14

Take the most obvious, unimpeachable statement imaginable:

Drinking water is good for humans.

I am looking for a word that describes the action of taking the argument, applying some unreasonable logical extreme to it, then shooting that extreme version down. An example of such a response:

There was an ancient torture practice of using a hose to force a person to drink so much water that their belly would explode and kill them. Too much water is deadly and should be avoided.

Of course the problem is the response doesn't address the argument. The response addresses an extremist form of the statement that was never made. The implication is the original statement was The more water a person drinks the better or something similar.

My first thought was this falls in the class of a straw man argument, because it is shooting down a statement that was never made. Generally, the statement is made, just not such an extreme version of it. Of all the straw man derivatives, I thought nut picking was the closest:

nut picking refers to intentionally seeking out extremely fringe, non-representative statements or individuals from members of an opposing group and parading these as evidence of that entire group's incompetence or irrationality

This isn't adequate, however, because nut picking requires the extremism to be present elsewhere. What I am curious about is when it is derived as some wildly unchecked extensions of the original argument.

Is there a term more specific than straw man that describes this action of taking a statement to an unreasonable extreme and responding to that extreme version?


Just so folks don't get too hung up on the water example, I'll throw out some others here. Try to avoid focusing on the example and more on the concept of taking a statement to an unreasonable extreme.

  • If I got a raise I would feel less financial stress. Lottery winners get lots of money at once and are significantly more likely to file for bankruptcy.
  • Citing your sources is good practice. If every single sentence was cited the paper would be unreadable.
  • Gasoline is helpful for modern transportation. If you filled an entire car with gas not only would the driver pass out from the fumes, but the whole car would explode and kill everybody.
  • 2
    Avoid answering questions in comments. – user1717828 Mar 27 at 13:43
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    Lottery winners don't get their money by working for it, so it's not just extending "getting more money" to an extreme; it's changing the nature of the income from earned to unearned. – Monty Harder Mar 27 at 19:07
  • @MontyHarder That's nit-picking :-). – Russell McMahon Mar 28 at 0:33
  • 1
    This might be a better question for Philosophy – Barmar Mar 28 at 16:25
  • Relevant SMBC. – Alexander Nied Mar 31 at 2:23
28

An appeal to extremes is an often fallacious application of reductio ad absurdum where one takes an argument to an extreme and neglects the actual circumstances or implications of the initial statement. As the website Logically Fallacious describes it:

If X is true, then Y must also be true (where Y is the extreme of X).

There is no way those Girl Scouts could have sold all those cases of cookies in one hour. If they did, they would have to make $500 in one hour, which, based on an 8 hour day is over a million dollars a year. That is more than most lawyers, doctors, and successful business people make!

As the site then points out, the extreme version of this neglects that (a) Girl Scouts don't actually work 8 hours a day over the course of a year, and (b) the output of several Girl Scouts (not one) in a temporary operation actually could sell this many cookies.

The appeal to extremes relies on hyperbole or exaggeration to the exclusion of other logical constraints. In contrast, a reductio ad absurdum is valid when the circumstances and context are not exaggerated but nonetheless the original statement would lead to an absurd conclusion. An example from Wikipedia:

There is no smallest positive rational number because, if there were, then it could be divided by two to get a smaller one.

That statement uses the definition of what a rational number is (its ability to be divided by an integer) to critique the idea that a smallest positive rational number exists.

  • 4
    reductio ad absurdum has no fallacious form; it's the name of a valid mode of inference. The steps in the execution of any mode inference can be wrong. – Kaz Mar 27 at 16:29
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    I don't understand what point that rational number example is trying to make: "there is no smallest positive rational number" is a true statement, and "you can always divide it by an integer to get a smaller number" is a perfectly valid proof. Where does the absurdity come in? – Marthaª Mar 28 at 14:53
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    "In contrast, a reductio ad absurdum is valid when the circumstances and context are not exaggerated but nonetheless the original statement would lead to an absurd conclusion." I'm giving an example of a valid reductio ad absurdum. – TaliesinMerlin Mar 28 at 14:58
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    @Marthaª, a more complete argument might go "Suppose there is a smallest positive rational. If there is, then we can name it, so let's call it x=p/q. From the properties of integers, we have that y=p/2q is also rational, however 0 < y < x. In other words: y is a positive rational that is smaller than the smallest positive rational. This statement is absurd; it contradicts itself. Therefore our assumption must be wrong". The "absurdity" is that final contradiction. – ymbirtt Mar 28 at 14:59
7

You may be talking about an "Appeal to Extremes"
Description: Erroneously attempting to make a reasonable argument into an absurd one, by taking the argument to the extremes.

https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/30/Appeal_to_Extremes

6

Your example is similar to an appeal to extremes. But the problem may be more one of vagueness in the original statement.

If someone says "Drinking water is good for humans." and we are discussing formal logic or we are in a situation where we must cover all cases, I could reasonably argue that the statement is neither true nor false because it is too vague. I could properly illustrate this by providing an extreme. In fact, it can be refuted to a degree with an example far less extreme than you provide. It is hardly unheard of for Marathon runners to become sick, or even die, from hyponatremia..

Drinking water is not always good for humans. Flatly stating that your original statement was false because it is not true in all cases would be engaging in a straw man argument, which is a fallacy. But the example is ample to show that your statement is too imprecise to have a proper truth value in formal logic.

Of course, in casual conversation most people would interpret your statement to mean "Drinking water is generally good for humans" or something similar. But if we are trying to apply formal logic or are in engaged in some other discussion in which the existence of edge cases is important then responding by pointing out those edge cases is non-fallacious and proper.

In fact, as a practical matter knowing that the statement has limits may be significant. I don't have the reference handy, but I recently listened to a podcast where advice on avoiding hyponatremia during endurance sports was a major portion of the show and it was pointed out that for an average runner over-drinking was more dangerous and more likely than becoming dehydrated during a marathon...

4

Consider reductio ad absurdum:

A mode of argumentation or a form of argument in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd conclusion. - Logically Fallacious

This is talking about taking a position to its logical ends. When paired with valid reasoning, it can be used in rigorous mathematical proofs.

However, when used merely as a rhetorical device and when paired with unsound logic, it can be abused to take a position that is itself sound (like it is good to drink water) to an unreasonable end (like see what happens when you drink it to excess).

  • 5
    reductio ad absurdum is not itself a fallacy, though it is often used fallaciously. – asgallant Mar 27 at 15:52
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    Reductio ad absurdum is the name for a valid mode of inference! We assume that the proposition to be proved is not true, and then show that it logically derives a falsehood/contradiction. – Kaz Mar 27 at 16:28
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    Reductio ad absurdum is used frequently in mathematics, though it is more often called proof by contradiction. – TimothyAWiseman Mar 27 at 20:41
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    @Kaz I was referring to its usage as a rhetorical device. Edited to clarify. – Lawrence Mar 27 at 23:29
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    @Lawrence in your link, it points out that the ARGUMENT that is being reduced to the absurd is the one that's fallacious, not the reduction itself. I would also say you have it backwards in the last paragraph. The drinking water statement is NOT sound. And the excess drinking argument is very reasonable to point out that a blanket generalization is, in itself, not a good argument. Water is NOT always good to drink, because you can drink to excess. That seems incredibly reasonable to me. – Aethenosity Mar 28 at 15:02
2

This is an example of a motte-and-bailey fallacy (although, inversed from its typical use).

This fallacy states that a person will use a motte (an easy to defend position), as a proxy for a bailey (a hard to defend position), implicitly trying to draw an equivalence between the two.

At the same time, another way to approach this would be to argue that it is not a fallacy. It is true that too much water can kill you. In the absence of a further claim, this is both true and irrelevant to the discussion. Therefore it is less a case of being fallacious, and more a case of trying to employ what Thouless might call 'deceptive argumentation techniques' (in this case, trying to shift the conversation to a different topic).

So, you could easily continue on from your original position dismissing that claim.:

  • Water is good for you
    • Ah, but too much water is bad for you.
    • Yes, this is true. Tautologically so, in fact, since that is the definition of too much, but this is irrelevant here. Anyway, since water is good for you, I propose that [...]

Looking at the other answers, I would also add that I do not consider this an 'appeal to the extreme' fallacy. The key word here is the word too much. As long as the (unstated assumption) is understood by your opponent, that is to say, "excluding extreme circumstances", then making a claim about those extreme circumstances is valid, but irrelevant. By its very construction, your opponents argument is effectively saying "Your argument is false in the special circumstance where it is false". You can accept this at face value, without having to adjust your position that your argument is valid outside that special circumstance which was not part of the conversation.

In my mind, for something to be an 'appeal to extremes' fallacy, the extreme position should still be valid in the domain of discourse. Naturally this comes down to the unstated assumptions. These may need to be further defined for fruitful conversation when it comes to blurred topics, like ethics, but in this instance it is clearly outside of the domain.

  • Consider @TimothyAWiseman's answer: the statement "Water is good for you" is too general. Its truth or falseness depends on context. Your respondent in this scenario rejects a valid criticism of their argument, then restates the original (flawed) assertion with no qualification. – GalacticCowboy Mar 28 at 19:26
2

nit-picking* comes close.
(*An older word than "nut-picking" which is also a valid term)

Wikipedia:

  • Nitpicking is the act of removing nits (the eggs of lice, generally head lice) from the host's hair. As the nits are cemented to individual hairs, they cannot be removed with most lice combs and before modern chemical methods were invented, the only options were to shave all the host's hair or to pick them free one by one.

    This is a slow and laborious process, as the root of each individual hair must be examined for infestation. It was largely abandoned as modern chemical methods became available; however, as lice populations can and do develop resistance, manual nitpicking is still often necessary.

    Metaphor: As nitpicking inherently requires fastidious, meticulous attention to detail, the term has become appropriated to describe the practice of meticulously searching for minor, even trivial errors in detail (often referred to as "nits" as well). Thus "nitpicking" may be a pejorative term for troubleshooting, proofreading or similar, whose excess could be a psychopathologic form of criticising, see hypercriticism.

Cambridge Dictionary

  • Noun: giving too much attention to details that are not important, especially as a way of criticizing:

    Adjective: relating to the act of nitpicking or to a nitpicker (= someone who gives too much attention to details that are not important):

  • What does "NB not 'nut'" mean? Is it meant as a correction? Because "nut-picking" is a correct term, which is separate from nit-picking. If you just wanted to clarify that you're talking about something else, then just ignore me :) – Aethenosity Mar 28 at 15:08
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    @Aethenosity Sorry I was not clear - I was trying to indicate that it was not a typo in my case. Nit-picking is much older and nut-picking is a more modern term by someone trying to be funny and famous. He succeeded to some extent in both cases :-). | Edited for clarification. Thanks. – Russell McMahon Mar 28 at 21:33
  • no worries. I assumed that's what you meant, but I hadn't heard nUt-picking before, and thought it was a typo from the OP until I clicked the link haha – Aethenosity Mar 28 at 22:28
  • I'd love to know why anyone downvoted this answer. The criterion is "This answer is not useful". If anyone can support that I'd be surprised - and duly educated. – Russell McMahon Mar 29 at 0:04
  • In my experience, people who downvote answers don't usually find themselves willing to come forward and explain why. – BobRodes Mar 29 at 4:12

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