When It Is Noticed, It Is Usually Because It Is One, When It Is Not, It Is Usually Because It Is Not One†
Three weeks ago, I posted an article. It was three to five days in the works before I posted it*. There were emails that needed responses (or lack thereof), sources to cite (far too many if you include all the links), thoughts to think, and of course, unrelated activities, that all delayed its posting. In spite of, or perhaps because of all this, it is a cluttered, jumbled, at times hard to follow (I would imagine, though I can understand it just fine myself), mass of words and ideas. It has been edited more than anything else I have posted to date, and I mean just since it was posted! I fixed two things within the last couple hours, in fact.
I was bored and have been contemplating publishing more articles (I actually wrote one two days ago but then all but scrapped it) for the past several days so I decided to re-read some of my most recent posts. Usually when I do this, it is a guarantee that something will need to be tweaked. Such was the case today with the article in question. It is one of the edits itself that has inspired me to write this article I lay before you. This paragraph did not contain an error, but it did contain a weakness:
Sure enough, a few days, maybe weeks later, it came time to post some rebuttals (something I promised I was going to do) to one, Barry Germansky and a comment he left on an earlier post, and one of the phrases I was using just seemed like it needed some backing up by some intellectual authority figure. The phrase was “near-rational”, and again, “quasi-rational”. I wasn’t able to find the quotation at that time, which is why I feel compelled to write about it now.
Let me just say that every single word, punctuation, and idea is EXACTLY how it was before the edit. How can it possibly be called an edit then? Where was this weakness? The truth is that upon reading the paragraph, I was reminded of a logical fallacy (elsewhere in the piece I point out a few straw men), argument from authority (or if you want to be all fancy, argumentum ad verecundiam). So what I did was add a link to the word “authority.”
But understand that this is no mea culpa, but a disclaimer! I am not acknowledging that I engaged in a logical fallacy, because frankly, I hadn’t. But I realized that it looked like I might have, so better to link to the wikipedia page on aforementioned fallacy before someone else (not that anyone would read such an ugly mess) points out what they perceive to be one, thereby attempting to discredit one or all of my points, forcing me to do damage control. It is probably not the sort of thing anyone would notice, whether I have 2 readers or 2 million, whether before or after the edit, but I think it behooves me, as a writer-albeit-amateur, to act on it.
Now, how can I say that I did not engage in this fallacy? Did I not do exactly as the fallacy describes, appeal to authority? Before I answer the second, let me answer the first. I can say it for two reasons, the first being that argumentum ad verecundiam is not technically always a fallacy. Rather, when it is pointed out, it is usually because the specific case is a fallacy, as when the authority in question is not really an authority, or when there is hardly any consensus and you use it as your chief argument. So there is an inherent bias in pointing out the type of argument that makes one automatically assume it is one (a fallacy), rightly so in most cases. The second reason is that the whole point of appealing to the authority was not to win an argument, but more to provide an anecdote on why I phrased an idea in another argument a certain way; as well as to introduce other concepts, for not only did I say that authority figure A said statement B, therefore B must be true, but I dissected some of the ideas behind B, independently of who just happened to have said it. So, to answer the second question, yes, I did appeal to authority, but not really as part of any argument.
Perhaps there is something wrong with me. That is, being so messy on the one hand and so meticulous on the other. I’ll just blame it on my rugged individualism and that spontaneous order malarkey.
*I am proud to say that some of the things I write (including the piece before you) are more spontaneous. I get a blank slate, start typing, and post (unless of course it was originally an email or comment, but the same basic scenario plays out), just like that, no prior preparation whatsoever.
†What is with that seeming paradox for a title? The antecedent to the first, third, fourth, and sixth “it” is “argument.” The antecedent to the second and fifth “it” is “the reason.” The antecedent to each “one” is “fallacy.”