Starting Debates

Hey everyone!

This is my first blog entry, so please give me some feedback so I know what to tweak.

After becoming a skeptic, I've noticed that many people believe that they have the ability to argue a position logically. Unfortunately, many of these same people, either knowingly or unknowingly, employ logical fallacies to support their position. It isn't a lack of intelligence that causes these people to invalidate their argument, it is just an ignorance to the fallacies that the human mind can so easily fall in to. In skepticism, understanding why an argument is illogical is just as important as demanding evidence for claims; each leads to a better understanding of reality. There are many great websites on the internet that explain all of the numerous fallacies in full, such as The Fallacy Files and The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (which has a shortened listing), or podcasts such as Logically Critical, but I wanted to take a look at some of the most common fallacies used by crooked debaters and proponents of pseudoscience throughout the next few weeks. To begin with, I'd like to introduce one of the most commonly abused logical fallacies: the ad hominem logical fallacy.

Ad Hominem (Ad-Hom)

Sometimes shortened down to ad-hom, this fallacy is commonly used during a debate when the majority of an audience is biased against a particular world view, lifestyle, or other characteristic held by one of the debaters. Any argument that claims that the a conclusion is false because of a characteristic held by the debater, or attempts to personally attack the debater and claim this attack to be reason to dismiss their argument is an ad hom.

Paul claims that global warming is real.
Paul is not trustworthy.
Therefore, anything Paul says is invalid and global warming is not real.

In this example, Paul's untrustworthiness is cited as an excuse to dismiss his argument. It does not matter who makes an argument; if a mental asylum patient was to claim evolution is true, it would not invalidate existence of Darwinian natural selection. In the same way, a person's beliefs, behaviors, or other traits cannot be used to disregard an adversary's argument. Ad hominem fallacies are not always negative; they can attribute a positive characteristic to the opposing debater to discredit him.
Sally: "Wow Kent, you completely blew that evolution debate against Richard, what happened?"

Kent: "Well, it wasn't that my position was incorrect, it's just that Richard is such a good debater, he could win any argument he wanted to!"
Anyone who claims to lose an argument because "my opponent is a better orator" is using an ad-hominem; in this instance Kent is still using Richard's oratory skills as an excuse for his (miserable) defense of creationism or ID, whichever form of magical thinking he believes.

After learning of this fallacy, some budding skeptics have the unfortunate tendency to claim that every insult is an ad-hom, which is untrue. An orator can disparage their opponent as much as they wish, as long as their actual reason for denying the opponent's position is logical.

For instance:
Steve believes in homeopathy.
Steve is a crazy hippie using some form of amphetamines, and there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate Steve's outrageous claims.
Due to the lack of evidence or active ingredient, homeopathy is pseudoscience.

In this second instance, Steve was referred to as a "crazy hippie", as well as a user of amphetamines, but the actual reason for dismissing his argument was that there was no evidence after repeated trials (as well as no logical mechanism for its working) of homeopathy's efficacy. It is admissible (even if impolite) to ridicule a pseudoscientist's claims as long as the actual reason for dismissing their assertions is based in sound logical reasoning.

Well, that's it for this week; hopefully I'll be able to contribute more to this blog as time goes on. Have a happy Flag Day!


Anonymous said...

Nice job. Don't tweek a thing. Keep it up.

Paul said...

Untrustworthy, am I? Well, I have your power of attorney, and I'm going to take your money down to Tijuana. We'll see just how untrustworthy I really am!

Also, good show. Keep it up.