When you're trying
to be persuasive, the best way to tell whether you're up against insurmountable
opposition is to analyze the points on which people disagree with you. If
people stay mainly on-topic, then there is hope of having a productive
conversation with them. If people stray from the topic at hand and instead
focus on disputing the particulars of your arguments, then you may as well stop
talking and go for a soda.
I'll call this
"the pedant's fallacy." The pedant's fallacy occurs when someone
attempts to defeat a narrower aspect of an argument in order to discredit the
The classic example
of the pedant's fallacy is when someone harp's on another person's spelling or
grammar in an online debate. This happened in a debate I was a part of the
other day. One person made a claim; a second person said, "That makes no
since;" and a third person chimed in only to correct the second person on
his spelling of the word sense. The
third person was committing the pedant's fallacy. The second person's argument
might be right or wrong, but the veracity of his argument has nothing to do
with his accidental use of "since" in place of "sense."
Another common form
of the pedant's fallacy is to dismiss an argument if its supporting evidence is
supplied from Wikipedia.
"Wikipedia tells me that eating mustard oil causes heart disease."
"Well, Wikipedia isn't a reliable source of information!"
Notice that Person B
didn't address any argument about mustard oil or heart disease, he simply
started a new argument about the integrity of Wikipedia as a source of
information. If Person A allows herself to be drawn into that new argument,
she'll soon discover that if she loses on that one point, Person B will assume
that he's proven something about mustard oil
and heart disease. But he will not have done so, and this is precisely
what makes his argument fallacious.
Keep in mind,
however, that there is no point telling the pedant that he has committed the
pedant's fallacy. Most likely, he'll just argue about that, and then you'll be even further away from the topic you
began discussing in the first place. It's absolutely vital to understand this.
People who commit the pedant's fallacy are not interested in the core argument
you're making. What they're interested in is shutting you up and making you
By contrast, people
who actually want to have a discussion with you will have no problem staying on
topic, because they're interested in the topic itself, even if (or possibly because) their position is opposite yours. You
never have to worry that someone who is enjoying the conversation will harp on
your spelling or the integrity of your sources until that becomes material to
the over-arching debate. Then and only then will they bother to make a big deal
of it. They'd rather just respond to your material arguments with material
countervailing arguments of their own. That's how a good discussion unfolds.
Person A: "I don't think America will build its immigration wall, because as Churchill said, 'Americans will always do the right thing, eventually.'"
Person B: "I
think America will build its immigration wall, because populism is at an
all-time high and anti-immigrationists are electing more Congressmen these
"That's not what Churchill said! You got that quote completely
Needless to say,
only Person A and Person B are having a real conversation here. Person C is
just an asshole.
It's important to
acknowledge what drives a person to the pedant's fallacy. Mostly, it's a form
of laziness. It takes hard work and careful thinking to construct persuasive
arguments that overturn someone else's carefully constructed, persuasive
arguments. It's much easier to harp on their spelling and grammar, the
historical accuracy of one of their points, and so on. It's easy to be tempted
into the low blow when you're not really committed to the discussion in the
first place. If you don't have the time or attention to give to someone's
argument, you might be tempted to defeat them the easy way and get out clean
before you sink all your time into a protracted debate. But you'd still be
committing the pedant's fallacy.
It's also a snarky
way to appear very clever. If someone produces five different scholarly journal
articles that substantiate their point, and you find a problem with one of the
sources, you can certainly bring it to their attention. But to use that one bad
source as a refutation of the other person's entire
argument is pedantic and mean. One bad source doesn't defeat a good
argument. Furthermore, it's not enough that even all of the sources are bad if
you haven't taken the time to put forth good sources and a good argument
yourself. This kind of snarkiness enables a lot of bad arguments to persist. If
you're so clever, then you ought to be able to defeat an argument on the merits
of your own position, not on the questionable sources of the argument you're
If someone says,
"Based on Source X, I believe that Statement Y is true," it's not
enough to say, "Source X is a bunch of crap." That doesn't respond to
the person's argument. You could instead say, "Source Z refutes Source X
for the following reasons, and these reasons support the rejection of Statement
Y." That's a material objection. Or, you could say, "Source X seems
to say the opposite of what you're saying; why do you think it supports
Statement Y?" That's a material question. But to object to Source X
without any further argument is stupid, even if Source X is ridiculous.
So, there are some
attractive reasons to resort to the pedant's fallacy, but we should still
resist the urge. If you disagree with someone's argument, you should choose to
engage them or not. What you should not do is engage them only on some narrow
act of pedantry and disregard the broader part of the argument. That's not a
nice way to talk to people.