The Damsel in Distress Trope – And Why “But She’s Bad-Ass!!” Is Not An Excuse

To the two fellas currently duking it out over this post on Reddit: play nice, kids – stop looking like idiots.

Let’s take a look at this series of tweets, where the gaming world’s no.1 boogey-woman Anita Sarkeesian laments the inclusion of a “Damsel in Distress” trope in some video game or other. You know, as she does.

Edit: As I was lazy, I originally hotlinked this image and it shifted location. The gist is that Anita Sarkeesian said “this game has a Damsel in Distress in it so it sucks”. and TotalBiscuit responded with “but men get captured too, so you’re wrong”.

Now, a little bit of additional context.

Firstly, I don’t have the game, and I don’t know the details – and I literally couldn’t care (that’s further hammered to death below) about the details. This is absolutely not the point I want to make. The plot details of a specific game lie outside my area of interest.

Secondly, what Sarkeesian is referring to by “Damsel in Distress” (DID) is very extensively covered in one of her Tropes vs. Women videos. The first one, in fact. Which was released about two years ago. So you’ve had plenty of time to, you know, watch it if you want to know where she’s coming from.

To cut a long story short, “but men get rescued too” is not a refutation nor is it a particularly good excuse for implementing an over-used trope in your script. Not least because it’s not a competition between men and women, and if one gets more abuse than the other they win the Oppression Olympics. What I want to point out is how you go about refuting the existence (or otherwise) of a particularly pervasive and over-used storyline.

Again, because I have to lay these things out several times and people still miss it – I don’t care about the individual details of this one game, only that whoever is refuting Sarkeesian’s accusation actually uses DID on the right terms, not ones just made up. I.e., you should refute what she is actually talking about and not something completely different.

Cue the GamerGator wangst…

What DID Entails

DID tropes have nothing to do with being straight-up rescue missions or who saves who. Whether something qualifies as a particularly bad instance of DID depends on far more interesting things such as why the plot point is being used and, because we’re talking about video games, what you “win” in exchange.

If the rescue mission simply moved the plot on and makes sense, then it might not be DID. Rescue missions happen all the time, and yes, men and women get rescued.

If the captive actually does something productive and isn’t useless, it’s probably not DID. If you give them some agency in their escape they’re not exactly playing the damsel. This latter point is particularly true if your captive is an actual character rather than faceless background noise or part of a crowd.

If you take a quick tour around fiction, rescuing of male characters more-often-than-not falls into one of these not-DID categories, and I imagine that TotalBiscuit’s mention of a female character saving a male character falls into these categories, too.

Let’s consider what DID actually includes – or in other words, what are the dysfunctional and over-used plot points surrounding capture-and-rescue plots. Which bits do we considered negative, and are to be found under the banner “Damsel in Distress”, which is convenient short-cut that describes them?

(By the gods, I wish that last sentence wasn’t necessary, but the amount of argumentum ad dictionarium on the internet is one of the most astoundingly bad things about it.)

So that’s the basics of it. Not just “what is DID?” but “why is it bad?” We’ll go into some detail in a moment.

As you can see from TotalBiscuit’s response above, he’s just re-defining the trope as Anita Sarkeesian might use it to mean something more superficial, and declaring victory. It just means “women are captured” and so it doesn’t count as a bad thing if men are captured, too.

Also, did I mention I don’t care about the game itself, only that people argue the right use of DID? Good.

Consider the following: if the prize for going through the game is “getting” the girl, and the only motivation for completing the quest is “getting” the girl, and the reason she’s captured is just a cheap emotive plot device for no other reason than to get the dashing hero to the gorgeous girl, and her capture is something you have to seriously suspend your disbelief over, then it is absolutely textbook DID. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether it “is” or “is not” DID, those aspects of a plot are simply terrible; overused, boring, demeaning to the concept of characterisation, and absolutely disproportionately levelled against women. I’m sure there are hours of video that bludgeons these points to death, or a ton of other blog posts describing the trope in detail and the non-trivial and non-superficial attributes that make it asinine, but it isn’t exactly something you can explain in 140 characters or less.

So the trouble with Sarkeesian’s point is that she didn’t have the word-count to point this out (something you might term “The Dawkins Defence”). Meanwhile, the trouble with TotalBollock’s response is that, despite his claimed intelligence, he decided not to refute her point using her own terms and definitions.

After all, I need to make clear, you have to discuss “Damsel in Distress” in terms of the actual trope, not just “women getting rescued”. Because that’s my point, I don’t really care about the individual details of the game itself. Still clear?

Further Details

First of all, let’s brush up on the use of the Damsel in Distress throughout fiction in general. Conveniently, Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article on the subject. Note the points about objectification of the hostage, the motivation for the hero, the general uselessness of the princess stuck in the tower and so on and so forth. The fact that DID is also a specific a fetish tells you that there’s far more than just “it’s something to do with women” involved in it. Overall, it’s an interesting stock trope in fiction.

The facial hair isn’t optional. That is, of course, a core aspect of DID. If the baddy doesn’t have a ‘stache, it’s fine… really…

However, the Wikipedia article on DID does lack a distinct sub-section for video games (for reasons I don’t think warrant going into) so let’s outline the additions to the trope exclusive to, and principally used by, video games.

And let’s remember, my point is that you have to get this bit right and can’t just refute something that Sarkeesian isn’t actually talking about by taking your own definition of “Damsel in Distress”, simplifying it down, and saying something silly. I just thought that was worth pointing out, just in case it wasn’t clear.

The main thing to add on top of the stock character analysis, which you can gleam from reading general fiction, is that games allow the damsel to act as a reward for the player. The interactive nature of a game is really what makes the medium way more interesting to study than a straightforward novel or film. A game has to be written for the player to act out, it has to appeal to them as motivation, and authors/writers need to get savvy to this.

This is why, back in the days of Mario and Donkey Kong, video games often had the stock storylines such as DID that were totally devoid of any exposition. When you simply don’t have the disk space, or the processing power, or your audience is paying by the level in an arcade, you can’t spend time on the story. Think Time Crisis here – which I think shows my age way too much – where the plot is “rescue the President’s daughter… by shooting all these people as fast as possible”.

This aspect of a character being reduced to a mere, near-faceless, personality-free reward is what arguably is the fundamental property of DID in gaming. Sometimes this is quite literal – the original Mario literally went after a pixellated princess with zero back-story. Sometimes, it’s a bit more subtle. As in, she might even get a name. And if she’s really lucky some realistic boob-jiggle physics.

100 pixels of unadulterated sexual thrill… Hey, someone will be turned on by low resolution.

Okay, so seriously for a moment – you can have a “bad-ass”, you can have a “well-rounded” character. Can she still suffer from many aspects of the DID trope?


As the asinine and regressive aspects of the DID trope don’t have anything to do with that.

Is she a feckless captive? Is she out-of-character in getting captured? Is she mostly a reward tacked on to make the plot vaguely interesting? Is her capture actually relevant to moving on the story? Again, these are subtle, and just to make it clear, you need to understand these subtleties and points because you can’t simply refute the existence of the DID trope with “men are rescued too” or “but she’s kick-ass”.

It doesn’t work that way, and that’s my point – not any specific details of this one example game. Just so long as it’s clear that I’m not talking about specific details of this particular game, because I’m not talking about the specific details of this game, only the general idea of what DID entails and how you should… fuck it, I’m not typing this out again, if I get any comments along these lines, you’re going in the fucking spam filter.

So once you understand that the core parts of the trope that are considered bad, you realise that “damsel in distress” does not just mean “girl gets rescued”. I won’t go into detail listing every example, that’s been done and it’s not my place to repeatedly prove that it’s out there in the wild, getting over-used, any more than it’s my place to prove atoms exist before discussing novel X-Ray crystal structures.

Can you swap genders in DID? Sure. Feckless idiot of a man gets kidnapped while a woman goes after him purely because it’s her boyfriend. Does that sound like a terrible plot? Yes, it does.

But do you really ever see it qualitatively reproduced that way? Really? I mean, not just the “hey, I found one example after an hour of Googling!!” I mean, like, is it common? Do you regularly see a strong and brooding and deep woman, the one holding the gun on the movie poster or game cover, go searching for a cardboard-cutout man who was locked up by the Big Bad for no other reason than to make the strong and deep woman brood a little bit more and go after him?

Not really.

You can give FFVII a pass because of course Aeris is going to be captured since she’s constantly being chased by Shinra. Of course, conveniently they only ever capture her when Cloud is around to save her, but let’s give it a little leeway. It does, after all, have the audacity to be a good game.

It’s not always a bad thing that must be avoided provided you have a decent excuse or rationale to do it. Aw, hell, you can even play it totally and perfectly straight and ramp it all up to 11 with comical rope and train tracks if you want to go all post-modern and make a commentary on the trope itself. That’s a fun possibility, though I dare say you’ll be stomping all over a very fine line between intentionally regressive crap played for post-modern laughs and just being a complete dick to your heroine like everyone else.

But played without irony, DID is over-used, and it is still sad-as-fuck that this is the go-to option for an easy motivation for Whitey McStubbly to get off his ass and kill bad guys.

Whether the game TotalBiscuit is raving about with Sarkeesian actually involves any of the godawful, asinine, over-used and cheap DID crap, I don’t know. I have no clue about the details of this game. I can’t even remember the name without looking at the screenshot. I literally have not heard of it until this week. I have neither the time, money, nor inclination to buy a PS4 and play something that looks exactly the same as every other game released since they discovered they could implement real-time normal mapping in console graphics. But here’s the point that the tirade from the inevitable mob of ass-hurt Gators and Gamers will probably not read: I really don’t care. Because that’s not the point as I’ve hopefully covered.

I’m going to play the probabilities game, go out on a limb, and make a crazy assumption that one of the plots broached within said game satisfies the DID criteria outlined above, while the other rescue missions really don’t. Why? Because if it wasn’t the case there’d probably be a better rationale excusing it than “because men get captured too”. Hence TotalBiscuit’s counter example isn’t the iron clad refutation he might think it is.

So this is my point: if you want to refute it (and I’m open to refuting Anita Sarkeesian, I have to throw my hand sup and admit I’m not actually a fan for various non-trite reasons), approach it this way:

  • Is the character relevant or central to the plot? I.e., if you replaced her with a bag of gold it simply wouldn’t work.
  • Are there motivations for the player character rescuing her beyond just getting his leg over?
  • Does she have any involvement or agency in her escape, assuming she’s conscious at the time?
  • Was her capture consistent with the character?
  • Is the rescue and the plot leading up to it more relevant to the plot than just getting the hero out of bed that morning?

Although that’s not entirely comprehensive, if you could honestly say “yes” to many or all of those, then it’s not DID. If you can do it for the game in question, Sarkseesian is wrong, and just tilting at windmills with this one specific example. Which, yes, she has an unfortunate tendency to do. And I’m very open to that being the case, but that evidence has not been presented (if anyone can point me in the direction of an adult discussion on this, please do).

Edit: See the addendum below.

A little bit of reading suggests the developers have tried to avoid it, and fleshed out their female characters, but whether they succeeded isn’t really up to them. Again, that’s detail that people can debate over, providing that they’re doing it on reasonable terms.

E.g., not just excusing it with other equally asinine tropes.

A 100%, absolutely realistic female character – stuck in a zombie-infested apocalyptic wasteland and still has time to put on on eye-shadow. Yeah, sure.

Again, for good measure, I don’t care about the details, at all, only that people doing the refuting fight it on the actual terms established. Got that? I mean, I’m serious about the spam-filter thing, I’m not even sorry.

A Non-Damsel in Relevant Distress

Just to underscore that DID isn’t just “woman gets rescued”, let’s ask the following question: is it possible to have a woman captured where it isn’t particularly damsel-ish? Yes. It very much is, and I think non-examples are as illustrative of the trope as examples are.

Take this classic set of cut-scenes from Command & Conquer: Red Alert – something of the high-point of 1990’s real-time strategy gaming.

Woman getting captured? Yep. Rescued by the player? Yep. She’s a bad-ass? Yep.

But let’s consider the questions above as applied to these two scenes:

  • Tanya is effectively a core character that is central to the plot (as far as Red Alert can get, at least). She’s as close to a player-character as is possible in the top-down, faceless-commander format of Command & Conquer.
  • The player is motivated to get her back because you’re getting your commando back. Sure, that’s effectively a “reward” for the player, although it’s closer to unlocking a Mammoth Tank in gameplay terms. This makes her an object, yes, but an object in the context of the gameplay, not an object in the context of the story (objectification in the context of being able to physically command and control a character, which is by the game mechanics non-consensual… games are a little complicated and weird when it comes to this stuff). You’re not winning a date with Tanya at the end, the player’s key motivation is still hitting the Soviets over the head as hard as possible.
  • She features a lot of agency in her escape. She does a lot of resistance, and in fact does most of the hard-work once your spy (who is a nameless NPC at this stage, rather than a proxy for the player’s over-active but under-utilised genitals) has infiltrated the base.
  • The capture is actually within the character’s operational parameters. She goes into dangerous situations constantly, and capture by the USSR is an occupational hazard. Tanya is, indeed, a bad-ass character, and tough-as-hell, but being captured in enemy territory, on a dangerous mission, in the middle of a war, isn’t exactly out of the realms of possibility for people in that position. It’s when your “bad-ass” characters catch the idiot ball, or seem to be targeted with the bad guys coming to her that you’re going to have a problem with this point.
  • Well, the rescue in the plot happens after she gathers intelligence, so I suppose this is about the only point where it slides into DID territory. It’s not, say, a side-effect of the rescue of Einstein or anything else, it’s literally just a new bit to move the story forward for another couple of missions. Although she does fuck up the Soviet’s shit just afterwards, so, fair play.

Above all, though, if you gender-reversed Tanya’s story it would absolutely not sound absurd at all. Whereas, say, Time Crisis, if you were the dashing heroine trying to save the President’s son by shooting terrorists, it might have people wondering if it was a comedy (or shouting about SJWs and making weak men and strong women).

So the Red Alert example doesn’t fall into many, if any, of the standard asinine DID plot-lines. Woman is captured, she’s a bad-ass, but it’s far from destructive or demeaning to anyone. Overall, the scene plays pretty powerfully, and the story doesn’t succumb to treating the female commando like a piece of sex-meat at any point throughout the story.

Isn’t it great that the Red Alert series kept that up?

Addendum 1: It has been pointed out in a comment elsewhere that the definition given of DID here actually makes a few of the examples given in Tropes vs Women or marginally damsel-ish or not DID at all. And I agree. On the one hand, this says that Anita Sarkeesian has something of an unfortunate tendency to cherry-pick, which is noted above. This is bound to happen when you start squeezing details to make a point. On the other, it also underscores that a trope is a fuzzy set, which is sort-of implied above given that there are multiple criteria and no hard-and-fast yes/no membership of the trope. The membership criteria needs to be considered in a more holistic sense than “she does X” and with a slightly more marginal degree than “therefore trope X”.

Addendum 2: A discussion of the individual details in a non-moronic fashion can be found tucked away on r/GamerGhazi. That’s actually a brief but interesting read. Could it be that Biscuit and Anita are wrong in their knee-jerk laconic responses? Yeah, probably.

Beginners Guide to Creationism

Found this hanging around my drafts section. This was originally published on the official RationalWiki blog. It is reproduced here for, well, just for the sake of it. Minor stylistic changes added.

What is it?

Creationism most generally means the belief that the entire universe was created by a deity in a supernatural incident. Most commonly it refers to the Christian one but almost all religions in the world have some sort of creation myth that explains the origins of the universe. What we’re most interested in, however, is the branch known as “young earth creationism” (YEC). Not all creationists are YECs, and there are a few alternative forms, but 99% of the time skeptics will use “creationism” and YEC interchangeably – mostly because other forms are less interesting to skeptics and de-bunkers.

YEC specifically proposes that the world was created literally as described in the Bible, only 6,000 years ago according to the chronology deduced by Archbshop James Ussher in the 17th century – with the creation occurring October 23rd, 4004 BC, in fact. Yes, this is after some recorded written history and milestones such as the domestication of the dog.

It’s primarily a Christian doctrine (fundamentalist Islam, for instance, opposes evolution but doesn’t insist on a “young” Earth) and in its modern form is common to North America, where as much as 45% of the adult population believes it.

Erm… why?

Put simply, people believe this because it’s exactly what the Bible tells them. No one is quite sure why it persists as a belief, but it seems to be due to the fact that if you can challenge the literal Genesis creation story, you can accidentally invalidate the rest of the religion with it. Hence why attacks on young earth creationism, which is a falsifiable (and falsified) hypothesis, is continually conflated with an attack on religion, or an attack on Christianity in any and all forms.

(For instance, here, which is a protracted rant against YEC and anti-evolutionists that doesn’t at any point really talk about God or Christianity – but nevertheless is attacked in many comments as something to do with an anti-God atheist that hates Christians.)

It’s worth remembering at this point that in most of Europe and in other, non-literalist forms of Christianity, the idea of an old earth and of evolution is not assumed to be in conflict with the basic tenets of the religion. The Catholic Church, for instance, has “officially” accepted evolution since 1950 and human evolution since 1996 and makes no demands that Ussher’s chronology is correct. Back on the other side of the pond, organisations such as Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis refer to such things as “compromise” – as in “compromised“, as if such acceptance of modern evolutionary theory and geology is somehow an infection in the purity of the true church.

What’s the evidence?

In the last 50 years or so, the Creationist movement in the US has branched out into “scientific creationism“. Skeptics often lambaste this as an oxymoron, but it does mean that they’ve been increasingly using “evidence” to support their claims. Here’s a brief run-down of a few of the common ones.

  • The ordering of fossils is due to Noah’s flood. The animals found near the top of sedimentary strata escaped the rising waters, the “primitive” ones at the bottom did not.
  • The Bible. Yes, this is actually used as evidence.
  • The Grand Canyon is evidence of a drainage channel caused by Noah’s global flood.

This list is actually difficult to populate because the thing that is most common to YEC “evidence” isn’t evidence for a young earth, but usually a list of (mostly imagined) grievances against evolution and deep time geology. In fact, one of the approaches put forward by skeptics for dealing with creationists is to hypothetically grant them all their grievances and ask “so what positive evidence do you propose?”

This is particularly important because the evidence for the planet being formed billions of years ago is far more extensive than positive creationist evidence.

And the evidence against evolution?

A list of grievances against evolution is easier to generate. Some basic ones are listed here without refutation because they are mostly PRATTs (Points Refuted A Thousand Times) or Not Even Wrong.

  • “Micro” evolution, which is small changes in varieties of animals, has been observed – while “macro” evolution, which is the change of animals into completely different ones, has not.
  • Radiometric dating is flawed because it is calibrated circularly with fossils.
  • There are no “transitional” fossils found between organisms.
  • DNA contains complex information that “cannot” have evolved because evolution cannot increase information.
  • Thermodynamic laws don’t allow life to become complex and ordered.
  • Science can’t explain the origin of life – also known as “molecules to man” evolution.
  • Science can’t prove that things evolved because it wasn’t there.

This is just a random sample of points, the lists often go into the hundreds.

Who are the main players?

The same names do crop up repeatedly in the YEC world, here is a brief list.

  • Kent Hovind – founder of ‘Creation Science Evangelism’, got a ‘PhD’ from a diploma mill. Currently serving 10 years for tax fraud and evasion. (as an update on this, has recently as of 2014/15 been attempting to sue anyone who calls his crime “fraud” or “evasion”, even though it is. He’s attempted to sue RationalWiki over it, but can’t seem to get his act together enough to properly serve the papers to the RMF. Most people attribute this to him getting some spectacularly bad advice from someone in prison who is as mentally ill as he is.)
  • Eric Hovind – the fairly charismatic but immature son of the above, now runs Kent’s ministries and hosts the “Creation Today” and “Creation Minute” webcasts.
  • Ken Ham – current head of Answers in Genesis. Tends to evangelise to children in order to capture them young, most famous for his “were you there?” argument. (further update, you will know him from his debate with Bill Nye the Science Guy where both parties were famously asked “what would change your mind?” – Nye replied “evidence”, Ham replied “nothing”. There you go.)
  • Ray Comfort – the infamous bananaman. Mostly concerned with (terrible) Christian apologetics but uses anti-evolution tropes to further this.
  • Duane Gish – now deceased vice president of the Institute for Creation Research. Notable for having the Gish Gallop named after him.
  • Jason Lisle – notable for having an actual legitimate PhD in astrophysics. Has a tendency to use very circular logic in his religious apologetics, and has attempted to solve the starlight problem.
  • Jonathan Sarfati – like Lisle, has a legitimate PhD and knows it. Also known for being a bit of an obnoxious one.
Creationism is certainly associated with some weird shit...

Creationism is certainly associated with some weird shit…

William Dembski and Michael Behe are also names that repeatedly crop up, but these two are most commonly associated with Intelligent Design, rather than YEC. Which brings us to…

What about Intelligent Design?

Intelligent Design (ID) is an offshoot from creationism that, nominally, has nothing to do with it – technically, it is just an anti-evolution position, and therefore distinct from YEC beliefs as it does not mandate a young earth. However, it’s often associated with creationists and overlaps significantly (see cdesign proponentists and the Wedge Strategy), leading to the very justified accusation that it’s used to make creationism “respectable”, and tries to hide the “God” aspects in order to sneak it into schools in the US – where separation of Church and State is legally enshrined. ID is often called “creationism in a cheap suit” because of this.

And so what?

Creationism forms the bedrock of the anti-science movement in the US. It’s almost political suicide to speak against it, as such a thing is perceived as an attack on religion, which is absolutely sacred. As a result, it infiltrates a lot of the political sphere – which, importantly, controls funding for science programs. Creationism is also heavily associated with the Religious Right, and their attempts to get it taught in schools are readily associated with attempts to establish Biblical teachings in schools (along with their other depressing aspects including homophobia, misogyny and racism). In short, while it is a fundamentally silly and easily refuted, the way it’s played as a “freedom of religion” issue or as part of a persecution complex against Christianity, should be very worrying.

Argumentum abusi fallacia

This is an import from a RationalWiki essay originally started last year following some argument or something about something, I forget. The links are all still to the RW inter-linked articles, as copy-pasting HTML-formatted text is remarkably efficient! There are a few stylistic/rhetorical changes for this version.

Argumentum abusi fallacia (Latin for “argument of the abused fallacy”) is the incorrect use of a formal or informal logical fallacy. As there is an absolute myriad of fallacies to choose from, it’s quite easy to not be entirely familiar with all of them.

False accusations that someone is making a fallacious argument, even when they’re not, become common. Someone might be making a bad or incorrect argument, but there are ways to be wrong without really being fallacious about it and there are ways to be right while still being fallacious.

One example might be the assertion that “women deserve equal treatment because they’ve been second-class citizens for years” – a morally sound conclusion but, technically, a non sequitur when you think about it (see the “is-ought” problem).

There are also ways to counter an argument without providing a list of fallacies – in the business we call these things “counter” arguments. Science does this all the time; we correct things by presenting superior evidence, rather than declaring previous theories to be somehow fallacious (and if you think “being incorrect because of evidence you didn’t have access to at the time” is a fallacy, you’ve largely missed the point).

The use of argumentum abusi fallacia is something of an argument by assertion, in which an attempt is made to refute an argument simply by citing the name of a fallacy. Almost certainly without any further explanation of why.

This is often a result of falling into skeptical jargon, or just discovering that there are terms not just to describe that someone is wrong but why they’re wrong. So, thanks to convenience and in an effort to show off this new-found knowledge – and, hey, some of it’s in Latin! – someone might be very keen to drop the name of a formal or informal fallacy into conversation. However, just because you can reduce why someone is wrong to a single, fancy name, doesn’t mean the names of fallacies can be thrown around at will and automatically be correct. Arguments need to be demonstrated as being fallacious, and usually this is possible without using any Latin at all. Although this list is a little pedantic, the important thing remains to understand why something is incorrect or fallacious, rather than get the name right.

Unless you’re attempting to answer a Gish gallop in real time, in which case you might not have much choice but to just go for the shorthand. So long as you use the shorthand correctly, of course.

Formal and informal

In short, a formal logical fallacy is a fallacy in the structure of an argument. If you distil the argument down into symbolic logic, which is the quasi-mathematical way of representing arguments and implications, a formal fallacy is one where the pieces simply don’t fit together. Because this is all represented symbolically, what those letters actually mean doesn’t count. In a formal statement like “PQ, P, therefore Q” it doesn’t matter what P and Q stand for.

The formal fallacies are rarely misused; though mostly because it’s far easier to take issues with content and style than to break an argument down to a logical form and track down the errors – and if one was to do that, then the fallacies become evident and difficult to misinterpret or produce a false positive. For instance, accusations of a non sequitur argument are usually valid, since that disconnect is easy to spot and demonstrate.

Informal logical fallacies are issues with the content of an argument. I.e., what the P and Q actually stand for. Unlike the formal logical fallacies, the informal fallacies are rife with pitfalls where they are misused, creating a ton of distracting false positives. At worst, their misuse comes from an inability for someone to create a new argument of their own or to address an opponent’s points; they simply accuse them of making a fallacy and have done with it.

The examples below chart the most common offenders.

Example: Special pleading

The cosmological argument as made famous by St. Thomas Aquinas and others reads roughly as follows:

Everything that exists requires a cause. There cannot be any infinite regression of causes. Therefore, the universe must have a first cause: God.

The trouble with this argument is that it exhibits special pleading. God is arbitrarily, without any supporting reason, exempted from the requirement that “all things require a cause”. Often the response to this argument is “why can’t the universe be acausal if God can be?” and thus the special pleading begins. Either God is made an exemption “by definition” (a very strong case of special pleading) or other wild assertions are made that make God “not count”. This is a legitimate fallacy: God needs a real reason to be exempted from the premises of the arguments.

So, in response to this, the argument has been modified slightly. This is the Kalām cosmological argument, touted ad nauseam by William Lane Craig, which usually uses this slight alteration over the version above:

Everything that begins to exist requires a cause. There cannot be any infinite regression of causes. Therefore, the universe must have a first cause: God.

One of the reasons behind this modification is that it appeals to our experience of naturalistic reality; everything we see come into existence does, in fact, have a cause. So, if somebody were to dismiss this modified version of the argument with “that’s special pleading!” it would be an incorrect use of the fallacy. This is is because the modification explicitly exempts an “eternal” God from the need for a cause, so does not contain any special pleading. The underlying logic is on better and less fallacious grounds as “special pleading” is a formal logical fallacy – a problem with the structure, not content. Special pleading is stating AB, and giving ad hoc exceptions. There are a multitude of other issues with the Kalām argument, but since the exceptions are, in fact, built into the logical conditions then there is nothing “special” about the pleading, ergo, no fallacy.

Example: Ad hominem

An ad hominem argument, from the Latin for “to the man”, is something that doesn’t attack the questions and points at hand, but the messenger and the person delivering it. This is one of the most common misuses of an assertion of fallacy because people can all too easily confuse ad hominem with “crass insult”.

If someone calls someone else a ‘total douchebag cunt-faced prick-stain’ out of the blue in a discussion, it might be mean, it might be unproductive, hell it might even be fair and correct, but it is not necessarily fallacious. It doesn’t have any particularly flawed logic to it, it’s just an insult. Ad hominem attacks dismiss an argument because of a completely unrelated property of the person delivering the argument.

Consider the following:

The war in Iraq is illegal because George W. Bush is an incompetent buffoon.

This sort of thing is an ad hominem attack (and is a specific logical fallacy)  because, buffoon or not, Bush’s intellect has little bearing on the validity of a war; the validity of the war is what impacts the validity of the war. However, we can rephrase this slightly.

George W. Bush is an incompetent buffoon because the war in Iraq is illegal.

This is on slightly firmer ground. In short, while it might still be irrelevant, Bush’s lack of brain isn’t being used to justify a legal status. But his actions and comprehension of a legal status can be used to infer his state of mind. It’s easily arguable and conceivable that someone engaging their country in an illegal war could be described by the words “incompetent” and “buffoon” amongst several others. Yet, if faced with no alternative rebuttal, this might well be accused of being an ad hominem attack, just because it makes an egregious personal insult.

(Note: the two above are forms the same ideas with the implication reversed: AB and BA. For a treatment of why these aren’t the same statement, see affirming the consequent and its statistical cousin confusion of the inverse. The logic is non-commutative in these cases.)

A few others

Here is a brief run-down of a few other pieces of skeptical jargon that occasionally get misused:

Argument from adverse consequences
This is the fallacy that states that because X is unfavourable, or would cause problems, X isn’t true. It is fallacious because the effects of a hypothesis have no bearing on its truth value – objective reality cares little about whether it screws us over. However, there are cases where there is no “truth value” to be found. For instance, social policy. Here, consequences of a decision are all we have to determine a correct course of action – in terms of setting a policy or making a decision, the consequences are a stand in for the “evidence” you would expect to see from a testable hypothesis.
Appeal to authority
As noted in the relevant RW article, appeal to authority is perfectly valid when it’s an appeal to a relevant and experienced authority. Talking to Brian Cox or Stephen Hawking about physics, and Richard Dawkins about evolutionary biology, for example is fine because they have studied and contributed to these subjects. While it is true that even in these cases their arguments need to be judged on their own merits and aren’t correct because they are authorities, this fallacy is often mistaken as a carte blanche to ignore anything said by an authority, or to ignore anything externally referenced to a person.
Begging the question
People often use this to mean “raises the question”… but that’s something else entirely. Circular logic can often be easily confused with just normal logic as any individual logical step should be so undeniably sound that it might seem, to the untrained eye, just to state the obvious. Consider PQ, P, therefore Q, for example – this is formal logic working at its finest, but “P, therefore Q” might very easily appear circular.
Confirmation bias
Remember, just because you’ve found evidence that still supports your hypothesis, doesn’t mean you are necessarily guilty of confirmation bias. The standard model of particle physics has withstood a lot of testing, but those testing it aren’t guilty of confirmation bias; because this fallacy is a description of how you go about searching for that evidence by building experiments and tests that can only prove your point and may never fail. Specifically, whether you bother to look for something that will disprove your point. The Wason card problem illustrates the point of a confirmation bias nicely: if you first seek out evidence to disconfirm the hypothesis of the problem, you can solve the problem in fewer card turns and the falsifying test always needs to be performed, while the confirming test is irrelevant to the hypothesis given.
Correlation does not equal causation
Often, this can be cited in a way that almost completely denies the correlation too. If two events (P and Q) correlate significantly, then the probability of you getting P when you have Q is still higher than when you don’t have it. A lack of causality between the two still won’t stop this if the correlation is experimentally verified. For instance, in the textbook example of shoe size correlating with reading ability, the main cause is that both correlate quite nicely with age – but unless you control for age, experience and education, the correlation between reading ability and shoe size will still exist. Indeed, more precisely determining causality from data is done this way; by controlling for confounding variables to see what relationships remain.
Equivocation is effectively an illusion of language only – the fact that words can have multiple meanings and definitions in different contexts and so might get confused. It’s a simple mistake, really. For example, conflating biological evolution (Darwinian natural selection) with stellar evolution that tracks the lives of stars. Sometimes people will call “equivocation” when someone is using an analogy – but providing the person making the argument by analogy knows what they’re saying and where the analogy works and where it fails, there is certainly no equivocation involved.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
This quip has often been used to describe how believing in ghosts requires a substantial degree of evidence because such a concept would go against what we already know – it would rattle the whole of science far more than merely not finding the Higgs boson would. But sometimes it can produce a straw man that’s used to dismiss any and all evidence for something because it simply isn’t miraculous enough. Homeopathy would just need a statistically significant improvement over a meta-study to prove it works for a particular illness, it wouldn’t need to magically cure every cancer it’s tried on to prove itself (the fact it does neither is beside the point, it’s about correctly judging what evidence is required).
Slippery slope
“If you allow X, then Y and Z are certain to follow – therefore X is bad.” This is only an invalid argument under certain conditions. Specifically, how realistic is the slope involved here? Raising house prices on one property is likely to cause a race to increase the prices of the surrounding houses, this slope is fairly realistic. Gay marriage leading to the legalisation of bestiality is significantly less realistic on account of the principle of informed consent. This is tied up with argument from adverse consequences.
Straw man
A straw man argument is one where a person deliberately (and perhaps knowingly) sets up a false version of what they’re arguing against in order to defeat it. Straw men are often seen in protracted arguments where a particular “party line” exists; for instance, the crocoduck as a supposed “example” of evolution – straw man versions of creationist beliefs appear equally often, particular amongst parodists. However, true straw man arguments tend to exist mostly when speakers or writers have had time to process what the other has said, and the straw man is really identified as such when they continue to use those arguments despite repeated corrections. The misuse of the straw man idea appears in a few different ways.
  1. What tends to happen in quick-fire debates is that someone will accuse the other of forming a straw man argument, when really all that has occurred is a misunderstanding – and 90% of the time, the responsibility for the misunderstanding is the person doing the talking, not the listening. Accusing an opponent of forming a straw man argument forms a tactic to deflect people from noticing that the point may not have been laid out very well to start with (in short, people are stupid and don’t explain themselves well; but doing this intentionally is something else entirely and may even count as obfuscation).
  2. A “straw disclaimer” can exist in which someone is saying that they’re arguing for x but specifically say they’re not arguing for a slight modification of x. If a counter-argument suggests that there is no practical difference between the two, it’s very easy to counter it completely by shouting “straw man”. This often crops up when defending mentioning slavery in the Bible; as the Biblical rules refer to how to treat fellow Hebrews and don’t refer to “chattel slavery” – even though, for most practical and moral purposes, there’s not a tremendous amount of difference.
  3. As a response to using a reductio ad absurdum where someone is shown to endorse a position they didn’t explicitly endorse initially. While a reductio ad absurdum argument can produce a straw man, this isn’t always the case and the correct response is to demonstrate the fallaciousness of the reductio argument, not to dismiss its conclusions outright.


Okay, so that’s long, and slightly rambling. I’m not even going to say all of the above is even “true”, because I’m not a prescriptive authority on what “is” and “is not” logical. All I can say is how I see it. But I can end with this piece of advice; don’t even bother learning the “correct” use of fallacies. Just say what you mean, say what is wrong with what someone says. Is someone making a “straw man” of your argument? Don’t say a straw man, just say “that’s not what I mean, and I would like to know how you came to the conclusion that I said it”. Is someone insulting you? Don’t say ad hominem, just move on and focus on what substance you can actually find amongst the dreck. It’s not that hard, surely…

Femme Heil!

As the RW server is still being a very naughty boy, I thought I’d copy this here (well, publish the draft that was saved here). 

In response to recent accusations from Reddit, RationalWiki’s feminist contributors have prepared a brief statement.

We have been biding our time, we have been waiting. But now, now is the time to strike. We are coming out, we are making it known; we are here to take over RationalWiki. From here on RationalWiki will now be known as RadfemWiki, and will concentrate solely on the issues of our Lesbian Sisterhood.

Our mission is simple, and covered in four points. These are adapted from the Old Patriarchal system, in order for Pathetic Men to be able to accept the transition slowly:

  1. Analyzing and refuting Patriarchy and the anti-woman movement.
  2. Documenting the full range of terrible Male ideas.
  3. Explorations of Men and how they should have no rights.
  4. Analysis and criticism of how these subjects are denied by the media.

Right now, we have our own Lesbian Sisters waiting to carry out our orders to complete the transition to our own ideology of Femme Superiority. While our main goal is the enslavement of all male contributors, we must not forget the other goals. All non-lesbian womyn authors of RationalWiki will be banned forthwith. All transgendered womyn will be denied the so-called “right” be labelled womyn, and will be classified as Men, as they so obviously just are as we are accepting only of the superiority of Womyn-born Womyn, also known as True Womyn, who have been oppressed by the patriarchy by being forced to share the better gender with these quasi men. Gay male contributors can stay, but since all Gay Men are into BDSM, can be our willing whipping boys as we stomp our big, flat (Not high heels! They’re Male Oppression) boots into their testicles repeatedly.

We would also like to note that, in a change to established tradition and established by-laws, with immediate effect the RationalWiki Foundation will also take a more active role in this new editorial stance. We shall be appropriating new funds in order to campaign against these so-called mens “rights”. “Rights” such as, but not limited to:

  • The freedom to rape any woman wearing a skirt above ankle-length – not that we condone wearing anything but trousers.
  • The right to demand sex in exchange for dinner.
  • Breathing.

All articles about Male subjects will be demoted to UNWORTHY brainstar status, as all men are unworthy of it. Articles on Males like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and Charles Darwin will be re-framed in their proper social context; that of their immense contributions to the worldwide and systematic oppression of True Women. Articles critical of True Womyn are unacceptable, as this merely contributes to further Patriarchal Oppression. We don’t care how wrong Phyllis Schlafly, Margaret Thatcher and Ann Coulter are, as members of the Lesbian Sisterhood, they should be given the True recognition they all deserve.

New articles to look out for include:

  •  How razors oppress True Womyn by forcing them to divert from their Natural State for the pleasure of unruly paedophile men.
  •  A new editorial slant on the blowjob, dictating the best angle of attack for using teeth to remove the penis in a single action.
  •  How mansplaining is what ALL men do whenever they open their mouths.
  •  General re-writing of the article on “homo sapiens” to remove the male-leaning bias – i.e, any mention of the male aspect of the species.

Finally, we shall crusade against all off the following: computer games, pornography (even consenting adults are just brainwashed), the existence of testicles, and allowing Male children to wear the colour Blue.

We aim to make this transition as peaceful as possible. Those who accept willingly shall die first, those who resist shall first be driven mad.

Femme Heil!

Gamma Mangina-in-Chief

Sunday School Environmentalism

For the two-and-a-half people who care, I recently added an entry to the RationalWiki quasi-official blog on Sunday School Environmentalism. Having spent a not-insignificant part of my university eduction doing environmental chemistry and studying impact metrics (even this extensive blog scratches the surface of that topic) it’s something I’m quite involved in.