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An appeal to ridicule is a common type of logical fallacy. Being able to spot it in arguments will help you defend yourself, and avoiding it will make you a much stronger communicator and debater. The problem with most logical fallacies is that they are very tempting to use, because many of them are effective, especially against a weaker opponent. However, an appeal to ridicule can easily be turned back on the person who uses it, if someone is keen enough to spot it and jump on it.
In an appeal to ridicule, a person belittles a claim by suggesting that it is absurd. The mockery of the claim, in theory, reduces its power. However, an appeal to ridicule does not take the form of a valid or useful argument, because it brings no new information or concrete discussion into the debate. There are numerous examples of an appeal to ridicule, but they all more or less take the form of “X is foolish, therefore x is false.” Often, an appeal to ridicule utilizes a straw man, a weak argument created by the opposition and attributed to the defense. A straw man is easy to debunk for the opposition, and an unwary defender may not be aware of how his or her words or position were twisted to create a straw man.
For example, in a discussion about whether or not children should be given hearing tests on a regular basis, a weak arguer might say “Hearing tests are stupid,” making an appeal to ridicule which sidesteps the actual issue. Such an obvious illustration of the logic involved shows how invalid an argument which uses an appeal to ridicule can be. An appeal to ridicule mocks the argument, but not the person who posed it. In an actual argument, of course, your opponent is likely to be more sneaky, so watch for keywords like fatuous, foolish, ridiculous, crazy, and others which suggest that the person is belittling your claim, rather than addressing it.
In an ad hominem attack, someone attacks the person making the argument, as might be the case with someone who says, “I imagine that someone like yourself would have no idea about how difficult this actually is.” An ad hominem attack suggests that the person putting forward the argument is not qualified, or not worthy of attention, and it is generally considered to be an underhanded debating technique.
The type of logic represented by an appeal to ridicule should not be confused with a reductio ad absurdum, an argument technique which picks apart a claim and illustrates a potential contradiction which could arise if the claim was true. This “reduction to absurdity” can sometimes be a useful way of illustrating the weakness of a point. It can also be used to distract people from the content of a claim. However, a reductio ad absurdum usually starts with a solid point, rather than a mockery.