Problem

Your school is running its annual activities fair. Every table is occupied by a club or sports team, ready to pitch their hobbies to anyone who might join their preferred after school activity. Your friend Lizzy is at the environmental awareness table – unsurprising, considering she’s the treasurer of the club. You’re about to greet her when you notice a freshman approach her table. 

“Do you guys actually help the environment?” the boy asks.

“Yeah!” Liz enthusiastically replies. “Just last year, we convinced the administration to stop buying unnecessary straws.”

“That’s silly. You’re not going to help anyone.”

“Well, our campaign against plastic straws raised school awareness of overuse of other plastics and papers, like disposable silverware and napkins. We were able to cut use of those products by 57%.”

The boy scoffs. “I can’t believe you’re still making such ridiculous claims.”

He walks off. Liz frowns, upset and confused by what just happened. You should probably see if her shift ends soon. 

Here’s Why

When the prospective club member labels Liz’s claims as “silly” and “ridiculous,” he’s making an appeal to the stone.

Appeal to the Stone

An appeal to stone is any dismissal of a claim as unworthy of discussion that fails to demonstrate proof of this unworthiness. It can take the form of open mockery and derision, or it can be more subtle implications that there are more worthwhile subjects to discuss. An appeal to stone is a fallacy because it does not address the merits of the opposition’s argument.

The History

“Appeal to stone” is the direct translation of the Latin phrase “argumentum ad lapidem,” which is a name still used to refer to this fallacious argument. The name for the argument comes from an alleged debate between Samuel Johnson and George Berkeley. Berkeley was trying to prove the merit behind immaterialism, which states that anything material does not exist outside of one’s mind. Supposedly, Johnson kicked a stone, saying, “I refute it thus.” While Johnson’s refutation makes for a wonderful mental image, it fails to prove that the stone was a material object rather than merely an idea within a mind.

However, kicking a stone does make a loud declaration. If one isn’t very familiar with immaterialism, it makes Berkeley look like a simple idiot. Appeals to the stone aim to make opposing claims seem so stupid that no one wants to defend them. People want to be seen as smart and clever. We want to be on the winning team of elites. When our words and ideas are labeled as silly or absurd, we instinctively want to distance ourselves from them, usually by either falling silent or backpedaling to fall more in line with what others deem is smart and sane. Thus, even obvious mockery can be effective at making debaters or audience members sway and support a different side.

Using It

It can be tricky to defend against appeals to the stone. After all, using evidence to bolster your claims rarely works since your opponent will likely just dismiss that evidence as equally absurd. Your best option is to ask your opponent to explain why they find your claims to be so ridiculous. With any luck, you’ll be able to get a straight answer and go back to having a reasonable discussion.

However, appeals to the stone are often found with other fallacies and can very easily loop back into each other. It’s not easy defending against an argumentum ad lapidem since it can feel like a personal attack. Remain calm and be persistent when you ask for justification. You might not be able to convince the arguer that they’re committing a fallacy and/or are wrong, but you’ll likely prove to any onlookers that your opponent’s argument is full of holes.

Be aware of when you’re using it as well. Appeals to the stone are most frequently used when evidence contrary to important personal beliefs and opinions is found. It’s easy to be dismissive; it’s a lot harder to hear someone’s argument with an open mind and objectively use facts to make a decision.

    Learn More

    Learn More

    1. Effectiviology, “The Appeal to the Stone Fallacy: When People Are Dismissive During Discussions.” Effectiviology, 2019, effectiviology.com. 
    2. Pirie, Madsen. How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. Continuum, 2006. ISBN: 10:0-8264-9006-9.
    3. Walton, Douglas. Scare Tactics: Arguments that Appeal to Fear and Threats. Springer, 2000. ISBN: 978-90-481-5552-1.

    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. What are some other reasons someone might make an appeal to the stone?
    2. When was the last time you used an appeal to the stone? What claim were you dismissing?
    3. What are some other fallacies that you’d expect to see used with an appeal to the stone?

    Teacher Resources

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