Fishing for red herrings

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Let’s create an abstraction: the northern hemisphere is more industrialised than the southern hemisphere. On the basis of this abstraction we might make predictions. For instance, we might suggest that measurable levels of air pollution are likely to be a more significant problem in the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere. We may also predict that this would affect rates of conditions such as asthma. If so, we might be able to draw a link between asthma and air pollution.

You might object to this model on a number of levels. For instance, you may find it trivial and uninteresting, or you may find evidence to refute one or more of it’s predictions. However, if this discussion was taking place on social media then you might come across some of the following arguments:

1. Disputing the definition

“What do you mean by ‘northern hemisphere’? The Earth is not actually spherical so it can’t have hemispheres. And anyway, the term ‘northern’ can mean different things in different contexts e.g. a ‘northern accent’ in England is something completely unrelated to industrialisation. And what do you mean by ‘industrialised’? The root of ‘industry’ means effort or diligence and this is surely unrelated to geography. Are you just talking about the preponderance of secondary industries? If so, why not state this instead? Unless you can define ‘northern hemisphere’ and ‘industry’ to my satisfaction then I don’t think I, or anyone else, can be clear about what you are claiming.”

2. Disputing the distinction

“Where does the northern hemisphere start and the southern hemisphere end? Hardly anyone lives at the polls. There are plenty of people living near the equator so I simply don’t think that your distinction makes sense. And within what you are calling the ‘northern hemisphere’ lies a diverse range of environments including highly populated cities and sparsely populated wildernesses, with everything in between. It’s a continuum, not a binary. And there are other ways of dividing up the world. What about continents? What about coastal areas versus inland continental zones?”

3. Raising the irrelevant

“And are you aware that the southern hemisphere has more marsupials than the northern hemisphere? And satellite photography demonstrates that trees and oceans cover more of the Earth’s surface than industry. By the way, the first person who attempted to count factories made some errors in his analysis and didn’t include those in the Soviet sphere of influence (let me give you the details of this at some length). Industries change over time – we don’t make many steam engines any more. Your simplistic dichotomy fails to represent every single aspect and detail of the world and its history.”

So what?

Some of these arguments obfuscate by attempting to deny us the use of well-established terms, distinctions or abstractions. That is a significant problem. However, the majority can be answered with a simple, ‘So what’? My hemisphere model was presented as a way of making predictions about air pollution. You may think the model is trivial but its purpose is clear. Most of the points raised in 1, 2 and 3 are of no consequence to this. Models are not meant to be facsimiles of reality that capture every single detail. If they were, they would be useless as models. Models derive their power by being a relatively simple way of capturing features of a complex thing.

Imagine I am giving directions to a hiker and suggest taking the path next to the field that is full of ‘cows’. It’s not particularly helpful or insightful for a third party to suggest that the cows have different colours and ages and that, even at a genetic level, there is continuous variation between examples of what I am blithely labeling as ‘cows’. “Is a three-legged cow still a cow?” etc…


I have recently decided to disengage from many discussions of this sort; ones that fail the, ‘So what?’ test. In certain cases, I have come to view these arguments as disingenuous. A few people on social media have made explicit their attempts to influence and shift opinion by less-than-straightforward means and it has made me view some of these debates as fitting that strategy. In other cases, I really do think that people believe they are displaying intellectual gravitas by suggesting that all cows are not the same. Whatever the case may be, I see no value in constantly addressing irrelevancies. If you ask me to comment on something and I direct you to this piece then that is the reason.

This does not mean that I am banning such discussions or that I have instituted a set of rules with which I intend to police social media. People are free to discuss whatever they want. I am free to engage with those discussions as and when I wish. And it does not mean that I will stop criticising ideas myself.


8 thoughts on “Fishing for red herrings

  1. You are of course well within your right to take such a position. Theresa May did as much when asked why she doesn’t want tv debates. She was getting on with the job of brexit and did not want to get sidetracked by what she considered irrelevant discussion.

    If you’re right and this is simple disingenuous nit picking then it will fade away as the strength of your argument grows along with the weight of evidence from your studies. If you’re wrong and there is some substance to their arguments then you miss an opportunity to reconsider your arguments before going down a dead end.

  2. I’ve had a number of three-legged cow discussions in my time regarding education where the purpose of the argument was deliberately muddied so that the harder questions/arguments never had to be tackled.

  3. Irrelevant material is frequently used to deflect arguments. Sometimes I suspect it is the fault of not teaching people to address the question – not only social media but the internet itself is full of information which does this, whilst frequently ignoring information which is relevant. Though I will have no truck with teaching ‘skills’ I think teaching rhetoric might be a useful idea, especially if honed in formal debate.

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