Project Logicality | Logical Fallacies: Special Pleading

Special Pleading, also known loosely as “covering your ass by inventing stuff out of thin air,” is the making of excuses, euphemistically called “reasons” by those prone to invoke them, also as the ad hoc (or ‘in this’) hypothesis, the fallacy of limited scope, and if invented after the fact, often the case, post-hoc reasoning.

It often attempts to invoke alleged special cases and arbitrary exceptions for disproven claims no matter the logic or evidence against them.

It’s used to dismiss a question, an argument, an explanation, or a lack of evidence as somehow and uniquely not applying to the claim to be so rescued. Such special reasons are invariably offered without justification themselves.

The Earth is flat. Ships only seem to go over the horizon because light travels in curves, not straight lines, to ordinary sight.

I failed the job interview because the stars weren’t right, and Cthulhu was feeling cross with me.

The classroom computer gnomes weren’t favorable to my passing the exam.

I couldn’t complete the preliminary trial of the Challenge because the guy conducting it was a magician who cheated using sleight of hand.

I couldn’t get a “hit” during the remote viewing experiment because the target images didn’t have a single, distinct, easily visualized* feature to focus on.

*read, “easily guessed.”

On that last:

Remote viewing is supposed to be myopic? Never mind…

This is prevalent in parapsychology with what’s dubbed by a few very ticked-off parapsychologists the Wiseman Effect (after social psychologist Richard Wiseman. I wish I was notorious enough to have a logical fallacy named after me!) where disbelief, even accusations of repressed disbelief in neutral experimenters, is said to produce an effect cancelling psi-ability in a laboratory demonstration.

How can proponents of esp lose? After all, if you get positive results, they’re due to a psychic effect, and if you don’t they’re still due to a psychic effect! How can you test that by itself to know if there’s anything really going on?

Answer: you can’t.

I’m going to steal from myself here, with something from one of my older posts on this blog:

There really are pixies playing in my garden, but you can’t see them because they’re shy and don’t want you to see them, magically invisible to both optical and infrared light, and can’t be made visible by sprinkling stuff on them because they’re also intangible at will, and oh, did I also mention that you can’t hear them because they’re completely silent whenever they feel like it?

Special_pleading can be carried to ridiculous lengths, grossly disregarding the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, in which smaller leaps of logic are considered preferable to great ones, and fewer assumptions are better than more. Or more to the point, those assumptions that are not beyond the plausible ability of the evidence to support them.

Any argument using this fallacy is thus rendered both unfalsifiable and unprovable in any meaningful sense. Ideas in science should be framed in testable form, or they are not science. It does no good to say “You can’t judge my claim because of special reasons X, Y, and Z that I just made up.”

Nor will it do to give any other arbitrary excuses why something can’t be tested.

There’s a phrase for such ideas, I believe the highest form of scientific criticism, and it is:

“Not even wrong.”

Science is messy, complex, and riddled with error, but that’s a strength with its built-in means of self-correction: there are times when a theory and its attendant hypotheses need refining to better fit the data. This is not necessarily the use of post hoc reasoning when the amendments made are those hypotheses, those predictions, that can be tested independently of their theory. These are those factors which are known to separately exist, have been observed directly or inferred from indirect observation.

It’s not a Good Idea™ to come up with not only untestable, but irrelevant reasons to prop up an idea failing the any reliable test of observation, test of explanation, and test of prediction, when it has no proverbial leg to stand on.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

4 thoughts on “Project Logicality | Logical Fallacies: Special Pleading

  1. DrD

    Where you say that the post hoc reasoning fallacy is prevalent in parapsychology with the so-called Experimenter Effect – what you call the Wiseman effect – you must be unaware then of the experiment conducted by Wiseman and Schlitz that actually demonstrated this effect in a predicted manner. Bother Wiseman and Schlitz, one an anti-psi researcher and the other a pro-psi researcher, conducted the same psi experiment under tightly controlled conditions and Wismean got no psi effect, whereas Schlitz did… AS PREDICTED prior to the experiment because of the experimenter psi-belief effect. It is known that psi belief is the best ‘predictor’ (I use this word again, this is not a post hoc reasoning) of psi performance. This effect is actually pretty robust. You should take a closer look at the literature. Cheers. DrD


    1. Sorry, DrD, nice try, but I read about that study. The fact that one got results, and the other didn’t is the very thing the Experimenter effect tries to explain, and unfortunately there’s no way to test it independently of that, so there’s no way to tell if the so-called ‘effect’ even exists.

      Any hypothesis used to explain a phenomenon has to be testable independently of the theory it’s meant to support or it’s scientifically useless — it has to be shown to exist on its own, or it’s ad hoc, and therefore of no consequence. That’s like proving a hypothesis of the physics of fluorescent lights by doing the very thing that the hypothesis is supposed to explain, what happens when the switch is flicked, just by flicking the switch. Needless to say, that’s not good science.

      So the so-called Wiseman effect invoked by pro-psi researchers can be considered not only special pleading, but other logical fallacies such as begging the question, or depending on how it’s phrased, affirming the consequent. You would help your cause immensely by educating yourself on the particulars of scientific reasoning. Ciao. Troythulu


  2. Oh, one more thing… The Experimenter effect has been invoked under various names for a long time in parapsychology, such as the ‘shyness effect’ or the ‘observer effect,’ and was originally conceived after the fact (post hoc) by pro-psi investigators as an attempt to explain the fact that it was not possible to replicate the results of a study independently of the attitude of the researcher.

    This is a strong indicator that what is being looked for isn’t a real phenomenon, like a study done some time ago that found a correlation between enthusiasm for a phenomenon (in this case a surgical procedure of dubious worth known as the portacaval shunt (look it up)) and the spurious obtainment of positive results. It’s more likely that the strong belief of parapsychologists is producing the illusion of an effect by subconsciously influencing how they interpret the data.


  3. Pingback: Pseudoscience – More on what it is & what it ain’t | The Call of Troythulu – Musings of a Skeptophrenic

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