If you’ve spent any time whatsoever online, you’ll know that it is a breeding ground for arguments about, well, anything. Here are ten argument techniques you should look out for people using, both online and in real life, and why they make for a poor substitute for actual facts and reasoned arguments.
10. Straw Man Arguments
In arguments, a straw man is an entirely fictitious person, that holds a caricatured version of the beliefs that the creator’s opponent holds. It goes like this:
Person X: I think we should ban assault weapons, because letting people have access to them is a stupid idea.
Person Y: But without guns, we’ll be unable to defend ourselves from the government.
Can you spot the straw man? Person Y extrapolated Person X’s view to imply that they wanted to ban all guns, ignoring and refusing to address their original point in lieu of making the issue emotionally charged, which makes it almost impossible to argue properly. Just check out how hard it was for Piers Morgan to argue that very thing, then scroll to the comments and feel your mind slowly melt away.
9. Argument From Silence
An argument from silence is the incorrect assumption that someone’s silence indicates their guilt, or an admission that they’re wrong. Such as:
Person X: Batman would easily kill Darth Vader, and here is a comprehensive list of reasons why …
Person Y: You’re wrong and I’m not going to address any of your points.
Person X: Screw this; I’m going to play Halo.
Person Y: Can’t take losing? Ha ha, I win!
Someone refusing to address an issue isn’t them admitting that they’re wrong, any more than someone refusing to eat means that they’re full. If you offered someone a sweaty plate of rotted meat and they said “no thanks,” would you assume that person was simply not hungry?
It’s the same with arguments online. Some people seem to think that someone refusing to address their points any more means that they’ve won the argument. In reality, it’s far more likely that they’ve simply grown tired of seeing the words, “in the extended universe” written down.
8. Appealing To Ridicule
This is the act of presenting an opponent’s view in an overly simplified way, as to make it appear ridiculous to an outside observer. It allows you to mock their position without actually addressing them. Like:
Person X: I really think people should consider educating children about sex.
Person Y: Oh, you want someone to walk into a room full of children and start waving a penis around and for those children to take it seriously? Yeah, good luck with that.
As you can see in the example, by making the opponent’s position out to be a joke, you don’t actually need to address any of the deeper issues. This is a common tactic with some people, since it’s easier to call someone a blimpfart than it is to research the issue.
Then again, blimpfart is an awesome word, and we should all use it more.
7. Weasel Words
We used one of these in the very entry you just read above; did you spot it? It was the word “some“. Confused? Here’s an example:
Person X: Video games and violence is a touchy topic, but there’s no real evidence to support the link.
Person Y: Some scientists would disagree.
Again, the word “some” is the weasel word; it’s a way of applying credibility or weight to a vague statement, without any actual proof. For example, in the above entry, we mentioned that “it’s a common tactic with some people” (yes, we just quoted ourselves) without actually mentioning who or giving an example (Although we actually have one: Alex Jones’s hilarious attempt at mocking Piers Morgan’s English accent).
In arguments, this can be used to add undeserved weight to an otherwise baseless argument. “Some skeptics would argue that” and “many people would say,” are statements you should look out for. When someone says many people agree with them, ask them to point one out. If there are many of them, it shouldn’t be that hard. If they can’t, slap them in the face for wasting your time.
6. Argument From Ignorance
An argument from ignorance is one you will see, a lot. Basically, it’s shifting the burden of proof onto another person, and claiming that something is true, simply because it hasn’t been proven wrong:
Person X: Big Foot is out there somewhere.
Person Y: There’s virtually no proof to support that.
Person X: There’s no evidence to say he doesn’t exist though.
You will see this argument every time religion is mentioned online. Basically, they take Russel’s Teapot, the hypothetical teapot that orbits the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars that we can’t prove or disprove is actually there, seriously. Because blindly quoting someone else is the best way to show that you’re not as gullible as all those people blindly quoting God.
However, what people always seem to lose sight of is that this works both ways. Hundreds of years ago, Ignaz Semmelweis had to argue that tiny creatures no one could see were killing people, and they had to wash their hands to stop people dying. No one believed him, because he couldn’t prove it. Today, hand-washing and germ prevention is a batrillion-dollar industry, and something we condition our kids about at a very early age.
So remember guys, sometimes people who make unbelievable claims are proven 100% right, so don’t be a douche.
5. The Gambler’s Fallacy
The gambler’s fallacy, also known as the “law of averages,” is the mistaken belief that if something keeps happening, the opposite is bound to happen soon enough:
Person X: Star Wars VII is going to be awesome.
Person Y: Why?
Person X: The last three sucked, so therefore Luke and Leia are overdue for a hit!
The fact that the three previous Star Wars movies sucked more eggs than Birdo from Super Mario 2 has no bearing on the next one. Likewise, losing on a thousand scratch lottery tickets in a row has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of ticket #1001. To offer one more example, imagine arguing with a hundred online trolls in a row. Sure, the last troll didn’t change their mind, and neither did the previous 99 trolls, but that means the next one has to, right? WRONG.
4. Argument From Authority
An argument from authority is weighting the words of a perceived expert more heavily than those of an unknown, thereby subconsciously dismissing the unknown individual’s argument as inferior, regardless of its merits. The authority in question can take many forms, for example …
Person X: My mother says that sex before marriage will get me pregnant.
Person Y: Well, no, that’s not the case. Many studies indicate that, as long as safe sex is practiced, you’re not likely to ever be blessed with a spare set of kidneys in baby form.
Person X: They’re obviously lying.
The above may seem silly, but many really do consider parents to be the highest authority. Hell, just look at the Westboro Baptist Church (if you can do so without vomiting violently.) Almost everything they say is the result of the power that their father, Fred Phelps has over their opinions.
Online, you’ll see this mostly in the form of links on Facebook. If you logged on there right now, you’re all but guaranteed a bunch of “news” stories where that are pure hokum and satire, like The Onion or The Duffel Blog, or even just a redressed version of an ages-old urban myth. But because the source looks official and authoritative, the story is taken at face value and used to spread a poor unfortunate soul’s misguided argument.
3. In-Group Favoritism
In-group favoritism is when you place a greater amount of weight on the opinions and views of your peers, than those of others, simply because you don’t like them or their peers:
Person X: I think we need to discuss the issue of healthcare.
Person Y: Wait, aren’t you Republican?
Person X: Well, yes, but I just want a frank discussion.
Person Y: Screw you then, you don’t know anything!
The worst part is, the above example is probably more mature than half the Internet. Don’t believe us? Just check out any YouTube video concerning Call Of Duty or, if you’re really brave, My Little Pony.
The thing is though, your in-group can vary wildly, as can the hostility that group displays to outsiders. If you want to see the ultimate example of this, check out Stormfront, a white supremacist forum that we’re not linking to because they don’t deserve the traffic. Basically, you’ve got a bunch of people, who all think they’re of a superior race, all feeding off of each others’ energy, without any outside criticism whatsoever. The second that view is challenged, it’s met with more hostility and poor spelling than someone beating a dyslexic person with a dictionary.
2. Loaded Questions
Loaded questions are the trump card of arguments. It’s like kicking your opponent right in the soul and, if played correctly, there is absolutely no counter to them.
Person X: Do you enjoy watching heterosexual pornography?
Person Y: …
As the above example demonstrates, there is almost no way for you to answer that question in a classy way, since the inclusion of the word “heterosexual” forces you to awkwardly defend your sexuality. A “yes” would imply that you like looking at same-sex naughty bits and are therefore secretly gay, and a “no” implies that you don’t, and are therefore homophobic and terrible. Unless you actually are gay or homophobic, there is no decent way to answer this question, unless you count punching your opponent’s lights out as an answer.
Loaded questions have been used to great effect in the past, normally by people who haven’t yet done anything about their small genitals. You’ve taken care of your small genitals by now, right?
1. The Nirvana Fallacy
The nirvana fallacy is rebuffing an argument, simply because it doesn’t offer a perfect solution:
Person X: We need to keep the public informed about the dangers of fast food.
Person Y: Why? People are always going to stuff their faces full of fried pizza.
Dismissing an argument on the ground that it doesn’t perfectly solve everything and put a neat little bow on it isn’t just cynical. It’s completely ignorant of the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world. Clearly we don’t, because bacon doesn’t fall from the sky on demand, and Joss Whedon doesn’t have the immortality required to continue making awesome movies, forever.
However, it doesn’t stop people from dismissing the Hell out of anything they don’t agree with, simply because it doesn’t fix everything.
“Why should we have free healthcare, a select few people would just abuse it!”
“Why should we ban guns? Criminals would still find a way to get them!”
“Why should I take a shower, I’m just going to get stinky again tomorrow!”
In each case, all you’re doing is proving to the world that you’re unable to see the bigger picture. We’re not going to fix the world in a day and, by refusing to join in the debate until someone does, all you’re doing is proving to people that you can’t be trusted not put rocks in your mouth when you’re left alone.
Karl literally wrote a book all about arguing with people online. Check it out here.