Style over substance
|Cogito ergo sum|
Logic and rhetoric
“”If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.
|—(Unknown. Not W.C. Fields)|
Style over substance is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone bases their argument on compelling language, obfuscation, and various terms of art, instead of legitimate logical analyses. The fallacy works in two ways. It can propose an idea using style rather than substance, or it 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 valid and sound, others will make it pretty. If all that is good in your argument is the "style", please, write novels instead.
- P1: X is presented well/poorly.
- P2: Things presented well/poorly are true/false.
- C: X is true/false.
Examples of the fallacy
- 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: Clearly someone so rude can't have a valid point, go away!
While it is not a fallacy to not desire to continue speaking with someone who is rude, it is a fallacy to use their rudeness as proof that they are incorrect. It is often used as a red herring attempt to redirect the topic to the opponent's rudeness rather than the subject at hand.
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, so I don't think we should implement these changes.
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 then dismisses this (ostensibly) entirely because of the fonts and colors and thus avoids the business benefits of the analysis.
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. 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 show 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.
Modern day woomeisters like to cover themselves in the style of real and applied medical science; they will use a range of different scientific-sounding words, some of them real things and sometimes completely made up to sound like an authority on the topic even though the actual content of their claims is ultimately nonsensical, unproven, or downright wrong (read: batshit insane). The reason this works is because many people don't know enough about the topic at hand and do not do the research to check the validity of these claims. Other popular alternative medicine like Homeopathy will talk about the "spirit" of substances and make themselves sound more like they are an authority on religious matters than medical ones, but y'know, whatever you can say to convince people. Radionics is a prime example for true style over substance, which claims that it is detecting "imbalances in the body's electromagnetic field" which can be improved with the use of "energy waves". The device used for this purpose is an "AO Scanner" that is a "noninvasive bioresonance device" using the undefined "radionics" to "detect abnormalities" in the "various energy frequencies" of the body's cells. Woo! Are you feeling the flow? The flow of pure science bleeding out of your eyes reading this?
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.
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.
- Tone argument
- Chewbacca Defense
- Gish Gallop
- Ham Hightail
- Donald Trump — *handwave* Make America Great Again.
- Halo effect — i.e. every election in every country since the invention of TV. It's hard-wired into us.
- Style Over Substance, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Style Over Substance, Stephen Downes
- "Venomfangx IS a homophobic bigot!" uploaded by dprjones on November 7, 2011
- Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea by Christine Garwood (2007) MacMillan. ISBN 1447272463.