to be flawed or even false, in order to get closer to the truth. If critical thinking is important to you, and you're not just engaged in apologetics at the expense of truth, then remember these buzzwords and the problems with using them.

Podcast Episode: A Resurgence of the Fallacy Fallacy

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