…and I don’t, not because I’m a nice guy — there are times where my darker nature frightens even me — but because it diminishes me and demeans the one I’d otherwise call stupid. Believe me, there are times I’ve been sorely tempted, and each day I plan out arguments, but not those I will use — those I won’t, or those arguments I hope never to have to use — so scathing do they seem to me in the unvoiced rehearsal of my internal monologue.
But scathing is not something I do well, nor do I hope to. All too often, there’s the temptation to, as Carl Sagan put it, “…wax contemptuous and superior” and the temptation disgusts me.
This is a good thing, I suppose, for snark is a skill set I don’t like to exercise, as I’m forced daily to recognize boundaries for civil relations with people that should not be crossed if effective communication is to be achieved. I suspect that there’s a lot of native intelligence even in the willfully ignorant, and that its not so much people who are stupid, but dogmatic ideologies, erroneous doctrines, and fallacious arguments, failed promises, and exaggerated claims meant to snare the unwary.
I know paranormal believers and people of religious faith, many of them friends and family, and I have no intention of considering them idiots.
I don’t call people stupid — not because of some noble impulse or silly sense of high-mindedness — but because I just don’t feel comfortable doing it. It doesn’t sit well with me but I also don’t judge those who do it, for that would say nothing of them and speak volumes about me. Let others use the methods that work for them.
But calling people stupid leaves an ugly feeling in my gut.
There was an incident on Facebook last evening. Someone I know had private messaged me and went on a tirade about my calling her husband stupid, and I’m pretty sure that no such thing happened — it is simply not done — and confused, I pressed her to explain, but she would give me no specifics. Finally I grew tired of the game being played and asked her to name one instance, just one, where and when I called her husband stupid.
Her only reply: “Never mind.”
She gave no answer to my question, leaving me to conclude that she didn’t have one.
I thanked her in annoyance and broke off the chat at that point. I’d had my fill of vacuous nonsense and was quite angry with her, and at no time had she ever shown any specific knowledge of what she claimed. I’ll say this much: If ever that night I had been tempted to call anyone stupid, it wouldn’t have been her husband, who is more intelligent than me in a number of ways.
She owes me an apology, by the way, for my anger at her cost me several valuable hours of restful sleep which would have been useful before my kitten, Mr Eccles, got me up later that morning to be fed. How rude. Not Eccles — her — for ruining a potential good night’s sleep over trumped-up churlish foolishness.
But I’m not that nice, I’m just not that good at putting people down with skill and finesse — I’d make a poor standup comic — So I use what works, naughty or nice.
Identifying and labeling logical fallacies when they are used as argument strategies is useful — It weakens the rhetorical effect of the labeled argument, possibly even disqualifying it as viable support for a position.
But common fallacies can be used not only to legitimately point out actual inductively weak, logically invalid, or otherwise unpersuasive arguments, but may be overextended as well — they may be misapplied to label sound, cogent, and persuasive arguments as fallacies if and when this is not the case.
- The appeal to authority — This is often used to dismiss a position as merely an argument from authority, when it is actually an argument by authority — that the claimed credentials and qualifications of the authority are both true and relevant to the matter discussed, and the authority appealed to has a genuine basis for making their statements.
“Oh, that’s just something that those Establishment archaeologists say to hide the Truth about the Mayan pyramids!”
- Incorrect cause — This can often be used to deny an actual causative correlation that has been shown real, claiming even then that “correlation is not causation,” and invoking a more complex causative relation than needed when the evidence may well point to the simpler relation that A causes B.
“Actually, the warming of the climate is not caused by human industrial pollution, it’s really just a natural cycle that correlates instead with the warming of Mars…and cow farts!”
- Ad hominem — This can be used to argue that the critic of an idea is attacking the proponent of an idea rather than the idea itself — note that an insult, by itself, is not an ad hominem. — it only becomes that when the insult is used as a reason that the one insulted is wrong without substantially addressing the argument itself. An ad hominem is not always a fallacy and can also be used in a legitimate way, as in Poisoning the Well for pointing out a real and relevant conflict of interest or bias in the subject.
“You just say that because you’ve closed your mind to the very possibility of the unconventional.”
“I don’t trust anything you say…you’re in the pay of those well-funded liberal environmental lobbyists.”
“Scientists are arrogant for claiming they know anything.”
- Reductio ad absurdum — Like some other fallacies, this may be used as part of an inductively strong argument or logically valid one and thus often used in deductive logical proofs. It becomes a fallacy, a false reductio ad absurdum, and a straw man(see below) when used to argue the silliness of a position without using a actual, original line of reasoning in the argument.
- Straw man — This one is easy to commit, and easy to overextend when applied to a legitimate critique of one’s position using the actual premises and logic involved in the original argument. To avoid this, it is necessary to do whatever is required to understand an opponent’s argument and interpret it as charitably as possible, without over-generously ignoring non sequiturs and inconsistencies, or being too proud to ask for clarifications.
To overplay this fallacy and falsely accuse your opponent of a straw man is to commit one yourself through misunderstanding the counterargument given.
An example of both a false reductio ad absurdum and a common straw man:
“If you don’t believe in psionics, then you must also not believe in dark energy and dark matter, so 90% of the universe must not exist, because you haven’t seen those either!”
- Special pleading — This form of reasoning is not itself innately fallacious, and can be a perfectly good logical strategy for constructing hypotheses for testing. The fallacy comes when it is used to dismiss fair criticism of an idea or used in an ad hoc manner to patch together a set of hypotheses in an overly limited fashion and render them untestable…neither falsifiable nor meaningfully verifiable. It is also over-employed when used to criticize a valid or strong argument as being ad hoc, when in fact the argument’s premises and assumptions are supported through prior evidence, arguments, or observations and the reasoning is not overly baroque in structure.
“Psi is real, and has been successfully replicated, but skeptical readers of journals these studies are published in use an unconscious, retroactive, and unobservable psychokinesis that reaches through time and causes the successful replications to fail.”
“The big bang model of cosmology can’t possibly be viable…it’s got too many patches like fairy-tale dark matter, undetectable dark energy, and imaginary inflation propping it up from falsification by protecting it from the data.”
There is also the Fallacist’s fallacy, which is to argue that because an argument is invalid or weak that the argument’s conclusion must therefore be false.
This shows a misunderstanding of the relationship between the truth value of the conclusion and the nature of validity or strength.
Validity means that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be automatically — There is no valid deductive argument in which the premises can be true and the conclusion false, because the chain of reasoning follows with certainty, but it is possible for an argument to be fallacious and still have a true conclusion — it just doesn’t follow from the reasoning, requiring a better argument for one’s position.
The same applies to inductive arguments without the deductive certainty.
A conclusion can be false, even with true premises, and an argument therefore not follow, but not following from the premises does not imply the falsehood of the conclusion, only that the argument itself is not cogent, is unpersuasive, and cannot be used to support that position.
Arguments BTW, cannot themselves be true or false, only the individual statements making them up.
It’s been a few days past three years since I began posting on this site, and in terms of blogging principles, writing style, the tone of my ‘voice’ and my skepticism, there are some valuable lessons I’ve learned, and I expect, with more to follow from both prior experience and in future experiences in posting on this site.
Here are a few:
- Avoid perfectionism. Rather than attempting to seek perfection, which is conceptually questionable in the first place, as well as a road to inevitable failure, seek instead to asymptotically strive for perfectibility, always strive for improvement, as there is plenty of room for it in any enterprise.
- Rational justification permitting, allow for the questioning of every source of information, even other skeptics and especially scientists, who are, after all, only human and have finite reliability even in their own field of expertise.
- Do not dehumanize believers. Avoid gratuitous cruelty in critiquing individuals and unfair blanket generalizations of believers. There’s a surprising amount of variation in any demographic, including members of paradigmatic and ideological subgroups.
- Restrict the most pointed attacks to ideas, actions, and claims, and strive to keep personal critiques fair and honest, though perhaps a bit blunt. I don’t need to give those critiqued a valid reason to accuse me of libel or slander, however often that sentiment is not shared by some of the more irate, easily enraged and unstable proponents and believers.
- Avoid unnecessary snark when addressing individuals in personal comment responses, especially trolls, since being attention-whores, that’s what they want in the first place. Offer it only if the situation truly warrants it. If I’m going to be a d*ck, I should be the best possible at the time.
- Avoid undue reverence for and unrealistic enthusiasm about skeptics and skepticism in general. It makes no sense to think of and de facto treat others as saints when one does not believe in saints. Other skeptics are simply both teachers and learners, sometimes both at once, not impossibly epic intellectual Brobdingnagians to be held in rapturous awe.
- Strive for the most realistic, fair, accurate, and clear conceptions of science, atheism, and skepticism one may harbor. Avoid naivete in what they are and how they work, the better to avert cognitive dissonance in the here and now. The truth is more important than wishes or personal feelings of how these things ought to be, and recognizing this fact greatly reduces if not eliminates disappointment and possible disillusionment. The truth is also much more interesting.
- As a skeptic, I do not have all the answers, I cannot have all the answers, and I know that I don’t have to. It is permissible for me to say, “I don’t know. I have no independent access to the events you’ve described in your anecdote, and so can’t explain it without enough data to go by. I remain skeptical of your claim until that changes.”
- Saying the previous does not strengthen the case for anything paranormal or otherwise out-of-this-world. Such things are often unexplained because of a mere lack of sufficient data, not because they’re magic.
I’m fairly certain that this is not an exhaustive list, and likely I’ll be following it up with other posts in a similar vein in future.
To me, allegedly necessary rather than contingent statements about reality tend to be problematic anyway, so I try to avoid them:
No principle should be held dogmatically when keeping open one’s provisional understanding of matters of fact, for it causes one’s grasp on reality and intellectual honesty to fail disastrously, giving rise to the fallacy of thinking that what is true must be dependent on faith, or on a misconstrual of personal experience, the one being a core principle in many organized religions, and the other the seed of nascent pseudoscience.
Let’s face it, nobody likes to be insulted, even moi, but some use this very thing as a form of argument in more or less subtle forms, a logical fallacy of irrelevance known by the Latin, because yours truly feels like being a pedant, the Argumentum ad Hominem, or the Argument to the Person.
This tactic of argumentation is the counterpoint to the Argument from Authority, a sort of polar opposite to it on the spectrum of genetic fallacies – arguments that focus on the source of a claim rather than valid logic or evidence – and like it attempts to call attention to real or imagined characteristics of the subject in order to sidestep the argument being made, in this case negative or unfavorable ones.
A special case of this is a subset called Poisoning the Well, also referred to as the Circumstantial ad Hominem, made even before the opponent makes his argument. This takes the form of associating the target with someone or something that is widely regarded as unpleasant or evil, such as implying or stating a connection with, for example, Nazis or a well-known serial killer. The name of this subset derives from medieval Europe, when rumors abounded during outbreaks of plague that Jews were causing Christians to die from the epidemic by poisoning the local well-water, since the real vectors of the plague were unknown at the time. This differs from the usual form in that it can be made against both a person and an idea or belief.
In that hideous little abortion of a movie, Expelled, there was much use of this fallacy in the association of evolution with the Holocaust specifically and the Nazis in general.
The most common and least subtle form of this argument in its general form, often used by the unimaginative is the use of plain and simple abusive form used to call attention to perceived (real or imaginary) personal shortcomings as a cheap way to dismiss an argument without ever addressing it.
“Your argument is wrong because you’re a known religious fundamentalist.”
“I don’t have to listen to you because you’re one of those Godless atheists.”
Often, also used is an alleged conflict of interest, or personal prejudice, the Bias ad Hominem, indicating that the one this is used on is untrustworthy as an impartial source, or as is often the case of an American politician accusing his opponent of being a socialist or a fascist even when these claims are not only irrelevant but false.
Another is when critics of the modern anti-vaccination movement are implicated as paid shills in the pocket of the ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracy, and whose statements therefore must be taken with deceptive intent in mind.
Another is when mainstream scientists are accused of being afraid for their funding, careers, political agendas, and reputations and so ignore or hide ‘the truth’ of the paranormal or global cooling. These last two, by the way, are also referred to as an argument from conspiracy, or an appeal to motive, another subset of this post’s fallacy of discourse, but involving alleged circumstances of self-interest.
But the Ad Hominem argument is not always a fallacy, and in the proper use may be a valid and effective form of argument when it is used to promote the goal of critical discussion rather than obstruct it.
For example, one reasonable use is in pointing out a likely conflict of interest regarding the statements of another when the subject’s questionable background, credibility and circumstances are also true, relevant, and kept in their proper context, such as a disgruntled ex-mob employee testifying in a criminal case when he has been given leniency or other favors for his testimony.
And this fallacy is more complex than one might think…
Less commonly known, and just as poisonous to an argument, is the positive ad hominem, which uses the same sort of reasoning, substituting alleged personal attributes or circumstances for relevant evidence in an argument, but this time uses positive traits, such as sincerity, kindness, or piety, though any virtuous trait will do, and thus shades into an argument from authority/appeal to virtue.
(Last Update 2013/03/22, Removed Dead Links)
It is nothing short of amazing how many believers in the paranormal, usually without the qualifications to know what they are talking about, but sometimes even those with the training to know better, try to expound upon the ‘psychology of the skeptics™’ and get their attempts at reading our minds so completely and utterly wrong. Nothing short of amazing…and amusing.
First, we skeptics are a pretty diverse bunch personality-wise, without a common theme or reason for being the way we are, so there is simply no such thing as a single universal generalization of ‘the’ personality type applicable to skeptics.
Second, a little look through any up-to-date psychology textbook or journal–yes, even those written by us ‘damned fundamentalist reactionary skeptics’–will reveal a wealth of data pertaining to the psychology of belief, from total incredulity to complete acceptance, without a need for a special psychological profile for skeptics. In most psychology studies on the causes and mechanisms of belief, skeptics are already entered into the equation–otherwise there would be nothing to compare with believers.
Most attempts by believers so far to ‘understand’ skeptics involve the use of logical fallacies, usually ad hominems (It’s comical that believers should be the ones to scream “ad hominem!” as loudly and often as they do, but so given to their liberal usage as well, but I digress…), straw man arguments, well-poisoning, the hasty generalization (using a few non-representative samples of skeptics and applying their motivations and personalities to all of us) and to support this generalization, the use of selective and often misrepresented quoting to validate their foregone conclusion.
These sloppy, unprofessional and ad hoc attempts at psychoanalysis of those who criticize their claims are simply rationalizations made by believers to justify their dislike of those of us who offend or shock their ‘delicate sensitivities.’ Pity pooh.
Lack of belief and refusal to believe are not the same. This is no arcane mystery, just basic psychology 101. When one confuses a lack of belief with a refusal to accept, and goes by the logic that as a skeptic, I must be deeply afraid of the paranormal because I don’t believe in it, one must also argue that I am deeply frightened of dragons, unicorns, faeries and flying pigs, because I don’t believe in them either. Please. That’s just silly. Do believers just not ‘get’ why we skeptics don’t take them seriously when they make claims like this?
For the record, I, a dogmatic cynical debunker™, am fascinated, not frightened, by the paranormal, like a moth to a flame, though I look at it with a more critical eye than I once did. Ever want to find out why and how any particular skeptic thinks the way they do? Just ask one. Really, how hard can that be, rather than just taking the lazy route and holding some wannabe pop psychologist’s word as gospel truth?