Please Don’t Take My Word For It
This post was originally made on 4/2/21
Welcome to The Bloch,
My previous letter on the gun debate sparked some thoughtful discussion on Facebook last week, which I was pleased to see. That is, after all, one of the main reasons I am packaging my thoughts into this letter and sharing it with you: to open the door for communication. If I discuss topics that interest you or if you have opinions you’d like to share, I encourage you to share them with me privately or engage in a discussion online.
What I ask of you when you go out there and engage online, whether it be on my post or elsewhere, is to be civil. Give respect and you will get it. Give the people you are communicating with the benefit of the doubt. Assume they have good intentions and dig deeper to make sure you understand where their perspective comes from. As the Russian proverb says (I definitely butchered the correct pronunciation — sorry Russian speakers!): Doveryai, no proveryai (Russian: Доверяй, но проверяй;) Trust, but verify.
So how do I go about ‘verifying’ online? Anything can be faked these days right? I’ll share the main tools I have picked up along the way. The tools I’m referring to some of you may be familiar with. I’m going to use a metaphor to help explain these tools in more graphic detail. That way you can use your imagination.
In this metaphor, the sky is the internet: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube; the content everyone is asking you to consume is the precipitation. Some of it is regular old rain, some of it is acidic rain, some of it demands more attention like a thunderstorm or a hurricane, and some of it is just straight-up crap falling from the sky. So as you go out there reading and scrolling memes and watching reels and stories; as the youtube algorithm-gods serve you up the next video to watch from someone you’ve never met streaming live from a faraway place — I want you to ask yourself: do I trust this person? Are they presenting facts? Are the facts they choose to present the truth? Are they open to learning new things? Or are they simply dropping poop bombs from their keyboard or their microphone or their selfie camera? Sometimes you simply need to ask yourself: have I verified what this person is telling me?
The first essential tool you’ll want to have as you go out there is basically a shield. You could even call it an umbrella. Its purpose is to guard your head against all the poo that falls from the sky. The poop shield is very easy to use. Simply put, if you are doing it right, when you sense the poop storm coming, you pop up that shield until the storm passes. The reason this is tool number one is that it is possible for you to walk straight into a poo storm with absolutely no warning. That would be doing it wrong. Gotta keep the shield handy. Tool number two however offers a more proactive approach. I like to call it your Poo Radar or PooDar. This is like being the weatherman; forecasting the stinky precipitation, identifying it, and telling everyone to put up their shields. Developing the PooDar is a great way to stay out of the storms you don’t want to be in.
If you program some of these common forms of logical poo that you might encounter into your PooDar, you will be in great shape as you trek through the storms that you will likely endure on your journey online.
- Ad Hominem: This is one of the most common fallacies out there. It is a favorite of our former president Trump, and it is one of the easiest to employ.
- The name is ad hominem is Latin and translates to “against the man,” but it is understood more commonly as a personal attack. When this fallacy is used, whether consciously or unconsciously, people start to question the opponent or his or her personal associations, rather than evaluating the soundness and validity of the argument that he or she presents. Trump calling opponents by names like “Crooked Hillary” and “Sleepy Joe” are recent, well-known examples of this. (Excerpts from https://literarydevices.net/ad-hominem/)
(The following examples are condensed from this MindTools article on logical fallacies. I encourage you to check it out if you are interested in this stuff.)
- Appeals to Authority: This is where you rely on an “expert” source to form the basis of your argument. Mentioning an academic tends to imply authority and expertise, and that your argument is backed up by rigorous research. The effect is even stronger when you use a real name.
- But name-dropping alone is not enough to “prove” your case. Even if the academic is real, and their research is genuine, it may not necessarily support your argument — it may be misquoted, misunderstood, taken out of context, or contain important caveats that undermine the point you are trying to make.
- Try not to rely too heavily on a single expert’s authority, or on a single source of data.
- False Inductions. A false induction is often called a “non sequitur,” which translates from Latin as “it does not follow.” This fallacy gets you to infer a causal relationship where none is evident. Just because something happened before something else, or just because two trends are correlated, does not mean that there is a logical, causal link between the two.
- Slippery Slope: The slippery slope argument relies on making you think that the worst that can happen will actually happen if you take a particular course of action. Of course, this is not necessarily the case.
- Here’s an example: “If we allow Karen to leave early, soon we’ll be giving everyone Friday afternoon off.”
- This kind of argument crops up often. But, on closer inspection of the example, you can see that it’s illogical to conclude that you will have to give absolutely everyone an afternoon off, every single week, just by allowing one employee to leave early one time.
- Bandwagon Fallacy: Here, you are led to believe in an idea or proposition simply because it’s popular or has lots of support. But the fact that lots of people agree with something doesn’t make it true or right. At the same time, keep in mind that just because lots of people believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Always try to think critically and don’t be led by forceful arguments.
- The “appeal to tradition” fallacy is similar to the bandwagon fallacy. Here the argument centers on something that has “always” been done, or that is a widely accepted practice.
- False Dichotomy: The false dichotomy fallacy depends on an “either-or” argument: you provide only two options and force people to choose between them. In fact, neither choice may be the best, and there may be many other options available. But the argument makes it look like the suggested option is the only feasible one.
- Straw Man Fallacy: The straw man fallacy involves creating a false argument and then refuting it. The counterargument is then believed to be true. By misrepresenting an opposing position (and then knocking it down) your own preferred position appears stronger.
- No True Scotsman Fallacy: Sometimes called an “appeal to purity,” this is a way to dismiss flaws in an argument or criticisms of it.
- No matter how compelling the counterargument may be, the person committing this fallacy “moves the goalposts,” and shifts the terms of the argument so that the contradictory evidence does not apply. Calling things “UnAmerican” is a common example of this one.
- Observational Selection: This means that you draw attention to the positive aspects of an idea and ignore the negatives. You are trying to make your argument more persuasive by providing only half the story.
- It’s easy to slip into observational selection if you become attached to an idea, especially if you were involved in generating it. The “statistics of small numbers” fallacy is a similar concept. Here, you take one observation and use it to draw a general conclusion.
(This is not a comprehensive list of fallacies. If you want to really deep dive into this stuff, try this master list of fallacies from UTEP.)
In closing, I implore you: use your brain; be analytical. People may not be trying to deceive you, they likely have the best intentions. Venture out there with an open mind, and seek out and listen to those who present not just their opinions, but facts. People who back up their facts with empirical evidence, and who are open to learning new things and finding new solutions to old problems. Look at things from multiple angles, and compare the way one outlet presents you with information to how other outlets do it. Some are just trying to convince you of their position. Others are attempting to make progress by presenting data and opening the door to discussions. For me, it really helps to be able to differentiate between the two.
Until next time.