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, by Salvator Rosa (public domain, Wikimedia Commons).

On the web and in social media, you keep running into the same bad arguments over and over. They’re so common, I thought it would save everyone a lot of time and trouble to be able to just point to a numbered list. You’ll find it below.

Now, instead of getting drawn down the same old ratholes, you can just use the short url I’ve created for this page: bit.ly/bad-arg. Add the number of the bad argument and there you go. For example:

https://bit.ly/bad-arg #1

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

Here’s the current list:

  1. No or unreliable facts. An unsupported assertion, such as saying “X was the worst president ever!” without any facts to back up the claim.
  2. No or unreliable sources. Strong arguments cite both facts and the facts’ sources, so that credibility can be judged.
  3. Cherry-picking. Choosing only those facts or anecdotes that appear to support your argument while ignoring others that would counter it.
  4. Argument from authority, also known as appeal to authority. Basing your argument on the say-so of a prominent person, as opposed to any real credibility they may or may not have. E.g. “You should make this investment because a celebrity on TV says it’s a good idea.” Or, as many a parent has yelled, “Because I say so!”
  5. Confusion of correlation and causality. If two things happen at the same time, they are correlated, but it doesn’t prove that one causes the other. 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 person you’re debating can’t prove it isn’t true (“ignorance” here refers to ignorance of information to the contrary). But according to this argument, anything could be true. For example, try proving there are no leprechauns. We haven’t seen them, but they could just be really good at hiding — and they would be, since they’re magical, right? Ah ha! According to the argument from ignorance, leprechauns exist! But in the real world, the burden of proof is on the person claiming there are leprechauns: the leprechaun advocate has to show evidence they exist.
  7. Non sequitur, which is Latin for “doesn’t follow.” Two assertions may be true but still not be connected in any relevant way.
  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. Maybe you’re guilty of having eaten junk food, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong if you say it’s not healthy. This was a favorite tactic of the Soviets, who would respond to criticism of their various abuses by saying things like, “What about racism in your country?” Unfortunately, whataboutism has since become popular in America and all over the world.
  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 equivalent in credibility to the argument that the world is round.
  11. Straw man. Attacking a false version of your opponent’s views, which you can then knock down as easily as if it were a straw man. For example, “You may want to destroy America, but I don’t.”
  12. Ad hominem attack, meaning an attack directed “to the person” instead of the evidence or logic. Similar to a simple insult, as in that favorite Twitter locution “Your an idiot” — note that it’s important to misspell it as “your” instead of “you’re,” in order to get the full (lack of) effect.
  13. 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. But not everyone is on board with that, and will assert what they believe is true, or want to be true, no matter what they see or hear.
  14. Trolling. Using bad arguments deliberately, to make people crazy.


Updated 11/24/2019