How to Expose Bad Arguments That Lead to Crazy Conclusions

By John Zmirak Published on July 31, 2017

Here’s my daily routine here at The Stream:

  1. Take some dismal, dehumanizing current event that’s buzzing on social media.
  2. Analyze the bad arguments of the villains.
  3. Trace their logic or motives back to some ancient heresy, medieval error, Enlightenment lie, or postmodern hysteria.
  4. Expose it in the light of natural reason or Christian revelation.
  5. Link it to grim historical precedents the reader might not know about.
  6. Embed lots of links to long essays explaining those events or heresies in depth.
  7. Rally the public to resistance against the corrupt elites that are recycling dead heresies to clutch raw, real power now over you and your children.
  8. Prepare people for how tough the fight is going to be.
  9. Hope that folks share this complex historical synthesis in little tweets or Facebook posts.
  10. Rant about these complex issues in quick, punchy phrases over lots of brief radio appearances.
  11. Start scanning Twitter for tomorrow’s catastrophe.

In between, I take solace in feeding, walking, and cuddling with two adorable but insane beagle rescue puppies. And I watch a lot of The Flash, Arrow, and Impractical Jokers along the way.

Today I’ll try something different. I won’t refer to a single piece of news. Tomorrow I’ll get back to the latest assaults by the Democrats against common sense, radical Muslims against the West, or the Vatican against Catholics.

How to Ski on the Slippery Slope

Instead, let me step back and offer the reader a tool he can use to generate pointed analysis himself. I used to teach expository and argumentative writing. Sometimes it’s helpful to label useful devices for clear thinking, persuasion, and balderdash removal. One of the most important is the reductio ad absurdum. It’s similar to the “slippery slope.”

It’s useful when someone with whom you disagree on something important is starting to sound a little too plausible. He’s citing respected figures in popular culture or politics. And echoing the Zeitgeist. He’s posing as a moderate, and trying to cast you as a lonely, weird extremist. But deep in your gut you know that what he’s saying is totally wrong.

How do you know that? Because you can see that his argument, if applied consistently, would lead to insane outcomes. To outcomes that even he would probably not accept. But more importantly, which other sane people who are listening in on your argument would see must be rejected. So they reject the premise. Your opponent is wrong. You might look like a big meanie, but at least you’ve won the argument.

Balance on the Golden Mean

Unbalanced, unhinged, one-sided hysterical arguments are all the rage these days.

Not every person you argue with will rely on crackpot premises that infallibly lead to outrageous, appalling conclusions. Some people still know how to hold opposing principles in tension, and look for the Golden Mean between (say) order and liberty, diversity and cohesion, tradition and innovation. The Aristotelian tradition, which Thomas Aquinas baptized and handed over to Christians, trained thinkers to do that for centuries. Then such genuine moderation fell out of fashion. And the West fell down the rabbit hole, from which it still hasn’t emerged.

Ask Pointed Questions

If someone you’re disputing with makes a statement that leaves you deeply uneasy, ask him pointed questions about what principle he’s basing his argument on.

Unbalanced, unhinged, one-sided hysterical arguments are all the rage these days. Meanwhile, the percentage of the population trained by parents, teachers or pastors in logical thinking shrinks. More and more of them drift away from the inherited wisdom of Christian orthodoxy and Western humanism. So they zombie-walk, passively drawn toward whatever high-minded sounding nonsense is spouted in the name of “science,” wielded like a club on behalf of “diversity,” or mouthed by attractive celebrities. They might as well be droning “Brains! We want brains!” It would only be fair warning.

So if someone you’re disputing with makes a statement that leaves you deeply uneasy, ask him pointed questions about what principle he’s basing his argument on. Then ask him to apply it to similar situations, one after the other. See if he ever admits that some other principle might be important, too — that we need to keep a balance among competing important values. Those would serve as stopping points on a downward slippery slope. If he won’t admit that, then his idea really will hit bottom, eroding on the way down until it has reduced itself to tiny particles of “absurdum.” (Imagine it as gravel, but sticky, smelly, and useless.)

Rubber Bullets in Combat, Osama bin Laden in Rehab

I’ll use as an example something that’s not in the news, which doesn’t even come from a fan of the Culture of Death. I read a Christian philosopher make the argument that direct, intentional killing is always wrong.

That’s not what the Ten Commandments meant with the ban on “murder,” but it’s what this philosopher thought that they should have meant. So he stepped in to improve them.

When an argument finally bottoms out on the slippery slope, we see that there must have been something deeply wrong with its premises. They were false or incomplete, or only took account of one important value, while neglecting all others.

Because of this principle, the philosopher said, Christians must oppose the death penalty.

In response to past criticism, this professor admitted that his argument had many surprising implications. Still others emerged in online comments about his article. If the professor was right, then:

  • Pius XII was wrong to take part in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler. If you couldn’t arrest him peacefully, you would just have to leave him in power.
  • It was wrong for “American Sniper” Chris Kyle to target terrorists and shoot to kill.
  • It was wrong for the U.S. to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden. Our duty was to apprehend him, give him a trial, imprison him and try to rehabilitate him.
  • Our troops in combat, the philosopher admitted, need to be trained to shoot only to wound their enemies. Anything else is un-Christian.

When a rock like that philosopher’s argument finally bottoms out on the slippery slope, we see that there must have been something deeply wrong with his premises. They were false or incomplete, or only took account of one important value, while neglecting all others.

Discrediting Twenty Centuries

Of course, a whole other line of argument was possible. An argument from legitimate authority and binding precedent. Namely, you could cite all the places in the Old Testament where God Himself demands capital punishment for various sins and crimes. Or point out that the Good Thief whom Jesus blessed on the cross admitted that he and his fellow criminal deserved their punishment. Our Lord could have corrected him, of course. He could have given a short, pointed rebuke on the evils of capital punishment. For some reason, He didn’t. Nor did the Church renounce or condemn that practice for twenty centuries. If the philosopher thinks that the Old Testament and the Church were wrong about something that important for that long, what else were they wrong about?

The LBGT lobby is eager to offer its answer.

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  • Dean Bruckner

    Nice article, very helpful as I try to do something similar.

  • Mensa Member

    Not a bad article but I had to chuckle when he threw in the glaring non sequitur at the end.

    • It was to be expected.

      • opinionated1945

        Why was it to be expected?

    • opinionated1945

      Why is it a non-sequitur?

  • JM

    LGBT is a sin and these homosexuals know this and that is why when I ask them if they can show anywhere in the Bible where homosexuality is given a green light or where God supported homosexual the lifestyle I get no response and back from them because he does not and these people are just denying the truth and the truth is that homosexuality is a sin

  • “[Jesus] could have given a short, pointed rebuke on the evils of capital punishment. For some reason, He didn’t. Nor did the Church renounce or condemn that practice for twenty centuries. If the philosopher thinks that the Old Testament and the Church were wrong about something that important for that long, what else were they wrong about?”

    Slavery (see Lev. 25:44-46). Or was this a trick question?

    You could also add genocide. Polygamy. Maybe human sacrifice (see Ezekiel 20:25–6).

    The Bible was wrong on lots of things.

  • Vincent J.

    Side issue: Shooting to wound is done only on tv and in the movies; it can’t be done. Hitting any portion of a target, especially a moving or partially-obscured target, it very difficult at best, even for a sniper.

  • Albion

    Of course we could expose lies spouted in the name of post-Christian political correctness. The problem is that the peddlers of such lies can take comfort in the knowledge that they control culture, education, academia, the entertainment industry et al, and thus win the hearts and minds of the majority of people who usually prefer to look which way the wind blows.

  • Howard

    The problem with reductio ad absurdum is that it is most often applied against straw men. It really does work in principle, particularly in mathematics, but really only because the terms there are very carefully defined.

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