Here on HDC sometimes we take a closer look at a logical fallacy and try to get to know it better so that it will be easier to identify when it crops up in a discussion or argument. One question I always have is, once you identify the logical fallacy, how do you handle it? I've always come at it directly. I've tried to educate people of the fallacy and hopefully redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand. It works sometimes but not always. Often people don't care that they commit logical fallacies. They are arguing emotionally anyway, so it doesn't matter to them. They are determined to win.

Anyway, the Rogues got a question by email which is just this problem, and answered it in a very helpful way so here is the question and the transcript of their answer:

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Episode 290
A listener writes in to the SGU to talk about logical fallacies. He says,” …Much of the time spent on logical fallacies in the skeptical community relies on how to identify them, but as I hone my ability to discuss and debate topics, I have noticed that I fall short in my ability to counteract a particular fallacy. I would enjoy hearing more about effective ways to approach a logical fallacy once it is apparent. It is one thing to say, "that's a straw man!", but in my experience, that does little to return a discussion back to the argument at hand. Hopefully this makes sense, and thanks in advance.”

48:45: Steven: So this is a good question. So now you’ve identified the logical fallacy in the argument of the person you’re arguing with, and now what?

Bob: Give an analogy, a real quick analogy. “That’s like saying blah blah blah.” And make it sound extra silly in your example. That’s one way to deal with it.

Jay: Well you know I can hear the subtext of what the emailer is saying, because it’s the frustration of, you’re barely identifying and understanding the logical fallacy, right? There’re so many of them, and there’re so many variations on them. So you’re kind of acknowledging just to yourself, “Ok, there’s a logical fallacy here.” And now you’ve got to do the Herculean effort of trying to explain it to them when you barely really get it yourself. And that is an incredible challenge to any critical thinker or skeptic.

Steven: My take is that, you have to put this into the context of what you’re trying to accomplish in the discussion that you’re having in the first place. I don’t think that you can really make effective use of this unless your entire approach to the discussion is appropriate. I know I’ve said before, which is basically that the goal of an argument should not be necessarily to convince the other person of your side, or to “win”, the goal should be to find common ground.

If you take the approach that, if both people are starting from the same factual information, and are employing valid logic, they must arrive at the same conclusion. You can reverse that and say, if two people have come to different conclusions on a question, then there’re only a few possibilities.

One possibility is that there are different value judgments involved, and those are not necessarily resolvable, but at the very least you can identify where they are and when they’re the source of the disagreement.

If there’re no overwhelming value judgments, then either one or both people are using invalid logic, or one or both are basing their conclusions on faulty premises, or they just have incomplete or maybe conflicting information. So either the premises are wrong or conflicting or the logic is invalid.

50:57 So the goal of the people having the discussion should be to figure out where they diverge and who’s screwing up. Who’s using incorrect logic, or whose facts are wrong, or maybe they just don’t have the facts so then you can agree, “so let’s figure out what they are so that we can have a better opinion”. If you’re doing that, then identifying a logical fallacy is golden, because now you’ve identified one of the causes of the differences of opinion, and you can fix it.

But both people have to be on board with that. If the other person is just trying to win or defend a position at all costs, identifying their logical fallacies is good for an onlooker, it’s not really going to have much use for the person that you’re arguing with. They’re probably just going to take it as a personal attack and commit yet another logical fallacy to defend themselves.

51:50 Guest Rogue Ray Greek: If I could just be a wet blanket one more time here, I think you might even be overestimating the intelligence of the people that [the emailer] is arguing with. I would refer you to a very good book by Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason. In it she talks about the love/hate relationship that America has with higher education and intellectuals. The bottom line is that some people just don’t trust pointy-headed smart people, ok, they just don’t trust them. And furthermore they don’t trust higher education and they certainly don’t trust that stupid thing that they heard called logic. They trust their gut. I know the [fundamentalist]  community that I was raised in, the community I was in the first quarter century of my life, they don’t care if they’ve committed ten logical fallacies. Their gut tells them they’re right.

So I think before you even get to all the very good advice that you guys have said, I think you have to ask yourself, “is this person open to thinking? Is this person open to being educated about critical thought?” And in my opinion, based strictly on my experience, most often they’re not.

53:05 Jay: Well Ray, you know we’ve talked about how to approach these types of conversations, and there’re  different kinds, of course, and different levels of intensity or whatever, and we usually give the advice, you know you’re never going to win someone over in one big fell swoop, like hitting them over the head with a frying pan type of deal. It’s small little nudges, give them something to think about. And I like the way Steve put it too, you’ve got to think contextually, “what’s this discussion about? What’s a reasonable goal I could have here?”

I think the emailer is talking about, he’s having a lively discussion with some people, some friends, and he’s identified a logical fallacy that they’ve stated, and he wants to be able to turn that into a rebuttal or some type of way of communicating back to them…

53:52 Steve: But even there you’re assuming that the purpose of this discussion is to convince the other person of a position.

Jay: But Steve it seems like that is what the emailer is asking.

Steve: But I’m just backing up a little bit and saying it depends on the context of what your goal is. Sometimes when I’m arguing with somebody else, my only goal is to hone my own arguments, or my goal might be to understand the crappy logic that the other side is using. I want to really dissect it to see where their major malfunction is. So it’s almost like a pathology dissection, where I’m trying to figure out, where are they going wrong?

But if you want to convince them, then what I recommend is first establish the common ground. Get them to agree that this is about logic and evidence. If you can’t get them to agree with that then there’s no point in going beyond that, there’s no point in talking about logic and evidence, until you’ve gotten them to agree that “we’re going to resolve this. Together we’re going to figure out what the best conclusion based upon logic and evidence. Once they’ve bought into that, then in a very nonconfrontational, nonjudgmental way, pick through your own logic and their logic, try to depersonalize it, remove yourself from it a little bit, and look at the arguments more in the abstract. Does that argument really say this, is it really valid? Not “you’re invalid” or “you’re committing a logical fallacy” but “this argument I don’t think is quite valid because it’s relying upon this which is not legitimate”.

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