If you want to have a good discussion where all parties involved stand to benefit it is important to abide by some dos and don’ts. “Discussion” should be emphasized, because when neither party has any intent to admit when they are wrong or when the other party is right then it turns into an argument or debate, and those are usually a waste of time for all participants.
Do not accuse people of committing fallacies when the fallacies were not actually committed. This usually happens when a person does not have a good argument, wants to dismiss someone else’s argument, and has a weak understanding of the fallacies in question.
Ad Hominem: “You are wrong because you are [insert insult].”
Not Ad Hominem: “You are wrong because of [insert evidence]. Also, you are [insert insult].”
Simply insulting a person is not a fallacy or an ad hominem. They have to be using the disparagement to avoid engaging the argument. Dismissing their argument or pretending that they are committing a fallacy simply by insulting you is itself an attempt to avoid engaging argument. Some people purposefully become belligerent to intentionally provoke their opponent into insulting them so that they can justify dismissing that person’s argument based on the insult and not what they were saying.
Appeal to Authority, the fallacy: “This thing is true because this random person who I think is smart (because he/she agrees with me) says so.”
Deferral to expert, not a fallacy: “I don’t have the necessary knowledge or expertise on this topic, so I will defer to opinion of the experts in the relevant field.”
Nobody can know all the relevant information about every topic of interest; most people know very little about any topic in science or politics. Cherry-picking an authority figure—particularly those who hold minority opinions or those who have no expertise in the topic at hand—and saying you are right because that figure holds the same opinion is a fallacy. Conversely, identifying a trend of opinion among experts in a relevant field and deferring to their opinion is perfectly reasonable and not a fallacy. Experts can certainly be wrong, but they are less likely to be wrong than non-experts or experts of completely unrelated fields.
Appeal to definition fallacy
From Logically Fallacious website:
Using a dictionary’s limited definition of a term as evidence that term cannot have another meaning, expanded meaning, or even conflicting meaning. This is a fallacy because dictionaries don’t reason; they simply are a reflection of an abbreviated version of the current accepted usage of a term, as determined by argumentation and eventual acceptance. In short, dictionaries tell you what a word meant, according to the authors, at the time of its writing, not what it meant before that time, after, or what it should mean.
Example: When I point out that gender and sex are not the same thing and a bigot starts talking about the Old French and Latin meanings of gender and sex. Evidence that a word was used a certain way 2,000 years ago isn’t evidence that the word currently is used that way. Moreover, historical meanings of words don’t prove scientific truths.
Any good skeptic will always ask what someone’s source is. Unfortunately it seems like every time I ask what someone’s source is I have to add a whole paragraph explaining that they can’t just after-the-fact do a google search and spam the thread with whatever articles they see that have a title that appears to agree with them (articles they usually didn’t bother to read themselves).
When I ask for a source I mean show me where your belief originated so I can check to see if you’re just making stuff up or if you were misrepresenting the facts. Not spam me with more articles than I can feasibly read in a timely manner, thus leaving my opponent to hold onto their claim/belief without having ever actually reasonably proven it.
Link spamming is a variation of the “Gish Gallop,” which is a fallacious debate tactic where someone attempts to drown their opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments (or “evidences”) in order to prevent rebuttal of the their main argument. This fallacious approach makes use of the principle that it’s always easier to make a mess than to clean it back up again. It is always easier to make something up out of thin air than to debunk when someone makes something up. People that do this are dishonest and they have no intention of incorporating new information into their belief system if it doesn’t conform to existing beliefs.
What Counts as (Good) Evidence
Peer-reviewed/refereed academic journal articles
What are they: Academic journals are publications that receive submissions from scientists and scholars and publish them. A submission can be an original experiment, a meta-analysis (a mathematical synthesis of the results of the findings from many experiments), an essay, or another work of scholarship.
Most good journals are peer-reviewed/refereed which means that when the journal editor receives submissions they send the submission to respected experts in the relevant field for review. The experts identify any shortcomings with the submission and send their evaluation back to the editor who then has the author correct any serious problems. The best review processes are blind or double-blind.
The journal Social Science & Medicine describe their double-blind process:
This journal uses double-blind review, which means that both the reviewer and author identities are concealed from the reviewers, and vice versa, throughout the review process. To facilitate this, authors need to ensure that their manuscripts are prepared in a way that does not give away their identity.
It is important to at minimum have a single-blind process so that reviewers are not biased for or against a submission based on the author’s reputation or lack thereof.
Why they are good evidence: Peer-reviewed articles from respected journals are the apex of evidence because there are many mechanisms to ensure a minimum quality. Academic journals are where the experts in fields themselves go to become experts. The small number of bad experiments almost always get exposed because scientists become legends in their circles for spotting frauds. Scientists that are exposed as frauds lose their careers. Articles are generally detailed reports of experiments, making it easy to identify where someone went wrong if they did. In addition to that, most studies feature where the author themselves believe the study to fall short.
Do not mistake long-established respectable journals like the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s publication Science or Nature Research’s Nature for one of the many predatory or exploitative pay-to-play “journals” that have cropped up in the age of the internet. Many of those journals literally publish anything submitted. A scientist being hounded with e-mails from one of these publications eventually submitted an article consisting of “get me off your fucking mailing list” copy-and-pasted for the whole article (they actually published it).
What are they: Primary sources are ground zero. They are where a certain piece of information originates. They are the original source. A news article talking about a scientific source is not a primary source of the scientific findings, it is a secondary source. A history book about Albert Einstein is not a primary source for Einstein’s beliefs on general relativity, the notes or equations Einstein wrote himself are.
If I say George Washington believed something then handed you a magazine describing George Washington, I did not give you the primary source. The primary source would have been whichever archived letter or speech Washington himself wrote which the magazine was using to form their opinion.
Why they are important:
Primary sources are of upmost importance for two reasons.
- Anybody can make something up out of thin air; bullshitting takes no effort. Conversely, it takes a lot of effort to debunk someone’s bullshit. That is why we place the burden of proof on the person making the claim. And the amount and quality of proof necessary increases in proportion of the extravagance of the claim being made.
- To avoid a big game of telephone. Telephone is a children’s game where a person picks a word or phrase and passes it on by whispering it to someone next to them. Because people have deficiencies in both passing along and receiving information, the final person in the line often ends up with a phrase completely different than what the first person started with. On topics controversial for laypersons (e.g., climate change, economics, nuclear power, vaccination, etc.) much of what you find are “news” sources making claims about what a scientific study said. But after looking into it you often find the “news” source never even read the scientific study; that they actually were reporting on someone else’s interpretation who was reporting on someone else’s interpretation who was reporting on someone else’s interpretation of the actual study. Usually you find that the original study—the primary source—said something completely different than what the news source at the end of the game of telephone was reporting. I have seen this umpteen times from “skeptics” denying human-driven climate change.
It can be a little bit tricky though. Whether something is a primary source can depend on the claim it is being used to defend. If my claim was “a respected historian said __X__ about George Washington,” a book written by that historian would be a primary source, but if the claim was “George Washington said __X__,” that historian’s book would not be a primary source.
Which leads to another question: Can secondary source can be good sources?
The answer is that of course they can. College textbooks, history books written by respected historians, and topic books written for laypersons by professionals on a topic related to their specialty are all very often extremely informative and accurate sources of information. In fact, since most laypersons don’t posses the background knowledge on complex topics necessary to properly understand them, books by professionals from those fields may be better for learning about the topic than trudging through jargon-filled academic journal articles that may as well be in a different language for most laypersons.
Confirmation bias and opinionated ignorance:
The problem comes when said laypersons without proper background knowledge have an existing belief they need to defend from opposition. They know if they can claim an expert or science agrees with them their argument will sound more solid. So, they find a dubious blog or “news” source (e.g., Natural News, Breitbart, One America News Network) that claims to cite science or an expert. More often than not, these sources will either be (1) grossly misrepresenting the science or expert, (2) defining someone as an expert who is not in fact an expert, or (3) defining something as science that was never actually published in a respected journal. The layperson will then cite the dubious blog or “news” source as if they are citing an expert or scientific article. By doing this they have confirmed their bias without having invested a meaningful amount of energy into research, without risking the disconfirmation of their belief, and without ever having to utilize any real critical thinking. They decide they are now themselves experts and that anyone who disagrees must be an idiot despite it is they themselves who are idiots.
It is for this reason that primary sources are preferred when arguing whether something is ultimately true or not.
Reputable .org, .edu, and .gov sources
What are they: They are (usually) sources that are attached to an established organization rather than a pop source, entertainment source, a celebrity, or similarly flimsy corner of the internet.
Why they are good evidence:
The .edu extension is usually only available to academic institutions like universities, which is why they are generally better; those universities are often the sources of peer-reviewed research articles (e.g., Columbia University, Harvard, MIT, UCLA, Oxford). However, remember that dubious online universities and colleges exist, and even some major universities may not be the greatest purveyors of unbiased information. For example, Brigham Young University is run by the Mormon church of Utah, meaning that honest data may take a distant backseat to promoting religious interests. Evidence of this commitment to fanaticism is indicated by their strict student honor code which prohibits—among other things—camping with members of the opposite sex, growing a beard without a doctor’s approval, and engaging in extramarital or homosexual sex.
The .org extension may indicate a think-tank which, despite often leaning to the political left or right, frequently collect good data, keep good records, and publish well thought out articles. Although you can simply purchase .org domain extensions which is why it is still important to research the organization in question, they tend to be better and they are often non-profit organizations. Examples of good .orgs would be the Economic Policy Institute, the Cato Institute, the Rand Corporation, the Aspen Institute, and similar organizations. Again though, exercise critical thinking and caution because terrible .org organizations exist, such as the Heartland Institute which is abysmally politically driven and known to pay for billboards comparing anyone who accepts the evidence on climate change to the unabomber.
Government .gov extensions are generally very consistently good sources of raw data and research. Examples include the CDC, the FBI, and NASA. Ones outside of America can include references to the country of origin like it does in “metoffice.gov.uk,” which as the name suggests is the UK’s official meteorological office. Just remember, some government websites like whitehouse.gov can swing violently regarding their credibility depending on the individual who is in the White House.
What Is Not Evidence, or Is Bad Evidence
This is pretty self-explanatory. Any idiot can start a blog, a twitter account, or a facebook page. You can find some good and smart bloggers or social media personalities, but you have to expend a lot of energy and sift through a colossal amount of garbage to find them. In any case, I’d strongly avoid posting a link to a facebook post as proof a scientific fact is true or false. If a blog makes a correct point they should be citing their sources, and those sources are what you should really be sharing.
Same problem as with blogs. Conspiracy theorists in particular seem to like to sharing YouTube videos, though that problem decreased after Alex Jones got banned from YouTube.
Attempting to Shift the Burden of Proof
This is exactly what it sounds like. As I said earlier, anyone can bullshit and make anything up, it takes no effort. You can’t proudly and confidently make a claim then call a critic lazy for not researching your point on the spot. It isn’t the responsibility of others to prove your point.
Arguing With Definitions
Baiting and switching definitions
Example: When someone says “I want socialism, like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have,” a Libertarian will often respond by saying, “those are capitalist states that just have large social programs.” That response is correct because those countries don’t fit the strict definition of Socialism. However, when the initial person says, ok, well can we have universal healthcare like them? And the Libertarian contradicts themselves and shifts to a different much broader definition of Socialism and says, “NO, universal healthcare is socialism!”
The smartest person isn’t necessarily the person that knows the most but instead the person who is best at finding someone who does. Although, people who know how to locate reliable sources are usually pretty smart themselves.
Learn to identify who is discussion in good faith and open to good evidence versus who is just trying to inflate their self-esteem with the most limited amount of intellectual work possible. If a person doesn’t care about evidence and isn’t interested in accepting what is most probably true regardless of whether it is consistent with existing beliefs or contradicts them they aren’t worth having a discussion with.