I’m on the road for the next several days and won’t always have access to the Internet. So I’m reposting a series of classic fallacies. Regular service to resume early next week. This post originally appeared on 4 June 2014.
“Melvin Smedgrass, you stand accused of robbing the Fifth-Third Bank of Waters, Michigan, on November the third, last of $837 in cash. How do you plead?”
“Your honor, just last week in Troy a man robbed a bank and got away with more than $15,000.”
“Is that so? Then I guess you didn’t rob a bank. You are free to go. Bailiff, release the prisoner.”
If you find Smedgrass’s argument convincing, you’re qualified to comment on Internet blogs, or for a position on the staff of the editorial division of any major newspaper.
For as soon as somebody makes the claim “Mr Obama did X”, the paper would respond, “Mr Bush did Y”, with the implication that the proposition “Mr Obama did X” is false or unworthy of discussion. When, in fact and is obvious and is logical, whether the proposition “Mr Bush did Y” is true, false, or somewhere in between has no bearing whatsoever on whether the proposition “Mr Obama did X” is true.
The So’s-Your-Old-Man fallacy belongs on the playground, where it originated. It is only the child who thinks “You’re a big meanie!” is refuted by “So’s your old man!” The So’s-Your-Old-Man fallacy is also called the Sez-You! fallacy, which is the transliteration of the Latin non sequitur.
On the blog I often critique the failed philosophy of probability called frequentism. I say, “Frequentism is false because X”. Directly somebody comments, “I don’t like Bayesian priors” and considers she has given a knockdown rebuttal. Now it may be that every alternative to frequentism you or I can imagine is also false or is worse than frequentism. But in no way is this frequentism’s salvation if “because X” is valid. In order to participate soundly, you must attack X or remain silent.
Last week on Twitter I linked to an excellent, must-read article by the unfortunately “soul-patched” Dominic Selwood entitled, “How a Protestant spin machine hid the truth about the English Reformation.”
Gist: Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce and a son coupled with Thomas Cromwell’s greed and his lust of the wealth of Catholic monasteries led the elite in England to pillage and purge and prevaricate until Catholics became as lepers. To not fall prey to today’s fallacy, be sure to read Selwood’s article before commenting on the particulars, which are anyway beside the point, and would in fact, if you were to comment in an effort to evade today’s main point, be a meta-instance of the fallacy.
My tweet prompted from a follower this in response: “Consider that the scientific revolution was very much build [sic] on the ideas that Protestants had laid.”
Now it may be true that “Protests laid the foundations of the scientific revolution”, or again it might be false, but whatever it is, it is utterly irrelevant to whether Thomas Cromwell was a no-good son-of-a-bitch glorified pompous thief.
Raw animal instinct is often the reason for the appearance of the So’s-Your-Old-Man. Your opponent has heard your claim, fears its truth, dreads the consequences of that truth, and lashes out with the first thing that comes to mind, usually something chosen to wound. We’ve all (me too) given in to the temptation. Even Bertie Wooster recorded an instance where he employed the fallacy: “‘Tinkety Tonk!'” he retorted to an argument. He admitted, “And I meant it to sting.”
As a debating tactic, the SYOM fallacy is hard to beat. The late Christopher Hitchens swore by it and was its master. I can’t recall an instance where he used it and his opponent wasn’t immediately distracted. As said above, the SYOM thrives like a cultivated weed on blogs, on television talk shows, and press conferences.
You are either on the giving or receiving side of “because X”. If receiving, just because you don’t have a retort in mind does not mean one does not exist. One may. If somebody says “because X”, and you think it invalid, your clear intellectual duty is to search out the invalidity without offering distractions. If you cannot discover a retort, and indeed agree the premises of “because X” are true, the argument itself valid and its conclusion sound, your sole duty is to accept the argument, even if you fear the sequelae.
If you are on the giving end and your opponent has opted for the SYOM, you may highlight it but that’s all. Then reissue “because X.” Be tenacious. Do not be distracted. Arguments are not feelings, though you must retain yours. Say, “You have forgotten to answer why not X. Here is why X in different words.” Ignore everything which is not a direct reply. Move on.
Update I originally had “So’s-Your-Brother” instead of “So’s-Your-Old-Man”, but Scotian below has convinced me this new version is better, more euphonious, and better aligned with history.