Damo's Guide To Arguing On The Internet

There’s the so-called “Horseshoe Theory” of politics - that both extreme sides of politics, left and right, have more in common with each other than they do with the centre (the ends of a horseshow being closer to each other than they are to the middle). This commonality being complete invulnerability to objective fact and empirical evidence.

It’s the age-old adage of playing chess with a pigeon. You’ll beat the pigeon, sure, but it’s going to knock over all the pieces, shit on the board and strut around like it won, regardless of what actually took place.

Beliefs are a hard thing to shake, they’re literally crucial to our sense of self. You’re never going to change anyone’s mind, and especially not through arguing with them.

The Buddhists have this one point absolutely correct - change must come from within.

The Backfire Effect is well documented - the more evidence you present contrary to someone’s opinion the more they will double down on those beliefs, as cognitive dissonance bites more and more and the brain tries to preserve their sense of self.

So how do you argue with someone on the internet?


It’s that simple.

The nutjobs in an argument have an advantage. They don’t really care about the argument. Their beliefs are set in stone, so much so that their brains will go to extraordinary lengths to distort evidence so that square pegs will fit in round holes. And it is this that allows them to engage in sophistry.

(I’m not going to go into the history of sophistry here, but if you’d like to know more then go to your local library. Yes, I know the internet is easier and you’re already on it, but when was the last time you went to the library?)

In the sense that I’m going to be using it, sophistry is arguing in bad faith. It’s about using lies and half-truths to cover up the flaws in your own argument. It’s about trying to distract the other side with logical fallacies and keep them on the defensive with a torrent of bullshit. Sophistry is cheating.

And it works.

I’ve seen so many good people fall into the trap of trying to debate a sophist. This is what the extremists and the nutjobs are counting on. They know they can never win in a straight-up fight, so they cheat.

They prey on that innate human need to defend their own position. So instead of objectively arguing a point, they’ll lay down a minefield of logical fallacies in order to keep you from the argument at hand.

They know they’re losing, so they try and steer you towards a battlefield of their choosing.

And it works.

It’s the online argument equivalent of Rope-a-Dope.

And the solution is so, so simple. Just don’t fall for it. Call them out on what they’re trying to do and stay on point. Stay on message. When they try a tu quoque you acknowledge what they’re trying to do and say that you’ll address that issue when this current one is done. When they try an appeal to anecdote you acknowledge that individual case but gently remind them that statistics don’t work that way. When they go for an ad hominem you declare that you won’t be drawn into that nonsense.

The only reason they do this is precisely because it works. They know that they can play the Pied Piper of Facebook and lead you on a merry chase away from the issue at hand. Stay on point. Stay on message. Don’t be the dope what roped.

Stay on point. Because that’s the last place that these fools want to be.

Here’s a handy list of some of the more common nonsense an extremist nutjob will try to bait you with. If you attempted any of these in a courtroom as a lawyer the judge would shut you down faster than you could say 'Lionel Hutz'. But the internet doesn’t have a judge and most people aren’t educated in rhetoric. People will try this shit on you, don’t fall for it: (I’ve drawn from examples I’ve seen personally. Except for No True Scotsman. I don’t know many Scots)

  • Tu Quoque (whataboutism) This is the one you’re going to see most. Don’t fall for it. This is when an argument is presented against something that someone feels passionate about, but also vulnerable or unable to debate. So instead of fighting a losing battle, they’ll try and deflect to something they feel they’re better able to argue. Don’t fall for it! Stay on point! Stay on message! Say that you’ll address the secondary issue as soon as the current one is finished. (I’ve done a whole blog about just this fallacy if you’re interested) “Brett Kavanaugh has an appalling track record in regards to upholding the spirit of the Constitution, I don’t feel he’s fit for a position on the Supreme Court.” “But what about Al Franken?” “What about him? Stop trying to deflect. Debate the point or admit you lost.”

  • Strawman When your opponent is just straight-up doing a better job than you, it can be hard to argue with them. But what if you weren’t arguing with them? What if instead, you were arguing with a cartoonish parody of them that you just invented? That would be much easier! A strawman is when you deliberately misrepresent, exaggerate or simply lie about your opponent or their position to make your argument seem more reasonable. “If Greta had her way, we’d all be living in tree houses and eating nothing but mung beans!”

  • Composition/Division Assuming that one part of something has to be applied to all, or other, parts of it; or that the whole must apply to its parts. That components observe a uniform disposition. “The fact that one group of one club of NRL players were accused of rape in 2003 means that all footballers are rapists!”

  • Survivorship Bias (they don’t make ‘em like they used to) A lot of these are going to come down to humans being really bad with statistics. In this case, we have a tendency to ignore or discount failures. Music wasn’t better when you were a kid, you’re just forgetting all of the bad stuff. If I asked you to imagine what a medieval castle looked like you’d probably all come up with a similar image in your head. A stone edifice like Winterfell. But most medieval castles were actually made of wood, not stone. Wood doesn’t survive the test of time though, not like stone does. So we tend to think of castles being made of stone because we ignored the ones that weren’t. There is a whole subset of psychology devoted to this, aka 'The Bomber Problem.' "Poor people should just inherit more money. It's what worked for me!"

  • Ad Hominem Latin for ‘against the man’. Attacking the person instead of their argument. The bottom run on Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement, and rightfully so. Be better. “Greta looks retarded!’ (from Andrew Bolt's Facebook page. Pot, kettle, etc)

Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement
Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement

  • Personal Incredulity Just because you can’t accept something doesn’t make it false. Personal beliefs aren’t a foundation for debate. “Do you seriously expect me to believe that jet fuel can melt steel beams?”

  • The Gish Gallop This technique involves bombarding your opposition with so many lies and fallacies that stopping to counter any one of them will leave you buried under a mountain of bullshit and make you look like you're failing. Named after prominent American creationist Duane Gish, whose debating style might generously be summed up by Napoleon's quote 'quantity has a quality of its own.' I'd like to motion to replace this term with the 'Trump Trot'.

  • Special Pleading Moving the goalposts after your argument is disproven, or claiming that there were special circumstances as to why this particular case doesn’t count. “I can turn invisible. But only if nobody is watching.” (Mystery Men is a great film, don’t even at me.)

  • Loaded Question Framing a question with a presumption built into it, so that it cannot be answered without the appearance of some form of guilt. “So when did you stop beating your wife?”

  • Just World Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen because people did something naughty. Nobody has ever had bad luck that didn’t deserve it. All the good people who are unfortunate just need to wait until their turn comes. No, the universe doesn’t care about you. There’s no pattern. Just chaos. This is just post-rationalisation of the random nature of the universe. Christianity has been especially brilliant at capturing this fallacy. The whole Gospel of Prosperity is built on it. Rich people are good people, we know this because God wouldn’t reward bad people. Poor people are bad people, we know this because they’re poor. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled.

  • False Cause (propter hoc) Misconstruing the cause and effect of unrelated elements. “My Cody began showing signs of the congenital condition of autism at roughly the same time as he was vaccinated, therefore it was the vaccinations that caused the autism!”

  • Burden Of Proof (Russell's Teapot) If you make a claim it’s up to you to prove it, not for others to disprove. “There’s a magical, invisible sky wizard named The Jebus, who hates gays, prove me wrong!” Addendum: Hitchen’s Razor - that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

  • Bandwagon If a lot of people believe in something then it must be true, or at the least, have some credibility to it. No. Just no. Regarding Dr Pepper’s taste: “60 million Americans can’t be wrong.” They can. And I can steal too JB.

  • Appeal to Authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) This can be tricky. Experts are a great way to establish authority, but only in their respective fields. It’s when you start taking their advice outside of their area of authority that you can fall into the trap of this fallacy. “Jim Carrey said that vaccines cause autism!” Jim Carrey is one of the greatest comic actors of all time. If he said that eating duck testicles was the secret of being a great comic actor, you might want to at least consider that advice. But Carrey isn’t a doctor, so why give his opinion on medicine any credence?

  • Appeal to Ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam) Unknown factors do not prove nor disprove an argument, in and of themselves. They are merely proof of a gap in one’s knowledge. “No one knows how chemtrails are loaded into planes or who is putting them there, so they must have covered their tracks really well”

  • Statistical Blindness Humans have trouble with statistics, especially really big statistics. We tend to anchor ourselves with anecdotes to help process large numbers. If you have one raffle ticket and there were a thousand tickets sold, your chances of winning are 1:1000. But the chances of someone winning that raffle are 1:1. At a large enough sample size, even the most remotely improbable becomes ultimately inevitable.

  • No True Scotsman (Appeal to Purity) A form of shifting the goalposts, or post-rationalisation. This fallacy renders a belief unfalsifiable because any evidence to the contrary is dismissed as an outlier and that any ‘true’ example wouldn’t be invalidated by said evidence. “No Scotsman would ever do heroin” "But there’s a Scot doing heroin right now! " “Aye, but no true Scotsman would ever do heroin, that’s a wannabe Scotsman.”

  • The Genetic Fallacy (Fallacy of Virtue) Automatically dismissing an idea because of where it came from. All arguments should be debated on their own merit, sometimes bad people have good ideas and vice versa. “Malcolm Roberts is against the $10,000 cash limit, so it must be a good idea.”

  • False Dichotomy (Black or White) This is presenting a dichotomy, or only two choices, when the issue may be much more nuanced (and probably is). “You either support the government’s no-tolerance approach to asylum seekers or you’re on the side of the people smugglers!”

  • Begging The Question (petitio principii) AKA Circular Reasoning. Posing a question where the answer is already assumed in the premise, without evidence. Yep, you’ve been using this term wrong your whole life. “God says that the Bible is His Word. It says so in the Bible.”

  • Slippery Slope If A happens then Z will inevitably happen, ergo A should not be allowed to happen. We all know this one, but if I don't include it then someone will feel compelled to tell me I forgot about it.

  • Appeal To Nature Accepting or dismissing something because it occurs in nature, conveniently forgetting the absolutely heinous shit that nature does, like ducks having evolved genitalia conducive with gang rape. “You don’t need medication, you just need fresh air!”

  • Appeal To Anecdote Dismissing a body of evidence because you know of an example to the contrary. “Global warming is a hoax, what about that cold day we had last summer?”

  • Irrelevant Conclusion (ignoratio elenchi) Drawing a conclusion which is not relevant to the premise. “Our hospitals are becoming dangerously overcrowded, so we need to limit immigration!”

  • The Texas Sharpshooter Cherrypicking or obfuscating data in order to better represent a point you’re trying to make. Imagine a cowboy practising his gunplay by shooting at the side of a barn. The shots are all over the place. But once he’s done he finds the tightest clustering of bulletholes and he draws a bullseye around them. Now he suddenly looks like an ace marksman. It’s all in how you present the data. “We’ve stopped* the boats!**” * depending on how you define ‘stop’, ‘arrival’, ‘turnback’, ‘takeback’ and ‘assisted takeback.’ ** depending on how you define what constitutes a ‘boat’.

  • Middle Ground (The Grey Fallacy) There is not necessarily a middle ground. You don’t need to give equal credence to both sides of an argument. There are such things as objectively correct and incorrect. If someone says that a piece of paper is white and someone else says that the same paper is black, it doesn’t mean that the paper is grey. There’s that classic cartoon of two people posing on either side of a number painted on the ground, arguing over whether it’s a 6 or a 9, the idea being that both of them are right. However, someone painted that number on the ground with intent. They deliberately wrote a six or a nine. Compromise is not necessary, there is an objective correct and incorrect here. “I believe that vaccines cause autism because I’m a scientifically illiterate knobhead.” “Vaccines don’t cause autism, there is no evidence to support this.” “Well how about we agree that some autism is caused by some vaccines?”

  • Appeal To Emotion (argumentum ad misericordiam) Facts and numbers can be hard. As Stephen Colbert said ‘reality has a left-wing bias’. What can be a lot easier than using objectivism and empiricism is to just appeal directly to the emotions of people. Shame, anger, hate, all of the Sith stuff fits in here. Or as Simpsons character Kent Brockman said ‘warm the heart and cloud the mind’. Emotions are like a raincoat, they’re useful in specific situations but you shouldn’t wear them all the time. People only turn to emotive arguments because they lack anything more concrete. Emotion is the last refuge of the scoundrel. “People should take these names and the photos of these people and distribute them as far and wide as they can so that we shame these people. Let their families know what you think of their behaviour.” Peter Dutton’s comments regarding climate change protestors.

  • Relative Privation You need to suck it up, there are people who have it much worse than you. This is mostly true, although at some point there has to be someone who is truly the most unfortunate person on earth. But by the same logic, there are people who are much better off as well. We can all of us only experience life subjectively, just because someone else has experienced some greater misfortune doesn’t make our own any less painful. You’re just being a dick.

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