Friday, January 29, 2010

The Personal Attack and Internet Debate

Ever noticed how on the internet there is a tendency for certain individuals to substitute personal attacks for reasoned argument when it comes to expressing disapproval?  It's not just the forums (though Xanga does seem to draw a lot of this sort of commentary), but even on customer reviews of products.  Labels like "Mindless propaganda" and the dismissal of an idea solely on the grounds of the beliefs of the one who thinks it.

Unfortunately this is what has replaced rational discussion in many incidents nowadays.  The sad thing of it all is such behavior blocks attempts to really understand a position before attacking it.  Vitriol often replaces civil discourse until it seems we have nothing more than armed camps who don't discuss but rather fight.

Imagine if this sort of behavior took place in the 13th century…

Thomas Aquinas: …I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways.

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it…

Modern Internet Commenter: OMFG… You people are teh suck with your mindless drivel.  WTF??? DIAF you [String of expletives]

An exaggeration to be sure, but sadly not much of one (I've certainly deleted comments along this line).  Because an argument comes from a religious authority (for example) it is often rejected and savaged by people who believe there can be no validity to what they disagree with.  However, such an attack does absolutely nothing to demonstrate the argument from an individual is actually wrong.


As usual, the examples used do not mean that I claim all members of the internet forums behave this way against Christians.  Nor does it mean no Christians behave this way towards their opponents either (at the end of the article you'll see me say we should NOT make use of these tactics ourselves).  Keep in mind that the examples used in this article are directed towards helping my fellow Christians be aware of these logical errors when directed against them and makes no statements about "Only group [X] uses these errors."

It is unfortunate that some comments on the internet blogs are not grounded in reasoned discourse, but in attempts to intimidate the authors of blog sites through verbal attacks, and this article seeks to inform that such attacks and the hostility which usually accompanies such tactics on the internet have no grounding in logic.

If the reader does not use these fallacies, then the article is not directed at them.

Four Fallacies

I find there are four popular fallacies often employed to attack the Christian faith on the internet without actually needing to study what it actually believes and on what basis.  These are:

  1. The Genetic Fallacy
  2. The Poisoning the Well fallacy
  3. The Tu Quoque fallacy.
  4. The Ad Hominem fallacy

Let's Look at these fallacies.

The Genetic Fallacy

The Genetic Fallacy is to attack an idea because of the source of the idea.  It presupposes an idea must be wrong because the source of the idea can't be right in general.  It works like this:

  1. Idea [X] comes from group [Y]
  2. Therefore Idea [X] is wrong.

Except that is no basis of whether an idea is true or not.

One of the most notorious examples of this sort of thinking came about in Nazi Germany when the Germans put an emphasis on German science, German art, German philosophy and so on.  It corresponded with a disdain for things like Jewish science, Jewish philosophy and so on.  This kind of thinking tended to create a disdain for things which had an origin in Jewish scientists.  It has been reported that such thinking tended to lead the Germans to disdain the atomic sciences… which hindered the Germans in the "race for the atomic bomb" in World War II.  Just because the Nazis disdained the scientific advances discovered by individuals who were Jewish did not make those advances wrong.

We see this in modern dialogue as well.  How often have we heard things like "You must get all your news from FOX" as a dismissal for a position?  The implication being that if it comes from FOX News, it can't be true.

I can recall seeing several internet discussions on evolution, where some interesting questions (at least to me) were raised by some individuals about evolution and problems with the Darwinian theory.  I recall evolutionists in that forum refusing to answer the questions, merely replying "You must be a creationist."  Now perhaps there were legitimate scientific answers to the questions being asked which showed the questions had a false understanding at the root, but the questions were never given answers.  They were rejected as unworthy of answering merely because they were associated with the idea of Intelligent Design and therefore deemed without merit because of this association.

The Genetic Fallacy is generally a way to avoid thinking.  A person or an idea [X] is labeled as a part of group [Y] with the indication that one can reject thinking about it because it comes from this source.  But the source has no bearing on whether or not it is true.

Now of course, not all actions of considering the source are the Genetic fallacy.  If for example, someone tells me that Father Harry Tick has said that one can contracept and still be a good Catholic, one can research what he has said in the past.  In the case of this example, if we see that Fr. Harry Tick has had similar ideas condemned by the Vatican in the past, we can consider it probable that he is not an accurate source if he has not retracted his views.  However this is applying scrutiny based on considering the credibility of the source, not rejecting it simply because of the source.

The Poisoning the Well Fallacy

The Poisoning the Well fallacy is an attempt to discredit an idea before it is even presented.  Certain words are used to make it seem that the view being presented is automatically wrong or at least suspect.  The fallacy runs along these lines:

  1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person [A] is presented.
  2. Therefore any claims person [A] makes will be false.

This kind of argument is often employed against the Catholic Church on teachings of sexual morality and their opposition to abortion.  Something to the effect of "The Catholic Church is run by celibate old men and exclude women from the priesthood, so whatever they might say about the issue is obviously misinformed."

The fact that priests are celibate is introduced to discredit the Church teaching on sexual morality before the Catholic view is even presented.  The attempt is to preemptively taint whatever the Church says as coming from "celibate old men who don't understand sex."

This is nonsense of course.  One does not have to engage in sexual acts to know that some of them are harmful any more than one has to experiment personally with narcotics to learn some are always harmful and some are harmful when used outside of the proper intent.

Many of the "One star" reviews I have seen of the books on Amazon defending Christian beliefs against atheism also used this form of attack.  Labels of "mindless dogma" and "irrational thinking" are often used to lead the potential reader a negative view of what the author says before he says it.

However, as we saw above from the Genetic Fallacy, just because one disapproves of the beliefs of source [X] does not mean the things said by source [X] are not true.

Disapproval does not mean the statement is disproved.

The Tu Quoque Fallacy

The Tu Quoque fallacy (Latin for "and you too") seeks to answer a charge with a counter charge with the intention of distracting the individual from the original challenge and put him on the defensive.  This often happens between Christians vs. Atheists and Catholics vs. Protestants over the "body count" debates about who has the "worst" record.

The argument runs as follows:

  1. Person [A] Makes Argument [X]
  2. Person [B] Makes unfavorable statement about Person [A] to indicate Argument [X] is not consistent with the behavior of Person [A]
  3. Therefore Argument [X] is not valid

The problem is that while hypocrisy or bad behavior may reflect badly on individual [A]'s judgment on a certain issue, it does not mean that Argument [X] is automatically wrong.  Nor does it mean everything Individual [A] is associated with is automatically wrong.

The common attack can be summed up in this dialogue:

Father: You shouldn't smoke!  It's bad for you!

Teenage Daughter: Whatever… you smoke!

The fact that the Father smokes has nothing to do with whether or not smoking is bad for you.

When employed in debates between theists and atheists or Catholics and Protestants, the attack is generally used to avoid thinking about whether the argument is true by arguing that because a religion did certain things in the past does not mean that the argument they make NOW must be false.

Now of course at certain times, the introduction to a counter claim can be valid.  If someone argues:

  1. All [A] is [B]
  2. All [B] is [C]
  3. Therefore All [A] is [C]

it can be refuted if someone can demonstrate that Some [A] is not [B], or Some [B] is not [C].  So if someone argues that "Islam is a religion of peace" the counter example of Islam sanctioning violence could be admissible if it could be established that this was official teaching and not some fringe group of heretics or some repudiated writing.  However, if someone said "Islam is looking to peacefully coexist with the world" and I responded, "Rubbish!  What about their forced conversions in the 8th century?" this would be a tu quoque attack.

Likewise, in a Catholic vs. Protestant debate about the "body count" of the Reformation era, it would be wrong to say in response to a challenge "Catholics did terrible things" that "So did Protestants."  THAT'S a Tu quoque.  However, if the assertion was that Only Catholic nations did these things, then counter example of Protestant nations doing the same thing refutes (validly) the claim that "only" Catholics did these things.

The Ad Hominem Argument

I find this is usually the last resort of a person losing an argument.  Ad hominem (Latin for "against the person") makes no attempt to refute an argument, but instead makes an attack against the individual who makes the argument as an attempt to undermine the argument through "guilt by association."

So, as an example, a lawyer claiming that a mob informer cannot be trusted to give information against his client because the informant is a criminal is an example of the ad hominem.  Another example would be along the lines of:

Person A: I think experimentation on animals is cruel

Person B: You would say that… you're a Vegan.

(The implication is that because person B is a Vegan, she is not being objective on the issue of animal experimentation).

The form of the fallacy usually takes this form:

  1. Person [A] makes Argument [X]
  2. Person [B] makes a personal attack on Person [A]
  3. Therefore Argument [X] need not be considered.

Of course the personal attack on Person [A] has nothing at all to do with whether argument [X] is true.  In the example above, it is possible person [A] bases the objections from the philosophy of being a Vegan.  However it is also possible that Person [A] has some reliable information about some appalling practices which she opposes on grounds of compassion.

Unfortunately this tactic is common on internet debates.  Calling a Christian a "mindless sheep" because he rejects an argument (implying that if he would "think for himself" he wouldn't be a Christian) is an example of the ad hominem.  So too "Right Wing" "Left Wing" "Homophobic" and so on are slung about seeking to smear the individual with the implication that it somehow means the argument "can't" be true.

The problem is that the personal attack on the person making an argument is not a refutation of the argument.

It can be easy to fall into this argument.  One recent example was in dealing with Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews.  Some individuals sought to bring up the fact that as a boy, he grew up in Nazi Germany and therefore he must be hostile to the Jews in certain actions he did as Pope.  That he did grow up in Nazi Germany is true, but it is irrelevant.  (For example, he describes his father as a strong influence who was anti-Nazi).  So to reject the Pope's actions as being influenced by the fact he grew up in Germany in the 1930s and 40s is an ad hominem attack.

Now the ad hominem is NOT the same as personal insults, though on the internet it often devolves into them as an attacker grows more frustrated.  The ad hominem generally demonstrates a contempt for the beliefs or circumstances of an individual making the assertion, with the result that when the individual is frustrated enough the response is to lash out.

Usually once the person is reduced to name-calling it is a good sign the individual making use of them have no more to say and out of frustration or contempt.  (Once an individual reaches this stage, I find further dialogue is useless and banning them from my site is the best way to handle it).

The Christian Consideration: Don't Commit Those Errors

As Christians blogging, we often see these fallacies used against us.  However, as Christians who believe in the existence of Truth and who believe that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us we need to make sure that we do not fall into the trap of using these fallacies ourselves.

It is unfortunate that some Christians have made use of these fallacies as well.  Just as logic is a tool which can be used by any group to evaluate the truth, so too fallacies are not the property of only one group of people.  Any individual can fall into these errors.

If we as Christians seek to "practice what we preach," it means we can't use the Genetic fallacy to reject an idea just because a non-Christian proposes it.  We can't Poison the Well and present an argument in such a way as to turn the readers against it before they even hear it.  We can't use the Tu Quoque and reply to a charge with a counter charge, and we may not use the ad hominem and cast aspersions on our opponent because holds a view and think we have refuted our opponent's argument.

If we do these things, we can lead those who witness our writings to think we are illogical.

Now it is easy to slip into fallacy by forgetting the purpose of the argument we wish to make is to show Truth.  NOT "to win."  So while putting on a "literary beatdown" may be fun, this sort of behavior does not impress people who are searching for truth.  If we believe the Christian faith is true, we need to show why it is true and not to merely distract and intimidate. 

We've all done it I know.  For example, it's easy to think "Hah, this clown writes for National Catholic Distorter Reporter.  The position must be a load of garbage" as opposed to "Because this newspaper has a tendency to advocate certain views in contradiction to Catholic teaching, the positions it advocates needs to be scrutinized to be sure it is not doing the same here."

It's easy to write off all Protestant/Catholic views because their view is not Catholic/Protestant (or atheist/theist views because the view is not theist/atheist).  However this is not a reason in itself to dismiss the arguments made.

Ultimately we are all called to be just and compassionate in what we do or say.  If we resent tactics like this used against us, let us do our best not to make use of them ourselves.


Of course this does not mean we must be indifferent about religion or think that truth is relative.  If a thing is true, we need to defend that truth against error.  However the use of a logical error does not prove a position.  A logical error of the types described in the article may put one on the defensive and may be popular with the people who agree with you, but it is nothing more than a cheap tactic to intimidate, and makes no valid attack against the argument made.

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