From Out of Ancient Athens…

This comes from a guy considered by many to be the most skilled of the ancient Greek orators, the statesman Demosthenes of Athens, and the following quote attributed to him is enormously relevant to modern skeptics, namely, the topic of self-deception.

Even though some pseudoscientists do turn out to be charlatans, it’s often extremely difficult to definitively identify someone as either an intentional fraud or just self-deluded believers without knowing them and their personal history inside and out.

There’s the risk of committing a False Dilemma fallacy on insufficient information.

It’s often not just one or the other, though, and frequently it turns out to be an odd mix of the two when the crank’s true motives can be identified at all…the well-known phenomenon of the pious fraud who truly believes their own claims, but isn’t above a little dishonesty and corner-cutting to promote them.

The reasons and psychological mechanisms for self-delusion are many…

Again, not an easy task for a n00b like me, which is why it’s a good idea for me at this point not to jump to conclusions until the evidence is in…and even then, there’s no way to be certain short of actually getting inside his head, and I ain’t psychic.

Anyhoo, here’s the quote:

A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.

— Demosthenes (Δημοσθένης) (384 BC – 322 BC)

Logical Fallacies — the Slippery Slope

Hey, guys. This post deals with an informal fallacy known as the Slippery Slope, the causal version known also as the Fallacy of the Beard, or the Camel’s Nose fallacy. This argument takes the form of a statement that assumes that a position is unacceptable because if it is accepted, the extreme of that position must inevitably follow, without any sound justification as to why. This can sometimes be a strong line of reasoning when the chain of argument is fully laid out and logically follows, but we concern ourselves here with the specious usage, and an example is below:

The public teaching of comparative religion leads to religious doubt, which leads to agnosticism, which leads to atheism, which leads to anti-theism, which leads to inexorable nihilism, which leads to moral degeneracy, which inevitably leads to the disintegration of a society now characterized by total anarchy, so we don’t want comparative religion courses taught in our public schools.

Aside from the fact that the evidence just doesn’t bear this ridiculous chain of consequences out, note that no supporting reasons or other justification are ever provided as to why this chain must be true.

The other major version of this fallacy, the semantically-based Vagueness, or False Continuum, is used in one variant in which the argument is made that concepts B and E shade into each other along a continuum without any real demarcation between them, therefore they are the same thing.

But it just doesn’t follow that there is no difference between blue light and yellow light, despite the lack of a sharp dividing point in wavelengths in the visible spectrum, nor does it follow that there is no demarcation between humid or dry weather when the moisture in the air at any one time and place varies in degree from high to low.

The second variant of the False Continuum is used to argue that concept B differs in only insignificant ways from E without any real demarcation between them, and that therefore E simply doesn’t meaningfully exist because of a lack of said demarcation. As for this one, it doesn’t follow that truth doesn’t exist merely because of the continuum between truth and falsehood, that the concept of truth is utterly without objective reference.

These two fallacies, causal and semantic, are distinct, though sharing the same general name, and they are mentioned together in this post because the use of the semantic version can and does often lead to the commission of the causal version, the idea that a slip from B to E is inevitable because of the lack of a fine point of separation between them.

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On Debating Cranks

Is it moving the goalposts when a skeptic demands evidence, not just necessary, but sufficient evidence as a reason to accept an extraordinary factual claim?

Is this heavy-handed, this demanding of evidence more sound than just that of alleged but nonetheless seemingly compelling personal experience, the anecdotal testimony of ‘reliable’ eyewitnesses whose accounts don’t sound ‘obviously false’ and who would ‘never lie,’ or ‘irrefutable’ physical evidence like blurry photos, low-resolution video or trace evidence that is either inconclusive or easily faked by even a child (and often has been)?

Is the requirement that a seemingly impressive statistical result of a paranormal study be replicated by others, no matter their beliefs or attitude, excessive or unfair?

I would say not.

Sure… one could argue that I’m arguing for the skeptical position on the need for solid evidence because I’m a skeptic myself, and that would be true, but not for the reasons the accusation would be and often has been given. I take the skeptical position in this because as a skeptic, I just might be in a real position to understand skeptical attitudes, thinking, and reasoning better than, say, someone whose mindset, belief system and values are opposed to those of skeptics.

In discussions I’ve attempted with those who subsequently show themselves to be dedicated advocates of fringe-claims, sort of ‘testing the waters’ so to speak, to see what they’re actually like, and to make reasonably sure that I haven’t misjudged them on the basis of their initial comment, most of the time such attempts at constructive discourse have been unproductive.

Generally, all I’ve learned from such exchanges is the extremes of intellectual strategies that people can and will resort to to protect their cherished personal opinions from questioning or criticism.

True believers tend to have rather peculiar ideas, often rather lax ones, as to what qualifies as reality, science, logic, or evidence, and have shown to me a tendency to dismiss them or the need for them when these do not conform to or otherwise validate their beliefs.

They do not play by the same rules as science, and by that token, their skeptical critics…

It is for this reason that once I establish that someone actually does argue like a crank, I decide that any further attempts at reasoned discussion are pointless, and that I could better spend my time and resources on other matters.

Is this being dismissive? Of course. But it’s dismissal for reasons of practicality.

My time is limited, and there’s no point in devoting attention to playing a game when the ‘other guy’ (both genders)isn’t playing by the same rules, and therefore isn’t really playing the same game.

It is for this reason that I will not debate cranks, quacks, pseudoscientists, antiscientists and other fringe-claimants on the venue of this blog once I figure what they really are from the initial exchange in the comment threads.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll completely ignore them, only that all attempts at rational discourse are now off, and that I’ll no longer cater to their need to defend whatever doctrine or belief-system they happen to hold dear that I had the temerity to criticize.

In my experience, it’s a lot easier to argue constructively with another skeptic than with a believer, because those skeptics I’ve read and met are open to the possibility of being shown wrong, of being convinced by the evidence. This is a key ingredient for intellectual honesty, and in strong contrast with those self-styled champions of What They Know to be A Proven Fact™, who have shown themselves to act as if it were simply unbecoming to change their minds in the light of mere facts and mere reality that could conceivably refute their views.

After all, changing one’s mind and being wrong are weaknesses of character…Aren’t they?..

A Weekend Conversation

I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over the past weekend, and while it started on the subject of a set of miniatures that he had recently bought at a convention, it quickly evolved, rather than devolved, a good thing in any case, into a talk on what he’s rather well-versed in — history.

In particular, we discussed the societal conditions and circumstances influencing the development of science from the 18th century onwards. We discussed some of the factors responsible for the scientism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the science of the period was then, just as it is now, influenced more or less by the social pressures and prejudices of the times, specifically those conditions that no longer apply to the present day.

First we talked about early paleontology and its origin, as with other sciences back then, as a pastime of the wealthy and those with wealthy patronage, for then, as now, cutting edge research requires funding. Of course, this was before the days of public funding for research, and a situation that led to the even today popular-but-now-erroneous image of the gentleman scientist. We discussed the social climate’s effects on rigidity and resistance to new ideas, again, conditions differing from the present.

There was the initial refusal during the 18th century to accept the existence of meteorites, much of it being due to an intellectual reaction against any claims that smelled even remotely like superstition, and probably the dominance at the time of aristocratic France on scientific thinking, the French having inherited the mantle from the previous holder during the last couple of centuries, Italy.

There appears to have been a sort of class-bound prejudice against accepting ‘old wives tales from unlettered commoners’ that stones fell from the sky, a situation that was resolved by the results of the French Revolution, when the aristocracy was overthrown and it was now the ‘unlettered commoners’ who were running the show.

On pain of committing an argument from authority, hopefully more of an argument by authority, I trust a good portion of what my friend tells me, for in my experience, he gives me leads to follow up on, and tends to be rather consistent in his factual accuracy when I check up on the leads.

Is this faith?

I would say not — it’s trust, but not blind trust. It’s trust based on the evidence of prior and relatively consistent accuracy in his statements, and so far he’s gotten a good batting average. It’s always a good idea to doubt when given sound reason, but without it, doubt becomes not skepticism, but irrational cynicism and contrarianism.

My friend and I have widely differing views on a number of matters, especially politics, but it’s a good indication that he’s being objective, and probably correct, when both he and I can agree on matters of politically-charged topics like history, and when he can state and address to my satisfaction my positions and any objections I may have to what he says.

Is he merely being a tricky fellow, merely pretending to accurately state and address my views like a skilled lawyer?

I doubt it, and for a good reason: It’s entirely inconsistent with what I’ve known about him over the years, since he’s far too straightforward and sincere, maybe even blunt, about his views and opinions and hasn’t ever shown a shred of duplicity in his motives. Again, doubt should be exercised when and where it’s appropriate, not as a knee-jerk reflex against anything that conflicts with one’s personal ideology and prejudices.

There’s a fuzzy but real demarcation between being a skeptic and being a denier along a continuum of attitudes and intellectual strategies, and in the arguments they use, not just the label. Fnord.

A Blast from the Past – The 17th Century

This little gem is especially significant considering the rocky relationship between conservative religious establishments and science, a situation that occurs even today with fundamentalist sects working to advocate forms of antiscience like creationism.

There was that nasty little incident between the Inquisition of the Church of Rome and the literally astronomical discoveries of one Galileo Galilei, a disagreement that lasted from the 17th century until 1992, when the Church of Rome finally acknowledged that he was correct in his findings.

To be fair though, that was a big step forward for the Church, which up until the late 20th century has had a poor record of dealing amicably with any findings of science that threaten the centrality of human beings in the universe and the eyes of the Creator.

I suppose that religions, like any other social enterprise evolve over time by adaptive radiation to new survival strategies…

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.

— Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)