In my review of Why Brilliant People Believe Nonsense I pointed out that Steve and Cherie Miller included a fascinating chapter in which Steve critiques what he calls the “Fallacy Fallacy”. He explains this fallacy as follows:
“I often read comments on blog posts or articles or Facebook discussions which accuse the writer of committing a specific logical fallacy and thus declaring the argument thoroughly debunked, typically with an air of arrogant finality. While the debunker may feel quite smug, intelligent participants consider him quite sophomoric. In reality, he’s typically failed to even remotely understand the argument, much less apply the fallacy in a way that’s relevant to the discussion.
“Surely this fallacy deserves a proper name and should be listed with other fallacies. Thus I’ll define ‘The Fallacy Fallacy’ as ‘Improperly connecting a fallacy with an argument, so that the argument is errantly presumed to be debunked.’” (172)
The fallacy fallacy illustrates the old adage: “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” In this case, the person knows just enough of logical fallacies to throw around labels that effectively inoculate themselves (and others) against good reasoning.
I highlighted this chapter in the review because I believe the Millers are on to something important here. In my experience, this misuse of “logical fallacy labelling” is rife on the internet. In particular, I noted that in my experience argumentum ad hominem and argumentum ad populum are the most commonly offended against by the internet troll’s Fallacy Fallacy.
But in this article I want to consider another common example of the Fallacy Fallacy: the false analogy. An argument by analogy begins with the observation that two (or more) entities are alike in some particular respects and concludes that they are also similar in an additional respect. The false analogy fallacy applies when the two (or more) entities are not, in fact, analogous at the relevant point. And the false analogy is an example of the Fallacy Fallacy when the objector errantly labels a legitimate analogy as false.
Consider this simple example from Twitter just this morning. It started when a fellow tweeted that calling religious people delusional was a good conversation starter to interact with those people. I tweeted the following response:
“Calling people delusional is a conversation starter like calling somebody ugly is a pickup line.”
Note that this is a compact argument by analogy. You can unpack it like this:
(1) Perceived insults are ineffective ways to initiate a conversation.
(2) Calling somebody ugly is likely to be perceived as an insult.
(3) Therefore, calling somebody ugly is likely to be an ineffective way to initiate a conversation.
(4) Calling somebody delusional is likely to be perceived as an insult.
(5) Therefore, calling somebody delusional is likely to be an ineffective way to initiate a conversation.
The fellow replied with a tweet in which he told me to “check the definition of delusional one more time please.” While I’m not entirely sure what he meant there, as best I can read him, he was disputing the claim that calling somebody delusional was a relevant analogy to calling somebody ugly.
It is not surprising that the false analogy is often victim of the Fallacy Fallacy precisely because any two things are both similar in innumerable ways and dissimilar in innumerable ways. Consequently, the success of any analogy will be contingent upon like similarity in the relevant ways. Meanwhile, the internet troll can always ignore (or overlook) the relevant points of similarity, and instead highlight irrelevant points of dissimilarity as justification for accusing the argument of a fallacious comparison. All the while, the only fallacy being committed is that of the internet troll who has failed to understand the relevant comparison from the beginning.
Several of the atheist reviewers of God or Godless objected to my analogical arguments in the book with a Fallacy Fallacy by highlighting irrelevant points of disanalogy as a way to reject the legitimate analogy. More generally, I regularly encounter this misbegotten analysis in the blogosphere and, as in the present illustration, within the twittersphere as well.
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