Whether we like it or not, we communicate more through the written word today than in person. Social media has become all-seeing and ever-present, which means there are more worldwide debates happening on different issues today than at any time in the past. All you have to do is enter your pet burning issue into the Google search bar and you could be neck-deep into a discussion in minutes.
Is this a good thing? Undoubtedly. The only problem is that with the advent of social media, the quality of debate has nosedived. The act of having an opinion and voicing it have become more important than the process of arriving at one. Rare is an argument these days which doesn’t degenerate into a shouting match before you know it. I’m sure those of you who have participated on Facebook debates will agree.
So in the interest of encouraging civil disagreement, I am listing six logical fallacies that I see everywhere on the internet today.
1. Ad Hominem
Perhaps the most commonly found fallacy in internet conversations. An ad hominem is a case of a person attacking the arguer instead of the argument. In a recent debate in which I participated (reluctantly), a man argued against the hanging of juvenile rapists. He put forth a reasoned analysis of the spirit behind the current law, and why it is important that we understand it before we campaign for the alternative.
What did he get in response? A shrill cacophony of ‘Rape apologist!’ and ‘Misogynist!’ among other choice abuses.
Also sometimes called ‘appeal to popularity’. In this age of likes and shares, the owner of the most-liked comment in a debate often resorts to saying: ‘Look, all these guys agree with me. So I must be right.’ Even if he doesn’t say it, he often feels that way. This is a common occurrence in real debates as well, where public support for one side overshadows the other. The person with the weaker argument often walks away thinking that he has ‘won’.
There is strength is numbers, and democracies are built that way, but it’s important to remember the majority opinion is not always right. In fact, if history is any indication, the majority is quite often wrong about a number of issues.
3. Appeal to Authority
Human beings love being told what to do. When Sachin Tendulkar appears on television and asks us to drink Boost for more energy, we don’t stop to question how his expertise in cricket transfers to his judgement of energy drinks. We just obey him. We just buy what he tells us to buy. This is an example of authority in one field transferring into other unrelated fields.
In addition, authority figures are also wrong about certain elements of their own fields. Astronomers in Copernicus’s time knew that the Earth was in the center of the universe. If you take authority figures at their word without examining their arguments, you’re sometimes liable to mistakes. This is especially true of ‘soft sciences’ like sociology, psychology, economics and finance.
4. Appeal to Emotion
Here’s a quick question: which do you think is the more important issue in India at present? Rape or road deaths?
Number of rapes per 100,000 people: 2 (Total number ~25000)
Number of road deaths per 100,000 motor vehicles: 212 (Total number ~250,000)
If your answer is still ‘rape’, it’s an example of how emotionally susceptible we are as a species. A rape case is a story. A road accident is a number. Our media doesn’t report road deaths; there are too many of them. Our citizens don’t protest against road safety. There are no candle light vigils, no holding of silences, no Facebook memes. But we throw everything we have at rape.
5. False Cause
Recently I wrote a post on the correlation between feminism and rape numbers. I explicitly stated in my post that I am not suggesting a causal link between the two. And yet in most of the comments, I had to fight back people who questioned my social responsibility, called me a misogynist, and said my argument was absurd. Why? Because they thought I was saying feminism caused rape.
Just because two things happen together doesn’t mean one causes the other. There may be an inverse correlation between the amount of television-time in schoolchildren and their grades. But does that mean that watching more television made you dumber? Or that dumbness made you watch more television? No.
6. Black or White
This is extremely common. Human beings are by nature binary in their thinking. You’re either republican or democrat. Either a feminist or a misogynist. Either with me or against me. Either good or bad. Either black or white.
People who commit this fallacy don’t appreciate that there may be a third (or fourth, or fifth) way of looking at the problem. They discount the possibility of nuance or subtlety. Anyone disagreeing with them is, by definition, against them, and therefore to be shunned or ridiculed.
Now over to you. Have you noticed any of the above fallacies in your own debates, whether on social media or in person? Do you have any more that you would like to add to this list? What makes you run away from an argument wishing to tear your hair out?