There’s a bit of synchronicity in my life at the present moment. Professionally, I’m in the midst of the “argument and persuasion” portion of my composition classes. Personally, I’ve been involved in more conversations than I can count lately where I’ve tried to convince people that the positions they hold are completely untenable.
In other words, I’m doing a lot of arguing.
What I’m finding most frustrating about this exercise (which I usually LOVE) is that too few people know how to actually argue; they don’t understand that the point isn’t necessarily to WIN, but rather to COMMUNICATE. People engage in all KINDS of intellectually dishonest practices during these conversations both because they don’t want to concede their point of view, but also, I think, because they’ve never been taught how to argue ethically.
After being summarily blocked by one person on facebook after (politely) asking him to provide sourced evidence to back up his claims, I’ve decided that I’m going to run a series here about logical fallacies. I’ll throw a couple out every week until I’ve hit all the major ones. Consider it a public service (and an effort to keep myself from killing people when they throw another fucking maroon fish at me. Ahem….).
Let’s start with the one that the person who blocked me employed; the appeal to authority.
Basically, this fallacy can be thought of as three subsets of the same faulty logic. Either:
• the person claiming authority doesn’t actually HAVE it (“I’m a doctor, so you can trust me when I tell you that that’s impetigo” doesn’t cut it when the degree of the person giving the diagnosis is a Ph.D. in literature, for example);
• the authority’s view is either taken out of context or the authority is biased toward a particular point (“I’m a doctor, so you can trust me when I tell you that Obamacare is going to be a disaster” is not a valid position coming from a doctor who’s being kicked off the network of a major insurer, for example); or
• the view of the expert does not jibe with that of other experts in the field (for example, the one climate scientist who doesn’t endorse the doctrine of global warming).
The person who blocked me was claiming to be an expert in health insurance and insurance compliance, but a) offered me no proof of his credentials and b) refused to back up his assertions with credible evidence (and never addressed an error in his assertions that I was able to debunk with cited evidence of my own). I was perfectly willing to accept his authority, but only if he were willing to verify it; a credible and ethical authority almost NEVER objects to backing up his or her assertions with evidence.
I have a student in one of my classes who’s trying to argue that performance-enhancing substances should be allowed in competition. When he showed me a list of some of his sources last week, I noted that one of the articles he’s using to support his position was written by a doctor, all right; a doctor of economics. Appeal to authority, my friend; that bit of evidence is inadmissible.