The Pedant's Fallacy

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 larger point.

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.
Person A: "Wikipedia tells me that eating mustard oil causes heart disease."
Person B: "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 feel wrong.

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 days."

Person C: "That's not what Churchill said! You got that quote completely wrong."
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 responding to.

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.

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