The Fallacy of Debunking

I’ve been sitting on this topic for a while, and have decided that it needs to come out. The topic of this blog post is ‘debunking’. Some may claim that debunking is an art. Instead, debunking is a fallacy. I am officially coining the ‘fallacy of debunking’. What is debunking? How is it a fallacy? Why should this fallacy be avoided in philosophical discussions? And if you are reading this post, the discussion is philosophical.

Debunking is a method used to oppose a position through derision. Debunking may be an acceptable method used to show up snake oil salesmen, but this is not a legitimate method within the realm of philosophical argumentation. The method of objecting through scoffing and derision is often employed because the one deriding has no logical means of objecting to the disagreeable position. The debunker does not resort to reason, the legitimate means of public discourse, but to personal attack. In philosophy this is called an ad hominem attack – or an attack against the person, rather than what the person has said. So the fallacy of debunking is attacking a position through derision, or ridicule, without addressing the content of the position, especially when sound arguments are presented.

When an argument, or several arguments, for a position have been put forth, the principle of charity would have an opponent address the premises of the argument. Critically analyzing the premises of an argument, and reasons for the premises, takes thoughtfulness, care, and skill. These are virtues a debunker bypasses, and so never engages in rational dialog. Instead, they are like a bully on the playground demanding your lunch money, “or else”. The debunker neither does the work of actively thinking through the position with which they object, nor do they provide a counterargument. Rather, they resort to the only recorse left when one does not like the conclusion to a sound argument – name-calling and the use of force.

To avoid the fallacy of debunking, one ought to address the argument at hand. Failure to do so implies that either:
1.) nothing is clear to reason, reason is not a reliable means for knowing, and skepticism is a fall back position, in which case force is the only means of getting one’s way,or:
2.) reason is reliable, but the debunker has no good counterargument, and so force is the only means of getting one’s way, or:
3) reason is reliable, and a sound argument is compelling, and when one does not find the conclusion to a sound argument agreeable, one either has to change his/her proir position and assent to the conclusion to said sound argument, or use physical or psychological force to resist the force of reason.

Philosophy, and the commitment to the use of reason to engage one another in the public sphere, is opposed to the use of force. Human beings are rational, and to fail to address individuals as such dehumanizes both the debunker, and the debunkee. Debunking bypasses reason and resorts to force, therefore philosophy is opposed to the method of debunking in philosophical argumentation.

Anonymous debunking is even more egregious than garden variety debunking. It is the equivalent of a philosophical drive by. So please, all you anonymous debunkers out there – come into the light of the public sphere of rational discourse, and engage the arguments. If you disagree, please provide counterarguments. And please use your real names – it humanizes you.

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Kelly Fitzsimmons Burton holds B.A. degrees in both English Literature and Philosophy; an M.A. in Philosophy; and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Arizona State University, with an emphasis on Religion and Public Discourse in America. She has been teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies courses at the college and university level since 2003, and has recently joined Ratio Christi as Arizona Regional Director. When not teaching, talking with students, or studying, Kelly enjoys playing percussion instruments.


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