What’s up, everybody? My name is Matt Fradd. Today I want to share with you the three most common logical fallacies that I see committed in social media arguments.
So a logical fallacy is just a mistake in logic, and I want to share with you the three most common logical fallacies that I see being committed all over YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and social media in general, and those three logical fallacies are
- the ad hominem fallacy,
- the straw man fallacy,
- and the appeal to authority fallacy.
So what I want to do is go through each of them one at a time, explain what they are and why you shouldn’t commit it, and how you should respond if somebody commits it against you.
Social Media Arguments: The Ad Hominem Fallacy
So the first fallacy, this is perhaps the most common, is the ad hominem fallacy.
Ad hominem is a Latin phrase which means against the man. This fallacy is committed where you reject or dismiss a person’s argument because of the person making the argument. If you said to me, “Why should I listen to you? You’re from Australia, and Australians are stupid.”
That would be super mean, but also it would be to commit the ad hominem fallacy, because just because I’m from Australia doesn’t mean my argument’s not good.
Well, suppose I come up with an argument as to why the church isn’t for homosexual marriage, and you say, “You’re a bigot.” I would be like, “Um, that’s just name calling. That’s super unhelpful.”
But secondly, even if I was a bigot, even if, which it isn’t true, but even if I was a racist, homophobic, hate filled person, that doesn’t mean that my argument is wrong.
It just means that I’m awful. Right?
But my argument still might be correct.
Suppose somebody said to you that they’re for abortion and you said something like, “Oh, yeah, this coming from the guy who’s super worried about elephants being shot in the wild,” or something like that.
That’s not a good response because maybe it’s a legitimate thing to be against elephants being poached. You didn’t really address his arguments.
Or suppose you’re having social media arguments with somebody online and they take offense at something you say, and you say, “Well, you know what? Doesn’t surprise me. You’re always being offended. You’re a snowflake,” or something like that.
That would be to commit the ad hominem fallacy as well because it might be the case that this person’s always offended for reasons that don’t justify their being offended.
Okay? But that doesn’t mean that what you just said wasn’t somehow cruel… or unwarranted… or even false.
So if somebody ever says to you, “You’re stupid, you’re whatever, you’re bigoted, you’re Australian,” a good thing to say would be, “Hey, why don’t you spend more time attacking my argument and instead of attacking me? Because maybe you’re right.”
Imagine if an atheist said to a Christian,
“The only reason you believe in God is that you’re scared of reality. Like you like the idea of there being a cosmic sugar daddy up in the clouds who’s going to give you a theme park when you’re dead. You’re anxious about life. You’re weak. It’s no wonder you believe in God.”
You might say, “Um, no, that’s not why I believe in God,” but then you might say,
“Even if you were right though, even if you were right, that doesn’t show God doesn’t exist. It just shows that, whatever, I’m a weak person and therefore might not have good reasons to believe it.”
So this is the ad hominem fallacy, and if anyone ever commits this online to you under a comment, just very calmly say to them,”This doesn’t address my point. All you’re doing is attacking me, which is a fallacious way of arguing. So why don’t you attack my argument?”
Finding the Straw Man Fallacy in Social Media Arguments
The second most common logical fallacy that I see on social media is the straw man fallacy.
Now, the straw man fallacy occurs when one misrepresents, either intentionally or unintentionally, his opponent’s position in order to more easily refute it.
Because, I mean, you can see the name for the fallacy works, both in social media arguments and elsewhere, because, all things being equal, it’s a much easier thing to take down a straw man than a real man.
The other day, I was listening to a person argue for why contraception was moral and why Catholics were wrong to think that it’s immoral, and he said this: “I encounter people, and they say, if they’re Catholic and they’re against contraception, and I say, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘Because if you use a condom, it’s basically the same thing as abortion because that person never had the chance of life.'”
Now, that’s so stupid.
No Catholic should ever make that argument. The Catholic Church is against contraception because Catholics believe it thwarts one of the primary ends of sex, NOT because it’s the same thing as abortion.
So what this person did is he made a mockery of the Catholic argument and then showed why it was stupid. And you think to yourself, “Well, of course it’s stupid. We agree that it’s stupid.”
So again, be careful not to do that.
There is a less well known term in logic, and it’s called “steel manning” your opponent’s position.
So if straw manning is misrepresenting your opponent’s position in order to more easily refute it, steel manning does the opposite. It actually takes your opponent’s argument, and then makes it as strong as it possibly can be, and THEN sees what’s wrong with it.
This is actually what Thomas Aquinas did. If you ever read the Summa Theologiae or the Summa Contra Gentiles or some other of his works, he formulates his opponent’s position in an even more strong way than they could, and then he shows why it still fails.
Now, this is a great tactic, and it’s also just an honest way of arguing, because the principle of charity, I think, when debating says that we shouldn’t misrepresent our opponent’s position and we should see it in the most favorable light.
So if somebody makes an argument online, let’s say they say something like, “You should speak your truth,” and you say to them, “Um, there’s no such thing as your truth. There’s your opinion and the truth.” Boom, mic drop.
That’s probably unhelpful because all that does is shut down the discussion and makes that person angry because you sort of embarrassed them online.
But suppose you were to try and steel man their position, and by doing that what you did is you’ve clarified with them and you said, “Now, when you say speak your truth, what do you mean? Do you mean that there is no truth and there’s only opinion, or do you mean that people should speak the truth, and even if it’s unpopular, they should still speak it?”
And they might say, “Yeah, that’s what I meant,” and you say, “Oh, okay. So what you were saying is …”
By reformulating your opponent’s position … Opponent might be too strong of a word, but by reformulating their position, you’ve won their respect because they see, here’s a person who’s trying to take me seriously, and then if you still disagree with their position, you can show why it’s wrong, and that person is much more willing to listen to you because they get the sense that you’re actually engaging with their position as opposed to merely dismissing it.
Common Fallacy #3 in Social Media Arguments: The Appeal to Authority
The third most common logical fallacy that I see being committed in social media arguments is the appeal to authority.
The reason this is fallacious is because suppose I make an argument for something and you say, “Please, don’t you realize that the majority of philosophers are against that position?” or something like that.
Well, the reason that fallacy is fallacious is because… maybe the majority of philosophers are wrong. You’re not actually engaging with my argument. You’re actually dismissing my argument, and you’re appealing to authority.
Now, how does this take place online?
Well, it might take place like this. You make an argument and then somebody says, “Oh, please, this has been thoroughly refuted,” and all they do is put up a link to a particular article or video, but that’s just not cool because, one, you’re committing the fallacy of appealing to authority, and two, who is really going, “Oh, thank you so much,” and going online and reading all the opposing arguments against one’s position.
I mean, unless you’re in academia and you’re writing a sort of a doctoral dissertation, you just, you said something on social media, and you probably aren’t in the head space to go ring through everybody who disagrees with you.
Obviously, if you take a position on something that people find important, there’s going to be someone out there on the web who disagrees with you.
It’s kind of a cheap tactic because they don’t get to engage with your argument. They just dismiss you and tell you to go read something else. So how might you respond to someone doing this?
Well, you might say, “You know what? I don’t have time to read this person’s article or to look at this video. Why don’t you boil down their argument for me, show me why you think their argument refutes my position, and we can go back and forth on that.”
I think that’s a good tactic because, one, you’re just being honest. You don’t have the time to actually read someone else’s article or you don’t want to.
And two, it might call their bluff, because I sometimes suspect that when people say, “Haven’t you read this article? Haven’t you seen this video?” Maybe this person hasn’t even read it thoroughly either; they’re just trying to dismiss you very quickly. That might be a way to call their bluff and they might have to be like, “Uh, okay, now I have to do the hard work,” and then they might not get back to you.
Social Media Arguments: The Last Word
The final thing I would say is don’t be afraid to leave an argument.
So if you’re on social media and somebody’s being belligerent or someone’s committing logical fallacies, it’s totally okay just to say, “It looks like we’re getting nowhere here, and my time is going to be better spent elsewhere.”
Now, of course, the point of this video wasn’t just to show you how other people commit these logical fallacies against you. It was also a video to show you how you might be committing these logical fallacies, and it’s really important that you and I be intellectually honest and choose to not commit logical fallacies, but instead to argue appropriately since our goal, please God, is not to win an argument, but to find the truth.
Thank you so much for reading this blog post! If you found it helpful, please follow me on Twitter, @mattfradd, or Instagram, also @mattfradd.