Between Scientists & Citizens

The David/Goliath fallacy

with 5 comments

Here’s a test:  for each of the following statements, identify whether it was written by a defender or a detractor of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

[1]  “The 21st century Goliath is [the forces on the other side from the author]. It is a powerful six-legged monster. In no order of strength, those legs are:…The total financial resources and power structure behind Goliath are staggering.”

[2]  “The [other side’s] forces have owned the media in all but name on this issue, for decades. [The coverage is becoming more fair, and] when you’re Goliath, that kind of trend seems disturbing.”

[3] “I think that unfortunately this is sort of a classic David vs. Goliath type battle. [My] community isn’t organized — it doesn’t have a single politically driven motive, as the [other side does]. It’s not organized, it’s not well funded in terms of public outreach in the way that [people on the other side] are funded.”

We’re all familiar with the “ad hominem fallacy”–it consists of attacking your opponent instead of responding to her arguments.  Although argumentation scholars disagree about what makes a fallacy a fallacy, the problems with the ad hominem fallacy seem clear.  Attacking  your opponent personally doesn’t show that his arguments are wrong, so it doesn’t really advance the debate.  Further, it’s not a fair or decent way of treating any fellow human being, particularly one you’re communicating with.

I think that there’s another fallacy, as yet unrecognized, that’s created by turning the ad hominem fallacy inside out.  Inspired by the quotes above and many others like them, I’m going to call it the “David/Goliath fallacy.”  It consists of perceiving yourself to be a small David, being attacked by a great Goliath–and then responding in self-defense.  Like the ad hominem, the defensive behavior is unlikely to advance the debate, and ends up being not a fair or decent way of treating your opponent.

The David/Goliath fallacy is prominent on both sides of the climate controversy.  So in the following posts I want to expand on some remarks I made to Randy Olson on The Benshi, and try to see what the David/Goliath fallacy looks like in practice, assess whether defensiveness is really justified, and suggest some ways to avoid or defuse the fallacy.  Meanwhile, here are the answers:

[1] John Coleman, a detractor, “David and Goliath”

[2] Harold Ambler, a detractor, “Goliath’s Panic Begins”

[3] Michael Mann, a defender, interviewed by Randy Olson

Written by jeangoodwin

March 25, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Posted in in theory

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5 Responses

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  1. This is a great observation, Jean. When I was working on religious arguments in the public sphere a couple of years ago I noticed a similar dynamic. No matter what side a writer happened to be on, there was an attempt to gain sympathy by portraying ones own side as the underdog. The religious folks portrayed themselves as wrestling with far more powerful cultural current that marginalized their values as archaic and their position as irrational. The secular folks portrayed themselves as fighting reason’s fight against a cultural monolith with powers of persuasion over its devotees so formidable as to make it nearly hegemonic. Both sides claim the media and popular culture are on the side of their rival.

    My own impression of this is that claiming underdog status against an unjust “Goliath” gives moral license to stronger tactics both in and out of public discourse. The fight is just, after all, and “we must do whatever we can to win lest Goliath crush us and the sky fall, etc. etc..” It would be interesting to compare the rhetoric of the culture wars with the rhetoric of actual wars in what are called asymmetric conflicts–i.e. where one side is essentially an insurgency, guerrilla movement, or even terrorist in its tactics. I’d be willing to bet that you find many parallels in the justifications given by the weaker side for its brutalities and those given by those who paint themselves as the weaker side in an effort to gain sympathy in cultural and political conflicts.

    The basic dynamic is an interesting one for a lot of reasons. I think you’re onto something here.


    April 5, 2010 at 7:06 pm

  2. Thanks, Steve: I hope to steal some time from my day job and pick up this thread again–I have a bunch of discourse worth looking at to see whether the suggestions you’ve made show up in what people say.

    Meanwhile, though, here’s an anecdote: I first noticed this David/Goliath fallacy when teaching on exactly the topic you mention–whether religious talk/arguments/themes are appropriate in the public sphere (and if so, under what circumstances/limitations). The discussion got much more tense than is usual in my classroom. So the next time I taught the topic, I tried a funny exercise. Before we started the discussion, I surveyed everyone and (among other things) asked them whether they thought that their view was a minority in the class. 80% said that they thought they were in the minority! I shared this with the class, and we had a good laugh about it–and discussed the topic with much less defensiveness and tension.


    April 5, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    • That’s a fantastic idea! I must steal it for when I teach Social & Political philosophy next term! 🙂

      When/if you get around to going through that discourse you mention I’d be really interested in knowing what you find. Religious political participation is still very much an active research interest for me.


      April 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm

  3. […] Between Citizens and Scientists: The David/Goliath Fallacy […]

  4. Here is another version of the David and Goliath Fallacy:

    Tim Harding

    September 16, 2013 at 5:24 pm

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