James Brown’s hair

One reason we started this blog so many years ago was to create a repository of examples of bad arguments. There were, we thought, so many. There are, we still think, so many.

Since then, we’ve expanded our focus to theoretical questions about argumentation. One such question is whether there are actually any fallacious arguments at all. Part of this question concerns the usefulness of a meta-language of argument evaluation. Argument has a tendency to eat everything around it, which means evaluations of arguments will be included in the argument itself. To use a sports analogy, penalties are not separate from the game, they’re part of the strategy of the game. The use of fallacies, then, is just another layer of argument strategy and practice.

That’s not the usual argument, I think, against employing a meta-language of fallacy evaluation. Often rather the discussion hinges one whether such moves can be precisely identified, or whether it’s practically useful to point them out. These, like the first, are both excellent considerations.

On the other hand, there’s a heuristic usefulness to a set of meta-terms for argument evaluation. For one, it’s nice to have an organized mind about these things.  Second, people tend to make the same moves over and over. Consider this one from Bill O’Reilly last week:


In case you can’t watch, a brief summary (courtesy of CNN):

During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” O’Reilly reacted to a clip of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said of Waters. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

“If we have a picture of James Brown — it’s the same wig,” he added.

The classical version of the ad hominem goes like this: some speaker is disqualified on grounds not relevant to their competence, accuracy, etc. This seems like a pretty textbook example.

This brings me to another reason people have for skepticism about the usefulness of fallacy theory: fallacies, such as the one above, are so rare that it’s just not useful to spend time theorizing about them.

I don’t think so.


6 thoughts on “James Brown’s hair”

  1. Perhaps we need a follow-up post about, let’s call it the Bill Maher gambit — that critiques like yours reflect how the left can’t take a joke, and that any reaction other than laughter reflects political correctness run amok.


    (Should we give O’Reilly the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is unaware of how women, and more so African-American women, have long been scrutinized and criticized for how they wear their hair?)

  2. The claim that fallacy tokens are not common is the least plausible argument against fallacy theory.

  3. Good point Aaron.

    Three things. First, O’Reilly once expressed shock while eating at an African-American restaurant in Harlem that no one was shouting “M-fer…”. This is his thing. He can’t be unaware of it:


    Second, he fails to address any of her claims. So, it wasn’t a one off only to return to the critical train of thought.

    Finally, I think the joke gambit has application sometimes. O’Reilly, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do a satire show, however. So there’s that.

  4. I think the claim that they’re not common rests on the idea that if we just interpret them charitably enough we won’t find them as often.

  5. Hi John,
    That’s right, if we interpret all of the prima facie fallacies in a way that they aren’t fallacious (or just aren’t arguments), then fallacies aren’t widespread. Oh, except the iron man!!!!

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