Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Argument by Proxy
by Nathan Hawking

SOLO is a wonderful experience. It's vibrant, full of life, and full of people who care about ideas. It's refreshing to encounter those who actually change their minds when presented with sound arguments or compelling evidence. Imagine that.

This is virtually unknown on other online venues, such as Usenet. There, truth is irrelevant and winning is everything. A position is staked out and defended to the death by any and all slippery tactics. After awhile an astute observer will have recognized the entire toolkit of devious rhetorical ploys.

High on the list of Usenet debate favorites, just after talk about your mother's recreational predilections and comparing you to various body parts (the elbow is rarely mentioned) or unseemly substances, is an argument form I call argument by proxy. It has several flavors, including:

Argument From Dead Guys

Now, please understand that I have the utmost respect for the philosophical wisdom of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. But the operative word is wisdom, not opinion.

Yes, eternal truths remain eternally true. But during the 2000 census it was officially determined that eternal falsehoods remain eternally false, and that these greatly outnumber the truths. Science is not really sure where falsehoods actually come from, as their reproductive habits are shrouded in mystery. Groucho Marx once said, pointing to his brother, "There's my argument! Restrict immigration!" - so maybe it's our porous intellectual borders.

The unfounded, unsupported opinions of dead guys (of all genders) are eternally worthless. (So are many of the opinions of those not quite so dead.)

Aristotle, as an example of the former, brought us A is A and the wonderful invention of modal logic. But he also believed that "man's mind could elucidate all the laws of the universe, based on simple observation (without experimentation) through reason alone."

This led him to serious errors, such as "objects of different mass fall at different speeds under gravity..." [2] Unfortunately, people simply accepted the authority of Aristotle.

Aristotle by Raphael [3]

Until Galileo Galilei. Being Italian instead of Greek, it occurred to Galileo that one might actually walk up a flight of stairs to the top of a tower and drop two objects. Fortunately, Galileo's reverence for the opinions of dead guys was exceeded by his reverence for curiosity and for the truth.

Suppose a philosopher, call him or her A, did write many insightful things about philosophy. Does that make A an expert on biology? Upon the nature of the human or animal mind? No. Philosophy is useless in a vacuum.

Quoting opinions formed without actual evidence is no better than quoting Bugs Bunny on the psychology of carrots.

Substituting the opinions of another for reasoning and evidence is a form of argument by proxy. In this case, it is the fallacy of argument from authority.

Of course, not every appeal to authority is a bad thing. Sometimes we must consult experts and accept opinions - it is impractical and inefficient to study every field in depth before making decisions. But even here we should use discretion.

Patient: Doctor, what's causing my pain?
Doctor: I'm sorry, but you have a terminal case of gluteal halitosis.
Patient: No! Not that! I want a second opinion!
Doctor: Well, OK. You're ugly, too.


Argument From Reading List

Recommending books and other reading materials is usually a good thing. But not always. Sometimes it is a form of argument by proxy. So, how are we to know the difference? It's very simple:

Reading recommendations are GOOD when:

  • We enjoyed a book and wish to share that experience.
  • We think a book has information someone might value.
  • We wrote the book and will receive $1.20 in publishing royalties.
Reading recommendations are BAD when:
  • We're getting our butt kicked in a debate and wish to divert attention from that fact, as in "Oh, yeah? Well, argue with THIS!"
  • We want to put down an opponent with a snotty "Well, obviously you haven't read Introduction to Botulist Ontology, or you'd realize how wrong you are."
  • We want it understood that we're really much too important to explain ourselves to the intellectually unwashed.
  • We're hoping our debate opponent will die of a paper cut.
  • We wrote the book and this would make the first copy not purchased by our mother.
This kind of argument by proxy is, of course, not unknown even on SOLO. Not all recommendations are proxies, but I've estimated that the stack of argument-by-proxy books suggested to me thus far would exceed two feet in height!

If I'd read all those books, I'd never have time to post. (Of course, maybe that's the whole idea.)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle (Content as of June 3, 2005)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_authority

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