You Can Let Wikipedia Think For You!

There are three ways in which Wikipedia is very counterproductive when it comes to having conversations. 1) Sometimes it is not correct, but is taken as gospel. This is rare, because errors that are encountered when this happens tend to get fixed, but it does happen; 2) Wikipedia, with it’s strident empirical approach and narrow range of training by participants (entire fields of study seem to be very underrepresented among the writers and editors) does not have a fully developed handle on all of the important aspects of scholarship, so certain kinds of information are essentially excluded or reduced to insignificance when they should not be; and 3) Wikipedia has served as the substrate for the codification of certain interlocutory behaviors which in turn have subsequently become inappropriately fetishized conversational tics.

Lets start with number 3 because that is most timely and relevant. Twice in the last 12 hours I have seen someone tell someone else that their argument was weak because they had demonstrated Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies. Godwin’s Rule was a joke. It was a tongue in cheek remark that sated that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” (where 1 is a probability value, the same as 100%). However, one almost never sees Godwin’s rule invoked as a joke or a reference to a joke. Rather, it is usually invoked either right after someone mentions Nazi’s or Hitler to shut them up (regardless of the validity of the comparison) and I’ve even seen it invoked BEFORE the comparison was made, as a preemptive shutting up of the opposition in an argument.

That Godwin’s law is often invoked at certain key points, and that is always means “seriously, your argument is invalid, shut up” as opposed to what it really means, would both be evidence of the rule being fetishized as an element of conversation. The fact that the accusation that the rule applies always means the same thing regardless of the argument at hand and is always made by the opposing individual in the argument strongly supports the idea that it has become at conversational tic rather than either a meaningful observation (which I suppose it could be sometimes) or, as it was originally intended, a joke.

But the smoking gun evidence that the invocation of the Godwin’s Rule Shut Up response truly is a fetish comes from instances like those I mentioned; The two cases I observed over the last 12 hours of someone telling someone else that their argument was weak because they invoked Hitler and/or Nazis were during conversation about … Hitler and Nazis!!!!! One was a facebook conversation in which we were talking about Catholics, Nazis, the Pope, and Hitler (and I’m not entirely sure Godwin’s rule was brought up seriously in that case but it seemed to be) and the other was a comment on this blog on a post about …. Catholics, Nazis, the Pope, Dawkins and Hitler, with these words: “If Dawkins hadn’t pulled a Godwin’s Law and brought up Hitler…”*

Yes, Dawkins brought up Hitler when … talking about Hitler. Yes, folks, Godwin’s Law is a conversational tic. You can start ignoring it now. In the case noted on this blog, the writer of the comment had produced an otherwise perfectly lucid comment that more or less randomly included the Godwin remark. When pressed, the commenter acknowledged that the Godwin remark did not make any sense and retracted it. Again … it was just a conversational tic.

But what does this have to do with Wikipedia? Perhaps little, but I strongly suspect that Wikipedia, as the place where these rules are kept and can be looked up (Godwin’s, Ad hominem arguments, Reductio ad absurdum, etc. etc.) serves as a substrate for the continuation and use of these rules, as a handy dandy replacement for thinking. If you read the Wikipedia entries for these phenomena, they are not bad. I’m not criticizing them here. I’m just noting that the culture of Internet discussion involves a handful of “shut up” phrases (about half in Latin) that are almost always used incorrectly and that are maintained in the culture in part because they are used a lot and in part because you can look them up in Teh Wiki. These two are connected, in that when the terms are used one often sees a link provided to Wikipedia’s entry.

Argumentum ad hominem is another phrase almost always used incorrectly, but in a somewhat subtle way. According to Wikipedia, “argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to link the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.” The Ad Hominem Shut Up tic involves accusing someone of making an ad hominem argument, thus they are wrong. However, there are two things wrong here.

First, many arguments made in the same discussion are ALSO ad hominem in some cases, but are left to stand. You say the train is coming at 1:00 PM. I say that you are an utter moron, I’ve looked at the train schedule ant it is coming at 1:04 PM, and you must be some kind of evil nutbag to tell me this, I can then argue later that I’m no making an ad hominem argument because I have a fact. A fact, I say!!!! I’ve looked at the data! The fact that I’ve called you a moron and an evil nutbag is not the relevant part of my argument. In real life, false ab hominem (the opposite of ad hominem) arguments are not as blatant at this one, but do keep an eye out for this and you’ll see it. If you have two brain cells to rub together, that is. (Hey, I’m just stating a fact about your brain cells!)

The second fallacy is that an ad hominem argument is necessarily, automatically wrong. Even Wikipedia agrees that this is NOT the case: “The ad hominem is not always fallacious, for in some instances questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue.”

Again, there is nothing wrong with the study of these crystallized critiques of conversational pitfalls, or with their thoughtful use. But so often these gems are used uncritically, unthoughtfully, and as synonyms. They are synonyms for the term “shut up.”

We need a Wikipedia entry for “conversational tic” in which the above point is made. Do you know what I mean?

And now moving on to the second point, and I’ll make this fast. This thought was on my mind for a long time but congealed earlier this year when I was motivated for reasons lost to history and Vicodin to look up what Wikipedia had to say about the origin of the name of the city Buffalo. I knew what I was going to find and I found what I already knew likely: Wikipedia is a deer in the headlights when it comes to oral history. We may never be able to tell where Buffalo get’s its name, but there is a reasonable oral history that has been known for some time suggesting what may have happened. At the same time, there are two or three other stories that are not as plausable to explain the name. Since all of the stories are based on oral history, they are viewed by Wikipedia as equally invalid and given roughly the same weight even though they don’t deserve the same weight. There is not a documented empirical trail leading from the question “Where did Buffalo, NY get it’s name?” to a solid answer, but there is one answer that stands above others and is most likely, yet to be understood not as invalid, but rather, as probable yet based on oral records subject to revision. But Wikipedia, with it’s particular method and style of writing, research, production, and editing, simply can’t handle things like this.

Another example is the geographical boundaries of Africa (like West Africa, East Africa, etc). Geographers, anthropologists, archaeologists, and the like have used a couple of different systems for years. In the mean time the CIA and some other influential agencies across the globe have divided Africa into different zones because they had different needs. The UN and the World Bank and other international agencies divided Africa into yet another set of zones because they had different needs. But what you must understand it this: The geographical regions of a part of the world that are used in day to day academic discourse typically remain fairly stable with only moderate ambiguity, and those are the divisions used “properly.” This is different from what agencies and institutions may use for pragmatic reasons.

Here is an analogy (that does not involve Nazis or Hitler): In my house, clothing exists in closets, dressers and laundry baskets. That is true in all houses in the Western World. It is a good material-cultural distinction: Furniture and closets vs. carrying or holding bins. However, in MY world, as distinct from everyone else’s, clothing is of three types: I don’t wear it and clean; I do wear it and clean; I do wear it and dirty. The first time is located in dressers and closets. The second type is located in a laundry basket folded with a few items handing but not in a closet, and the third type in different laundry baskets.

Just because I have a quirky way of handling my clothing does not mean that there are now two ways to describe the material culture of clothing containment in Western households. No. There is only one: Closets, dressers, baskets. My uses must be reconciled against that “geography” in the same way that the strange divisions of Africa used by the UN must be reconciled against the traditional geographies which are still considered quite appropriate and useful. But Wikipedia can’t handle that and if you read the pertinent entries you will walk away ill informed and confused. If you read the introduction to a book on African Geography or on a topic that makes heavy use of African Geography, you will find a simple and coherent framework that is limited not because it is deficient but because it is meant to be limited.

On the first point, I’ll say no more. Other than that when I first looked up “Pygmies” I was astounded to find that they wore no clothing, ever. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that when I was living with them in Central Africa.


  1. #1 Deen
    September 23, 2010

    I think part of the habit of incorrectly pointing out “ad hominem”, “straw man”, and the other fallacies can likely be explained by something that I’ve noticed over the past few years. Creationists, pseudo-skeptics and other deniers appear to be actively co-opting the language of skeptics for their own use, including the logical fallacies. It appears as if they have seen the effectiveness when they get called out on these fallacies, and are now imitating this to try and turn this weapon on skeptics. It may also just be another instance of the common tactic of co-opting the language of your opponent (something conservatives appear to be a lot better at than progressives, by the way).

    Of course, if you don’t understand evidence and logic very well, or don’t care for them much, you might easily mistake pointing out logical fallacies for simple rethorical devices. The result is that logical fallacies get pointed out incorrectly more and more often, just for their rhetorical effect.

    I do like that the Wiki pages on the logical fallacies generally include examples of misuse as well.

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    September 23, 2010

    There’s a reason I almost never use the name of a fallacy. If I can’t describe in plain English the flaw in the argument, with actual examples from the argument, there’s a very good chance I’m doing it wrong.

    My least favorite is the strawman argument. All too often, the person claiming a strawman argument seems to be borrowing trouble and offense. After all, not everyone has to be saying something in order for it to be worth arguing against.

  3. #3 Piccamo
    September 23, 2010

    Holy ad hominem absurdum, Strawman!

    You know who else didn’t like to be Godwinned…?

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    September 23, 2010

    Give a Straw Man a nice suit and he’s a metaphor.

    I agree that using these terms is usually best reserved for talking about arguments among allies, and not during the arguments. But Deen, I’m not sure that the fetishized misuse is ONLY creationists and denialists (though I think you correctly identify that they have taken this form of argument up).

    I went to Pharyngula, just because there is so much of this conversation there, so many comments, and the chance of spotting creationists using these phrases is fair, along side skeptics and atheists and the like. Searching for “ad hominem” in PZ’s search box, these are the first several hits, all comments:

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    September 23, 2010

    Oh, I should add, lest one thinks I’ve set up a straw man or am engaged in an Ad hominem Reductio ad Hitlerum argument, that I did not place those links in that comment to support what I’ve said or refute or support what anyone else has said. They are simply there for your browsing pleasure and edification.

  6. #6 DuWayne
    September 23, 2010

    Does my invocation of various fallacies as shorthand for “you’re a bloody damned moron” count? As a rule I generally try to quote what bit brought me to that conclusion, but I don’t always clarify exactly why a given quote is X cognitive or logical fallacy.

  7. #7 Deen
    September 23, 2010

    @Greg Laden in #4: no, it’s not just creationists who do this. Not all atheists (or even all self-described skeptics) are critical thinkers.

    I thought it was funny that the comment at the second link specifically points out a misuse of an “ad hominem” accusation.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 23, 2010

    Deen: Seeing that is what prompted me to transfer the first several links here. This could be a good meta discussion. And, we can count how long it takes for the first Pharyngula reader to assume they are being attacked.

  9. #9 David
    September 23, 2010

    People who make ad hominem arguments are fools. I never listen to anything they say.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    September 23, 2010

    David, your straw man argument is totally bogus.

  11. #11 Rayonne Footlette, OM
    September 23, 2010

    And, we can count how long it takes for the first Pharyngula reader to assume they are being attacked.

    With preemptive first strikes like that, who needs assumptions? 🙂

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    September 23, 2010

    Aha! Their sending in the Mollies!

  13. #13 rob
    September 23, 2010

    what a bunch of logical fallacy nazis.

  14. #14 Argyle Longstocking, OM
    September 23, 2010

    Only a pair of foot soldiers.

  15. #15 Tex
    September 23, 2010

    I stopped reading the OP as soon as you invoked Nazis in the second paragraph. Congratulations on your own-goal Godwin.

  16. #16 travc
    September 24, 2010

    How meta… Godwin’s Law is a (humorous) observance of a common “conversational tic” which occurs online; which becomes it’s own conversational tic.

    You’re blaming of Wikipeadia is off base though. The canonization of this sort of stuff had it’s genesis in forums and newsgroups long before wiki was even an idea. Probably goes back to the deadheads and anime fans days online, if not even earlier in those dark days of BBSs. I’ve been seeing the classical Greek fallacies augmented by various modern quips-cum-laws for as long as I’ve been really conscious online (’92). Hell, debating societies, which date back to antiquity of course, are rather big on this stuff too.

  17. #17 Sean
    September 24, 2010

    The endless screaming of ‘Godwin! Your argument is invalid!’ in internet forums reminds me of another annoying habit people have in arguments, and one that’s been around since long before the internet.

    Taking a argument to it’s extreme conclusions can be good way of testing the full implications of what you’re claiming. A classic example is if someone argues that something must be done (or not done) because it’s the law. To which you might reply ‘If it was the law to turn Jews found outside after curfew to the authorities, does this mean you must do it?’

    The point is not to say that whatever you’re arguing about is like killing Jews, or to say that the person you’re arguing with is like Hitler. It’s just to show that they clearly don’t really believe their own ‘you must follow the law’ argument as strictly as claimed, and that by itself it’s insufficient to support their point. They need a different or a more detailed and subtle argument.

    And yet the usual response is simply ‘you can’t compare it to Hitler!’as if this renders the point moot. People have been crying ‘Godwin’s law!’ since before it was given a name.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2010

    Travc You’re blaming of Wikipeadia is off base though.

    I’m only implicating Wikipedia for following orders.

    The canonization of this sort of stuff had it’s genesis in forums and newsgroups long before wiki was even an idea.

    Well, the use, yes, but was there a written down version, a glossary of sorts, to refer to? That is the specific role of Wikipedia to which I refer. Like a “talk origins FAQ” of logical fallacies that would have been posted somewhere and handed around. It would not surprise me.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    September 24, 2010

    Sean: Good point. That may well be what inspired Godwin. And, again, the fact that the probability that Nazi/Hitler will be mentioned in a discussion approaches 1 over unspecified time is not only utterly trivial (any term can be substituted for “nazi/hitler” in open-ended conversations) but it is a value-free statement.

    I should explicitly mention because it has not been that one of the issues here is the dillution of the significance of the Holocaust by using it as an analogy every time someone is terribly offended. And, that was one of Godwin’s point, if we are to believe TehWiki on this.

    (I know that everyone gets that, but since I had not explicitly stated it, people will think I’m Joseph Goebbels or something)

  20. #20 Azkyroth
    September 24, 2010

    On that note…

    The biggest annoyance with Wikipedia, from my position, are the citation Nazis (people who are apparently under the impression that a Wikipedia article should contain no original thought whatsoever and will therefore demand references for EVERYTHING, even bleeding-obvious syntheses of two referenced sources, thereby strewing articles with “citation needed” tags in a gross gratuitous reckless excess normally reserved for the designation of street intersections as “No U-Turn”), and the idiots who think any argument in which any part of it references a Wikipedia article for anything can be dismissed out of hand. >.>

  21. #21 Chris Whitman
    September 25, 2010

    My big argumentative pet peeve is the false faulty analogy.

    You use an analogy to illustrate a point that’s often too complex to deal with in the context of the original issue, or to make a comparison to some known or agreed upon issue which shares some key similarities.

    Unfortunately, the analogy never perfectly describes the thing in question, so (if you’re an incredibly infuriating individual) you might consider just rejecting every single analogy made by anyone who disagrees with you as a faulty analogy just on whatever grounds it fails to be that thing. Since you can do this with any analogy, it means the person you’re talking to simply can’t make comparisons.

    In some discussions, like when you’re talking about moral issues, comparisons to other cases are really all you’ve got. If you employ this strategy, you can just reject anything said by anyone who disagrees with you while not looking like you’re wildly unreasonable.

  22. #22 DuWayne
    September 25, 2010

    Sorry Chris, but you are way off base here. Your argument about analogies always being imperfect and therefore objecting to them on those grounds is wrong, is analogous to…HITLER!!!!11!1!!

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2010

    Azkyroth : ROFL

    The biggest annoyance with Wikipedia, from my position, are the citation Nazis

    Godwin!!!11!!! Godwin!!!11!!

    At one point when I tried to change the wikipedia entry (indirectly) that said that Pygmies did not wear any clothing what soever, references were demanded. I said I was a leading expert on pygmies, had read everything written in English and French, and had lived with them for years. References were demanded. I issued a threat to the editorial staff that this would not be tolerated, and the article disappeared. (Getting references was harder than it seemed… nobody writes anywhere “no, the Pygmies are not running arond naked” and given the Wiki-law, a referene to their clothing is not technically a reference that the wear clothing).

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    September 25, 2010

    Chris: My big argumentative pet peeve is the false faulty analogy.

    Yeah, it’s like telling a tricker treater they can’t have the candy because they are wearing a vampire costume but have never actually sucked blood.

  25. #25 Angelo
    July 22, 2012

    we can be relate with and all that coencnt us between each other and everything that exists; i’m saying that one as a believer in certain grade of faith may perceive his reality limited because one is relating itself with only a few veils of God and that retain ourselves to be at the same starting point with only knowledge but with lack of faith and that might end with veiled and darkness for thinking that we were praising only God but perhaps its creations in other aspects (non-physical).

  26. #26 Laura
    July 24, 2012

    Sorry for my low-content post, but the internet tough guy is only a fake, right?Academia sure is a great insemtvent, like most of people already know. A lot of research envolving pest control are made worlwide. Much more than taxonomy, I guess.And I tought the main purpose of corporations was to serve population with a variety of goods. Was I wrong?Oh, by the way love your blog Alex.