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Don’t Read the Comments: 10 Logical Fallacies in the Comment Stream

By Elisa Gabbert April 04, 2013 Posted In: Blogging Comments: 31

There’s a brilliant Twitter feed called @AvoidComments whose sole purpose is to remind us not to read comments on the Internet:

Don't Read the Comments

This is excellent advice when it comes to newsy sites like Salon, which seems to be where repressed rage goes to die seethe indefinitely. And even Justin Bieber knows not to read the comments on YouTube: “I don't read YouTube comments because those can get you sad.”

Justin Bieber Doesn't Read Comments

Seriously though. I have a love-hate relationship with comment streams. The quality can vary so widely and it usually depends on what kind of atmosphere and community the blog owners cultivate. I love sites with upvoting systems that allow the best comments to rise to the top and which encourage regular commenting and conversation – see SEOmoz, Reddit, and XOJane, where I’ve lost hours of my life poring through user-generated magic.

But no blog or website is immune to comment stream idiocy. Allow strangers to plaster their thoughts on your Internet space and some of those thoughts are going to be variously dumb and outright offensive. Much like lukewarm casseroles at a potluck are breeding grounds for bacteria, comment streams seem to be breeding grounds for obnoxious and illogical arguments. That’s why we have Godwin’s Law, which states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

Godwin's Law of Blog Comments

When entering any argument or debate, it’s always good to be armed with a solid knowledge of logical fallacies – those nefariously common pitfalls of the human mind, patterns of thought that we all slip into that are nevertheless dead wrong. Being familiar with these fallacies makes it easy to call out your opponent when he’s making a right fool of himself. This is especially true in the battlefields of comment streams, where people are approximately 200% dumber than in real life. (Science fact.)

With that in mind, here are 10 logical fallacies (blogical fallacies? no?) to know and avoid, commonly found in a comment stream near you.

#1: Appeal to Authority

The appeal to authority hinges on a naïve trust that important people always know what they’re doing. You know how when you were a kid, you thought your mom was some kind of magical genius who could fix anything? Then, you grow up and realize they let anyone be a mom.

The appeal to authority fallacy frequently pops up when you criticize an authority figure – for example, a famous writer or a powerful CEO. For example, see this comment on Larry’s post about eBay’s lousy paid search strategy:

Blog Comment Ad Hominem Attack

Just because eBay is a big company with a big marketing budget doesn’t mean that whoever’s in charge of their PPC knows what they’re doing. Big companies – whole empires even! – fail all the time. The history of the world is a catalog of failures. Authority doesn’t equal competence.

#2: Argumentum ad Hominem

A commenter is resorting to an ad hominem attack when he gets personal, otherwise known as “being a dick.” See the examples below. Both – coincidence? I think not – on posts where I was writing about sexism. When I complained about the Google Doodle for International Women’s Day, one friendly commenter accused me of PMS’ing:

Crappy Comment

Then there was the time I “bitched and moaned” about a literary journal that only published men:

Personal Attacks in Blog Comments

The editor of that journal didn’t like my post and didn’t like my forehead either. (I’ve edited some of these comments for language.)

Protip for comment writers: Leave people’s body parts and functions out of your arguments and you look way more credible.

#3: Ignoratio elenchi 

Doncha just love Latin? Ignoratio elenchi is otherwise known as the irrelevant conclusion, missing the point. People who “just like to hear themselves talk” (or see their comments in print, as the case may be) are especially prone to the ignoratio elenchi comment that has nothing to do with anything.

An extra-special brand of this is the irrelevant spam comment – years ago I wrote a (highly ironic, of course) post called “How to Start an SEO Business in 3 Ridiculously, Impossibly Easy Steps,” based on a stupid eHow article, and we still get comments from people who obviously haven’t read the post, thanking me for helping them start their SEO business. For example:

Irrelevant Blog Comment

Sigh. (I stripped the link out and published it to make him look silly, natch.)

#4: The Thought-Terminating Cliché

From Robert Jay Lifton’s book on brainwashing and mind control, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, we get the concept of the “thought-terminating cliché”:

A commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to quell cognitive dissonance. Though the clichéd phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating.

In other words, as some Wikipedia editor put it, “end the debate with a cliché—not a point.” “It is what it is” is the ultimate thought-terminating cliché of our time. It adds no value. Don’t engage with commenters who refuse to engage with you.

#5: Appeal to Tradition

The appeal to tradition fallacy, otherwise known as “argumentum ad antiquitam,” insists that we keep doing something simply because it’s the way it has always been done. Tradition, damnit! Popular among commenters who fear change. Used to justify slavery, war crimes, and so forth.

#6: The Just-World Hypothesis

Some people have a tendency to believe, or to want to believe, that the world is fundamentally just and people are fundamentally good. So if you try to point out something evil or unjust in the world, this conflicts with their worldview and they get defensive. “Oh come on, things aren’t that bad!” “Nobody is hurting you on purpose, etc.!” This is also used to rationalize bad things happening – see the tendency for some SEOs to assume that if a site gets delisted or takes a hit in rankings, it must, ergo, have done something bad to deserve this. We can call this the “Just-Google Hypothesis.” But sometimes bad things happen to good people, and it’s entirely possible that a website could get screwed by Google unjustly and for no good reason. “It is what it is,” right?

#7: The Google Effect

More a cognitive bias than a logical fallacy per se, the Google effect refers to the tendency to forget information that can be easily found online. Then there’s the cell phone effect, which leads to people having no idea what their spouse’s actual phone number is. You can see a similar effect in comments when a reader asks a question that either:

  1. Is already answered in the post they are commenting on, i.e., see above, doofus, or
  2. Could be answered with a simple Google search, cutting out the middle man.

This is what the acronym LMGTFY is for.

#8: Fallacy of Composition

Assuming that something true of one part of the whole must be true of the rest. You see this when people say stuff like “But a buddy of mine works at Amazon and he’s real cool so they couldn’t possibly be bad for small businesses!” Similarly, when someone gets burned by a shady “SEO” firm and then goes on to assume that all SEO’s are selling snake oil. Just because part of the “industry” is corrupt doesn’t mean that SEO isn’t a legitimate field.

#9: The Chiller-Than-Thou Fallacy

OK, I made this one up. But I see it ALL THE TIME. Chiller-than-thou commenters are always telling you to relax, get a grip, calm down, be cool, etc. For example, this one directed at my friend Carrie Murphy:

Aggressive Blog Comment

Joke’s on them, because inevitably the chiller-than-thou commenter ends up looking very unchill. I mean, if they’re so calm and relaxed, why are they leaving aggressive comments on your blog instead of just closing the tab and stepping out onto the patio for a smoke? Would a chill person bother to comment at all? I think not.

#10: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the name given to the phenomenon where incompetent people fail to realize they are incompetent because they lack the ability to distinguish between competence and incompetence. That’s part of being incompetent! Put in blog comment terms, the worst blog commenters fail to recognize that they are the worst blog commenters because they’re so bad at blog commenting they can’t distinguish between good comments and bad comments. That’s why they’re always leaving bad comments. This leads us to a troubling conclusion: Some trolls don’t even know they’re trolls. Frightening, isn’t?

Get in on the fun – let me know what logical fallacies you’re tired of seeing in blog comments. Or, just leave a comment with a glaring fallacy of its own, intentionally or unintentionally. That’ll be fun and self-referential!

See also:

AdWords Performance Grader




If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment.

Comments

Thursday April 04, 2013

Victor Pan Said:

Comment fallacies? I'm reminded of my philosophy class on argumentation and reasoning.

11. Poor Speller Effect

When a commenter has mistaken your with you're - there/they're/their, etc. in their writing, you discredit their comment not on the point they're making, but by their spelling. This goes with the ad hominem fallacy.

12. The straw man fallacy

When a commenter takes a small snippet from your blog post and breaks down how stupid your point of view is without considering the whole context in which it was written.

13. Proof by verbosity fallacy

When a commenter goes into great depth and material to disprove you. These often include lengthy quotes which may/maynot be real, but definitely look authoratative. When people see long, seemingly well-researched comments, they have the tendency to simply assume it as true.

Thursday April 04, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

When people see long, seemingly well-researched comments, they have the tendency to simply assume it as true.

Similarly there's a theory that people give more credence to arguments, articles, etc. with equations or math even when the math makes no sense. :)

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Callum (not verified) Said:

Actually the straw man fallacy relates to a misrepresentation of the argument by the commenter, and a subsequent attacking of that misrepresentation. Nevertheless, you're right in saying that it's a very common logical fallacy presented by internet commenters.

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Anonymous (not verified) Said:

How about unmarked and uncited quotations?  I see that arguing with 9/11 Truthers sometimes.  They reply almost instantly with a massive block of text and I know they couldn't have written it that quickly so I copy + paste a chunk of it into google and find the exact text-splosion on NaturalNews and 1000 other conspiracy sites.

Tuesday August 27, 2013

boyd (not verified) Said:

What about fecious momentum, I find great sport in stirring up fanatics.

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Ryan (not verified) Said:

Why are you reading this? Have you learned nothing from this article? 

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Gary Herstein (not verified) Said:

Number one is misleading. The argumentum ad vericundiam is not the appeal to authority, but the appeal to false or misleading authority. The distinction is critical because it is frankly impossible not to appeal to authority in most areas of discourse or inquiry. Thus, one does not seek medical advice from one's postal carrier any more than one hopes to discover the most efficient delivery route in one's neighborhood from one's physician.

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Fiona (not verified) Said:

Re # 2, is that response really from an editor of a publication?  An actual, paid, working editor?  His response was ridiculous and, btw, someone really ought to tell him that using a lower case "i" when you're referring to yourself is not okay outside of pretentious community college level creative writing classes.

Friday May 10, 2013

Assignment Valley (not verified) Said:

Wohoo! what a hilarious post man seriously you have an awesome sense of humor yes
 

Tuesday April 23, 2013

buy wow gold (not verified) Said:

So now you're not reading my comment because of fallacies???

Friday April 05, 2013

Steve Baxter (not verified) Said:

Or how about...

16. The Subtle Self-Publicise

This is the comment that actually adds nothing to the debate but is only posted to enhance the poster's online identity. It's difficult to criticise them because they're often nicely wrapped in glowing praise for the original post and its poster.

 

Oh, the irony of using comments to criticise comments. Too delicious!

Tuesday April 09, 2013

Chris Mayhew (not verified) Said:

I think most of the commenters I see on a daiy basis have been covered but what abut the 'wise one-worders'?

These are the people who think they are so wise that they only need to use one word when commenting.

This is usually something like 'agree' or 'nice!' or it could simply be a smiley or a yes. These are also the people who reply to your long, carefully crafted text with 'ok'.

I don't really know why i'm writing this though because no one should be reading these comments.

Monday April 08, 2013

Bob (not verified) Said:

" when people see seemingly well-researched comments....."

For me anyway, I usually think it's BS most of the time by someone trying to appear impressive.

Not being able to say what you need to in 4 or 5 sentences is usually a red flag to me to not want to read more.

To each his or her own opinion I suppose.

Tuesday October 01, 2013

dissertation proposal by essaypenguin (not verified) Said:

These 10 logical fallacies in blog comments are really awesome.

Sunday September 01, 2013

APRENDER INGLES FÁCIL !! (not verified) Said:

How about...

Comments are Bad!

Bad People Kill Babies

Comments Kill Babies!

Friday April 05, 2013

kate (not verified) Said:

blogical fallacies? Yes.

Monday April 08, 2013

Megan Marrs (not verified) Said:

Or how about

#17 Make 'Em Laugh

The commentor whose sole aim in life is to show how utterly hilarious he or she is with a witty remark, on point joke, or a inventive pun. 

"Godwin's Law is Hitler-arious. And also very sad."

Friday April 05, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Ha ha! Thanks Steve.

Monday April 08, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Ha ha, that one made me laugh!

Tuesday April 09, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Ha, like a fool, I read them every time!

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Hi Gary,

Thanks for your comment -- point taken, but it still applies because eBay IS a false authority when it comes to PPC. They do not have demonstrated expertise in PPC, just because they are a huge company.

Elisa

Tuesday August 27, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Ryan wins the comments.

Saturday February 15, 2014

Mark Thompson (not verified) Said:

haha a great sport. I like how you put that one!

Thursday April 04, 2013

Andy (not verified) Said:

Challenge accepted...

 

Geez Elisa. Why don't you women take a chill pill and realize that not all comments are that bad? I mean, the last 9 comments on this blog were awful, so the streak can't continue. The next one just has to be great. Besides, awful comments may be awful, but any comments are good for your PageRank! Do you think a company as smart as Google cares what the tone of your comments are? No. They're just trying to make money!

 

(Is that a tongue in your cheek or are you just happy to see me?)

Thursday April 04, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Well played.

Thursday April 04, 2013

Victor Pan Said:

14. ALL CAPS

ANY COMMENT WRITTEN WITH CAPS LOCK TURNED ON IS IGNORED OR READ WITH A BILLY MAYS ACCENT FOR HUMOUR. UNLIKE THE OTHER COMMENT FALLACIES, YOU'RE SAFE TO IGNORE COMMENTS IN ALL CAPS AS A GENERAL RULE OF THUMB.

15. This is Amurica!

This is similar to the just-world hypothesis, except it's really just extreme nationalism. A blog commenter will claim something as being American and flame everything else that isn't American as phoney.

I honestly spend too much time in online communities.

Thursday April 04, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Only a 'Publican would commit the This is Amurica fallacy.

Thursday April 04, 2013

Larry Kim Said:

How about...

Comments are Bad!

Bad People Kill Babies

Comments Kill Babies!

Thursday April 04, 2013

Larry Kim Said:

or how about... Religion is bad because of the Crusades.

Thursday April 04, 2013

Elisa Gabbert Said:

That one I agree with. ;)

Thursday April 04, 2013

Larry (not verified) Said:

Conflation

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