June 30, 2005 4 Comments
It turns out the fallacy has a name!
Hi Mr. Marcus,
You have no idea how delighted I was to read your essay “In Defense of Referencing Hitler”! For many years I’ve been infuriated by people misunderstanding my attacks on their underlying principles as “comparing” two things, and many times it has come up in the same scenario you describe: citing an extreme counterexample to a general principle assumed by the other person. You will be happy to learn (if you didn’t already know) that this fallacy actually has a name and is listed on the Infidels.org Web site as the fallacy of the Extended Analogy.” I have no idea where they got this arcane name, though. I’ve been trying to think of a better name but haven’t thought of one. Anyway, here’s their explanation, which I think is right on the mark:
The Extended Analogy:
The fallacy of the Extended Analogy often occurs when some suggested general rule is being argued over. The fallacy is to assume that mentioning two different situations, in an argument about a general rule, constitutes a claim that those situations are analogous to each other.
Here’s real example from an online debate about anti-cryptography legislation:
“I believe it is always wrong to oppose the law by breaking it.”
“Such a position is odious: it implies that you would not have supported Martin Luther King.”
“Are you saying that cryptography legislation is as important as the struggle for Black liberation? How dare you!
What’s really frustrating is that even after you explain this to the person, about eight times out of then they still don’t understand what you’re talking about. The problem is that most people simply don’t understand logic, which is to say that they don’t understand the very structure of thinking, of making statements and supporting those statements with arguments. They don’t see that when they make a statement like “X is a good policy because the majority supported it,” their statement is resting on the very broad, hidden premise “All policies supported by the majority are good,” which opens them up to up to a slew of “extreme” — and totally valid — counterexamples.
BTW, one of my favorite counterexamples to this statement comes from Murray Rothbard: “So if 80 percent of a population voted to kill the other 20 percent, that would be morally right?” Of course, this is only likely to prompt the other person to say, “Oh, come on, you can’t compare killing with Proposition 13! [or whatever the topic is]. One classmate of of mine in college used to say, “False comparison, dude,” as if he were brilliantly detecting an obscure fallacy on my part.
Another dumb reaction I often get when offering extreme counterexamples is, “You’re using an overly extreme example.” And I say: “Exactly! The fact that your general principle covers such an extreme example proves just how extreme and misguided your principle is. That’s why I chose Stalin as my example. What better way to disprove your statement?” They don’t even realize that the extremeness of my example is their problem, not mine. A caller on Harry Browne’s radio show pulled this move on him, and although he knew the guy was wrong, he was groping for how to explain it. I e-mailed the show and Harry read my explanation on the air, to my relief.
Finally, one more reason I am glad you addressed this subject is that a couple of months ago during an e-mail exchange with several coworkers, one of them “invoked” Godwin’s Rule after I used one of Stalin’s policies as a counterexample to something he proposed. Of course, everyone had a good laugh at my expense, as if this guy had destroyed my counterexample. At least ow, if someone commits the Extended Analogy or invokes Godwin’s Rule again, I can retort by sending a link to your essay!
BTW, aside from the Extended Analogy” entry on Infidels.org and your essay, I’ve never seen any other acknowledgement of this fallacy, and I’ve even looked in dozens of logic and fallacy books. I find this incredible. Do you know of anyone else that has discovered this fallacy independently? There must be some logic professors out there somewhere who know about it. If we can come up with a better name for it, I’d like to post an explanation of it on my blog.