My head has really not been in a writing place lately. I’m trying to write my way back into one today.
A new site’s been getting a lot of attention in the skeptical community, called Your Logical Fallacy Is. It’s a compilation of common logical fallacies – ways in which an argument can fail to logically support the claim in whose favour it’s cited – which you’re encouraged to link somebody to if they make any of these errors in the course of a discussion you’re having with them.
For instance, if someone demands your evidence that the Christian God doesn’t exist, and accuses you of being a godless fundamentalist with no empirical support for your position, you can point them to yourlogicalfallacyis.com/burden-of-proof, which will point out that it’s up to them to make a case for God if they’re making a claim about his existence.
Not everyone’s keen on the principle behind the site. Is it just another way for skeptics to be smug?
I’ve learned by now that any question about skeptics that includes the word “smug” is bound to make me bristle, regardless of its potential validity, and I need to give myself a quiet talking to before I respond in a way that makes me sound an arse. Part of the problem is that, while smugness is often an annoying quality in others, decrying it is something that it’s very easy to do smugly. Of course, by pointing out how smugly some people are objecting to others’ smugness, I’m unavoidably going to make things even worse and smugger than ever before.
Smug smug smug. The word’s doing that thing now. Is that really how it’s spelt? Smug. Hmm.
Anyway, Tannice’s objection in that link up there isn’t a ridiculous one. It can be satisfying to spot a hole in an adversary’s argument which completely undermines their conclusion, and depending on the attitude you’re bringing to the discussion, it might seem tempting to treat that accomplishment as some sort of conclusion, a victory, a zenith beyond which you need not progress any further. Obviously, this approach is indicative of being more interested in scoring points than learning anything new or getting closer to the truth, which may be an integral part of that detested smugness.
But I think it’s a little unfair to assume that this will be most skeptics’ prime use of a site that handily points out logical fallacies like this. It has the potential to be a useful tool for stimulating more rational debate, not just “an easy way to be a skeptical c*** online”.
Maybe there does need to be more focus among skeptics on what to do with a logical fallacy once you’ve spotted one, and how to best use an understanding of these common pitfalls to make our discussions more productive, and educate those who haven’t encountered them before and might think they’re all fine ways to make your point. But even if that side of things is being neglected, that doesn’t mean the addition of the Your Logical Fallacy Is site is a bad thing. It’s one more instrument in the arsenal, whether or not it’s used well by everyone.
I don’t think there’s a particular problem with skeptics being too smug. People can be smug – among many other, often far more undesirable traits – for all sorts of reasons. It’s not obvious to me that skepticism exacerbates it more than any other mindset.
Perhaps it’s especially grating in our case, because it’s thought that skeptics, of all people, really ought to be better at avoiding traps like smugness, rational self-examiners that we supposedly are. It’s worth noting that one of the fallacies listed on the site is “The fallacy fallacy“: the mistaken idea that, as soon as you’ve pointed out a mistake in someone’s argument, you’ve necessarily proven them wrong.
Hat-tip to Hayley Stevens for making me think about this, and for having sensible things to say.