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.

Project Logicality | The Argument from Ignorance

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48One of the first things to discover when adopting a skeptical viewpoint is how vastly ignorant we  all are of much of what there is to know. But ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s oblivion. And it’s evil twin, the illusion of knowledge, is downright dangerous.

This post deals with a common mistake in thinking that preys on ignorance, trying to make it seem like knowledge, the Argument from Ignorance, also the Appeal to Ignorance or ad ignorantiam.

It attempts to make a definite statement on a claim by using what is not known rather than what is. It often takes the general form of:

I don’t know X, so I know Y.

Or put differently it goes something like this:

No one has proven X false (or true), so X must be true (or false).

Or perhaps:

I can’t explain X, so I can explain X.

A few examples follow:

No one has proven that Godzilla doesn’t exist, so Godzilla is real.

No one has proven that secondhand smoke causes cancer, so it must be harmless.

I’ve never seen any real, absolute, rock-solid proof that the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, so the Apollo missions were a hoax.

There’s no fallacy committed when there’s knowledge of missing evidence that should logically be found, and it’s known what the expected evidence ought to be. Absence of evidence in the right context is indeed evidence of absence when its lack is glaringly obvious, even if it’s not certain proof of absence!

There’s no fallacy committed in and of itself when acting upon incomplete data for precautionary purposes, such as the threat of terrorists, who can be expected to operate in secret until they strike, if and when they do, or acting upon the threat of global warming in the absence of complete and absolute certainty.

The following is a valid argument:

All of the scheduled openings of this library are listed. I don’t see a listing of it opening at this hour of the day. So it must be that the library will be closed until two hours from now.

This, however, is not:

I see a strange light in the sky. I can’t think of an explanation for it off the top of my head. It must be an alien spaceship.

Or this:

There are gaps in the fossil record. I do not know of a plausible explanation as to why there are such gaps. So it must be that a Intelligent Designer has created or interceded in the creation of life.

A variation of this is Confusing the Unexplained with the Unexplainable, which is fallacious because it assumes implicitly that the current state of knowledge represents the ultimate limits of the knowable, which is just wrong on so many levels.

There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote floating about of a patent clerk in the late 19th or early 20th century who quit his job, because he thought that everything important had already been invented.

There’s also the silly claim, still circulated, that it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly because science can’t explain it, therefore it’s magic. Well, science has explained it, and it deals with the mechanics of a bumblebee’s wings and the physics of fluid dynamics.

This is understandable, even from perfectly normal, intelligent, sane, and sincere people. It’s reasoning from psychologically available information rather than an examination of more complex and difficult data that may not come as quickly or easily to mind.

It just so happens that supernatural or paranormal explanations are among the easiest to conceive of on the spur of the moment. They are more immediately available, and we are more prone to them through the biases and mental shortcuts we take in our default thinking under whatever narrative influences our brains at any given moment, to paraphrase Dr. Steven Novella.

In informal argumentation the fallacious use of the argument from ignorance is not a violation of logical form as much as an attempt to subvert efforts toward getting at sound explanations for our claims.

Project Logicality | False Choice Fallacies

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48This post discusses a common error in reasoning, the False Choice, also known as the False Dichotomy, the Bifurcation fallacy, the Either-Or fallacy, the Fallacy of Negation, the False Dilemma, and for a common variant with only three options, the False Trichotomy.

This uses informal, or language-grounded, logic, and takes the form of a Dilemma, a class of argumentation that takes its effectiveness from resemblance to a formal argument known as a Disjunction.

A Dilemma, false or not, unlike a Disjunction, has a conclusion that follows only to a degree of probability, not necessarily or with complete certainty.

As a fallacy, this argument uses a misleadingly simple choice of two or otherwise too few options, one assumed as true to the negation, discredit, or rejection of all alternatives. In all variants, this falsely constrained selection of options are presented as though they were the only ones.

In any realistic choice there is often a much greater selection of options to take than rhetorically suit the purposes of those who like to use this argument strategy.

On occasion, however there are exceptions, when there do exist a restricted selection of options, as when a prediction made by a scientific hypothesis is either provisionally validated or falsified, or with the argument against theistic moral theories from the dialogues of Plato, Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Sets of choices that reflect realistic limits would not count as a commission of this fallacy.

I’ll provide a few of examples of the False Choice below:

Either young-Earth creationism is true or we came about through blind evolution. But I declare evolution to be false as it contradicts the literal truth of scripture, which I know to be true. Since evolution is false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

You either worship my God, or you worship the Evil One. You don’t worship my God, and since everyone worships something, you must worship the Evil One.

If these are redone as false trichotomies, we get:

Either young-Earth creationism, Intelligent design, or Darwinism is true, and since Darwinism and Intelligent design are false, young-Earth creationism must be true.

This argument completely ignores the vast variety of theological systems and creation myths of all the world’s cultures, past and present, misleadingly presenting an anachronistic 19th century caricature of modern evolutionary science, the creation myths from Genesis (Both of them!) as interpreted by biblical literalists, and Intelligent design as the only possible options.

There is also:

You either worship my concept of God, the Evil One, or the fleshy gods of materialistic science.

This ignores the fact that one may in fact worship nothing at all, no gods, no masters, no devils, no objects of worship of any kind, as is usually the case with atheists.

The rest are simple (and of course, simplistic) dichotomies…

You’re either a believer and a theist, or you’re a skeptic and an atheist.

Two words suffice to refute this: Martin Gardner.

Anyone who doesn’t support the Patriot Act supports terrorists!

Either the girl broke her ex-boyfriend’s jaw with that slugger, or it started flying around and fractured his jaw by itself!

Either your cat stole my burrito or maybe a psychic just teleported in and grabbed it? Suuure…

If you are not with us, you are against us.

You’re either pro-choice or pro-life. There’s no middle ground!

Note that realistically, not all imaginable options in a set of alternatives need to be considered, only those options that are somehow meaningfully testable, as with the rule of thumb known as Occam’s razor, or the principle of theoretical economy.

Also, there is at least one other reason that this argument is not always a fallacy, such as when it is used to further the goal of advancing a critical discussion, and not merely block further consideration or thwart attempts to resolve a controversy.

Caturday’s Astrophenia | Fortnight and Half Again Edition: Oct. 2016

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Welp, I’m a week off for this, as life issues and events prevented posting over the weekend, and the diabolical Mister Eccles is not happy with me!  I had a game last Caturday, while this last Sunday, the cosplay event happened. There, I discovered that I’m not camera-shy even with nigh-crippling stage-fright. There’s something about not seeing the audience directly that allays the terror. I had an awesome time, and both the set crew and other cosplayers were “…fantasic, absolutely fantastic…”* Recording lasted only about 90 minutes, and the Ninth Doctor’s duster I wore was just right for the room temperature, adjusted downward to protect the equipment from overheating. The camera crew was stellar, and all on set got exactly the right instructions to minimize the number of retakes. I’ll post links to the show on this blog and other social media when it airs later this month. So now, I’m back to study, and there is much catching up to do. Please have a glorious October. I have something special planned for the 31st of this month, with posts in between, and I’ll see you between now and then.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

*a partial quote from Chris Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor near the end of the 2005 season finale episode, “The Parting of the Ways,” as Nine says his goodbyes to Billie Piper’s character Rose Tyler just before regenerating into Dave Tennant’s Tenth Doctor. Time Lords do that.

All the Water on Planet Earth

Philae Lander Found on Comet 67P

NGC 1672: Barred Spiral Galaxy from Hubble

The North and South of Jupiter

Retrograde Mars and Saturn

Full Moon over Brno

M33: Triangulum Galaxy

Starry Night Scavenger Hunt

50000 Kilometers over the Sun

The Helix Nebula in Infrared

Zooming in on Star Cluster Terzan 5

Sunset at Edmontonhenge

Harvest Moon Eclipse

Heart and Soul and Double Cluster

Saturn from Above

Gaia: Here Comes the Sun

Jupiter’s Europa from Spacecraft Galileo

NGC 3576: The Statue of Liberty Nebula

Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope

Lynds Dark Nebula 1251

Rosetta’s Farewell

The Moving Stars of the Southern Hemisphere

The Astrognuz

Musk Reveals Plans to Colonize Mars

First Photo of the Sun, Taken in 1845

Judy Schmidt Image of Dust Complex Cyg X

No, NASA Didn’t Change Your Astrological Sign

Time Lapse Animation of the Night Sky

Kilauea Volcano: Active and Wonderful

Mount Pinatubo Only Briefly Slows Global Warming, Sea Level Rise

August 2016: The Hottest August on Record

The Largest Galaxy in the Universe

Climate Change: Already Changing Our Weather

Retro Posters for Fighting Infectious Disease

Blue Origin to Test a Capsule Abort System

Like the American Southwest: Sandstone Deposits on Mars

Presidential Candidates Answer Science Questions

Optical Illusion: The Dots Disappear When You Look Away

Evolution: Video Shows Bacteria Developing Drug Resistance

xkcd: Earth Temperature Timeline

Xkcd Takes on Global Warming
Xkcd Takes on Global Warming: Partial View

Project Logicality | the Argument from Personal Incredulity

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Here we discuss a common flaw in reasoning, the Argument from Personal Incredulity, a variation of the Argument from Ignorance. It involves denying or asserting a claim from the standpoint of a failure to accept, understand, or imagine said claim or it’s contrary.

It’s to impose one’s own cognitive horizons on reality, and like the Argument from Ignorance, pretend to a certain conclusion that one does not have the data or perspective to correctly make.

Reality is not limited, restricted or constrained by our willingness or ability to comprehend it, by what we can personally accept as true, simply because no positive conclusions are obtainable from missing evidence or a failure to generate strong or valid explanations.

Someone with a more active imagination or greater understanding may discover a way to conceive of and comprehend what we cannot. The Argument from Incredulity could be illustrated by way of example:

  • ‘Evolutionists’ and Origin of Life researchers (effectively one and the same to creationists) claim that life arose and reached its present form over billions of years.

  • Being a human with a lifetime of only decades, I can’t wrap my mind around time-scales that immense, or comprehend life arising and evolving by blind, natural processes.

  • So I conclude that evolution is false, as the only alternative I know of, young-Earth creationism, is easier to understand and accept.

or by this silly example…

  • I can’t imagine computers working without pixies transmitting the data in them…

  • So I believe pixies must be responsible for the operation of my Mac.

…or further, in this way…

  • I don’t understand the mathematics and theory behind the Big Bang, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and the simpler Electric Universe theory appeals more to my personal intuitions…

  •  So orthodox astronomy and cosmology is wrong and my pet alternative cosmology is correct.

This fallacy has a minor variant of its own, the Appeal to Ridicule, in which the one making the argument attempts to portray a factual claim or statement as ludicrous, often with dishonest intent in order to influence others into disbelieving it, as is often the case with portrayals of the theory of evolution by creationists like Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, the late Duane Gish and Kent Hovind. The following is an example of the appeal to ridicule:

  • Scientists would have us believe that hydrogen, a colorless, odorless gas, given time, becomes stars, planets, animal and plant life, and ultimately, people.

  • Now, who in his right mind would believe anything so absurd?

…As is this:

  • Mainstream astronomers are always saying that most of the mass of the universe is locked up in some invisible, fairy-tale thing they call ‘dark matter,’ and the even more silly concepts of magic ‘dark energy’ and ‘inflation theory’ unicorns they need to prop up their failing model…

  • …Therefore conventional cosmology is unbelievably comical, so my pet doctrine must be true because it’s more sensible and logical than the Big Bang with all that useless, abstract math it involves.

Never mind that no self-respecting unicorn would be caught dead in an argument like that…much less ‘inflation theory’ ones…😉

It is not an argument from incredulity to make more valid inferences, when what we know is complete enough that our ability to imagine or understand something applies to most reasonable situations, when the phrase ‘I can’t imagine this’ is just a figure of speech, as with this example:

  • We happen to know things about Quantum Mechanics that we have verified experimentally time and again…

  • We do not know anything of QM as it is currently understood that supports its use as a viable explanation for Psi, should Psi even truly exist as is claimed…

  • So I think that Psi, if it exists, cannot be adequately explained by QM.

The argument from incredulity is sometimes a tricky one to pick out, especially in one’s own arguments, as it is not always made in the form of a statement, but well worth the effort in recognizing to avoid being bamboozled in a debate, with or without creationists, electric universe proponents or parapsychologists as the opposition.

Ubi dubium, ibi libertas. – Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

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