Style over substance fallacy

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The style over substance fallacy is a rhetorical technique, whereby the author embellishes their argument with compelling language and various terms of art, in order to silence dissent. Neither of these — poetry or obfuscation, are legitimate logical analyses.

The fallacy works in two ways. It can propose an idea using style rather than substance, or they can reject an idea by attacking its style and presentation rather than its information content. The writing might be wonderful, and the references seemingly deep, but what matters is the content of the argument — the substance. If the argument is good, others will make it pretty. If all that is good is the "style", please, write novels instead.


[edit] Examples of the fallacy

[edit] Example One

  • Person 1: Who needs a smoke detector? No one ever has a fire in their house, smoke detectors are a waste of money!
  • Person 2: What?! You'd rather save a bit of money than ensure your family's safety? Don't you care whether they burn to death, you idiot?
  • Person 1: I don't have to take your insults! Go away!

The fact that Person 2 insulted Person 1 does not alter the validity of Person 2's argument, nor does it excuse the hasty generalisation fallacy that Person 1 has employed. Person 1 is also using a thought-terminating cliché in telling Person 2 to "Go away!".

[edit] Example Two

The Style over substance fallacy is very common in the corporate world

  • Person 1: So therefore, you can see by this detailed logic state diagram that our inventory flow can be optimized with this minor software change to the inventory control and tracking modules.
  • Person 2: I don't like the color of the font you are using. Can you make that corn flower blue?
  • Person 3: Yes, if the font was corn flower blue on a grey background then the inventory reports would be more readable.

In this case we see Person 1 has performed a detailed logical flow analysis and determined a correct modification to achieve a desired, and correct result. Person 2 and 3 then dismiss the basis of the work entirely because they can only see superficial fonts and colors and thus avoid the business benefits of the analysis.

[edit] Example Three

Sometimes, outright non-responses or "stonewalls" are used as a part of style over substance. For example:

  • Person 1: Communism by definition and practice is in direct conflict with the principles of Anarchy. How can you consider yourself to be an Anarchistic Communist?
  • Person 2: So Person 3, we should disband the government and make institutions that give money to the poor!
  • Person 3: Yeah, no government is the best government, let's have those institutions control everything!

[edit] Example Four

The baseless denial/unreasonable doubt is often an argumentative tool that accompanies circular reasoning, ad hominem or the no true Scotsman fallacy.

  • Person 1: Candidate X has been skimming funds from the city! I have receipts of his transactions and even photos taken of him drilling holes in the town safe!
  • Person 2: Your receipts are faked! And for all what you know, he could have been cleaning the safe or that could have been a picture of his twin brother!
  • Person 1: But Candidate X is the only boy in his family, and these were printed with the city's official seal!
  • Person 2: That could have been planted there by Candidate X's opponents! They're known to be sneaky, because no true member of our party could do something like that!

[edit] Example Five

Stonewalling and mocking an unfamiliar concept, usually a form of equivocation.

  • Person 1: Person 2, you claim the end is coming because it's mentioned in your book "Diuretics", isn't that a bit of circular reasoning?
  • Person 2: (In a confused manner) You know what's circular reasoning? When the end comes, you'll be walking in circles trying to reason how you missed out on knowing the end came!

This may also be considered as a variety of a red herring fallacy.

[edit] Sightings in the wild

The "style over substance" fallacy played a central role in a video by YouTube user dprjones about the homophobia expressed by VenomFangX, although dprjones didn't mention the fallacy explicitly.[1] In fact, this example can show how subtle the fallacy is and how easy it is to mistake an argument with a worse style as having worse substance. Upon originally taking VenomFangX to task for homophobic bigotry, dprjones received some criticism for the fact that VFX isn't a raving homophobe like some preachers, who shout and scream and are very, very explicit in their views - particularly from another user named PeaceInChristAlone. However, ChristAlone's response was an application of the style over substance fallacy; and dprjones pointed this out by distilling out the main arguments used in both the shouty-shouty preacher video, and VenomFangX's more solemn "because God said so" video. By doing this, stripping back the words used to three core points, he managed to showing them to be, in fact, very much identical in substance. The conclusion is that people shouldn't be blinded by the style and presentation of an argument, and shouldn't mistake preachers shouting about hellfire and brimstone as a more flawed or more bigoted argument in contrast to more calmly delivered ones.

Another example is from the 19th century. One of the famous flat-earthers of that period, Samuel Rowbotham, would go around Britain lecturing on the flatness of the Earth, making all sorts of impressive, but wrong, pseudoscientific claims. Many of the listeners who knew nothing (or not much) about astronomy were swayed by his technical arguments. During the post-lecture discussion sessions, the arguments could get agitated, and the round-earthers would sometimes lose their temper. Rowbotham, on the other hand, would unfailingly keep a calm, polite, professional air, with the result being that many of the attendants left the lecture with the impression that flat-earthism had won the day.[2]

[edit] Exceptions

Some cases where style appears to precede substance exist. One of the few such instances is the Sokal Affair, where physicist Alan Sokal wrote a postmodern-style essay in the journal Social Text without really saying anything; the title of the article itself ("Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity") was nonsense. However, on closer examination, the style that Sokal uses is satirical, and therefore his logical argument is implicit; the style does not precede substance, it instead is the substance.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. dprjones- Venomfangx IS a homophobic bigot
  2. Flat Earth — The History of an Infamous Idea, Christine Garwood, MacMillan (2007).
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