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How many Internet arguments have you witnessed? Or better yet, how many Internet arguments have you participated in? I visit a number of forums and communities on a daily basis, and I see arguments all the time. But what really bugs me are the people who make unfounded arguments and think that they’ve won.
You might know these kinds of people as “trolls” – people who will come up with any and all types of nonsensical logic. And then there are times where people will make baseless arguments unknowingly.
I’m going to be writing a 3-part series on battling Internet discussion trolls. Together, these make a toolkit you can use any time you come across a troll, to make your life easier. The posts are formatted for ease of use: you can quickly send a link to just one of the sections, to show what logical fallacy (or “crappy argument”) you’ve detected in the discussion, and hopefully raise the level of reasoning. With this toolkit, you will never lose an argument to another troll again.
Using The Section Links
You can share a link to a specific section in this article by using the “link to this section” links in the header of each section:
- Right-click “link to this section.”
- Select “Copy Link Address.” Some browsers may call it “Copy Link Location,” or something similar.
- Send the copied URL so the other person learns about the logical fallacy you believe you’ve detected.
The ad hominem (link to this section)
Ad hominem is short for the Latin argumentum ad hominem, which literally means “to the person.” The ad hominem is a way of discrediting a claim by attacking the character or beliefs of the person supporting the claim rather than disproving the actual claim itself.
From my experience, this is the most common form of argumentation that you’ll find on the Internet. Why? Because it’s easy and makes you feel good about yourself. Some examples:
- In politics, someone might discard a Presidential candidate’s suggested policies because he had an affair.
- In gaming, someone might brush aside another player’s gameplay suggestion because he is of a certain race or ethnicity.
- In academia, someone might ignore or neglect a particular hypothesis because the proposal came from a person of religion.
In its most basic form, the ad hominem is little more than name-calling and flaming. Saying someone is wrong because he is a “f–ing idiot” is this fallacy in a nutshell.
The Strawman Argument (link to this section)
The strawman argument occurs when someone misrepresents his opponent’s position and then attacks the misrepresented position – in other words, he builds a strawman that he can attack. By defeating the misrepresented claim, he creates the illusion of having defeated the opponent’s original claim – but in actuality, he hasn’t.
In Internet discussions, particularly those of a political or religious nature, the “strawman” has become something of a synonym to “logical fallacy,” but be aware that it’s a specific logical fallacy that deals with misrepresented claims. To be true, though, people will create strawman arguments frequently because it’s an easier way to combat a claim than to deal with the actual issues at hand.
- Suppose Person A wants to relax gun laws. A strawman argument would be if Person B misrepresented Person A’s position by slightly altering the claim away from “relaxing gun laws” to “unrestricted access to guns.” His argument might be that if we granted guns to everyone, society would plummet into chaos – which is obviously not what Person A originally claimed.
If someone tries to misrepresent your position, tell them to discredit your actual claims, not the ones that they’ve created for you.
The ad populum (link to this section)
The ad populum is short for the Latin argumentum ad populum, which literally means “appeal to the people.” This is otherwise known as the “bandwagon argument”. The ad populum is when you claim that something is true because it is either popular or believed by many people. The error here is that a logical statement’s truth value cannot be determined by its popularity. It’s either true or it’s not – regardless of who believes it to be true.
You might have used this one (or heard it used) when you were a child. My parents would often keep me from participating in certain activities and I would argue “why not? Everyone else is doing it!” I thought it was a good argument back then. Now I know better.
- If you’ve ever heard someone say something along the lines of “a thousand people do X. A thousand people can’t be wrong, right?” then you’ve heard the bandwagon argument.
If someone throws away your particular position on the grounds that it’s an unpopular or minority position, enlighten them with this explanation.
The No True Scotsman (link to this section)
The No True Scotsman fallacy occurs when you appeal to a sense of purity or completion in the original claim to exclude all cases that may be possible but do not fit the claim. Here is the famous exchange from which the name of this fallacy is derived:
- Person A: All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.
- Person B: My uncle is a Scotsman, and he doesn’t like haggis!
- Person A: Well, all true Scotsmen like haggis.
When someone’s position or argument has been undermined by a counter-example, many will instinctively defend their position using the principle of the No True Scotsman. Like most of the popular logical fallacies, this one is also easy to use because it requires little logical sense. Instead, it just excludes particular cases that don’t fit the original argument.
The burden, then, falls on the two people to arrive at a proper definition of “Scotsman” before they can continue with the argument. Sometimes, people will confuse “No True Scotsman” with “Begging the Question,” a logical fallacy that will be covered in Part 2 of this series.
The Slippery Slope (link to this section)
The Slippery Slope occurs when someone argues that if A were to happen, then an unwanted outcome B is bound to happen, thus A should not happen. It’s easy to see why someone would want to use this to attack a point.
You’ll hear this logical fallacy committed a lot in the political realm. When certain changes or propositions are made, there will be a lot of hypothetical situations used to argue the validity of a claim or position. Unfortunately, there is no way to test whether or not a hypothetical statement is true or not, thus this cannot be used as a proper means of argumentation.
There are situations in which the Slippery Slope can be a strong point, but it depends on the warrant. If someone can positively demonstrate a process such that A will always lead to B, then it may find traction. If someone tries using the Slippery Slope argument against you, then the burden of proof lies on them to demonstrate the validity of the slope’s slipperiness.
This toolkit is all for you. It’s meant to help defend you against the trolls who will throw illogical reasoning at you in the name of winning. In response, you can help raise the level of discussion by linking directly to these fallacies, inviting the other side to make a better argument. As an added bonus, you’ll know which fallacies to avoid when you’re crafting your own arguments!
Look out for Part 2 in this series, which will be published in the coming days. We’ve got plenty more logical fallacies that you can use to identify and make the Internet a better place for intelligent conversation.
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