Thursday, April 28, 2011

Non-Logical Fallacies

Humans usually behave in such a way as to preserve their current beliefs, despite strong evidence or arguments to the contrary. Consequently people often respond to explicit arguments that would weaken their beliefs with behaviors (rhetorical and otherwise) that have nothing to do with reasoning. These behaviors are often undertaken without the person even realizing they're doing it; very often the person digs in their heels and keeps repeating the behavior like a mantra or ritual regardless of what else is said. My personal speculation is that this is more to keep them from thinking about what they've just heard rather than to convince you of anything, but I don't know anything outside my own intution to support that.

There are lots of online compendia of logical fallacies (which are excellent to know off the top of your head.) But the following list isn't so much a list of logical fallacies so much as it's a list of common behaviors, some of them verbal, exhibited by people who are desperately avoiding changing their mind. While it's easy to figure out what the person was up to after the discussion (treppenwitz), seeing some concrete examples might make your responses a little quicker. I know listing things this way helps my own reflexes. Keep track - this week I bet you'll hear at least one of these verbatim.

Keep in mind too that the counter-moves listed here are more intended for third party "audience" members. You're not going to get many thank-yous when you've caused someone to directly entertain a thought (even momentarily) about the glaring inconsistency of their beliefs, because such an experience is literally painful. (Rationality and skepticism are like athletic training in this sense; you're willing to endure momentary discomfort in order to improve the performance of certain tissues, but not everyone likes to "feel the burn".) To that end, for all of these, even when the person has "dug in", it often helps to point out to the digger-inner that even though they're not giving up, their behavior is exactly the same as the behavior of people who know they don't have a leg to stand on.


1. MANEUVER: Changing the subject, often to one which puts you morally on the defensive.

EXAMPLE(S):
- Well that may be true, but what about the time you did X? Are you proud of that? Should I listen to someone who did that?

- I don't want to talk about this anymore. (Usually at the moment the major inconsistency surfaces.)

COUNTER: Point out the clear desperation of such a move. There's a reason you struck a nerve.


2. MANEUVER: Claiming that the topic, or their claim on the topic, was irrelevant.

EXAMPLE(S):
- Anyway I didn't say that I believed it.
- Jeez! You need to get a sense of humor.
- Oh, this was a silly conversation anyway.
- It wasn't intended to be a factual statement.
- Wow, you have too much free time. Get a life.
(Note that for many people, communication is only social, and the truth value of any utterance is incidental - so they may be genuinely surprised and puzzled that you would put in any effort disagreeing with them.)

COUNTER: Can you tell us in advance next time which of your opinions you consider irrelevant? Do you have lots of beliefs that have no impact on your actions?


3. MANEUVER: The claim to unobservable expertise (argument from ineffable authority).

EXAMPLE(S):
- Well you may not understand it now, but once you get older/buy a house/get divorced/etc. you will.
- You can't always ask questions. Sometimes you just have to make that leap.

COUNTER: Point out nonexistent track record; ask why you can't always ask questions; say if you want me to believe something, you have to give me reasons.

(Note: people aren't always aware of how they predict or do an action. The difference lies in whether or not they can actually DO it. There's a difference between saying "I'm not sure how I got it right but here's my track record" and "I can't give you a good reason to believe me but I demand that you accept I'm magically right this time.")


4. MANEUVER: Inexpertise is better than expertise.

EXAMPLE(S):
- The problem is that you spend all day studying one thing.
- You're too smart for your own good which is why you believe weird things.

COUNTER: When you fly, would you rather have a more expert, or less expert pilot?


5. MANEUVER: The gypsy curse. (I like this one because it's the funniest. So-called because older people tend to use it more.)

EXAMPLE(S):
- One day you'll be on your knees and you'll understand, but it will be too late.
- I've known people like you, and they always fail/get hurt/collapse etc.

COUNTER: I'm sorry to hear that. Can you give me an example? Did you help these people?


6. MANEUVER: Sheer flippancy.

EXAMPLE(S):
- Well you're just so smart aren't you.
- That's just great, you just believe that if you want.
- The way this world is going, it might as well be true.

COUNTER: Don't let go of the point. Emphasize that someone who just keeps making jokes seems very much like someone who doesn't really believe what they're saying.


7. MANEUVER: Special appeal to ingroup knowledge/superiority of character.

EXAMPLE(S):
- Look, if I have to explain it, then you'll never understand.
- I feel sorry for you if you don't understand that.
- Well you can't understand it because you're (religion, race, sexual orientation, politics, etc.)

COUNTER: What you're saying seems really important so I'm sorry you can't be bothered to at least try to explain it to me, because I genuinely want to understand it.


8. MANEUVER: Threats of violence. (No examples needed.)

COUNTER: None, other than getting to a safe place, getting witnesses, and calling the appropriate authorities. Someone who threatens violence in earnest should get a criminal record. If you feel bad doing that, think of this blog post and blame me, and I'll proudly take responsibility for an erstwhile terrorist's life being ruined.


9. MANEUVER: Attempts to shame.

EXAMPLE(S): Wow. Does your mother know you think things like this? What would she have to say?

COUNTER: Why do you think my mother agrees with you and not me? (Or some other moral authority they would appeal to, even if your mother doesn't.)


10. MANEUVER: Shouting down; never letting the other person come up for air or get a word in edgewise.

COUNTER: Patiently wait them out with a friendly expression on your face (most people can't keep this up for even a minute without repeating themselves, plus they look like an idiot.) If you can compress your point to a soundbite and you have writing material, writing it down and holding it up actually works well! (I've heard of someone doing this, tto positive effect.)


11. MANEUVER: admit that their opinions don't have anything to do with facts.

EXAMPLE(S):
- Listen, I can believe whatever I want to.
- It doesn't matter. That can be true or they can say that, but I'm still going to think this.
- The facts don't matter. (Amazingly, I've heard this more than once.)

COUNTER: Do you know other pepole who don't base their beliefs on facts? Can you give me an example of the kinds of things where it's okay to ignore facts?


12. MANEUVER: Claiming errors in the argument that are self-explanatory but somehow can't be explained.

EXAMPLE(S):
- Well that's different.
- That's not fair. It's just not, and you know it.
- That's stupid. It just is.
- It's just wrong and I don't have to tell you why.

COUNTER: Best is just pointing out how someone who doesn't know what to say would say the same thing.

* * *


In addition to these maneuvers, there are other rhetorical approaches that people not arguing in good faith will avoid. By "not arguing in good faith" I mean they're defending a conclusion regardless where evidence and argument lead.

A. Refusal to admit good counter-example, even if hypothetical.

EXAMPLE(S):
- "Jesus/Chairman Mao/the CEO would never do that, so there's no point in discussing it."
- "You're going to extremes." (The Holtzmann Shield Fallacy); i.e., the stronger an example is, the less it counts. As part of this they won't provide a hypothetical examples either.

B. Refusal to paraphrase your position, or to grant that you've adequately paraphrased theirs. (Note: use this approach early on. It's a very, very quick way to determine that there's no point in talking to this person.)

C. Refusal to do blinded testing of positions. (i.e. with Bible and Qu'ran, with positions of political parties, etc.) The more that someone identifies with a label, and the more ignorant they are of the label's background and values, the more desperately they'll avoid this.

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