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Monthly Archives: May 2010



Hey, guys. This post deals with the misuse of an otherwise valid informal argument, which borrows it’s logical structure from formal reasoning, a first-order Enthymeme, the abuse of this being known as the Unstated Major Premise or suppressed major premise.

This is an argument in which a major assumption, evidence, premise, or reason used to justify the conclusion is absent from the argument’s wording, and as long as both parties in an argument share the same semantic assumptions for the terms used in the argument, all is fine.

The problem begins when the two parties do not share the same assumptions going into their language, and at least one of them fails to clarify to the other what those assumptions are, whether willfully or not.

When this is used to arbitrarily misdefine a word, most often out of ignorance or confusion over its accepted meaning, it is known as a Humpty-Dumpty argument.

It’s commonly done in debates with pseudoscientists, who either don’t know what they are talking about and are unaware of it, or with more savvy ones who use this as a rhetorical tactic to confuse their opponent unless their opponent calls them on it. This is often used in conjunction with a multiple untruth.

A brief list of words commonly mangled, folded, spindled and semantically mutilated by proponents of a variety of pseudosciences is as follows. There are of course many more:

  • science
  • religion
  • evidence
  • skeptic
  • denier
  • (true) believer
  • (ad hoc) hypothesis
  • logic
  • reason
  • theory
  • model
  • law
  • reality
  • objective
  • closed-minded
  • open minded
  • fantasy
  • revisionist
  • straw man
  • ad hominem
  • scientism
  • material
  • atheist
  • empirical
  • peer-reviewed
  • logical
  • scientific
  • energy
  • vibration
  • resonate
  • frequency
  • harmonic
  • spiritual
  • mind
  • soul
  • consciousness
  • physical
  • scientific method
  • evolution
  • scientist
  • therapy
  • natural
  • organic
  • dimension
  • transitional form/fossil/species

A good example of this are evolution/creationism debates during which the claim is made that ‘there are no transitional species,’ when the creationist is using a different assumption from his opponent as to what it means, often a sort of half-formed monstrosity ‘stuck’ between two other species in the fossil record, the oh-so 19th century notion of ‘one species crossing over into another’ fallacy, or the ‘dogs giving birth to kittens’ nonsense.

Crocoducks, anyone?

The major point here is that the creationist’s idea of what a transitional species is, an important bit of information in the argument, has been either overlooked or intentionally concealed from his opponent, the latter being the case with the more educated but willfully deceptive creationists, who often do this to keep from having to ever admit that they are mistaken, which just will not do if you’re a crusader for absolute truth.

You might ask why I’m been picking on the poor creationists here and there in this series of posts, and the primary reason is the fact that like I mentioned in a couple of other entries, creationists are fun because they are just such a wonderful source of logical fallacies, since they use all of them, and are continuously creating new ones often enough to make my head spin — Linda Blair style.

This endless creation (not the sort they’re trying to promote) of new ways for logic to go astray is just too useful for me to ignore, and yet another reason for to be more alert for these errors in one’s own reasoning as well, so as to better introspect and avoid them in one’s thinking and arguments.

Rigorous self-examination is skeptical.

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clever-hansThis is a form of ideomotor reaction, a sort of involuntary cuing done without conscious awareness of which the one doing it may be completely oblivious, even when actively trying to avoid it.

This effect was named for a horse owned and trained by one Wilhelm von Osten, dubbed der Kluge Hans, or in English, Clever Hans, who was indeed clever, in a much different way than was initially thought.

Hans had convinced even scientists, who at first had validated him, that he was every bit as intelligent as a human being, or at least near-human in intellect, apparently able to demonstrate understanding of peoples’ names, perform simple arithmetical computations by tapping the answer with his hoof, tell time, and otherwise know the answers to questions posed to him by attendees of his performances, which began in the early 1890s until 1904 when his secret was discovered by investigator Oskar Pfungst.

The Clever Hans effect involves subtle cuing by posture and facial expression by way of the aforementioned ideomotor action, as well as a remarkable talent often mistaken for psychic ability in humans — hypersensory perception or HSP.

When a control measure was implemented, in this case the exclusion of those persons who knew the answers to questions asked, Hans was incapable of providing a convincing response and would not know when to start or stop tapping his hoof.

His seeming human-like intelligence simply went away until those absent from the test were once again present.

Hans’ trainer, completely sincere in his initial belief, was taken aback by the animal’s failure to perform when controls were introduced. He didn’t even notice the changes in his posture and facial expression that were signaling Hans, so subtle were they.

In the late 1920s Duke University parapsychologist J.B. Rhine looked into the matter of another, similar case, that of a mare in Richmond Virginia dubbed Lady Wonder by her owner.

Rhine was absolutely convince that Lady Wonder was telepathic, and her performance, signaled by her owner by cracking his whip, involved making predictions and otherwise answer questions by pushing over toy childrens’ blocks with her hoof to spell out the answer.

The case was solved by magician Milbourne Christopher, who had identified her seeming paranormal ability as being the the result of the Clever Hans effect, not psychic powers, since she was unable to perform, often turning over the blocks at random, when her owner was not there to signal her, or when the trainer was unaware of the answer to a question.

This case illustrates perfectly why it is necessary to have a trained magician in attendance of a paranormal experiment, as James Randi has so often, and sometimes in vain, noted.

Something similar happened in a series of animal communication studies done during the 1970s, with the Nim Chimpsky incident (sort of an inside joke by the researchers referring to language theorist Noam Chomsky):

In this case, a male chimp subject named Nim, had at first convinced his handlers and researchers that he possessed sign-language abilities of extremely unusual nature, and had seemingly demonstrated the capacity to use complex sentences and create his own jokes.

He was, however, merely, if one will excuse the pun, “aping” the signs made by his handlers in exchange for a reward. In those instances when the signs were intelligible, he was talking, and if not, that he was making a joke.

There is of course, often a lot of shoehorning, selective thinking and confirmation bias going on during the studies of this sort, when those persons involved will frequently dismiss and ignore the wrong gestures and take note of and remember the correct ones.

It happened in this series of studies that the test-subjects would perform a series of random gestures until their handlers gave them a reward.

I suspect that this may have been the case in studies of a female gorilla named Koko, who in a similar situation seemed to invent her own signs and reportedly show an IQ of about the human equivalent of 60.

This is something that has time and again beset early animal communication research.

Note that, as mentioned above, even being aware of the Clever Hans effect and trying to prevent it brings no certainty of actually doing so.

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