Look! “An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments”!

bad arguments

As various thought fallacies and flawed arguments are constantly being exposed, used, debunked or otherwise referenced during our ethics discussions and debates—the Ethics Alarms compendium is here–this looked like something readers would enjoy. I probably should dedicate this post to former blog Commenter of the Year tgt, in appreciation for his ending—maybe just briefly, we shall see—his latest sabbatical with a flurry of 70 comments while I was lecturing in Newport last week. I didn’t have time to properly engage him or even read all the comments, but he seemed in characteristic form.

Tgt loves the fallacies and delights in slapping them down whenever they occur. His favorite is “No True Scotsman.” I immediately thought of him when I  stumbled upon “An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments” by the multi-talented Ali Almossawi. Tgt’s  pet fallacy is here, as well as ad hominem, appeals to authority, the straw man, equivocation and others, some under different names than those I am used to. I haven’t read it carefully: there may be one or two that needs to be added to the Ethics Alarms list.

This is a well-researched and written exposition of some major fallacies with lovely illustrations, presented like a vintage children’s book. Someone should actually publish a children’s book like this: I would have been grateful for one when my son was a boy, or when I was a boy.  I’m grateful for this now.

You can find this amazing work of art, ethics, rhetoric and logic here. I’ve already sent the link around to many friends, young and old, and you may want to do the same.

 

The Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies

fallacy

I realized it was time to post the definitive Ethics Alarms List of Debate Cheats and Fallacies after once again having to point out to an indignant commenter that calling  him a jerk based on a jerkish comment was not an ad hominem attack, and that saying idiotic things on-line carry that risk. Here, at last, is the current list, adapted from multiple sources. As with the Rationalizations List, with which this occasionally overlaps, I invite additions. Participants here should feel free to refer to the various fallacious arguments by number, and to apply critically them to my posts as well as the comments of others. Am I immune from occasionally falling into one or more of these bad debate techniques and rhetorical habits? No. The other reason I wanted to get the list up was to reinforce my own efforts to be persuasive without being manipulative.

1. Ad Hominem Attack

An ad hominem attack means that one is substituting the character or quality of an adversary’s thought for the argument the adversary is presenting. This is unfair, as well as misleading. “Your argument is invalid because you are a crook, a fool, an idiot” is an ad hominem attack. It is not an ad hominem attack to prove an argument idiotic, and conclude, on the basis of signature significance, (which requires that an  argument be so idiotic that no non-idiot would conceive such a thing and dare express it),that the one making the argument is an idiot, since only an idiot would make such an argument. Confusing the true ad hominem attack with the latter is a useful deflection by poor advocates of the fair consequence of their advocacy. Idiots can still hold valid positions, and disproving the position has nothing to do with proving they are idiots.

1 a. The Toxic Introduction.

A more subtle application of the ad hominem attack is The Toxic Introduction, where the argument of another is introduced by noting a negative quality about the individual. The effect is to undermine the argument before it has even been heard, by its association with a less than impressive advocate.

2. Butch’s Stratagem (The Straw Man)

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The Science Guy, Debating Faith, and the Ethical Duty Not To Engage

creationism

Thanks for nothing, Science Guy.

You know, back when I was in college (stop me if I’ve told this story here before), a call-in show on one of the local TV talk shows (called “Cracker Barrel”)  staged a debate on the existence of God. On the “God exists” side was a religious fanatic named Mrs. Warren who had achieved Boston notoriety by picketing local banks for some reason; my father, in fact, had a confrontation with her in his capacity as a savings bank executive. On the atheist side was none other than Madeline Murray O’Hair, she of the Supreme Court case knocking down school prayer.

The “debate” was idiotic, unfair from the start since Mrs. Warren was a prattling dolt who also spoke in what sounded like a fake Italian accent, like Chico Marx, making it even harder to take her seriously. Mostly it was idiotic, though, because such debates can’t be anything but idiotic—the adversaries are not using the same assumptions, definitions, or modes of analysis. O’Hair would mention a scientific study, and Mrs. Warren would quote the Bible, which had to be true because God dictated it. As will always happen when one is debating a fool, O’Hair was dragged into the depths of stupid argument—and whatever she was, she was not stupid—by recounting that she realized that there was no God when her son was lost on a jungle expedition, and though she prayed for his return, he never came back. After being barely restrained by my roommates from calling into the show and shouting “MOM! I’m back! It’s a miracle!” (for some reason they thought it would be in bad taste), I got a toilet paper roll, put it up to the receiver and called into the show’s call-screener as “Jehovah,”from “Beyond.”

To my amazement, they put me through, and I heard the host cheerily utter the words, “Our next caller is Jehovah. Welcome to Cracker Barrel, Jehovah!” Echoing into my cardboard megaphone in my best Burning Bush voice, I told Madeline that I was the Lord God, and that I appreciated her testing the faith of the righteous with her blasphemy, and that despite the consensus among my archangel advisors in Heaven, I would not turn her into a pillar of salt.” Then the host said, “Thank you for your call, God!” and I was done. O’Hare was laughing.

The much-hyped debate over evolution between Bill Nye, a kids show performer with a legitimate science background, and Ken Ham, an extreme creationist whose views are ridiculous even by creationist standards, was just as foolish as the Cracker Barrel fiasco but far more harmful. Continue reading