Sep 18 2010

Logical fallacies in forums

Published by at 6:12 am under CISSP/ISC2,General,Simple Security

Maybe it’s a little egotistical to reprint something you sent to a forum, but I thought I did a pretty good pointing out some of the fallacies I see all to often on forum mailing lists.  I doubt that I’ll actually influence the people most guilty of these fallacies, but the people who are borderline may be salvageable.

Good morning dear colleagues,

I wanted to take a moment to make everyone aware of a very useful site I found several years ago that’s helpful when getting involved in argumentation of any sort.  It is the Nizkor Project listing of logical fallacies.  I find it helps me a lot to be able to identify and call out specific logical fallacies, at least to myself, and it helps in forming the response to these logical fallacies.  As is often the case in online forums, the person guilty of the fallacies is either unaware of committing the fallacies in the first place or mistakes these fallacies for honest communication.  In either case, conversations with this sort of individual often devolves into appeals to emotion or ad hominem attacks.  I wanted to take some time this morning to point out a few of the fallacies that seem to be more common on this forum:

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

First, the ad hominem attack itself:  http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ad-hominem.html
This is an attack on the person who’s making the argument rather than the argument itself, aka name calling.  This is also mirrored by the personal attack fallacy (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/personal-attack.html) where the person claims that any argumentation is a personal attack against them.  This is also related to the appeal to pity, aka ‘They’re picking on me, therefore they must be wrong’ http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-pity.html

The second fallacy I often see is the red herring (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/red-herring.html)  The answers that are sent to the forum have little or no relation to
the question that was asked.  This can be an innocent case of missing the point or it can be an example of purposefully leading the conversation away from the subject that was originally brought up.  If you see “you’re missing the point” in a reply, this is often the fallacy that was committed.

Another common fallacy on this forum is the appeal to authority (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-authority.html)  We’re all experts of one level or another in this forum, otherwise we should never have been awarded our CISSP’s in the first place.  However, we sometimes try to falsely extend our authority in one area to cover areas that are tangential to our areas of expertise in was that are not appropriate.  Another example of this is citing vague articles or standards as supporting our cause when they really don’t have any direct bearing on the argument.  For example, just because Bruce Schneier is a respected author and cryptographer, he could not by any means be considered an expert on securing an Exchange server.  Another part of this fallacy that’s common is expecting that just because we hold certificates in certain disciplines, that we’re actually experts in that discipline.  A doctor who graduated at the bottom 5% of his class still graduated after all.

A final fallacy to think on, not because it’s especially common on the forum, but because it’s especially common in our lives in general is the appeal to common practice (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-common-practice.html)  Everyone is doing it, so it can’t be that bad, can it?  This is a fallacy that should be avoided in every aspect of life, not just security.  As parents have been asking their kids for eons, “If every one of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”.  Everyone has a firewall at the perimeter of their network; does that make a firewall a best practice or does that just mean that it’s what people are doing because everyone else is doing it?  It may be the best thing to do in your situation, but unless you evaluate it based on your circumstances rather than what others do, you’ll never know.

I try not to make the mistake of ad hominem attacks, I try to attack a person’s argument whenever possible.  This is not always possible as the number of fallacies in a response rise and overwhelm any content that may be contained in a response.  Rather than continue down a path of personal attacks and appeals to emotion, I try to bow out of the conversation at that point.  But I’m not perfect. Next time you send a reply to the list, take a few minutes to check your logic and see if you’re committing any of these common fallacies.  It will help make your point and increase your standing with your colleagues.  Failure to do so can hurt your standing in the community greatly.

Thank you,

Martin

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