A Primer on Logic for the Internet

It has been easy to be annoyed and angry in late 2014 on the Internet.  Between the crisis in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza at war again, the riots in Ferguson, #GamerGate, and many more issues big and small.  One issue I keep seeing in all of these discussions from politicians to tweets, there were well thought out and calm arguments and then there are threats and fallacies.

XKCD 386

XKCD 386

One thing to understand about fallacies before we begin is that they have no bearing on the validity or "truth" value of the claims.  For example, I could say that the sky appears blue because it is the color most preferred by stupid people.  This is not my belief, but had I said so my argument would be invalid because of an ad hominem fallacy.  But as you will note, the sky in fact does appear blue.  So when you use or encounter someone using a fallacy that argument is invalid, but the point could be correct.  Using a fallacy, in my opinion, means the person needs to stop and try again, not that they are immediately wrong.

So here I have listed a handful of logical fallacies and razors that everyone should have learned in high school or college.  Now my minor in philosophy and skills with Google pay off.

Ad Hominem

This is the "against the man (person)" argument and is by far one of the most common fallacies I see on the internet.  In this argument rather than address the debate or situation at hand the person attacks the other person.  The attempt is to discredit them and by extension their argument.  Any time the argument does not specifically use the other person's credibility or status as part of the justification taking the discussion from the argument to the person is a fallacy.  

A subset of this fallacy is, in regular terms, the hypocrite argument.  On the Internet and in out culture we tend to believe that any person that does not live in 100% alignment to their arguments is a hypocrite and therefore the argument is wrong by their own actions.  In almost every case whether or not the person is a hypocrite by this definition have no bearing on the validity of their arguments.

Straw-man Argument

A straw man argument is an argument where one party presents the argument they disagree with in a way that sounds accurate to others.  However they have purposely modified the argument to their benefit.  They have either left in a major flaw that a proponent would address or misrepresent part of the argument to allow the opening needed to dismantle the argument.

This is commonly seen in situations where there is an audience.  The goal is to convince the onlookers not those who have the opposing view.  The only exception to this is when the person stating the straw-man does not realize they misunderstood the argument.  This is where mutual respect and humility on the parts of the parties involved in an argument can go a long way to everyone learning something.

Slippery Slope

Have you ever heard "don't skip school or next thing you know you will be on the drugs" or something similar?  That is the slippery slope fallacy.  It states that one action or belief necessarily leads to the next and while the first idea is not bad the last one in the chain is so by extension the first idea is bad.  For a slippery slope to be a valid tool in an argument each step in the chain must be logically validated.  The slippery slope seeks to assume the connection is obvious.  Often this connection is backed up by anecdotes from people's actual lives rather than logical progression and defense.  Like many fallacies, it may be in fact the truth, but it does not make it a valid reason to reject and idea.

Appeal to Authority

This fallacy focuses on taking the anecdote or opinion of another person and stating that since they believe or state this thing it is true.  This fallacy focuses specifically on "authority" figures that may or may not be authorities on something but are not authorities in this case.  For example someone with an electrical engineering degree is not automatically an authority on power grids and a doctor is not automatically an authority on cancer.  If however either of these people are recognized by their peers as authorities their opinions do have weight.  So saying this doctor or my religion or anyone else holds this opinion therefore it is true must be followed with proof of their specific authority in order to be valid.  Anything else is a fallacy and is attempting to redirect from the discussion at hand to fear or reverence for someone/something outside the scope of the argument.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is as much a psychological condition as it is a fallacy.  In this case a person holds a view in advance of being exposed to evidence.  Once exposed to that evidence they only assimilate and spread the evidence that agrees with their beliefs and ignore or reject the evidence counter to their beliefs.  This is something we all need to keep an eye on because the line between being right and having confirmation bias is thin in many cases.

False Attribution

Another common fallacy on the Internet is false attribution.  This is the accidental or unintentional attribution of words to a person who never said them.  From the humorous example above to PhotoShopping a tweet or making an account that appears to be someone else and making inflammatory statements this happens all over the place.  This is usually used in conjunction with a ad hominem fallacy to discredit someone in an argument.

Occam's Razor

Likely the most well known razor, Occam's razor states that when faced with two or more hypotheses pursue the one with the least number of assumptions or requirements.  In more simple terms it makes more sense to pursue the theory that the only witness with the victims blood on their hands holding the murder weapon is likely to be the killer rather than pursue the theory that the Illunimati wanted the witness thrown in jail so they uses a series of hit-people to stage the scene then convinced the person to hold the bloody weapon.

Like all of these, the second option might be the correct one, but we should pursue and eliminate the first hypothesis first before investigating the more complex one. For example, we should suspect that people receiving threats online are telling the truth. Then if we cannot find evidence or that evidence points back to them, only then do we revise our hypothesis to be that they are doing it to themselves.

Hanlon's Razor

Ok, "the Internet" this is the one you REALLY need to follow.  In simple terms this razor says to never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.  Let that sink in a little.  I personally expand this a little to include not only stupidity but to say do not attribute to malice or conspiracy what can be more easily explained by a a bad day, unknown factors that do not involve you in any way, or stupidity.

Do you assume that every server at a restaurant is trying to treat you poorly or do you think is is more likely a bad day or some other cause?

Do you assume the person at the DMV is trying to hurt you or do you think there is a bureaucracy issue that is keeping you stuck there for hours?


This video was posted before this post went live, but I found it after I wrote much of this.  However, this is WAY more entertaining than my rambling.  Enjoy.

Maybe, just maybe, most people online are that... just people.  So take a step back. Breath. And treat people like people.  They may not have earned your respect, but they deserve to be treated with decency.

If you want to look at other fallacies not covered in this post take a look at these:


Thank you to my philosophy professors as Virginia Tech, Google and Wikipedia for helping me with this post.