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The ``go and argue with them'' fallacy
``The accordion is an inferior instrument
, a fact recorded in the world's most authoritative English dictionary.  Accordionists take people's money
 and sell music for far more than its 4p-a-sheet value.  They even threaten national security
by causing bomb scares
 that waste police time. I propose all accordionists imprisoned
and all humanity be denied that so-called `music' forever.''---Mad advisor to John Q. Dictator (attrib).
 The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, definition of ``Concertina''. ``A portable musical instrument ... Often improperly applied to inferior instruments ... [such] as the accordion...''
 Accordion Causes Bomb Scare. Music Trades September 2012, Vol. 160 Issue 8, page 32
 Fiddle and Accordion Society membership fee  Theo Wyatt's Oriel Library standard price (1990s)  OED
Once upon a time a cruel baron wrote a scholarly-looking article, complete with impressive-looking references that didn't fully support the claims, and perhaps even managed to trick a respected source with an otherwise-good track record into buying the argument. Soon, all fans of the baron's cruelty were citing it in public debates and using it to humiliate anybody they didn't like. If anyone dared question it, its supporters would simply point to all the impressive-looking sources that had run it and say, ``take it up with them''.
In today's well-connected world, where messages can be sent to practically anyone and online sources are continually revised and updated, it's too easy to rely on an information equivalent of the Efficient Market Theory (EMT) in Economics, and believe "any correction that needs to be done will have been done already". As with the joke about the EMT believer failing to pick up dropped money "because, if it were real, someone would have picked it up already", the problem here is confusing "high likelihood" with "absolute certainty"; if everyone behaved like this then no money would be picked up, no markets would operate and no corrections would be made. Of course there are situations where EMT-like theories work most of the time, and it is valid to reason that they are probably working, but we cannot ignore that there must be exceptions, which we might well encounter at least occasionally. Indeed, as people lose their skepticism of the system, it's likely that problems will go uncorrected for longer.
There are many reasons why sources might not accept good corrections:
- A source might have an ulterior motive (like the cruel baron) and give the illusion of being unassailable by deleting any counterargument that's too strong for them to answer.
- A source might be too frightened to correct itself, for example if it is a bureaucratic organisation whose workers are afraid of anything that might draw negative attention, and fears that the bad PR of having to make a correction would outweigh that of continuing to go uncorrected.
- Another possible fear is "if we update that, we might have to update everything else, and that's too much work." Putting a new date on something might be taken to imply you've re-checked all of it (unless you want to say otherwise), and it can be easier to prefer letting the previous date speak for itself.
- A source might not have the necessary resources to make the correction, for example because its internal publications-handling system is very complex, or it lacks sufficient resources to separate good feedback from bad.
- Most sources that accept feedback make at least some attempt to filter it (whether by their staff or by the community), but all filtering can be flawed and something brilliant might have been thrown out by mistake.
- The best possible corrections might not be sent at all, because people with the best counterarguments might consider it a waste of time to participate in such a volatile environment.
- Search engines are also getting less and less good at finding the best counterarguments to popular misconceptions. Those who rely on search to find everything might be misleading themselves.
"Appeal to authority" has been around for a long time, and in some cases it does have some merit: if an authority is known for having been right before then it is reasonable to assign it higher odds, as long as you remember that this is only a first approximation and can be overridden if any more concrete reasoning exists. Additionally, if someone says "I like person P's argument" this might not even mean they treat P as an authority; it might simply be a time-saving "re-use" operation (like a
#include directive)---if the argument would work just as well with P's name removed and the text plagiarised, then P is not really being used as an authority here. However, people who take either approach cannot expect a guaranteed "win", because even the best authorities can and do go wrong sometimes.
What seems to be new in the modern connected world is the idea of suppressing counterarguments by telling your opposers to go and argue directly with the authorities you are using. Use of this fallacy may have unintended consequences for both sides:
- For the one who uses it:
- It might harm the user's cause if their opponent really does manage to go and topple the authority, or at least creates extra hassle for it. Do you really want your favourite authority to have to deal with this person?
- It might harm the public image of its user---it's like resigning from a Chess match while shouting "but you wouldn't win if you played against my favourite grand master!" (which incidentally does not mean nobody could). If someone wishes to resign from an argument while believing it could still be proved by those of more skill or tenacity, then there are ways of stating this professionally; implying that observers should consider the resigning side to have "won" in the meantime is not one of them, and could be counterproductive if the observers see through it.
- While in some cases it's understandable to suggest that a discussion should be taken to a different forum, it looks best if this suggestion is as neutral as possible. It might be considered bad form to insist that the forum to go to is the feedback system of an authority bent on one side of the argument, and in some cases that place might not want it to go there and might come back to censure the person who suggested it.
- And for anyone who acts on it:
- While some sources do make corrections and it may even be worthwhile sending them in, there are sources and communities (even reputable ones) that can reject even good corrections, for reasons like the ones given above, and trying to get everyone to accept could be time wasting and frustrating.
- If the fallacy leads someone to believe that their only valid recourse is to convince a particular source to make corrections, then they are falling for something akin to a "denial of service" attack---the attacker merely has to name arbitrary sources on their side, while the victim is stalled fretting over how to convince places they didn't pick and that might not be open to reason at all (even if they say they are). The damage is collateral, creating work both for the victim and for the sources they engage, while the attacker sits and does very little; this seems like an "ideal" DoS situation.
- If the victim were to internalise the idea, then they (and the sources they engage) could be suffering trouble long after the original attacker has gone.
- I know of at least one student suicide victim who apparently felt his life was a failure if he could not convince a "militant" author of an opposing viewpoint. None of us
are qualified to give a final interpretation of
our observations---any of us (including that author) might overlook a vital clue that changes it---we
just do the best we can. But perhaps that student felt self-destruction was somehow "the honourable thing to do" if the whole universe depends on the issue and if your inability to address a certain author not only proves that author right but also makes you responsible for it, hence you've personally destroyed the universe. That line of reasoning conflates a lot of concepts but I can see how someone who falls for the ``take it up with them'' fallacy might go there. Please don't.
- Another worry for students, particularly at famous institutions, is the idea that some of their contemporaries will go on to become powerful politicians or government advisers. That idea can lead to the fear that these may bring state-level reprisals upon any minority that was maligned to them, which adds a huge burden of responsibility to anyone who has "lost" a case for the maligned ones. Although that too could lead to frantic attempts to convince one-sided sources, the rational thing is probably to act "professionally" in the hope that this will help any future leaders present to see through the situation.
- Sometimes, attempting to correct a one-sided source will make matters worse: they might partially accept your corrections, but only insofar as to "debug" their one-sided arguments or to create a false veneer of "balance" to lure readers into more subtle half-truths; are you sure you want to assist them in this by providing a feedback service? (There's an adage in systems design that says if something's going to be wrong, it's better for it to be obviously wrong; a corollary of this is that partial corrections might be worse than none.)
One mark of professionalism is knowing when to walk away from a degenerating discussion even though you could have "won" it. Another is to recognise when someone else does this. But making a "parting shot" by pointing to one's favourite authority and telling the opponent to ``take it up with them'' is usually fallacious and potentially dangerous.
As for using references, the practice is not always bad as there are many respectable sources in the world that do handle matters professionally (whatever view they have), but there are also those that do not, and even those that do can slip up, so caution is always needed no matter how "good" the source is. Incidentally, original research by yourself is allowed in life (WP:NOR is not a life guide); if done honestly, it may offer some protection against being "tossed to and fro and carried about" by faulty sources.
It might even help you get more out of works that are not currently faulting.
All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.