In the previous two posts, I covered two tendencies we make when analyzing arguments for fallacies: 1) identifying fallacies willy-nilly, and 2) incorrectly identifying fallacies. In this post, I discuss one more tendency – identifying (correctly) fallacies without offering a corrective.
The last post of this series will offer some insight on what to do after you identify a fallacy. For now, let’s discuss what I call, fallacy mic-dropping.
The advent of Twitter has made 280 character-long statements a normal occurrence in dialogue across opposing views and within ideological camps. The Twitter-induced space constraint forces one to say a lot with only a few words, resulting in the art of concise communication. Despite this apparent benefit of bite-sized communication, Twitter in particular and social media in general has led to the tendency of compacting complex arguments and issues into vague, unexplained, assumption-laden claims that serve more as opinions than well-supported arguments.
For example, after having listened to a well-known theologian at a conference on the inerrancy of Scripture, an attendee sent out a tweet claiming that theologian, with one address, undermined the entire conference. This is a rather strong charge – one that deserves elaboration and explanation that cannot be provided in a forum that limits conversation to a scant 140-character blurb. The tweeter – whose tweet was posted on Facebook as well – provided a brief explanation in the comment section that the theologian’s classical apologetic undermines Scripture and when the theologian critiqued presuppositional apologetics, he does so by commiting the straw man fallacy. The tweeter in question may indeed be correct, but nothing was done by way of elaboration, explanation, and evidence. Instead, he pronounces his critique and charge as is, expecting the force of his claim to bear the brunt of convincing others that he is in the right.
The point of the illustration just provided is not to mock the tweeter for their opinion; rather, it is to point out that the way in which the claim was presented does little by way of offering a helpful critique and correction. To label an argument as fallacious requires an explanation as to why it is the case the fallacy applies to that particular argument. Because no explanation was provided in the situation above, the tweeter’s claim is akin to name-calling—using emotive language in order to elicit negative feelings toward the theologian and thus, by implication, gain favor for the tweeter’s view. To avoid committing your own fallacy when critiquing an argument, it is incumbent upon you to explain any charge you bring before an opposing argument, for it is by your argument that the charge you make is judged valid or not.
However, merely explaining why an argument is fallacious does little by way of bolstering your own argument. After clearing away the fallacious argument, it must be replaced with a corrected argument. To illustrate why this step is important, consider the time when your dentist found a cavity in one of your teeth. Upon receiving the dreaded news, you are asked to remain still as the dentist drills out the infected part of your tooth. After enduring what feels to be an eternity of discomfort, the moment arrives when the dentist proclaims your teeth to be free of that pernicious blight.
Though you are declared to be cavity-free, the dentist’s job is not complete. If you were allowed to go home after your cavity was removed, you would be back in the dentist’s chair in a matter of days. Without a filling, the newly-drilled hold in your tooth would soon be filled with food particles, bacteria, and other decay-enhancing matter, turning a simple fix (a cavity fill) into a more complicated, painful dental problem. So, to avoid such problems, the dentist fills the newly-drilled hole to prevent the “bad stuff” from getting to the inner part of your tooth. With your new filling, your tooth is as good as new, and the potential for further decay is laid to rest.
Likewise, to leave a claim that an argument is fallacious without follow up is to open you up potential problems that can overtake the original issue at hand. Since one goal of argumentation is the promotion of truth, providing correction to a fallacious argument aids in the pursuit of truth. Further, to provide correction helps to lend more support and credence to your overall argument.
In short, care must be given when analyzing an argument such that if a fallacy is detected, it is a valid charge. However, to merely label an argument as fallacious is not enough when seeking to answer an opponent. If you correctly identify a fallacy, then you must make the effort to explain and correct the fallacy.