Friday, August 6, 2010

"But You're Going to Extremes!"

There's a little fallacious rhetorical sidestep that's been annoying me recently, and I think it needs to be named for easy calling-out in discussions. How many times have you been in the following conversation?

You: People often use religion to justify doing bad things. [Note: a very fair and judiciously-phrased way of putting this claim!]

Other person: That statement is false. I demand that you produce concrete examples. [Perhaps not quite so crisply.]

You: Fair enough. How about: the Crusades. The Inquisition. Witch-burning. 9/11. Covering up priests molesting kids.

Other person: That's ridiculous. Now you're going to extremes.

I find that most of the forms of bad reasoning which people employ to preserve their previous beliefs are some form of definition-shifting. That's true in this case as well. And at this point you're thinking, yes, the Inquisition was extreme! That's the whole point! But the trick that your friend here is your is using is that evidence is invalidated based on how clear and strong that evidence is.

That's not to say there is no such thing as an extreme example that has characteristics which do actually disqualify it; or that there is no such useful thing as a boundary case. In terms of rhetorical strategy, it might be helpful to ask the objector how un-extreme something would have to be for him or her to admit it as a valid example; this exposes people who are in fact unwilling to admit even the possibility of a valid example. This is similar in purpose to asking someone to engage with you in mutual paraphrasing of each others' positions. If they're willing, you understand each other much better (maybe you didn't think you agreed before, and you actually do!) If they're not willing, they're refusing to play without admitting as much. You can point out, even if they're not conceding the point, that they're at least behaving exactly the same as someone who's refusing to entertain or admit any evidence or consider any new information.

Two definition-shifting fallacies are the No-True-Scotsman fallacy and goalpost-moving. But this rejection-of-all-good-evidence-as-too-extreme comes up often enough that it needs to be named (if it isn't already; feel free to comment!) I propose the Holtzman shield fallacy, after those forcefields in Dune that they use during knife fights. The stronger or faster a weapon strikes, the more the shield deflects it.

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