Bait and Forget (06 Nov 2004)

Those of us who like arguments and actually seek to get somewhere with them (as opposed to those who like them for their own sake) generally pay attention to lists of logically falacies. Like those 'proofs' that 1=0, fallacies seem reasonably correct but are actually fundamentally flawed and cause one to end up somewhere stupid.

Take, for example, this page, which says the following:

  • Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
  • Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there is a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

Now, I don't disagree with any of that. But here's a meta fallacy - a fallacy which those who quote fallacies fall into:

As an example, on that same page, they give this: "We've got to stop them from banning pornography. Once they start banning one form of literature, they will never stop. Next thing you know, they will be burning all the books!"

There's hyperbola for effect in that, but it's not completly daft. I see this pattern popping up a number of times. Take today's great post on BoingBoing about brands. Cory speaks about how trademark law was introduced for all manner of good reasons, but people have forgetten about them and now trademark law is an axiom in of itself and it getting abused.

Copyright law was introduced as a very limited trade between the public (represented by the state) and private enties to introduce a government subsiby for the arts which was distributed by a pseudo-market. But that has been been the victim of bait-and-forget. People don't remember why copyright law exists, so we have the very counterproductive system which we have now, within which "copyright must be enforced" is all the reasoning that is required from its benifactors. This is also, soon, going to lead to the extension of copyright of music in the EU because noone in power can remember why, exactly, copyright was ever for a limited time in the first place.

So, the meta-fallacy can roughly be put: "It's not slippery slope - but if we do this thing, X, which is reasonable at the moment then everyone will forget why we did it and it will lead to bad things."