Hey, guys. This post shall attempt to address a common fallacy, more accurately a factual error, rather than one of pure logical structure, the False Premise, though often used in the context of a logical argument, and therefore as a component of specious reasoning.
The false premise is a statement, claim, fact or assertion that is simply not true, and which thus renders any argument using it automatically unsound or non-cogent.
A false premise can range from a simple myth or misconception that is held out of ignorance, willful or otherwise, to a claim or statement of belief resulting from a delusion, to a blatant, intentional prevarication, and this form of argument is often a common rhetorical tactic by pseudoscientists. Here are a couple of examples:
- Quantum Mechanics supports the idea that reality does not exist unless it is being looked at by a conscious observer.
- Quantum Mechanics explains telepathy as a result of the shared Entanglement of particles in separate brains.
The first is false, for one thing, because quantum observation has nothing to do with consciousness or even the possession of any other sort of function commonly associated with a living mind at all, it simply involves the effects on quantum entities by interaction through the physical act of measurement.
It is also false because Quantum Mechanics, as a widely-accepted and evidentially well-supported scientific theory, depends on the existence of reality in order to be true, no matter who is using it, when or where. QM makes the posting of this blog entry on the computer servers that you are not looking at (and are therefore not ‘consciously observing’…) possible.
The second is also false for two reasons: First, it’s pointless to explain something before it’s even convincingly established to adequate standards that the phenomenon even exists to be explained to begin with, and second, there is as yet no evidence of any quantum effects, especially entanglement, in the thus-far detectable activity of the human brain.
Three common variations of the false premise are listed and described below.
The first, the Big Lie is a false statement so huge that it is difficult, interestingly enough, for people to think that it would be told if it were not true. This is especially the case when it is told with genuine sincerity, as part of a personal misconception or even a delusion. Three examples follow:
- This starship is constructed out of corbomite. If you fire upon us, the explosion will destroy both our vessels.
- I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I’m a mirant. I can kill you just by looking at you funny.
- The scientific evidence for psi is compelling, just Google “evidence for psi” to see for yourself.
Note that that last example, slightly paraphrased, has been used on yours truly on this blog at least once, and was, though false and boldly stated, probably not an intentional falsehood on the part of the one making it.
Next, the Multiple Untruth, also known as the Gish Gallop when used by creationists.
This is the use of so many specious arguments at once that they are almost impossible to keep in mind, and though the opponent of the one using this fallacy may have the time to refute a few of them, only those most skilled in debate find the opportunity in the time they have to give a rebuttal to all of them.
This is often effective because since only a small number of misconceptions is refuted when this is employed, it conveys the impression of victory in the debate to the user’s audience.
I notice this one a lot on blogs by psi proponents, who ingeniously cram so many factual misconceptions and other fallacies into their arguments that even this evil skeptophrenic blogger finds it impossible at present to deconstruct even a single complete argument in the space of only a single rebuttal. Several such posts in a series are usually needed to deal with them in as much detail as I would like. I tip my Evil Pseudoskeptic™ hat to them, for now…
Thirdly, the Noble Lie: Plato is often credited with inventing this one, and he may indeed have. This is a fairly common debating tactic, a falsehood told for its rhetorical effect, and often for the supposed result of believing the premise.
This variant operates on the working assumption that those it is told to are intellectually incapable of handling the truth and/or so imbecilic that they cannot possibly see through it on their own.
Those thusly treated like imbeciles by being told the lie, should they already know or discover the truth, often have an emotional reaction to it and summarily dismiss out of hand anything said by that source from then on.
Plato’s work, the Republic, describes what he proposed as the ideal society, in which the complicity of its citizens to the social order was maintained by the Noble Lie.
I’ve found that if your aim is to engage in intellectually honest, truly constructive discussions, it’s a good idea to put forth the effort not to commit this fallacy, both by avoiding intentional falsehoods, and alleviating the use of unintentional misconceptions by looking up on and knowing what you’re talking about, however tentative and subject to future correction and revision that may be. Nobody, however venerated, can be right about everything.
(Last Update: 2014/06/29)