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Nick Cohen
Tuesday 3rd November 2009
The Relevance of Godwin's Law

Godwin's justly celebrated law states that as an online debate grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches one. Anyone who engages in reductio ad Hitlerum instantly loses the argument because he or she begs questions and makes false comparisons. It  is a handy measure that unlike most laws costs nothing and saves you time and effort you could better spend elsewhere.

  Example One. In today's Daily Mail AN Wilson states that we should not trust scientists who say that cannabis should be reclassified as Class C drug. "Some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals," he explains

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.  I am not suggesting that any British scientists are currently conducting experiments comparable to those which were allowed in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia. But I see the same habit of mind at work in Professor Nutt and his colleagues as made those mad scientists of the 20th century think they were above the moral law which governs the rest of us mortals.


Readers versed in Godwin's Law would stop reading as soon as they saw Wilson compare Professor Nutt to Dr Mengle. They would conclude that the professor was right to say that cannabis was not particularly harmful and that the government should reclassify it. After resolving never to read another word by Wilson, they could then enjoy the delights of liberation as they turned their minds away from the arguments about drugs and towards new challenges.

Example two: The day before the Tory MP David Wilshire, who was forced to resign after paying more than £100,000 in expenses to his own company, said that the current "witch hunt" against MPs who had fiddled their expenses "will undermine democracy.

  "Branding a whole group of people as undesirables," he continued, "led to Hitler's gas chambers."

  Again, Godwin's Law shows no mercy. Instead of worrying about how to fund Parliament, all it instructs you to do is note Wishire's comparison of MPs with concentration camp prisoners and decide that we should strip politicians of all their possessions and force them to sleep in caves.

Everyday Godwin's Law will allow you to curtail pointless arguments and solve apparently intractable controversies. The only exceptions I would allow are debates about Hitler or modern fascist and neo-Nazi movements. The rule would not apply for obvious reasons.

Most laws constrain, but Godwin's Law will set you free.




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Dan Davies
November 4th, 2009
4:11 PM
Was it someone else called "Nick Cohen" who wrote a favourable review of "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg, then?

November 4th, 2009
12:11 PM
Tagged as 'Cohen's Law'? And considering your admiration of Jonah Goldberg, a man who sees Hitler in everything left-wing in the world and thinks that because some Nazis liked organic farming, it makes anyone who eats organic a Nazi, this piece also seems odd.

Brian John Abbs
November 3rd, 2009
9:11 PM
Why do we not see sense like this in the Daily Mail? Probably because the likes of Wilson, Phillips et al, rely on reverting to a non existent "common sense" in the face of evidence to contrary to their opinion. Laura - I understand that Sam harris uses a similar form of "conversational intolerance" during discussions. At the point where anyone introduces religion as a reason for their argument, they are instantly excluded from the debate.

Laura Marcus
November 3rd, 2009
1:11 PM
Great good sense, as ever Nick. And how lovely for once to see "begs the question" being used correctly. So rare. Perhaps that's another law we could instigate? Them what say begs the question when they mean raises the question can from thereonin be disregarded. As can cliche-loving writers and broadcasters who call bank charges, interest rates on credit cards or bank bonusues "eye watering". Oh and anyone who refers to a bank, building society, person, newspaper or broadcasting institution as a "brand". Perhaps we can all contribute our own versions of Godwin's Law? Those above are mine. And as with Godwin's Law they do indeed set you free - free from journalists who forget that they are supposed to be seekers after truth and instead pen as if they were copywriters.

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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