Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy (and Supporting Disagreement)

by JGWeissman2 min read21st May 200957 comments


Personal Blog

Related: The Pascal's Wager Fallacy Fallacy, The Fallacy Fallacy

Inspired by:

We need a catchy name for the fallacy of being over-eager to accuse people of fallacies that you have catchy names for.


When you read an argument you don't like, but don't know how to attack on its merits, there is a trick you can turn to. Just say it commits1 some fallacy, preferably one with a clever name. Others will side with you, not wanting to associate themselves with a fallacy. Don't bother to explain how the fallacy applies, just provide a link to an article about it, and let stand the implication that people should be able to figure it out from the link. It's not like anyone would want to expose their ignorance by asking for an actual explanation.

What a horrible state of affairs I have described in the last paragraph. It seems, if we follow that advice, that every fallacy we even know the name of makes us stupider. So, I present a fallacy name that I hope will exactly counterbalance the effects I described. If you are worried that you might defend an argument that has been accused of committing some fallacy, you should be equally worried that you might support an accusation that commits the Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy. Well, now that you have that problem either way, you might as well try to figure if the argument did indeed commit the fallacy, by examining the actual details of the fallacy and whether they actually describe the argument.

But, what is the essence of this Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy? The problem is not the accusation of committing a fallacy itself, but that the accusation is vague. The essence is "Don't bother to explain". The way to avoid this problem is to entangle your counterargument, whether it makes a fallacy accusation or not, with the argument you intend to refute. Your counterargument should distinguish good arguments from bad arguments, in that it specifies criteria that systematically apply to a class of bad arguments but not to good arguments. And those criteria should be matched up with details of the allegedly bad argument.

The wrong way:

It seems that you've committed the Confirmation Bias.

The right way:

The Confirmation Bias is when you find only confirming evidence because you only look for confirming evidence. You looked only for confirming evidence by asking people for stories of their success with Technique X.

Notice how the right way would seem very out of place when applied against an argument it does not fit. This is what I mean when I say the counterargument should distinguish the allegedly bad argument from good arguments.

And, if someone commits the Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy in trying to refute your arguments, or even someone else's, call them on it. But don't just link here, you wouldn't want to commit the Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy Fallacy. Ask them how their counterargument distinguishes the allegedly bad argument from arguments that don't have the problem.


1 Of course, when I say that an argument commits a fallacy, I really mean that the person who made that argument, in doing so, committed the fallacy.


57 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:03 PM
New Comment

I agree that this is a danger, and that it's something we should be wary of, in both ourselves and others.

But I'm not sure we should require people to spell things out in excruciating detail every time they think someone else has committed an error. It's probably a good mental discipline to go through this process in your own head, to check that you're not firing off an unwarranted accusation, but sometimes it really is pretty obvious that a particular error has been committed, and in such cases the shorthand seems both useful and justified. If it's still unclear to others, I'm fairly sure someone will come forward and say so (and they should be encouraged to do so).

Maybe I'm wrong about this. I'd be interested in others' opinions.

It's probably a good mental discipline to go through this process in your own head, to check that you're not firing off an unwarranted accusation, but sometimes it really is pretty obvious that a particular error has been committed, and in such cases the shorthand seems both useful and justified.

It is really easy to give yourself too much slack when checking these things in your own head. Actually committing your justification to a public comment that others can scrutinize helps to honestly evaluate your own position.

Further, though it can be reasonable to present a position without support when no disagreement is expected, in the case of a counterargument, there is already disagreement, which you should attempt to resolve by presenting your actual reasons for holding your position.

If it's still unclear to others, I'm fairly sure someone will come forward and say so (and they should be encouraged to do so).

A large part of my motivation for this post was to encourage this behavior.

...sometimes it really is pretty obvious that a particular error has been committed...

I favor more detail over less. Obviousness isn't an intrinsic characteristic of an error -- the danger of not spelling something out is a miscommunication due to typical-mind-type hidden assumptions (on the part of either person in the conversation). The key is to keep the level of detail below the "excruciating" threshold.

Assuming your primary goal is to communicate the error then being able to communicate the reasons for the classification of the error to yourself may be of some use, but that is not equivalent to successfully communicating the reasoning to the person who has committed the error.

On the other hand, if your primary goal is to signal status, then inconspicuously failing to communicate your reasons is good, as long as others do not point out your own errors. Which makes self-checking closer to sufficient.

Admittedly, that doesn't mean that this post's obligatory explianation is the best way to communicate reasoning either. Reliably successful communication is a hard problem, which means applying serious rationality to it.

sometimes it really is pretty obvious that a particular error has been committed

The degree or lack of obviousness is a fact about the reader's mind, not about the error.

Of course. By "pretty obvious" I meant "obvious to most readers" (obviously! :P).

This is a sometimes-useful heuristic that falls under the strategy of "communicating honestly and effectively".

If everyone understands well enough what named fallacies actually are (what they describe) to see where they might apply, of course we can save time and continue what we were talking about. Not the case, most of the time, so--right.

It's not just wasteful that other people will be persuaded by a fancy label: it's also that it might sidetrack the discussion into what the label refers to. Is X art? Is Y really consciousness?

The question to ask (to yourself as well) when tempted to use a fallacy, "Does referencing this named fallacy resolve disgreement by revealing object-level mistakes?"

This problem, if it happens frequently here, seems likely symptomatic of a larger tendency: folks here like accumulating catchy rationalist buzzwords, and dismissing the arguments of others by simply linking to the relevant OB/LW article.

This seems to apply to biases and other sorts of errors (or even just common objections!) as much as fallacies.

ETA: link - this is not a fallacy.

dismissing the arguments of others by simply linking to the relevant OB/LW article

Not just when dismissing arguments. Discussions here--even top-level posts--often remind me of my sister's complaint about Louis Diat's Basic French Cooking--every recipe refers to other recipes, so you end up having to slaughter a calf in order to make vichysoisse.

It makes it bloody hard for us newbies who have read less than a few dozen posts on LW and OB--and internalized even fewer.

I realize it's difficult with many concepts being discussed here, but when possible try to define concepts briefly and clearly when writing about them?

And yes: instead of just naming a fallacy, clearly demonstrate how it is instantiated in the material being replied to. (In itself, an excellent teaching moment.)

I think one reason people do this is that implicitly assuming that those around you are smart and knowledgeable makes you seem smarter and more knowledgeable. I catch myself removing explanations in my comments sometimes, and upon introspection, I find that I'm often trying to seem even more intelligent and knowing than I think I am. :)

This seems to be the same as the well-known technique of rationalist taboo, but with additional namecalling.

Actually, seems to me it's more like the idea of a Fully General Counterargument. But

Your counterargument should distinguish good arguments from bad arguments, in that it specifies criteria that systematically apply to a class of bad arguments but not to good arguments. And those criteria should be matched up with details of the allegedly bad argument.

hasn't been stated so plainly before (AFAIK), and is a good point – a definition of what isn't Fully General.

I don't think it's that helpful. Most general arguments do apply everywhere. It's just that they apply weakly, quantitatively, while humans want sharp qualitative answers.

True, but if they aren't Fully General, there are large differences in the degree to which they apply – rephrased quantitatively, the point stands.

Well, it intersects rationalist taboo, in that if you avoid the problem I describe, you should be able to communicate your objection without naming any fallacy. However, the more general concept of a vague counterargument can apply in situations when you are not sure what word to taboo to fix the problem. And taboo can solve other unrelated problems, such as people arguing whether sound is acoustic vibrations or sensations.

This post is clearly an argumentum ad baculum, and should be dismissed as such.

Let's see what happens!

Hehe. You said baculum.

[Insert obligatory request for clarification, accompanied by faux scolding for failing to link to the wikipedia entry on argumentum ad baculum, and gratuitous link to the wikipedia entry on baculum proper.]

I don't think it's an issue of accusing people of fallacies or biases that have catchy names particularly. It's an issue with ones that are well-known and easier brought to mind, with name-catchiness just being one of the causes of that availability.

That is why I specified that the real essence of the problem is being vague, and advised to avoid it "whether [the counterargument] makes a fallacy accusation or not".

This reply also applies to thomblake's comment.

I keep trying to take Eliezer's advice and think of things I learn here as not just applying here. And the problem with the rest of the internet is that so many people are wrong on the internet that it's hard to take the extra time to be this thorough.

But then I remember that one of the reasons I like Eliezer's posts so much more than Robin's is a willingness to spell things out carefully. So this is probably a good idea.

But I was right, dammit! It's not a fallacy to use abbreviations if you're using them correctly.

True. Nevertheless, it's not very useful to be right if the person who's wrong can't get your point.

ETA: As freyley points out, no goal was specified explicitly, so "useful" is ambiguous in the above sentence. Good catch!

That depends on whether you're making the point for the sake of the person who's wrong, or other readers.

True. But the receiver is just as important to understanding as the communicator. When one does what they should do, any inability to communicate rests with the other.

Cyan, both you and MendelSchmiedekamp are correct in your points, but it might be more useful to stress how Nominull's behavior fell short of the ideal communication strategy, rather than noting that being right isn't necessarily useful.

Well, in the long term sense treating the communication as the failure rather than only looking at the reasoning is important here. Because if Nominull approaches the situation (which, admittedly I've been unable to locate) in the sense of "I was right, so there's nothing more to it" then the communication won't improve.

Being right is only a slim piece of the puzzle, the universe doesn't care if you were right, nor do other people. What matters is what you say and do, and how you affect the situations around you. Those are very complex systems. And you can always get better at it. So we can all afford to pay attention and learn from what happens, especially when things don't go quite as expected. The last thing we need is a moment of vindication or victory to rob us of the real rewards of the struggle, better understanding of how to face the next one.

Or the short version, "Pay attention."

the situation (which, admittedly I've been unable to locate)

Here (from the "Inspired by" link in the OP)

Oh, that's a fairly ambiguous case.

Perhaps Nominull could have added "You may find it obscure, but how can you be so certain it was deliberately so?" But it's not clear that this was needed in the local communication context with Phil, as his reply doesn't seem to imply a misunderstanding of that nature.

On the other hand this site also has a pedagogical mission, so there is something to be said for being careful about the outer audience's understanding.

Good point. Suppose the procedure ought to be something like:

  1. state what (you think) the other person was asserting
  2. show why that specific assertion fails
  3. (optional) name the fallacy

Nominull skipped step 2, which in this case might be, "There's a difference between something being obscure to you and it being obscure in a general sense. I don't think "tl;dr" can be considered generally obscure given that the explanation of what it means is the top google hit."

the explanation of what it means is the top google hit

Good point - I think it should have defused much of the disagreement. You get the definition right on the results page!

ETA: I have no idea whether I meant to say "defused" or "diffused" there. Hmm...

The "fallacy" alleged here is not the using of acronyms, but your calling it a mind projection fallacy when I said a statement was deliberately obscure.

I was projecting a motivation onto the speaker. That's bad, but not actually the mind projection fallacy, because it wasn't my motivation that I was projecting. That was some other error; maybe the "Bad effects are caused by bad people" fallacy. The mind projection part would be me saying, "This statement is not clear to me; therefore, this statement is not clear."

Is that the mind projection fallacy? Technically, yes. I could have found a more E'-like way of saying that I didn't know what the acronym meant. But I did at least make it clear that the trouble was that I didn't know what the acronym meant. It's enough of a common convention to say "That statement is confusing" when you mean "That statement is confusing to me" that I don't think we should call it the mind projection fallacy; especially when it is invoked as a justification for ignoring the issue of whether the original statement was confusing.

(I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have said anything if I hadn't very recently puzzled over, and wasted a few minutes googling, what SWPL stood for.)

Saying it was confusing would have been kind of bad; you might argue that it would be shorthand for "I am confused", but just say "I am confused" and stop attributing mental characteristics to objects in the world already. But you called it "obscure", and what can that possibly be shorthand for? "I am obscured"? And even more, you said it was "deliberately obscure" which I cannot but interpret as a property of the world, rather than of you, because the deliberation would have had to have taken place within the original poster. There is no possible way your use of the term "obscure" was virtuous.

My point is: do not assume something is obscure because you don't know of it, and if it really takes you a few minutes to google something, you should get a better web browser.

"Deliberately obscure" means "the speaker (of the reference called "deliberately obscure") sought out and used a reference that, relative to the speaker's epistemology, a given member of the audience would be unlikely to understand."

"Obscure" by itself means that "a member of the audience is unlikely to understand the reference", where "unlikely" might refer to the epistemology of the speaker of the reference or the one who called it obscure, which may be resolved by context.

So, just because you don't see how the use of a word could be virtuous, don't assume that it can't be.

On the other hand, if you don't know, it doesn't hurt to ask. Not every request for clarification has to be an accusation.

Correct - I wonder in what sense this is supposed to be a 'fallacy'. If anything, it more resembles skipping steps in a proof. Top-level comment to follow.

ETA: link

Most classic fallacies are arguments which can be easily and accidently extended beyond their area of applicability. So they should be used with caution.

For example, if I'm arguing with you not to trust someone's research paper, ad hominem could be applicable, if I mention previous fraudulent papers, less so the moral stance of the researcher on spousal fidelity.

The point is labeling an argument a fallacy puts that cognitive warning sign on it, which demands that you you go the extra mile and show why this argument is valid in this case. If you fail to do so, you are asking those who don't currently agree with you to bear the entire burden of proof to substantiate that you are not simply committing a fallacy. Which is at best naive, at worst self-sabotage.

[-][anonymous]13y 0

The "fallacy" alleged here is not the using of acronyms.

Being right is a weak defense against failing to communicate that fact.

No it is not a fallacy to use abbreviations correctly. I don't think anyone said it was.

It can be a failure of communication to use even correct abbreviations the audience is not familiar with. And invoking the Mind Projection Fallacy, implicitly pointing out that the ignorance is in the mind of the reader who doesn't get it, misses the point that the communication failure lies in the failure to account for the probable ignorance of some portion of the audience, and communicate the point anyways by using full English words, which is rightly assigned to the commenter that used the abbreviation.

Of course, I understand that you did not get all that from the phrase "deliberately obscure", which itself is the sort of vague accusation I think we should avoid. (And I also doubt the obscurity was deliberate.)

I apologize for using the phrase "deliberately obscure".

Do you agree that Nominull was right? I got the impression from this that you thought a genuine fallacy had been committed.

I think the fallacy Nominull committed was the assumption that any complaint that something is confusing is committing the Mind Projection Fallacy because the confusion is really in the mind, when really, the complaint is about actual properties of the "confusing" thing that contributed to the confusion in the mind.

Though this is not quite the issue I was talking about in the post. It is more like what PhilGoetz was describing (which is not surprising, as that was a response to Nominull's comment). That is, Nominull did state how a detail of the fallacy described Phil's comment, but I think that explanation missed the point.

Please provide an example from LW comments.

I dislike the idea of doing this; as Eliezer said

it feels to me like I'm dumping all the sins of humankind upon their undeserving heads - I'm presenting one error, out of context, as exemplar for all the errors of this kind that have ever been committed, and showing none of the good qualities of the speaker - it would be like caricaturing them, if I called them by name.

Is this just me? Should we try to have social norms that permit this?

I'm comfortable with MichaelBishop's suggestion. The example would be unconvincing if it picked on just anybody. To show that the error is important requires catching one of the sites heavy hitters making it. Being picked on in this way is a backhanded compliment; I would be pleased if people cared whether my comments were right or wrong.

Very well, since you are comfortable with it, let us take a look at this comment:

That doesn't read like a description of lived experience at all, let alone the specific experience I asked about.

This was in response to Annoyance's description of the experience of realizing your difficulties have been the result of a mistake, that once understood, seems really simple.

Your criticism, did not explain what you mean by a lived experience, or a experience of the first dhyana you had previously asked for, and you certainly did not explain how this is different from what Annoyance described (if something specific was missing from the description, it would be sufficient to say what that was).

And in response Annoyance reiterated his points, which would be unlikely to satisfy you. If you had instead offered a more concrete criticism, that gave some information about what a good answer would look like, what form it would take, then maybe Annoyance could have produced an answer that you would have considered good.

I see your point. In some cases maybe examples could be provided without explicitly stating who said what. But obviously we don't want to outlaw critiquing each other.

Its interesting. I didn't explicitly criticize this post, but my short comment, requesting examples could be considered a somewhat vague implicit criticism. So I may have just done something quite similar to what JGWeissman was criticizing in his post!

The truth is, I probably wouldn't have requested an example if I was confident that JGWeissman was making an important criticism.

The truth is, one good example wouldn't do that much for me, because my skepticism is about how common this "fallacy" is and how well people were dealing with it before JGWeissman gave it a name. Maybe I just haven't been that observant on this point, but I haven't gotten the impression its a big deal.

Maybe I just haven't been that observant on this point, but I haven't gotten the impression its a big deal.

You indeed could be more observant on this point. In this comment, you do exactly what I described, accusation of a fallacy with a link and no explanation. Perhaps you could support the claim by referencing the comment you replied to, though the fact that you did not remains. And it is not trivial to demonstrate that the fallacy mentioned is really any sort of cognitive error, see my response to the comment you agreed with.

In saying "I haven't gotten the impression its a big deal," I did not mean that people never link to posts or articles about fallacies or biases without also writing a great deal of explanation for how the link is relevant. I meant that I don't find such comments like this (short, critical, with a link) particularly problematic.

Often times a short, critical, comment with a link is all I need. It may sometimes even communicate the key information more efficiently than a longer comment. If it is insufficient, I will ask for more explanation.

My personal definition for the general case of that is the 'Humpty Dumpty Fallacy' from Alice in Wonderland

'And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!' I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"' 'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected. 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

Catchy Fallacy name fallacy seems to me to be a special case of that, which is in turn (to My mind) a special case of Equivocation (Using two different but accurate definitions as if they were identical). Except of course in Humpty Dumpty you're using an inaccurate or vaguely defined definition, rather than an accurate one.

Just a thought - Jonnan

Edit: I once heard the same thought called, in quite formal tone, "The Spaniards Observation" in reference to The Princess Bride -

Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

just so.

Evil Mirror JGWeissman asserts that you have committed the Correspondence Bias, though he offers no explanation, because he can't, as you have not even talked about the relative effects of circumstances and personality on a person's behavior.

But if you believe that his commission of the Catchy Fallacy Name Fallacy is a special case of Equivocation, then what two different but accurate definitions is he equivocating?

I'm not entirely sure I understand your Correspondence Bias assertion, since I have made no actual assertions regarding whether the use of such vague definitions implied anything about someones personality. I certainly have my opinions on such, but they are irrelevant to the topic on hand.

That said - I'm not certain that what I title the Humpty Dumpty fallacy is a special case of Equivocation. Equivocation is typically defined as using two accurate definition as if they are interchangable, while Humpty Dumpty tends to use an inaccurate or vague definition as if it were perfectly interchangeable with the accurate and agreed upon definition.

They are obvious close relations, and I think there is a strong case to be made for it, but that is the difference between "Seems to Me" that such is the case and "Is" the case - I was merely putting it forward for consideration.

Please say Hi to Bizarro Jonnan for me, and tell him me hates him so much.

Thank - Jonnan

Here's how I see it

If you're going to claim something then it should be clear:

1) what you're claiming 2) what your reasons are for claiming it. (i.e. you need to justify the claim).

both these are relative to the 'audience'.

Depending on the claim and who the audience is you might be able to get away with just mentioning the fallacy (or whatever) name - if, having provided only those details, both 1) and 2) will be clear.

Otherwise, you need to provide enough detail to satisfy 1) and 2). That may or may not involve explaining what the fallacy is about, and possibly what it is called.

There's another concern here. Good communication generally requires that you don't include (relative to the nature of the situation) extraneous or off-topic information. In some situations, it might be just enough to point out what was wrong with what the person said. Additionally explaining how their mistake was an instance of such and such a fallacy that could be inappropriate.

I don't believe what's going on here is the sort of thing that should be called a 'fallacy'. Maybe it's a bias? A fallacy involves reaching a conclusion through invalid reasoning - whether we're dealing with a formal or informal fallacy, it's demonstrated by the possibility of true premises and a false conclusion.

Consider the following examples:


  1. p→q
  2. q→r
  3. r→s
  4. s→t
  5. ∴ p→t

In this example 1-4 are premises, and this is a valid argument in sentential logic. However, depending on the understanding of the reader and the available rules of inference/replacement, it may be missing some steps. The conclusion comes from invoking the hypothetical syllogism 3 times successively, and the reader might not accept the hypothetical syllogism in the first place. However, in no case can premises 1-4 be true and the conclusion (5) be false.


  1. p→q
  2. ¬p
  3. ∴ ¬q

This is an example of a formal fallacy; 1 and 2 are premises. It could be the case that q is true and p is false, which would render the premises true and conclusion false.


  1. S has argued that p
  2. S is a bad person
  3. ∴ ¬p

This is an example of an informal fallacy; 1 and 2 are premises. It could be the case that p is true, regardless of S's character. These fallacies can often be resolved by adding an additional premise, which makes the argument valid but shows that it is unsound. For example:


  1. S has argued that p
  2. S is a bad person.
  3. if S is a bad person and S has argued that p, then ¬p
  4. ∴ ¬p

Here, 1-3 are premises. This might not be very helpful to its case, but now the argument commits no fallacy; it simply asserts (3) which is a false premise, so this argument is valid but unsound.

Now which of these does the 'catchy fallacy name fallacy' resemble? It seems to me that our two options are (A), where no fallacy is committed but the reader may need more explanation, and (C), where we're asserting that the arguer is leaving out a contentious premise.

I assert that most occasions of this phenomenon are more like (A) than (C), and so this should not be called a fallacy.

Would you rather call it the "Catchy Bias Name Bias", or maybe the "Catchy Cognitive Error Name Cognitive Error"? Whatever. The name was just a silly hook. The concept that you should support your counterarguments in a way that actually ties it to the argument you mean to refute is the central point I wanted to make. Call it, and the failure to do so, whatever you like.

There's room for some confusion as to who commits the fallacy. If the speaker correctly classifies a mistake (that really is a mistake) as part of a category of structurally related mistakes, that's hardly a fallacy. The fallacy is, as you point out, taking a nice sounding label itself as evidence. Using quotes from famous people creates a similar danger.

I think there is a name for this effect, "association" or "framing" or something. But whatever.

I think we should be more careful about separating heuristics and biases. Heuristics are biased compared to perfect thought, but that's a pointless comparison. You can accuse someone of overusing a heuristic beyond optimal use, but that's a lot weaker than saying it would be better not to use it. Calling things fallacies implies that they're not worth using at all, which is often wrong. Arguments never take the simple deductive form you portray. Ad hominem is a legitimate heuristic and calling it a fallacy is a mistake. But everyone does it, so "fallacy" is a pretty weak word.

I don't see much difference between (A) and (C). Translation between formal and informal usually is contentious.

Ad hominems are not always fallacious, but the ad hominem fallacy is. The character, circumstances, or actions of the arguer have no bearing on whether the argument's conclusion follows from its premises.

The character of the speaker could be a good reason to question the truth-value of the speaker's claims. And given limited time/resources, it might be a good enough reason to not bother to listen to the speaker's argument. But it is never what makes an argument invalid, regardless of whether one is reasoning deductively. If you disagree, please give a counterexample.

ETA: it's also never what makes it the case that p is false, unless the speaker's character is directly linked to the proposition somehow. (like in the proposition, "I am a good person")