An all too common problem: faulty logic presented as reasoned thought

Ryan Mack, at Content to Commerce, attempts to address what he calls “the real reason behind its [social media’s] rapid growth.” Let me be fair before I get critical, Mack positions this at the outset as the turn of a casual discussion. And perhaps it was. The post, though, attempts to bring in the voice of authority and so opens itself to some dissection.

Where Mack ultimately heads with this post is to suggest that the growth lies in basic human needs. And to define those needs he drags out two big names: Abraham Maslow and Manfred Max Neef. And here’s where the trouble starts.

Maslow, a psychologist, is famous for his hierarchy of needs, Max Neef, an economist, for his work in the human development model. But remember what Mack said started the discussion: wondering what has driven the rapid growth of social media. That’s a mass phenomenon. So the more proper referents would, I’d argue, come from sociology or social psychology.

I can hear the counterargument already: the mass is composed of the individual so you need to understand what is going on at that level. Well, no. This is a faulty analogy to hard science where what happens at the atomic level radiates up through more complex structures and systems. In the social realm group dynamics and social structure serve to constrain and direct  behavior. To explain social phenomena without incorporating these very real restraints is, I think, to miss the boat.

What Mack suggests is this: we have an observed phenomena–the growth of social media. We have fundamental human needs rooted in individual psychology. Social media fulfill those needs. Ergo the growth of social media is a direct result of addressing fundamental human needs.

The problem is that the argument is built on a logical fallacy–the fallacy of composition. The structure of such an argument is that what is true for the individual case is true for the whole. So the individual has fundamental needs, therefore the group does and that provides the explanatory power of the growth of social media.

Let’s take another case of a mass social phenomenon: the acceptance of totalitarianism in the interwar years. Applying Mack’s logic, you must conclude that the populations of Spain, Italy, Japan and Germany all suffered from the same root-level insecurities and fears that only a dictatorship could address in a way that satisfied those needs. You’d be on safer ground speculating about the mental illness of Mussolini, Hitler and Tojo.

While the overall argument is unsound the structure is also wobbly. The technical term for trotting out the names of experts is the appeal to authority. Experts are not always right even in their area of expertise so quoting them to support your point absent data is a rhetorical trick demonstrating memory rather than understanding.

There are several arguments to be made about social media all of which need to be researched further. Here’s just one: there is a large body of literature going back to Durkheim and most recently including work by Arlie Russel Hochschild, Barbara Ehrenreich, Christopher Lasch and others that talks about alienation. Perhaps, as the song says, social media are a tool that helps us “crack the shell and mix with the others.” Knowing that is going to require real work, not just flipping through note from Psych 101.

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