Feb 06 2024

Weaponized Pedantry and Reverse Gish Gallop

Have you ever been in a discussion where the person with whom you disagree dismisses your position because you got some tiny detail wrong or didn’t know the tiny detail? This is a common debating technique. For example, opponents of gun safety regulations will often use the relative ignorance of proponents regarding gun culture and technical details about guns to argue that they therefore don’t know what they are talking about and their position is invalid.┬áBut, at the same time, GMO opponents will often base their arguments on a misunderstanding of the science of genetics and genetic engineering.

Dismissing an argument because of an irrelevant detail is a form of informal logical fallacy. Someone can be mistaken about a detail while still being correct about a more general conclusion. You don’t have to understand the physics of the photoelectric effect to conclude that solar power is a useful form of green energy.

There are also some details that are not irrelevant, but may not change an ultimate conclusion. If someone thinks that industrial release of CO2 is driving climate change, but does not understand the scientific literature on climate sensitivity, that doesn’t make them wrong. But understanding climate sensitivity is important to the climate change debate, it just happens to align with what proponents of anthropogenic global warming are concluding. In this case you need to understand what climate sensitivity is, and what the science says about it, in order to understand and counter some common arguments deniers use to argue against the science of climate change.

What these few examples show is a general feature of the informal logical fallacies – they are context dependent. Just because you can frame someone’s position as a logical fallacy does not make their argument wrong (thinking this is the case is the fallacy fallacy). What logical fallacy is using details to dismissing the bigger picture? I have heard this referred to as a “Reverse Gish Gallop”. I’m don’t use this term because I don’t think it captures the essence of the fallacy. I have used the term “weaponized pedantry” before and I think that is better.

It’s OK to be a little pedantic if the purpose is to be precise and accurate. That is consistent with good science and good scholarship. But such pedantry must be fair and in context. This requires a fair assessment of the implications of the detail. It is good to get the details right for their own sake, but some details don’t matter to a particular argument or position. There are a couple of ways to weaponize pedantry not to advocate for genuine good scholarship but as a hit job against a position you don’t like.

One way is to simply be biased in your search for and exposure of small mistakes. If you are only looking for them on one side or in one direction of an argument, then that is not good scholarship. It’s searching for ammunition to use as a weapon. The other method is to imply, or sometimes even explicitly state, that an error in a detail calls into question or even invalidates the bigger picture, even when it doesn’t. Sometimes this could just be a non sequitur argument – you made a mistake in describing the uranium cycle, therefore your opinion on nuclear power is not correct. And sometimes this can be an ad hominem fallacy – you don’t know the difference between a clip and a magazine so you are not allowed to have an opinion on gun safety.

Given this complexity, what is a good approach to pedantry about details and accuracy? First, I will reiterate my position that having a discussion or even an “argument” should not be about winning. Winning is for debate club and the courtroom. Having a discussion should be about understanding the other person’s position, understanding your own position better, understanding the topic better, and coming to as much common ground as possible. This means identifying the factual claims and resolving any differences, hopefully with reliable sources. Then you need to examine the logic of every claim and statement, including your own, to see if it is valid. You may also need to identify any value judgements that are subjective, or any areas where the facts are unknown or ambiguous.

With this approach, knowledge of logical fallacies is a good way to police your own arguments and thinking on a topic, and a good way to resolve differences and come to common ground. But if wielded as a rhetorical weapon, you are almost certain to commit the fallacy fallacy, including weaponized pedantry.

Specifically with reference to this fallacy – you need to ask the question, does this detail affect the larger claim? It may be entirely irrelevant, or it may be a tiny tweak, or it may be truly critical to the claim. If someone falsely thinks that Monsanto sued farmers solely for accidental contamination, that is not a tiny detail – that is core to one anti-GMO argument. Try to be as fair and neutral as possible it making that call, and then be honest about it (to yourself and anyone else involved in the discussion).

It’s OK to be that person who says, “Well, actually.” It’s OK to get the details right for the sake of getting the details right. We all should have a dedication to accuracy and precision. But its very easy to disguise biased advocacy as dedication to accuracy when it isn’t.

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