The Internet often seems like a place specifically designed for heated, nonsensical arguments. Go onto just about any forum and make a statement, and someone will disagree with you, calling you a Nazi, a goat fucker, or speculating that your mother is a cheap whore. Unfortunately, short of licensing out the right to go online or just nuking the place entirely, this method of argument will never change. But as a quick little exercise, I thought I’d go over the concept of a logical fallacy and how it applies to the Internet.
Logical fallacies are as common as disturbing porn and rants about movies once you get online. They are frequently the weapons of those who either don’t know how to debate, or who know they have no actual leg to stand on but don’t want to admit that they’re wrong. The basic definition of a logical fallacy is any sort of argument where the underlying logic is inherently flawed.
Destroying the Exception: Someone somewhere decided that if you make three statements and the first two are true, then the third one must be true. That’s only correct if there’s a definite connection between the statements. The problem is when one or both of the original statements make overly broad generalizations or assume something to be true when it isn’t. Someone using this fallacy might make an argument like: Homosexuality is a form of sexual deviance. Bestiality is a form of sexual deviance. Therefore, homosexuals are the same as people who have sex with animals. This argument has actually come up multiple times when people are arguing against gay marriage. The problem here is that certain assumptions get made in the argument that aren’t true or are grossly overgeneralized. First of all, one could argue that homosexuality is no more sexually deviant than oral sex these days, but that’s an argument for another time. The big problem is that the argument assumes that all sexual deviance is the same. In reality, there are huge legal, social, and ethical gaps between homosexuality and bestiality. The illogical argument is like saying that since my mom drives a car and drunk drivers drive in cars, then my mom is a drunk driver. No group is all-encompassing, and there are different levels of exception in almost any generalization someone makes.
Reverse Exception: Or, as I like to call it, socialism. (See, I just used a logical fallacy there. This is fun!) Basically, it says that what’s true for someone is true for everyone. Here in Vermont, it comes up a lot when marijuana laws are discussed. The argument is something along the lines of: Certain patients benefit from marijuana. Therefore, marijuana should be made completely legal and sold to everybody. Like it or not, certain groups require and deserve special treatment. I’m not about to get pissed off at the ALS patient because he has someone pushing him around in a wheelchair all day. As much fun as it would be for me to be riding around in a wheelchair, there’s a good reason for the ALS patient to be in one, and not a good reason for me to be in one.
The Straw Man: The Straw Man is a popular Internet debating tactic. It’s really easy to do, too. All one has to do is say something that is either A) based solely on personal preference, or B) not actually relevant to the conversation.
An example of A comes up frequently on Dungeons & Dragons discussion forums, especially as it pertains to 4th edition. Essentially, the argument is, “D&D sucks these days because the designers have made it too much like World of Warcraft.” That entire argument hinges on the assumption that a game resembling World of Warcraft is a bad thing. Sure, your personal preferences might be that WoW sucks, but the sales and subscription numbers of the video game clearly demonstrate that the game is immensely popular. Therefore, one’s personal preferences are obviously not fact.
An example of B is less common, but still used. Something like, “People shouldn’t complain about the current president because he’s better than Stalin.” The fact that a given leader is better than a omnicidal dictator does not automatically make him a good leader or even a passable one. In this case, someone has thought up the worst possible example they could think of for a leader, even though Stalin actually has no basis in the conversation. The argument is in the same boat as saying that someone’s the healthiest guy in the Special Olympics.
Begging the Question: Related to the Straw Man argument, this fallacy relies on providing supporting “evidence” that actually isn’t evidence at all. It begs the question of what one point has to do with the other. Usually, the argument relies on something that has become assumed fact because it’s been said so many times without actually being proven. For example, “To stop crime, we need to stop letting our kids play violent video games.” The research on violent video games and their connection to violent crime is shoddy at best, and has yet to provide a solid connection. Nonetheless, people assume such an argument holds water because it makes sense to them.
Non-Sequitur: This fallacy is an argument where point A and point B have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It’s sort of like the Straw Man argument, but there’s no attempt at all to make one point at all relevant to the other. Something like, “I can’t agree with you because you probably beat your wife.” Besides being based on pure speculation, it presents two points that have nothing to do with each other. A person can be an abuser and still make a solid argument – in fact, that’s exactly the reason so many people who commit domestic abuse get away with it for so long.
Ad Hominem: Repeating something over and over again does not make a successful argument, unless that something has actually been proven. Example:
-“That movie sucked.”
-“Well, I thought the beginning was boring, but it had a really good ending.”
-“No it didn’t. It sucked.”
-*Any argument to the contrary.*
-“You’re ignoring the fact that the movie sucked.”
The Nazi Bomb: Godwin’s Law of Internet Discussion states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Basically, when someone can’t find any other argument, they compare someone or something to a Nazi. Nazis are the one thing that we as a people can all agree upon. It is all but a universal truth that Nazis are bad. Therefore, people cite Nazism as a last-line defense when they are in danger of losing an argument. Continuing the argument from there would mean that the other guy is now supporting Nazis, which makes him a villain and is therefore not worth listening to.
Nazis are most commonly brought up in political discussions. “What’s wrong with the Department of Homeland Security? I’ll tell you what’s wrong! They’re turning America into Nazi Germany, that’s what’s wrong!” Now, unless Homeland Security is incredibly good at black ops, I’m pretty sure that they aren’t marching Jews, Romanies, blacks, and gays into gas chambers in an attempt to purify the human race. But most people don’t know what Nazis actually are. They just know that Nazism is bad, and bringing up Nazis is enough to scare a lot of people away from a terrible argument.
In person, my general policy is to educate people who make these fallacious arguments by hitting them over the head with a wiffle bat. Online, however, it’s hard to track people down. So in general, there’s nothing to do but hope that whatever forum you’re posting on has an “Ignore” function that will allow you to block out the dumbest of people. Obviously, you can’t avoid arguing with stupid people entirely, because then there would be nothing to do online at all – except look for porn, of course. But I hear that people who look up porn are Nazis. You don’t want to be a Nazi, do you?