Recent unpleasantness in the comments has convinced me to post, or reiterate, something that I’ve been meaning to put up for a while. My first impulse is simply to warn people not act like a dick towards other people, but maybe this is a better idea. Call it a primer on how not to lose a debate on the internet.
The easiest way to lose a debate is to start throwing personal shit at the other person. It’s bad form and sensible people generally take it as a sign that you don’t have anything worthwhile to say. On a practical level it embarrasses your allies and encourages your opponents.
Godwin’s Law, of course. In general I agree with the idea that you lose by comparing your opponent’s postition with the most ridiculously horrible thing that you can imagine, but there are limits. It’s not like the Nazis wiped their ass with Evil toilet paper and started their morning with Evil sausage links and a cup of Evil coffee. Wagner, and particularly his widow, were enthusiastic
Nazi supporters anti-semites [oops; historical revisionism on my part]. Does a music discussion end when you bring up Wagner? No, it doesn’t. Cry Godwin when somebody’s comparing you to a Nazi but be aware that German political history has useful lessons if we remove the medieval notion of Evil from every bratwurst and roll of toilet paper that passed through the country between 1938 and 1945.
By the same logic, “Leftism is bad because Pol Pot was leftist” qualifies as a Godwin violation while a specific comparison between factors that led to the rise of Pol Pot and similar factors in other countries does not.
Maybe the most useful point is to learn your logical fallacies. You don’t need to memorize the whole list, but the five or six most common will help you to figure out why you’re sure that somebody is wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Humans have a certain innate logic that gets offended when it spots an obvious fallacy. Everbody knows ad hominem, which is kind of sad when we all violate it anyway. Somebody isn’t wrong because they’re a ‘moonbat’ or a ‘wingnut,’ even moonbats and wingnuts get things right sometimes. If you want to prove them wrong you have to try harder than that.
Reductio ad absurdum and slippery slope often go together; the first happens when you rephrase somebody’s argument in bad faith using the most extreme conceivable example and the second speaks for itself. Post hoc ergo propter hoc comes up when A happens followed by B and somebody inappropriately concludes that A causes B. There’s your illogic whenever you see somebody declare, “Democrats won’t start winning elections until they stop [X],” where [X] stands in for the writer’s pet peeve du jour. Click here for a good example.
I have a particular beef with the composition fallacy, which occurs whenever somebody picks the characteristics of an individual and transposes those characteristics onto the group to which they belong. You can safely identify composition whenever you see “The Left” or “The Right” in the vicinity of an adjective. On the downside, eliminating composition might leave the internet empty except for two people talking about Harry Potter.
Ad hominem is the best known of a large family of innapropriate-appeal fallacies. Anybody who assumes that something must be right because everyone says so is violating ad populum. Ad ignorantiam happens when you assume that something’s false because you don’t know it to be true. Inappropriate authority speaks for itself. Whenever the TV news has some airheaded pundit weigh in on a politically-important technical matter, there’s your fallacy. Appeal to unacceptable consequences comes up fairly often, for a classic illustration recall the argument that we can’t accept that Americans torture because if people accepted that we torture then it might encourage our enemies.
Another internet favorite, tu quoque, means ‘you too’ in Latin. I wouldn’t call this tactic useless to the same degree as ad hominem or ad populum, after all turnabout is fair play, but bear in mind that you aren’t touching the other person’s underlying logic by pointing out that he or she is also a hypocrite/embezzler/necrophile.
It’s also bad form to assume bad faith on the other guy’s part. On a practical level Evil is a pretty rare commodity, and most people do what they do out of decent intentions. Assume good faith until proven otherwise and you’ll be surprised how accomodating folks can be.
Getting back to the original point of this post, John and I don’t enjoy playing comments cop. This site has some of the most freewheeling and unmoderated commentary that I know about and we like it that way. Don’t take this post as an effort to stifle any sort of expression, but rather a (hopefully) helpful pointer that the most effective way to win an argument is to not forfeit.
Essential reading. [Now goes to John’s post above, since we thought of the same thing at roughly the same time.]
And more on Godwin’s Law. Two (!) inaccuracies in a post about winning an argument. If only irony was money…