Sunday, May 14, 2017

Why I've Rethought Calling Out Fallacies

© Existential Comics

When I was a young atheist, having just lost my faith, I used to feel like fallacies were so obvious in religious views and religious arguments that it was a wonder more people didn't notice them. From there, it was an easy step to concluding that most believers must just be ignorant. And why not? A lot of them don't seem to know science as well as they think they do, so we shouldn't expect them to know logic, either.

This kind of condescension is not limited to young atheists, though, nor is it limited to non-professionals. I've seen some very intelligent, highly credentialed, and otherwise very informed people hastily call out fallacies as if they're ordering off a drive-thru menu. I've sat in plenty a classroom where the first instinct of some students (undergraduate or graduate level) itching to dispute a claim is to label it a fallacy. And sometimes they're right.

I would never suggest that there are no fallacies behind religious arguments and religious beliefs. I wouldn't even say they're uncommon. But they certainly aren't omnipresent. Some can be more complicated to identify than we suppose, too.

All we skeptics and atheists need to do to realize this last point is think about the times we've engaged with theists who've wrongly accused us of committing a fallacy. How many times have you heard that you're appealing to authority simply by referencing an argument made by someone else? What about red herrings? Appeals to emotion? Non sequiturs? Especially online, these sorts of back-and-forth shouting matches become black holes of productivity.

Now, remember the Dunning-Kruger effect. We often judge ourselves more favorably than we judge others. Why presume that religious believers are the only ones that ever abuse fallacies? There's a point here that I think is worth really digesting, and not just blithely assenting to. That urge to dismiss another person's claim comes from something in us that isn't religiously, politically, economically, culturally, or otherwise situated. We make mistakes. We let our emotions get the best of us. There are a million and one ridiculous memes mocking each and every side for what we're all guilty of at one time or another.

Personally, I've tried to take this to heart more recently by just avoiding calling out fallacies whenever possible. There are a few reasons for why I don't think this is a bad idea.

First, it's frequently the case that we can make our point in some other way - perhaps even a clearer way - without name-dropping fallacies. It can get messy and confusing to people when conversation dives into what defines a fallacy, whether this particular claim is an example of that fallacy, and what we're meant to take away from seeing the claim in that manner. People who are experienced in philosophy and logic may have a good understanding of all these issues, but the average person won't, and even the philosopher might wish to steer clear of a needlessly complex topic in normal conversation.

As for alternative ways of making one's point, I like to employ analogies since I've found that they tend to help discussion regardless of the audience. They can be misused, too, of course, as anything can. Socratic-style questions can prompt reflection and open up dialogue. Then there is just explaining disagreement that can be effective, i.e. instead of rattling off "straw man" to an opponent, you can restate your argument in other words. Sometimes I feel like this is the best option when the real source of confusion could just be that you need a little more clarity to what you're saying.

Second, focusing on what label to give to an argument can distract us from the stronger points it does make. When we start to think that something just looks like a fallacy, we may have a tougher time carefully examining its premises. This seems to happen all the time online, and, yes, it happens often in internet atheist circles. Sometimes if there's even a hint of concession to plausibility in a theistic argument, in swarm the accusations of fallacy after fallacy. Philosophers tend to attribute the best version of an argument to their opponent because it's not only the charitable thing to do, but it strengthens your own case when you venture to dispute it. Plus, if there is a non-fallacious way to easily reconstruct an argument, expending all your time on criticizing the fallacy and celebrating triumphantly will appear very premature and, well, pretty silly.

Third, calling out a fallacy can frequently be a conversation stopper. I'm aware that this shouldn't be true, but that doesn't mean it isn't usually true. When conversing with most folks, labeling something a fallacy carries negative connotations, implying they don't know what they're talking about, they don't know how to properly think, etc. Even if that stuff is kinda true, people are defensive, particularly when it comes to their deeply-held beliefs. If you come at them out of hostility, blurting out weird-sounding things and calling their claims irrational, that's likely to end fruitful and civil discussion.

It's not just about laypeople, either. You can often tell how serious a person is about engaging with you by what it is they resort to first. Many people like to use the label "nonsense" to dismiss a claim even where there's been little actual consideration, and name-dropping fallacies is a similarly dismissive tactic. Not to mention how it provides an opportunity to show off. When someone's first response to me makes it obvious that all they want is to slap a label on what's 'wrong' with my position, before sliding it off neatly to the side, I have to doubt it's worth my time to engage with them.

Again, though, please don't misunderstand this post. I still do point out fallacies, and I think it's important to do this in discussions on a lot of subjects, religion included. But I've just given a few reasons for why I think we need to be careful in how we do this. I think there is greater value in acquiring, having, and exhibiting virtues like charity, clarity, openness, and humility than there is in being right about a claim fitting under the moniker of some fallacy. I try to save that last part for last, if it comes up, when it's hopefully become clear that I do value the things I mention and desire a dialogue that is productive and provocative.

If the aim behind noting fallacies is not a shallow sort of victory dance, but a pursuit of the virtues - in ourselves as well as in others - then we will be concerned not just with addressing wrong thinking, but also with what approach we choose to adopt in realizing that end.