Hallmarks of a #BadArgument

Painting of Democritus (center) and Pythagoras (right), the first Sophist, by Salvator Rosa

Democritus (center) and Pythagoras (right), the first Sophist (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons).

Updated 1/17/2017

On the web and in social media, you keep running into the same bad arguments over and over. To save time, I thought it would be useful to be able to just point to a reference list.

So, instead of having to waste time engaging with a bad argument, you can use the short url for this page, plus the bad argument number, like this:

bit.ly/bad-arg #1

This shorthand saves you from having to waste time and characters saying something like, “But that’s just an unsupported assertion, where’s your evidence?”

Here’s the current list, with thanks to all contributors:

  1. No/unreliable facts. E.g. an unsupported assertion, like “X was the worst president ever!”
  2. Cherry-picking. E.g. relying on anecdotes instead of meaningful statistics.
  3. No/unreliable sources. Strong arguments cite both facts and their sources, so that credibility can be judged.
  4. Argument from authority. Citing as a source a non-expert authority, also known as appeal to authority. E.g. “I’m going to make this investment because a celebrity on TV says it’s a good idea.”
  5. Confusion of correlation and causality. If two things happen at the same time, they are correlated, but it doesn’t necessarily prove that one causes the other. E.g. wearing your lucky shirt may appear to be correlated with your team winning, but that doesn’t mean it causes your team to win. This confusion is also known as post hoc ergo propter hoc — “after this therefore caused by this” — or cum hoc ergo propter hoc — “with this therefore caused by this.”
  6. Argument from ignorance. Asserting that something is true because the other person can’t prove it isn’t true (“ignorance” here refers to the ignorance of information to the contrary). But according to this argument, anything could be true. For example, try proving that there are no leprechauns — we haven’t seen them, but they could just be really good at hiding, especially since they’re magical. The burden of proof is on the person claiming there are leprechauns, i.e. the leprechaun advocate needs to show evidence they exist.
  7. No/invalid logic. Sometimes known as a non sequitur, something that “doesn’t follow.”
  8. Avoiding the issue. Not addressing points just made, changing the subject, or being deliberately unclear.
  9. Whataboutism, also known as appeal to hypocrisy or tu quoque. “Oh yeah? What about the time you did X?” While a person’s previous behavior may affect their credibility as a source, it doesn’t affect the validity of the argument they’re making now. E.g. someone could make a valid argument for healthy eating even though they had previously been seen holding a soda and a bag of chips.
  10. False equivalence. Treating different things as if they were similar. E.g. it would be misleading to discuss the argument that the world is flat as if it were roughly equivalent to the argument that the world is round.
  11. Straw man. Attacking a false version of your opponent’s views, e.g. “Since you obviously hate America…”
  12. Ad hominem attack. Criticizing the person instead of their argument.
  13. Insults. Simple name-calling — less substantial than an ad hominem attack.
  14. Denial of valid evidence/science/reality itself. Democracy was founded on Enlightenment principles of debate based on verifiable facts and logic, not on faith, mysticism, or power. Abandoning those principles, as in the use of the bad arguments listed here, ultimately amounts to abandoning democracy.
  15. Trolling. Using bad arguments deliberately, to make people crazy.