Last week, Bruce of Thinkers’ Podium took issue with my ‘execrable garbage’:
Now either Mark Fletcher is [sic] to use his words, particularly stupid or odious […] or he’s undertaking a brilliant project lampooning the stereotypical, bumbling, envious, aspiring fool-author. [Source: ‘Patrick’s Fallacy‘ Thinkers’ Podium]
Being the thoughtful and considered person that I am, I took a few days to think about his complaint and whether his armchair psychology diagnosis had any merit.
Before we get there, we need to look at Bruce’s overall argument. It revolves around a concept he calls ‘Patrick’s Fallacy’:
It works like this. Your opponent makes an analogy between one thing and another thing, purportedly showing how they are the same in a particular way. You then find a different trait one of the things possesses, and declare that it is utterly horrible to analogize a thing with that trait to the other thing. [Ibid.]
I have trouble with the idea of the ‘fallacy’ in informal logic. Nine times out of ten, it’s an attempt to normalise rules of discussion in favour of a privileged mindset. Invariably, people who invoke ‘fallacy’-talk characterise their own position as default-rational and, more concerningly, values-neutral. ‘No, it’s not me trying to dominate conversations with my preferred frameworks. It’s just logic and rationality. You’re being illogical and irrational when you say that you don’t trust my armchair psychology because I’m not a psychologist. That’s an ad hominem. I win this argument.’
Long story short, fallacies are rarely universalisable and invariably render invisible the power structures of language. Unlike formal fallacies (e.g. affirming the antecedent), there is no structure underlying informal fallacies. They are merely cultural constructs and are often too imprecise for practical work.
But it’s not fair of me to merely dismiss Bruce out of hand for getting confused by basic logic. Maybe, despite his reliance on informal ‘fallacy’-talk, he has a legitimate claim that I am particularly stupid or odious. Let us turn to the content of Patrick’s Fallacy.
Let us imagine Bruce and I are the best of friends (and I certainly hope that, in some future state of the universe, this might happen). One day, Bruce and I are boarding a flight to attend a conference in Lithuania about the social project of atheism. The following conversation happens:
Bruce: Ugh. They want my passport. This is just like Nazi Germany.
Mark: Say what, old chum?
Bruce: Identification documents. This is also totally like apartheid South Africa.
Mark: You think a comparison of our current situation in an airport to a grand scale genocide and a national programme of racial segregation is appropriate, just because they share the common attribute of ‘Had identification documents’?
Bruce: Shut up, Mark. You and your confected moral outrage really annoy me. You know full well that you are committing Patrick’s Fallacy. It is perfectly rational and reasonable for me to compare these things to each other.
Mark: Are you for real?
Bruce: Of course I’m for real. I’m always for real. It’s valid of me to compare these things because they share at least one attribute. It in no way trivialises the horrors to which I’m connecting our current situation.
Mark: I’m sorry, we can no longer be friends.
I can understand situations where Patrick’s Fallacy might be reasonable. For example, imagine the Australian Government started cleansing the Earth of New Zealanders. Imagine somebody said: ‘Oh, hey. This is scarily like Nazi Germany.’ I think it would be extremely foolish for someone to reply: ‘Don’t be so stupid. Nazi Germany was about exterminating Jews. We’re exterminating Kiwis. It’s totally different and how dare you compare these atrocities.’
But anything short of that, and I don’t think it holds all that well.
So what’s the underlying problem with Patrick’s Fallacy? Usually, I can work out what the underlying reason is behind informal fallacies. Take, for example, the ad hominem. Basically, it’s trying to say that (for ordinary propositions, at the very least) authors are not truth-makers. P is true or false independent of who utters P. The principle doesn’t hold for more complex cases or for where we’re stretching out of logic into epistemology (and justifications for beliefs).
What’s the deal with Patrick’s Fallacy then? If two events contain at least one attribute in common, it doesn’t hold that these events are positively comparable. My telephone and your artwork contain atoms; it doesn’t hold that my telephone and your artwork are anything alike.
The thrust of Patrick’s Fallacy seems to be that people make tenuous leaps to moral outrage. Somebody might make the claim that draconian censorship laws are just like Soviet Russia’s. It would be pretty dumb for somebody to complain that the censorship laws aren’t alike because Soviet Russia had a 5-year plan and these censorship laws don’t. Maybe. Do people even do things like this? Surely the correct answer would be: ‘This is nothing like Soviet Russia. Go read a book.’
What is far more common is for people to make tenuous links between their current situation and atrocities.
That brings us rather neatly to Bruce’s criticism of me. Way back when I started going through The Australian Book of Atheism, I commented on an essay by Chrys Stevenson. Stevenson, not known for being a class act, had this to say:
History is political. The portrayal of minority groups in mainstream histories, or their omission from the national chronicle, resonates through our sense of national identity […] It is no surprise that a key strategy of any social or nationalist movement is to reclaim the past — to seek out actors, events, and influences which have been omitted or downplayed in mainstream histories, and to stake a claim in the nation’s future through reference to the contributions of the past.
An early advocate for African American civil rights […] argu[ed] forcefully that African American contributions to America’s history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’ Racial prejudice […] was the ‘inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind. (As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed.) [Source — Stevenson, C. ‘Felons, Ratbags, Commies, and Left-Wing Loonies: Atheism in Australia, 1788-2010’; emphasis mine]
What does she mean when she says ‘As atheists, our historical contribution has been similarly dismissed’? I read it as Stevenson making a comparison between the treatment of atheists and the treatment of African Americans. This would make use of the words ‘similarly’ and ‘dismissed’.
I said in that post — and I still maintain the position — that this is ludicrous. Atheists have not suffered the same (or even similar) treatment as African Americans.
To substantiate my point, I noted that lots of atheists (who were also known to be atheist) feature prominently in Australian history. You could find textbooks of Australian history in which atheists featured. This is in contrast to the treatment of African Americans. ‘African American History Month’ was established to counter this problem.
In response, Bruce says this:
Anyone bothering to read The Australian Book of Atheism with any appreciable level of comprehension will notice that in no way does Stevenson compare ‘suffering’. She’s comparing the similar tactics used by majorities in two different contexts, and you can even see this for yourself in the portion quoted in Fletcher’s own post. [Source: ‘Patrick’s Fallacy‘Thinkers’ Podium]
What sort of argument is that? Oh, she’s comparing tactics? How does this change the meaning of my post? How does this mean I’ve inaccurately represented her argument?
To show this, let us imagine that Bruce is correct. If the tactics were similar, then atheist contributions to Australian history ‘were overlooked, ignored, or even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.’ This would have had ‘ the effect that [atheists] has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind’.
But, as my original article showed, this isn’t the case.
Clever readers would have noticed that Bruce hasn’t provided an argument for why I’m incorrect; he’s merely stated that I’m the victim of ‘envy and poor comprehension’. I’m sure we all agree the extent to which Bruce has made a persuasive and rational case.
I think what he was trying to do was give examples of Patrick’s Fallacy. Given that Patrick’s Fallacy doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, this attack fails. My response to Stevenson’s offensive suggestion that atheists and African Americans have experienced similar oppression (with regard to acknowledgement of contribution to human history) seems to be sound (though I’m open to rebuttal). If Bruce thinks that it’s an example of some hastily-invented ‘fallacy’, this probably says more about his critical reasoning skills than mine.