I didn’t mess up the post’s title – I do mean you should stop winning arguments. This, of course, doesn’t mean you would start losing them – debates are not zero-sum games, and they are not fights either. We tend to turn them into rows, of course, when things get emotional, but that’s precisely the problem.
Arguments are also not goals, rather tools to achieve them – and those goals ideally should be to have better diversity of ideas, to get to alignment and test our assumptions. All this should take us to a much better place than we would be without debate.
This is easier said than done – our brains play some pretty sly tricks on us, many times without us being aware of what’s happening.
Common logical fallacies in arguments
Once you’ve decided you’d like to have productive arguments you need to identify the typical signs and forms of bad arguments, which, in most cases fall into the category of logical fallacies.
A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning common enough to earn its own fancy name. Knowing how to spot and identify these is an invaluable skill. It can save you time, money, relationships and personal dignity. We’ll focus on the so-called informal fallacies – issues with the content and not the form of your arguments. Wikipedia has a massive list of these, and I’ll only talk about a few frequent ones.
Bulverism is the logical fallacy of assuming without discussion that a person is wrong and then distracting his or her attention from this (the only real issue) by explaining how that person became so silly, usually associating it to a psychological condition. The fallacy deals with secondary questions about ideas rather than the primary one, thus avoiding the basic question or evading the issues raised by trains of reasoning. It is essentially dodging your opponent’s argument by treating them like a psychiatry patient who needs your evaluation to explain why they came up with such a ridiculous argument in the first place.
Person A: “We should re-examine gender-roles in American society, because there may be more beneficial paradigms.” Person B: “Feminists have brainwashed you; You need to stop listening to people who want to ruin America.”
The fallacy was coined by C.S. Lewis in his essay, First and Second things.
When people think of arguments, often their first thought is of shouting matches full of personal attacks. Ironically, personal attacks run contrary to rational arguments. In logic and rhetoric, a personal attack is called an ad hominem. Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man.” Instead of advancing good sound reasoning, an ad hominem replaces logical argumentation with attack-language unrelated to the truth of the matter.
More specifically, the ad hominem is a fallacy of relevance where someone rejects or criticises another person’s view based on personal characteristics, background, physical appearance, or other features irrelevant to the argument at issue.
This fallacy is so common that it even has sub-classes describing the multiple ways we aim to attack each other in debates.
- Circumstantial ad hominem occurs when someone attacks a claim by saying that the person making the claim is only making it because it’s in his/her interest or because of his/her circumstances. This actually has no bearing on whether or not the claim is true or false. “You only want more women in the engineering team because you are a woman.”
- Tu quoque a.k.a. “the appeal to hypocrisy”: Tu quouqe means “you also”. It is claiming the argument is flawed by pointing out that the one making the argument is not acting consistently with the claims of the argument. “Stop telling me sugar is bad for my health; you eat cookies all the time.”
- Guilt by association: When the person making the argument is viewed negatively because of its association with another person or group who is already viewed negatively. “Well, you know who else supported civil rights so fiercely? Communists!”
- Abusive ad hominem: Attacking the person making the argument, rather than the statement itself, when the attack on the person is utterly irrelevant to the statement the person is making. “I think that you’re stupid and that nobody cares about your opinion.”
- Tone policing: Tone policing is an attack that focuses on how someone makes an argument, rather than on the argument itself. “Okay, okay, no need to get so emotional over these things.”
- The credentials fallacy is about stating that the person who made that argument doesn’t have sufficient credentials in the field being discussed, while those credentials are not necessary for the argument. “Why are you writing an article about logical fallacies, you’re not a philosophy professor… ;)”
- Poisoning the well is a rhetorical technique where someone presents irrelevant negative information about their opponent, with the goal of discrediting their opponent’s arguments. Poisoning the well is a term referring to Medieval attacks on Jewish communities. Without evidence, people would accuse Jewish people of poisoning the town well when there was sickness in the city. This was used as an excuse to attack Jewish people and consider anything they were associated with as a tainted or evil. “You’re a known liar, why should we listen to you?!”
- Argumentum ergo decedo, also known as the traitorous critic fallacy, is telling a person who criticised something that they should stay away from the subject of their criticism if they disapprove of the current situation. “Well if you don’t like how we test our code here you can always find another company.”
Straw man Argument
It’s much easier to defeat your opponent’s argument when it’s made of straw. The straw man argument is aptly named after a harmless, lifeless, scarecrow. In the strawman argument, someone attacks a position the opponent doesn’t really hold. Instead of contending with the actual argument, he or she attacks the equivalent of a lifeless bundle of straw, an easily defeated effigy, which the opponent never intended upon defending anyway.
The basic structure of the argument consists of Person A making a claim, Person B creating a distorted version of the claim (the “straw man”), and then Person B attacking this distorted version in order to refute Person A’s original assertion.
Person A: Evolution explains how animals developed, adapted and diversified over millions of years.
Person B: If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? And why don’t we have three arms? Wouldn’t that give me a competitive advantage?
Argumentum ad ignorantiam – appeal to ignorance
This fallacy occurs when you argue that your conclusion must be true because there is no evidence against it. This fallacy wrongly shifts the burden of proof away from the one making the claim. Here the ignorance represents “a lack of contrary evidence”.
- Absence of evidence: “There’s no evidence of bugs in my code, so it must be bug-free”
- False positives / false negatives: “I wore red socks and we won the baseball game. My red socks helped win the game.” – “I’ll stop taking antibiotics, I’ve taken them since yesterday and I’m not cured yet.”
- Evidence of absence: “All Python code is fast, I’ve never written slow Python code in my life.”
False dichotomy or false dilemma
A limited number of options are incorrectly presented as being mutually exclusive to one another or as being the only options that exist, in a situation where that isn’t the case. For example, a false dilemma occurs in a situation where someone says that we must choose between options A or B, without mentioning that option C also exists.
“You’re either with us, or against us.”
Many times it’s paired with other ad hominem, e.g. poisoning the well or guilt by association:
“If you don’t support the complete rewrite of this service you don’t care about quality”
There are subtle versions too, such as:
“Censorship laws are not tools for suppressing the population, but rather for preventing crime.”
Slippery slope fallacy
When a relatively insignificant first event is suggested to lead to a more significant event, which in turn leads to a more significant event, and so on, until some ultimate, significant event is reached, where the connection of each event is not only unwarranted but with each step it becomes more and more improbable. Many events are usually present in this fallacy, but only two are actually required — usually connected by “the next thing you know…”
“Come on; we can’t support flexible working hours! First, people will show up later and later, leave early then sooner or later, no work will get done!”
“If we legalize pot, then that will lead to every drug in the world becoming legal”
Also known as overgeneralization, this fallacy is drawing a conclusion based on a small sample size, rather than looking at statistics that are much more in line with the typical or average situation.
“My father smoked four packs of cigarettes a day since age fourteen and lived until age sixty-nine. Therefore, smoking really can’t be that bad for you.”
Hasty generalization may be the most common logical fallacy because there’s no single agreed-upon measure for “sufficient” evidence.
There are many many more of such fallacies – the point is that it’s terribly easy to fall into such traps, some people even learned to consciously or automatically use the above fallacies as “techniques” to win arguments – you might be one of them! I, for sure have done this many times, guilty as charged. Wait, did I just overgeneralize? ;)
There are ways to mitigate or at least control such behaviours and fallacies, such as following strict debate formats or having an unbiased, experienced moderator but ultimately real change only happens when we stop wanting to win arguments. An easy way to start is to think back and honestly re-evaluate your arguments once your mind cooled down a bit. Do a “retrospective” of your debates and try to identify your emotions and potential fallacies. If you get into this habit, over time the time window in which you’re able to do this shortens. With some practice, you’ll be able to do this near real-time. The key here is identifying your emotions as they tend to take over control – something called the “amygdala hijack”. Read more of it here: https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/amygdala-hijack.
Techniques to stop amygdala hijack:
Reasoning. This means you use your frontal lobes to think the situation through, review the possible options, and choose the most rational and logical way to respond. Meditation. By relaxing your body and mind through meditation or deep breathing, you can change your brain’s focus from responding to a threat or stress to inner peace and calmness. This is not immediate mitigation but rather a practice you can get into that has long-term benefits.
The stories we tell to ourselves also condition us for certain behaviours (and in return how we act in arguments can re-enforce those stories, forming a vicious cycle). I’ve written a separate article about the topic: https://leadership.garden/articles/stories-we-tell-ourselves/.
If you identify a fallacy in your reasoning during an argument or you catch yourself acting from an elevated emotional state of mind don’t be afraid to admit it! It might feel like losing face, but it’s actually winning back your already lost face. It’s completely okay to say “Well, I didn’t mean what I just said. I was simply afraid of losing this debate, sorry. Let me cool down and rephrase.” – this shows maturity and good intentions and it can only make your relationships stronger.
The famous Paul Graham proposed a “disagreement hierarchy” in a 2008 essay “How to Disagree“, putting types of argument into a seven-point hierarchy and observing that “If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier.” Graham also suggested that the hierarchy can be thought of as a pyramid, as the highest forms of disagreement are rarer.
My invitation is to stop looking at arguments as battles you should win. Instead focus on having constructive, open and selfless debates with the goals of getting to better understanding, diversifying your options and ideas and striving for alignment. This is a bit of general life advice. Still, it’s especially useful in software engineering where most of what we do is a team effort, and the best way to make the most of the collective mind we have is to have healthy, progressive and calm arguments. Think of the last technological decision you were a part of – how did discussions about it go? Could something be improved?