Category Archives: Philosophy & Logic

Project Logicality | The Appeal to Force

 Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48(This post contains rough language, and at least one rather graphic example, not particularly kid-friendly, is provided. Then, this is not a kid-friendly blog, so no biggie.)

Here we discuss the appeal to force, just for the sake of annoying pedantry, the argument from the cudgel, or the ad baculum fallacy.

It’s informal, language-derived argument, an irrelevant appeal, trying to coerce compliance or even merely feigned agreement with a claim by applying force or its threat, whether that be physical, psychological, or legal.

It may be thought of as a subset of the argument from final consequences, and in a simple but slightly vulgar formulation basically amounts to:

Agree with me and do as I say, or I’ll kick your f**king *ss!

or a bit less crudely,

Agree that I’m right because I’m badder and meaner than you are and I can light you up!

There’s also:

Do as I say, not as I do …or else!

That last might also double as an argument from authority, it and the ad baculum being not-so-subtle forms of bullying.

It’s fallacious when the threat implied or expressed used has no logical relation to the claim. It aims to exploit a demand for submission to authority and fear to substitute for valid argument.

This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a classic example I’ve seen on various places on the Web and in one of my Great Courses lectures, of a statement of Hitler’s upon hearing the then Pope’s displeasure, in which he’s claimed to have said, “…and how many tanks does the Pope have?”

Not exactly a rhetorical question.

But that nicely illustrates the specious use of this argument in exploiting the idea that ‘might makes right.’

Another example of this is Pascal’s Wager, with its choice, actually a false dilemma, of theistic belief while supposedly losing nothing and a chance at winning everything, or non-belief and risking perdition if ‘wrong,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean. There’s a whole host of unstated assumptions going into the wager that lack independent support, and which if not presupposed undermine Pascal’s  case, but I won’t deal with that here.

But an ad baculum argument can have valid applications, as when the threat invoked directly relates to the claims and is not merely used to overthrow a discussion by substituting intimidation or fear for real justification of a claim. There are criminal penalties imposed as punishment in various legal systems. This includes things like theft, fraud, and treason, which such penalties as narfling the Garthok, or maybe being consigned to Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor pit for making awful movie references on this blog. Ouch.

For example:

If you read the forbidden (and completely made-up) haiku collection ‘Reflections on Infinity,’ horrible and nasty critters (equally fictitious) from the Outer Void (as made-up as the first two) will show up and slowly eat your brain. Attracting the attention of such horrors can be horrific, worse than death, as madness comes while they eat your brain. To best avoid this unpleasant fate, you must not read ‘Reflections on Infinity.’

That was a little over the top, but I did say this blog isn’t kid-friendly.

With many informal arguments, sometimes fallacies or not, valid or invalid use depends on context. The use of it for furthering or squelching critical discussion, is valid when used for the former, invalid for the latter.

Most informal fallacies are not simple matters of incorrect structure. They depend on meaning bound up in language, which is inextricably linked to it, not merely decorative filler as with formal logic. Content matters.

Project Logicality | Slippery Slopes

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48I discuss here the Slippery Slope, which has both a causal and semantic version.

But first I’ll deal with its causal version, the Fallacy of the Beard, also the Camel’s Nose fallacy. The first name comes from an analogy with the greying of a man’s beard, in which the amount of grey is small at first, but inexorably progresses until the entire beard is grey. The second  name comes from a fable in which a camel is permitted by its owner to stick its nose in the tent for warmth from the cold desert night air, quickly followed by the entire camel, who crowds its owner out of the tent and into the cold.

Afterward, I’ll discuss the semantic version, the Vagueness, or False Continuum.

The first asserts that a position or claim is unacceptable because if accepted, its extreme must inevitably follow, without sound reasons as to how or why this must be.

A superficially similar form of argument can be a strong line of reasoning when the chain of inference is laid out and logically follows, but this refers to the specious usage, as below:

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

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

The semantic Vagueness, or False Continuum, is below:

One version attempts to argue that concepts B and E shade into each other along a continuum without any fine dividing line between them, so they are the same thing.

But it just doesn’t follow that:

There is no difference between blue light and yellow light, despite no sharp dividing point in wavelengths in the visible spectrum.

Nor does it follow that:

There is no separation 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 is used to argue that concept B differs so little from concept E with no fine line between them, that concept E simply doesn’t exist. As for this one, it doesn’t follow that:

Truth doesn’t exist because of the continuum between truth and falsehood. The concept of truth is without any objective reference.

These two fallacies, causal and semantic, are distinct, but they are mentioned together here as the use of the semantic version can and does often lead to the commission of the causal version. Their joint use implies that a slip from position or claim B to E is inevitable because of the lack of a fine point of separation between them.

Project Logicality | Reducing to Absurdity

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48Here we discuss what is otherwise useful and valid reasoning, known as the Reductio ad Absurdum. In its valid form it may be used to show an argument’s claim to be false by following it to its ultimate logical conclusion, revealing a contradiction, an absurdity, or it may be used as a form of Straw-Man argument, known here as the False Reductio. I’ll deal first with the latter.

This works by forcing a conclusion that while absurd, doesn’t use the actual reasoning of the original argument, such as:

If you’re skeptical of the existence of UFOs, Bigfoot, and ancient aliens, then you must also be skeptical of the existence of the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House, and the Empire State Building, since you’ve never been there to see those places.

This is fallacious because the proportional nature  of the claims requires proportional standards of evidence. The criteria for each differ, and the argument itself ignores the use of evidence other than anecdotal testimony and grainy, low-resolution, or obviously photoshopped videos and photos.

Here is one of my favorites:

If you don’t believe in psychic abilities then you also disbelieve in dark matter and dark energy, so 90% of the Universe does not exist to you because you haven’t seen those either.

Again with ignoring evidence other than personally witnessing something. Also, it fails to consider the fact that though there is some question as to what dark matter and dark energy are, they have been reliably observed by their effects on the visible universe itself, and the evidence shows that they are real. Clearly, elusive supernormal psychic abilities and invisible but indirectly observable astrophysical phenomena are not analogous.

But all is not without a ray of light in the dark. There is an informally valid and intellectually honest use of this as well, to highlight the fallaciousness of some extraordinary claims. Here, the actual train of logic of the original argument is kept intact.

Here are a couple of silly claims I’ve come across:

The ancient Egyptians could not have built the pyramids without alien or Atlantean help. They were far too primitive a civilization.

In order to know what a human skeleton looks like, the Maya and Aztecs must have been given X-ray machines by ancient astronauts.

Such claims reek not only of thinly disguised racism and colonialist arrogance, but stupidity and historical shortsightedness as well.

And skeletons? Come on, that’s just silly!

Here, we may apply the same train of logic to what the proponents of these ideas, mostly whites of Western descent, dare not apply it to: early Europeans:

How could the Medievals possibly have had the intelligence to invent such marvels as the crossbow, stained glass windows, steel armor and weapons, and those massive cathedrals! They had to get their technology from aliens, because they were too inept to come up with them on their own! They must have gotten medical imaging technology from the aliens too, because Medieval art has lots of skeletons in it, and how could they have possibly known what those looked like without using it?

Absurd? Clearly it is, and in retaining as closely as can be the reasoning of the original applied to another subject, it shows that.

A side note: Technology is cumulative, and evolves over time, with earlier, precursor technologies leading to better, more advanced ones, with archaeological remnants to show this progression, no matter the location, or ethnic and cultural makeup of the civilization. This is true even dating as far back as the Paleolithic with stone tools.

Never underestimate human genius. There exists brilliance in every human era, with no need to gift early peoples with technology from super-civilizations for such tasks as constructing even impressive monuments, which require only engineering, tools, and social organization which we know they had, as opposed to the claims of pseudo-historians in massive, and dare I say, monumental, arguments from ignorance.

But I digress.

Reason is a tool. Use it well and it will serve you reliably, leading to the acquisition of more true conclusions than false ones. But abuse it, and the content of the claims you accept and promote becomes much more prone to error. Especially when you misrepresent the chain of another’s reasoning for ideological ends.

Project Logicality | Moving Goalposts

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48Here, I deal with a popular rhetorical tactic of cranks, pseudoscientists, grand conspiracy theorists,  and charlatans of all stripes, the Moving Goalpost.

But its use is also common in everyday discourse. Most people are fairly closed-minded and find changing their stance on things uncomfortable. It takes good metacognitive skills, thinking about thinking, to correct this tendency.

The fallacy takes its name from an analogy with American football, in which the goalposts are always out of reach of whoever is carrying the ball, and continue to recede further still.

With this tactic, the more unreasonable the standard of proof for refuting or confirming the claim, the better. It involves either arbitrarily redefining one’s claims to put them conveniently out of reach of any disproof, or setting impossible standards from the very beginning.

The objective here is to avoid having to rescind whatever claims one is making, when one has a political, financial, personal, or ideological stake in a position. For some, no amount of evidence and reason is enough, and it shows in this use of rhetoric.

A couple of examples might be:

Show me just one experiment conducted in a lab on Earth that has ever created dark matter, directly measured gravity, manufactured a black hole, or generated controlled stellar fusion!

Establishment Cosmology™ is silly, fallacious, and wrong!

This argument clearly sets impossible standards from the beginning.

It and what follows use a version of the “show me just one proof” gambit common among creationists and crank cosmology proponents (Sometimes  those are one and the same!).

The next illustrates shifting standards of proof each time evidence is presented:

I want to see any example of a transitional species before I think evolution even remotely plausible! Just one!

Tiktaalik? Ambulocetus?

There are still gaps in the fossil record between those and what came before and after! Where’s the evidence for those??

You’ve filled in those gaps?

Now there are more gaps to fill! Fraud! Fake! Amoral evilutionist! Evolution is a sham!

It’s important to proportion to the claim just what criteria of evidence and logic you will accept, and to stick with that as your gold standard throughout. Set reasonable standards, then admit it and change your mind once those standards have been met.

Consistency might be called the bugaboo of small minds, but it’s what’s needed when assessing claims open-mindedly and rationally.

Project Logicality | Special Pleading

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Special Pleading, known loosely as ‘covering your ass,’ 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, post-hoc reasoning. It often attempts to ‘explain’ special reasons or invoke presumed special cases for disproven claims no matter the logic or evidence against them. It’s used to dismiss a question, argument, explanation, or lack of evidence as somehow and uniquely not applying to the claim to be rescued. Such special reasons are invariably offered without justification themselves.

I took the paranormal challenge, but I failed it because I was overwhelmed by the negative vibrations in the room, which scrambled my powers.

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.

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

I couldn’t complete the preliminary trial because the guy conducting it was a magician who cheated by 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 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 psi 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:

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 supernaturally 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 conform to the data. This is not the use of post hoc reasoning: the amendments made here are those hypotheses that can be tested independently of their theory, and 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 test of observation, the test of explanation, and the test of prediction, when it has no proverbial leg to stand on.

Project Logicality | False Causal Reasoning

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Here I discuss a closely related group of mistakes in reasoning, quite common, quite normal, but nonetheless leading us to make mistaken causal connections between events. The first shall be…

…The Post Hoc Fallacy:

Also called in the Latin, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, (“after this, so because of this”)t has a very simple form, when events follow each other in time:

Y occurred before Z. What comes before causes what follows. So Y must have caused Z.

Examples follow:

I wanted to get revenge on someone, so I danced around my kitchen table, said a few profound-sounding nonsense words, sacrificed one of my gerbils, and a week later this guy I really hate was injured in an accident. The ritual must have worked like it was supposed to!

I had the flu, so I took some homeopathic remedy I got at the pharmacy and a few days later my flu went away. Seems to me that the remedy cured my flu.

There is also….

Confusing association with causation:

Also known by the Latin Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, so because of this”), this fallacy also has a rather basic, though subtly different construction from the previous fallacy:

X is found with Y. Things found together are connected. So X caused Y.

Some examples follow:

I got a really good test score while wearing my propeller beanie, So I think that wearing a propeller beanie improves test scores!

My horoscope forecast a rough day for me during the conjunction of Pluto and Jupiter with the center of our galaxy, and it was in fact very stressful and hectic. So the cosmic conjunction must have been responsible for my bad day.

These fallacies have resulted in much in the way of superstition and magical thinking throughout human history, including the present day, forcing upon some the thankless task of social damage-control.

There is, too…

…The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy:

Here one falsely assumes causes in random data patterns, giving them any relationship or meaning one wants to see, often unconsciously, frequently done in some paranormal research with the misuse of statistical methods, like interpreting statistical artifacts and anomalies as scientifically important evidence for the paranormal.

The fallacy takes its name from an imaginary gunman who randomly fires his pistol at the side of a barn while nobody’s looking, and then paints bullseyes around the holes so that he can boast of his skill.

So too, we have…

…The Wrong Direction fallacy:

This one could be claims like:

Tooth cavities cause overeating of sweets and sugary drinks!

Some forms of sterility in men cause ionizing radiation exposure!

Next up is…

…The Complex Cause Fallacy:

When one assumes only one out of a set of causes at the cost of the others, inferring causation only partially true, like:

I think that children’s reading ability just comes from getting older…

…when it is actually caused by both that and education as they mature.

The Joint Cause Fallacy:

in which one assumes causation between a set of things, when they are all caused by the same thing. For example:

Children’s math ability comes from their shoe size!

This claim despite the fact that both are caused by the development of children as they physically mature, grow, and learn.

And finally, there’s…

…The Regression Fallacy:

Inferring causes other than the tendency for extremes of chance to wander ever closer to a statistical average. A good example would be a chess-player who has strings of wins and losses in matches but overall comes out average over time, but feeling as if he is winning, or losing, in ‘streaks,’ a belief in the ‘hot hand,’ as it is known in sports superstitions.

Related to this is the Denial of Causation, such as when the fossil fuel industry dismisses anthropogenic global warming, with one among many spurious claims from their advocates being:

The world’s getting hotter each year, but it’s the sun, stupid! Human causation is impossible!

That despite obvious clear indications of reduced solar activity from solar observatories over decades. But mentioning that fact makes the discussion quickly devolve into one of silly Evil Conspiracies to Fudge the Data™…


The HIV virus doesn’t cause AIDS. There’s no connection between HIV in the blood of those with the disease and immune deficiency. AIDS is just caused by lifestyle and/or diet.

Cue rants on Big Pharma Shills™ and conspiracies of evil doctors. Be those as they may, however,

It’s easily possible for any causal thinking to be spurious, but science offers methods to make correct inferences. Important in such arguments is taking into account any conceivable, testable alternative hypotheses that could be implicated in the actual cause of a given event. Untestable hypotheses of course, needn’t be considered as they are scientifically uninteresting. They are worse than wrong, and not even wrong.

Project Logicality | False Premises

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The truth is crucial to skeptical thinking, and one must always be careful to choose those facts that bear it out reliably. Even in a post-truth political world, to skeptics, facts matter. Here, I address False Premises, important components of unreliable reasoning.

False premises are statements, claims, out-of-context factoids, or assertions which are simply not true, making any argument using them unsound.

They can range from simple myths, misconceptions held out of ignorance, motivated reasoning, dishonesty, or delusion. This is a common rhetorical tactic by pseudoscientists, anti-scientists, politicians, and ideological apologists of all stripes. 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 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 the traces left by a quantum object through the physical interaction of measurement.

It is also demonstrably false because Quantum Mechanics, as a widely-accepted and well-supported scientific theory absolutely depends on the existence of an underlying reality to be a correct understanding of the same on the micro-level, no matter who is running the experiment, when, or where.

The second is false because firstly, it’s pointless to explain something before it’s even convincingly shown to exist to begin with.

It’s also false because secondly, there is no evidence of any quantum-level effects, especially entanglement, in the thus-far detectable neurological activity of the human brain. Human brain cells are too big, too complex, and interact with too much both within and outside of themselves to operate as quantum objects. Decoherence works.

Below are three common variants of this error.

The Big Lie:

This is a false statement so extremely and obviously wrong that it is difficult for many people to think that it would be told if it were not true, especially when told with seeming sincerity, as part of intentional deception, uninformed misinformation, 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. As a man with an alien weapon in my brain, I can kill you just by looking at you crosseyed.

The scientific evidence for Psi is compelling, just Google “evidence for psi” to see for yourself.

That last example, slightly paraphrased, has been used by a commentator on this blog at least once, and, though false and baldly stated, is probably quite commonly used by trolls on blogs and websites critical of Psi research.

The Multiple Untruth:

This is also known as the Gish Gallop, after its frequent use in debates by the late creationist Duane Gish.

This is the spitting out of so many misconceptions at once that they are almost impossible to keep in mind. Though the opponent of the one using this tactic may have the time to refute a few of them, those skilled in debate must judiciously choose which claims to refute and which to ignore. Not all arguments in a debate are of equal rhetorical worth.

This is often effective because against inexperienced debaters, it creates an impression of victory to the user’s audience. What choices you make in refutation matter.

The Noble Lie:

Plato is often credited with inventing this one, and he may indeed have. At any rate, he wrote about it in his dialogue the Republic. It’s a common debating tactic, a falsehood told not only for its rhetorical effect, but also for the intended result of believing the premise.

It operates on the assumption that those it is told to cannot handle the truth or are so stupid that they cannot possibly see through it.

Those treated like fools by being told the lie, once they know the truth, often have an emotional reaction to it, dismissing out of hand anything said by that source from then on.

Plato’s writing on this describes what he thought the ideal society, in which complicity to the social order was maintained by the Noble Lie, that the citizens were placed there by the gods with status set by their essence being of a particular metal, and that because of this essence, all should keep their place and avoid presumptuous human overreach by attempting to rise in status.

If your aim is to engage in intellectually honest, truly constructive discussions, it’s a good idea not to commit this, not only by avoiding intentional falsehoods, but avoiding unintentional misconceptions by making an effort to know what you’re talking about. Nobody can be right about everything.