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This is an essay by CPalmer.
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Debating and logical fallacies


Here on the internet, a lot of people have learnt the names of some common logical fallacies. This is useful, because knowing a bit of logical theory makes it a lot easier to spot arguments that don't add up. However, it does NOT permit them to 'win' discussions at a stroke simply by pointing out a type of fallacy by name.

The million-restaurant challenge

People are not computers, and discussions are not computer commands. When stating a case, it is natural for people to state it as strongly as possible; they do this by using rhetoric. A simple, common example is hyperbole - exaggeration for effect. When debating where to eat out with one's friends, one might say:

- I can think of a million places that are better to eat at than Pizza Express!

Say another person does want to eat there. How should they respond? Clearly, they should say why they think Pizza Express is good, or ask the other person what they think is wrong with Pizza Express and respond to its perceived failings, or even ask where the other person would prefer to eat, and suggest some problems with that choice.

What they should NOT do, and what no real-life person ever would do, is challenge the first speaker to list these million places. That would show a basic misunderstanding of what was meant, and if the challenge were accepted, the result would be even worse - an endless list of restaurants that would do nothing to advance the decision. It would be a stupid thing to say, except maybe as a joke.

This is all obvious, to me at least. But on the internet, I've seen people setting each other the equivalent of the million-restaurant challenge time after time after time, and it never gets anyone anywhere.

Addressing the rhetoric, not the point

As noted above, when real people make their case, they use rhetoric to make their points forcefully. The trouble is, one person's rhetoric can often be another's logical fallacy. Consider this exchange:

A: Proportional representation is not the best option for Britain. It would lead to a weak government.
B: Ha! Mr A seems to think that if PR were introduced, the whole country would descend into anarchy, with rampant looting in the streets and people eating each other! But Italy has had proportional representation for years, and the last time I visited they were still eating pizza, not people.

Now, B's response here is ludicrously rhetorical. Remove the rhetoric, and he's simply saying that he thinks proportional representation works quite well in Italy, and that it would work in Britain as well. But to state his case more forcefully, he has used what an internet person on the lookout for logical fallacies might recognise as a straw man argument - he has mischaracterised A's argument into something A never said (that PR leads to cannibalism) and which is easy to refute.

How should A respond to this?

A: Mr B, you're using a straw man argument. I never said that proportional representation leads to cannibalism, so your response was not logical. I win!


By saying this, A has weakened his position a great deal. He is arguing against something that was never meant seriously in the first place, making him look like an idiot who doesn't understand how rhetoric works. And worse, he has failed to say anything about B's real point, which is that PR seems to work fine in plenty of places and could work in Britain too. He is setting B the million-restaurant challenge, bogging the conversation down in a meta-discussion of its own mechanics and getting right away from the real issue at hand.

A better strategy for A might be to parry with something along the lines of:

A: Maybe, but Britain would still be worse off under PR, and I think Italy would work better if it adopted our system.

This is all right, but a bit defensive. A has recognised the supposed straw man argument and decided that it was purely rhetorical and not worth responding to. But he has missed a trick - a far better strategy would be to join in the battle with some rhetorical flourishes of his own:

A: Is that so? Well, with all the endless bickering and wrangling PR causes, I'm not surprised they have to send out for takeaway!

Perfect. It makes the same point as above, but it takes B's rhetorical attack and turns it against him! Even better, it works in a specific criticism of PR - that governments end up wasting a lot of time negotiating internally. Instead of cheaply and unproductively crying foul at a perfectly legitimate if somewhat overcooked rhetorical technique, A is able to gain an advantage by meeting B on his own terms. In short, it's about as far away from the million-restaurant challenge as you can get.

So come on, internet arguers, let's see fewer million-restaurant challenges and more rhetorical invention. That's how you make a case.


Not that I really think anyone is going to do this, but please note anyway: if you think that someone is setting the "million-restaurant challenge" in an online discussion, do NOT invoke this essay to try to argue against them! That would just make things worse.

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