How to NOT Think: Use Logical Fallacies

One purpose of social studies, English classes and debating is to teach students to identify logical fallacies in argumentation. There are multiple online resources. “Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies” is the commandment of this website, which identifies 24 logical fallacies most people are tempted to commit in their discussions. Students should complete worksheets and drills on logical fallacies, as well as identify them in class debates.

Logical fallacies — common errors in reasoning such as straw-man arguments, ad hominem attacks, post hoc (false causation), false choices between extremeswhataboutism — are rampant in political debates on social media. Three more logical fallacies I’ve noticed:

  • Gish Gallop — “(also known as proof by verbosity) is the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. It’s unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop. The Gish Gallop is named after creationist Duane Gish, who often abused it.” More.
  • On the spot fallacy — If you’re not an expert on the topic, if you are unable to recite statistics, you do not have a right to an opinion.
  • Nutpicking. The blog-era term “nutpicking”, which refers to cherry-picking the worst or nuttiest comments to disparage a larger group (“liberals”, “conservatives”, “feminists”) by falsely implying the views are widely-held within the group, needs to be revived. It’s very common on Twitter.— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 23, 2018
  • The Oxford English Dictionary has added whataboutism with this definition: “The practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue. Also in later use: the practice of raising a supposedly analogous issue in response to a perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency.”
  • The website Fallacy Files defined whataboutism as an attempt “to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser.”
  • Apologists for the Soviet Union responded to any American criticism of that country’s human rights abuses or totalitarian practices with the rejoinder, “And you are lynching negroes.” The rejoinder was so notorious that it has its own lengthy Wikipedia entry.

The term “whatabout” and its variants seem to have emerged during the Irish Troubles. The linguist Ben Zimmer unearthed a 1974 letter in The Irish Times referring to “the Whatabouts … who answer every condemnation of the Provisional I.R.A. with an argument to prove the greater immorality of the ‘enemy.’”

The line hints at whatboutism’s most commonly commented-on flaw. As the Fallacy Files says, “whether the accuser is guilty of the same, or a similar, wrong is irrelevant to the truth of the original charge.” That sort of response is a deflection, and could and should be pounced on as such by a skilled debater.

One Cheer for ‘Whataboutism‘, by Ben Yagoda, NYT.

One thought on “How to NOT Think: Use Logical Fallacies

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