Yvain–a writer who I mostly really like (see his blog)–has a post on LessWrong about what he’s decided to call “the noncentral fallacy,” which nominates as a candidate for “the worst argument in the world. I think the post is about 15% brilliant and 85% disastrously wrong.
Yvain begins by correctly noting that Martin Luther King Jr. was technically a criminal, but this is not a good reason not to erect a statue in his honor. This is a very good point, and I hereby resolve to avoid using “criminal” as a criticism in the future. In particular, I resolve to refrain from calling George W. Bush a criminal, because it both understates the case against George W. Bush and is grossly unfair to small time thieves and drug dealers.
But Yvain then goes on to identify more supposed examples of this fallacy: “Abortion is murder,” “genetic engineering is eugenics,” “evolutionary psychology is sexist,” “capital punishment is murder,” “taxation is theft,” and “affirmative action is racist.” He suggests that in each case, the claim is true but doesn’t settle the debate which it’s commonly invoked to settle.
Red flags should be going up already. The post doesn’t present much in the way of argument that these six claims are actually true. The closest it comes is two footnotes which call the denial of one claim a “creative a solution” and the denial of another a “bizarre piece of mental gymnastics.”
And these cases are, to put it mildly, not all as clear cut as the “criminal” case. I’ll highlight the abortion one, just because it’s something I’ve written a fair amount about. I think it’s pretty clear that abortion isn’t murder, especially for first trimester abortions, which constitute the vast majority of abortions performed in the US (among other countries).
In particular, it’s pretty implausible to consider an embryo a person, given that they have little to no nervous system. The fact that an embryo has human DNA does not prove it is a person, because human tissue samples have human DNA and human tissue samples are not people. And abortion also isn’t murder for the reasons that unplugging the famous violinist isn’t murder.
Furthermore, Yvain’s analysis of what’s wrong with the “abortion is murder” argument against abortion is beyond unconvincing. He says:
The archetypal murder is Charles Manson breaking into your house and shooting you. This sort of murder is bad for a number of reasons: you prefer not to die, you have various thoughts and hopes and dreams that would be snuffed out, your family and friends would be heartbroken, and the rest of society has to live in fear until Manson gets caught. If you define murder as “killing another human being”, then abortion is technically murder. But it has none of the downsides of murder Charles Manson style. Although you can criticize abortion for many reasons, insofar as “abortion is murder” is an invitation to apply one’s feelings in the Manson case directly to the abortion case, it ignores the latter’s lack of the features that generated those intuitions in the first place.
The fact that Yvain’s post was well-received on LessWrong tells us a lot. LessWrong is a community with a mix of political views, and something of a taboo against discussing politics. Normally, if someone came in announcing that taxation is theft and affirmative action is racism, and their main arguments for these claims were to suggest that the alternative view is “a clever solution” or “a bizarre piece of mental gymnastics,” they would be (rightly) downvoted into oblivion.
Yvain made a conscious effort to include both “right-wing” and “left-wing” examples in his post, but controversial political claims don’t become any less controversial because they’re paired with claims from typically considered to be on the other end of the political spectrum. The most important reason the post was accepted was because it was purporting to announce a newly-discovered logical fallacy, and the word “fallacy” can bypass some people’s critical faculties.
I don’t mean to pick on LessWrong specifically here. It’s a problem that can be found throughout the rationalist community, indeed throughout the “people who like to argue” community. This problem has been commented on many times before, often under the heading “the fallacy fallacy.”
The problem is that compiling lists of fallacies, without any actual skill at evaluating arguments, will leave you with little chance of seeing the problems with the claim “abortion is murder”–or the difference between “here’s a study that shows the percentage of scientists with relevant expertise who accept this claim is in the high 90s” and William Lane Craig’s arguments. Unfortunately, teaching real skill at evaluating arguments is a lot harder than teaching people to recite lists of fallacies.