13

Is there a fallacy about "appeal to 'big words'"?

What I refer to are statements often encountered in political or economic rhetoric. An argument would go like this:

Because of New Keynesianism, therefore ...


Note: Not all big words are as ambiguous. Contrast physicalism, which can be interpreted as "just a concept term for actual physics, but which isn't an ism".


Motivation:

I find that appeal to big words can be a cognitive bias, because I find that expressing a big word can create a sense of "professionalism", even when the real argument wouldn't be that solid.

  • 1
    Rational Wiki calls this sort of thing "style over substance", terms like technicalese and alphabet soup are also derisively used. Gefren in Fallacies in Rhetoric called it the fallacy of technical style, but that did not take. See also fallacies of pressure. – Conifold Aug 14 at 21:07
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    That would presumably be an Argument by Delusory Magniloquence. – Ray Aug 14 at 21:23
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    It is not necessary to commit a fallacy to commit deceptive argumentation. There are many rhetorical devices whose purpose is to subvert an argument, without being fallacies per se. What you describe sounds more like such a deceptive rhetorical device rather than a fallacy. I would only talk about a fallacy if there is a connotation of fallacious definition (appeal to definition fallacy) influencing the argument from such a 'big' word, which would not have otherwise been bourne by a more mundane but otherwise equivalent synonym of that word. – Tasos Papastylianou Aug 15 at 15:57
  • It's the "if you can't blind 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with BS" fallacy :) – The_Sympathizer Aug 17 at 3:01
36

One fallacy that might fit is proof by intimidation. Here is Bo Bennett's description:

Making an argument purposely difficult to understand in an attempt to intimidate your audience into accepting it, or accepting an argument without evidence or being intimidated to question the authority or a priori assumptions of the one making the argument.

An arguer using "big words" may intimidate members of an audience who do not feel they have enough expertise in the use of those words.


Bennet, B. Proof by Intimidation. Retrieved on August 14, 2019, from Logically Fallacious at https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/144/Proof-by-Intimidation

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    The alternative name the link gives is argumentum verbosium which is quite literally what OP is asking for – Rusi-packing-up Aug 14 at 13:51
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    Since there aren't tags to distinguish as yet, it's important to note that this would fall under the general category of informal fallacy since obfuscating language does not necessarily relate to the logical correctness (or lack thereof) of the argument. – J... Aug 15 at 19:25
  • a.k.a getting "Eulered", even if the story is bogus. – Jared Smith Aug 16 at 13:24
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    @JaredSmith Interesting bit of history. It is the first I've heard of the Euler-Diderot encounter. – Frank Hubeny Aug 16 at 13:51
  • A version of this is second on Dana Angluin's List of Proof Techniques: "Proof by intimidation: 'Trivial.'" – Alex Reinking Aug 17 at 0:51
18

One possibility is that this is a specific form of the fallacy of Appeal to Authority, in that 'big words' seem, by their impressiveness, to establish something. The given example of 'Because of New Keynesianism...' certainly seems to fit that interpretation.

  • Agree, and this one is possibly more commonly understood. – mavavilj Aug 14 at 15:07
  • It's also an attempt to set up yourself as an authority, since you're so good with all those big words, right? :D – Luaan Aug 16 at 7:58
11

When presenting an argument, using any word/term that has meaning to some listeners/readers is not necessarily committing a fallacy. "New Keynesianism" (or, more commonly, "New Keynesian economics") is a term that has meaning in the field of economics and there is nothing wrong with using it in an argument. In fact, using jargon is often a much more efficient way to communicate to one's peers than having to explain every concept in detail.

Of course, this does not guarantee that the speaker/writer who used the term in her/his argument used it correctly. If s/he has used it incorrectly, the argument will not be sound.

So, to answer your question: No, there is no fallacy committed by merely using "big words."

7

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is a term often cited in lay speak as a term for a fear of large words.

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedalificatism, then, could arguably be taken as a term for the deliberate exploitation of that fear.

Though I think we'd need some specific examples, before we could delve to far into the full Hippopotomonstrosesquippedalificatismologicalitizational aspects of this question.

I hope that this fallacy works, so that by providing the Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliest answer, I'll now get the respect I richly deserve!

2

dun know what that big word 'fallacy' is, but im going to have to assume your whole debate is false, and i must respond with the truth such as to quote some black guy in a movie"Well, 'aight, check this out, dawg. First of all, you throwin' too many big words at me, and because I don't understand them, I'm gonna take 'em as disrespect. Watch your mouth and help me with the sale." or quote some colored girl in probably the third or fourth best cheer movie...of all-time..." stop teaching her these big words before she choke on em'"

  • +1 :-) .............................. – Russell McMahon Aug 16 at 11:03
1

There isn't anything pertaining to logic in using a big term or small term, since the truth value ought to remain the same however you phrase a statement. Recall that a (formal) fallacy is a logical flaw in argumentation, thus there is nothing fallacious in using difficult words because the truth value is invariant under equivalent statements. Note the ought, because two different statements may be interpreted differently though the intentions behind the statements are the same.

What could be claimed a (formal) fallacy is whether appealing to New Keynesianism is truthful, i.e. if there is a truthful doctrine in New Keynesianism that supports the conclusion. For instance, because of New Keynesianism, the Riemann Hypothesis is true is a non sequitur (logical fallacy) because there is nothing in the school of New Keynesianism that supports the Riemann Hypothesis (presumably). But this depends very much on how the premise of -isms is used to reach a conclusion, and so the (formal) fallacy is the argument itself rather than the use of -isms.

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    I think the OP is referring to informal fallacies such as the kind you might find on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies under "informal fallacies". Often these are fallacies based on ambiguity or relevance. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Aug 14 at 13:25
  • I was trying to argue for a "cognitive bias". Which means that "people in general have a tendency to favor terminology that seems professional, even if the argument was flawed". It's similar to being biased towards "because this guy has Ph. D. then he is probably right" (based on that some other Ph. D.s in some contexts are "right"). – mavavilj Aug 14 at 13:35
  • @FrankHubeny Yes, I realized that after I saw your answer which I found more relevant. I was more or less finished with my answer and figured it's worth more to post than to not. – Panda Aug 14 at 14:35
1

Yes, although I do think people get too carried away with listing off informal fallacies. Any failure of reasoning that an informal fallacy describes can trivially be shown to be a flaw in the argument without using the label. And sometimes the labels can apply to good arguments (circular reason is a good tool if you want to draw out unobvious implications of a premise, for example).

By the time a philosophy student can use the informal fallacies in a nuanced enough way to be useful (as opposed to listing them off, as you see sometimes in internet arguments as a cheap way to score points), then they can pick apart the flaws in arguments without needing to reference the informal fallacies at all.

To bring this back to the question; we can spend some effort trying to find an establish informal fallacy that "fits" your case; appeal to false authority probably fits best in terms of established fallacies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority#False_authority particularly if it's name dropping obscure concepts without explaining them, and trading in on the hope that the reader doesn't check what they mean.

But in the case you describe, just calling the argument an "appeal to false authority" is a much weaker response then digging through it to show that there isn't a successful argument behind the big words. Either "new keynsianism shows that X" is true or false; if it's true, then the arguer is perhaps guilty of a needless lack of clarity. If it's false, then there is a much deeper argument you can make; namely that X doesn't follow from New Keynsianism. That objections makes the informal fallacy at play comparatively unemportant.

By just labelling it a fallacy, you're now open to the objection, true or not, that you didn't understand the argument. Which might be a fault on the arguer's part, but it undermines your ability to make a solid claim regarding the argument's falsity.

1

The use of large words is not a fallacy by any means. It's an implicit authority claim, and the issue with authority claims (as always) is whether or not they are substantive. Some people use big words to appear knowledgeable; others use big words because they are knowledgeable. It's the listener's job to discriminate.

Really, there's no such things as a 'big' word. Words are either correct or incorrect for their context, and a small word can be just as bad in the wrong place as a large one.

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