I’ve noticed as a thing sure as death and taxes, especially those imposed on the middle class, online trolls are everywhere, ranging in behavior from simple illogical arguments and ad hominem nonsense to the apparently psychopathic offers of rape and death threats infesting skeptical and atheist blogs, particularly those of female bloggers, often just to get attention, to throw a tantrum, and occasionally organized in digital swarms with the intent to censor a discussion by drowning it out with the sheer volume of online noise generated.
I’ve never had this happen in face-to-face talks with believers, though at one point I used to have rather…lively…debates with a New Ager I used to know, discussions which, looking back, I rather enjoyed.
To be fair, but not too even-handed, there’s a certain amount of undue enthusiasm and downright asshattery among many newbie followers of some well-known figures in the rationalist community too, packs of inexperienced, young, foolish wolves…
…and it was such individuals who drove a good friend of mine, one of the finest bloggers and best damn lolcat artists I’ve ever known, out of the rationalist community forever, and with much acrimony for it.
You are missed, =^Skeptic Cat^=, but your path winds ever on…
There’s a bit of asymmetry here though: the fringe and religious apologetics sites do not usually have the same de facto standards of free and open discussion as skeptical blogs, often engaging in censoring dissent or criticism in the commentary through banishing, comment deletion, comment doctoring, strictly regulating skeptical comments, or aggressive trolling by the other commentators to silence the offending rationalist.
Skeptical blogs I’ve frequented don’t compare with most fringe sites on this, with the comment threads often crawling with posts from attention-whoring trolls who, depending on the site, either go without being fed and leave for greener pastures, or stay and get flamed when they are particularly illogical and inept.
The most extreme ways of dealing with them are implemented for reasons stemming from the egregious or illegal nature of the comment, whether actual threats of physical harm or by being libelous in content, or the troll has worn out his welcome by confusing the right to free speech with a permit to digitally sh*t on people’s online rugs without limit.
This asymmetry applies elsewhere as well:
There is a vast disparity in the degree to which each side of the skeptic/true believer dispute accurately and honestly portrays and represents the views, or the persons, of the other.
Simply fact-checking what each side says that the other says, and what they actually say (The Wayback machine and sharpened Google-chops are your friends here…), has shown me that the fringe sites far more frequently misrepresent their critics, even to the point of outright fabrication of posted quotes, and engaging in the very same sort of name-calling and character slurs they complain about themselves, with a tendency toward litigious behavior toward critics rather than an honest desire to back up their claims with real data when challenged.
Because often, they can’t back up their claims, and the willful charlatans among the fringe know this, so they avoid it like an Andromeda-strain infection.
The material on these sites I’ve found to be very instructive in discerning and recognizing both factual and logical errors that would make Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, and Dick Feynman spin in their graves at a velocity exceeding the “c” in E=mc²…
There are millions of such sites on the web to which that probably applies, though every so often I run across a proponent who is at least willing to hear skeptical arguments even when ultimately disagreeing, and this is good, because it encourages me to listen back, to hear it from the proverbial equinoid’s mouth instead of doing a hideously unskeptical thing like plugging my virtual ears and shouting ‘la la la, I can’t hear you!’
But there’s no fine line between believers and skeptics, just a graduated spectrum of belief ranging from base credulity to outright denialism, with the more seasoned skeptics hovering more or less along the balance between these extremes…
…good, healthy skepticism.
There’s also that phenomenon of the “sacred cow” among rationalists, who are among the first to concede that it exists — that one little odd belief that somehow resists our otherwise rigorous skeptical scrutiny, even when consciously acknowledged — mine is gaming superstitions.
People, all of us, tend to make slip-ups in reasoning and assumptions when it comes to the particular objects of our biases, when we do not with due care frame our questions and seek our answers.
This is why a good search for understanding is done skeptically, and why such an approach is most likely to succeed, and not that which uncritically accepts all claims without adequate testing and careful evaluation.
I’ve mentioned before the need for a ‘voice’ on this site, since I know some wonderful people, believers many of them, and they’re an absolute joy to talk to despite any faux pas on my part.
But some people have thought processes that seem to come from one of the moons of Saturn, and this is when reasoning with them, much less coherently conversing, becomes difficult, even though I suppose that we belong to the same species.
There’s a problem of being misinterpreted through lack of a shared frame of reference, disparate worldviews, and such, in which there is no mutual understanding of words like, “reason,” “evidence,” “belief,” or especially those twin bugaboos of radical epistemic skepticism, “knowledge,” and “fact.”
It’s a communication gap based on differences in the way people think, how they reason, if and when they do, and it’s very frustrating at times.
I’ve come across claims of allegedly alternative modes of reasoning before, like the notion of, and I’m not making this up, a “logic of psychically-based rational thought.”
Everyone wants to paint themselves as the rational ones, and proponents are no exception, including those who hold themselves to be psychic, so I’ll first establish for the sake of argument what I mean by “rational” in a nutshell — “The ability to give reasons to justify claims that a knowledgeable audience exercising critical judgment would find acceptable and to which they would give their provisional assent if offered.” — I think that’s a fair usage, and it’s one that’s widely agreed upon by most argumentation theorists and rhetoricians worldwide.
Generally, much of the argumentation of proponents falls short of this standard, and I find it depressing when they can’t even manage to mind their own reasoning and assumptions, attempting to use the same standards of argument on skeptics as they would believers, and then getting upset when their arguments don’t fly, much less get onto the airfield.
The problem with any new paradigm of reasoning, like any paradigm, is threefold:
- It must be viable and correspond to the portion of reality it is intended to address, including the reality of the possibilities and limits of human thinking, understanding, and reasoning.
- It must have some pragmatic benefit, that is, it must be able to achieve the goals it’s conception is intended to, such as preserve the truth of its premises in logical conclusions or usefully provide evidential support for claims, or extending current modes of reasoning to new areas of thought where the new model would have superior applicability, etc.
- It must be coherent within itself, and compatible with contingent matters of fact if used as a model of reasoning about the world, including the inner world of human cognition.
Lastly, a new model of the world, even the misty world of human thought, needs to get done what is needed to get itself generally accepted as a worthy idea, and that means passing any critical assessment the model may be subjected to by those who may not initially see its value.
If the proponent of an idea won’t or can’t be bothered to pass this gauntlet and demonstrate the idea’s merit, then that shows a lack of confidence in one’s own idea, and a lack of sincerity in continuing to claim the idea’s truth only to the like-minded or to the easily swayed.
Otherwise, it is likely to rest in history — at best remembered in the heap of discarded, untested, or tested and wasted ideas — and at worst, not remembered at all.
One of the most common ways for arguments to go astray is to make an appeal to irrelevant reasons to support the main claim of an argument, or for complex arguments, the resolution of a case.
Many variations of such appeals are similar to but subtly different from arguments from authority, in that the authority is not necessarily a person or a direct statement made by same, in or out of context, but a quality attached to an idea, a product, alleged service, protocol, or treatment.
There are several such appeals to evidence which isn’t.
A few are shown below:
- The appeal to tradition/antiquity — This fallacy lies in inferring that something is true, good, healthy, or works, because it has been in use for a long time, when it’s longevity could simply be the result of social or psychological inertia, or just plain stupidity, and not any real truth, virtues, efficacy, safety, or usefulness of the claim itself. — “But we’ve always held human sacrifices to He Who Nibbles Annoyingly at this time of year to help the crops grow…Why stop now?”
- The appeal to the new/exotic — Speciously inferring that a thing is good, useful, effective, or to be believed because of some perceived unusual or novel quality, regardless of the actual truth of the claims made for it or other relevant quality of the thing. — “This sweater costs a king’s ransom, but is well worth it, for it was knitted from the wool of Alpine mountain goats fed on imported lichens and flora harvested from a boiling subterranean Antarctic lake by trained eunuchs.”
- The appeal to sympathy — This is inferring that a claim is to be believed because those making it are deserving of our pity, sympathy, mercy, or unjustly treated, when such an inference has no relation to the claim being offered — “Hey, this guy’s gotten short shrift in business for years, so let’s consult him on all of our important foreign policy decisions.”
- The appeal to popularity — This fallacy lies in asserting that something is to be believed because it is widely accepted, when it is easily the case that 50 million of anybody can indeed be wrong. Indeed, everyone in the universe could believe Azathoth and the Other Gods to be real when that simply would not be the case. — This fallacy, along with appeals to celebrity, is one of the most common used in modern advertising. It is often coupled with the appeal to tradition in some arguments, but is pure poison no matter how it’s used.
- Appeal to unconventionality/antiauthority — A variation of the argument from authority or perhaps a positive ad hominem, in which the claimant’s virtue is perceived to come from opposition to a tyrannical and dogmatic establishment. Indeed, it’s the claimant’s lack of expertise and allegedly revolutionary mindset that is ironically their main claim to authority. — But those matters requiring real expertise are what they are — revolutionary sentiment and bold words do not make a science.
Those using these fallacies to promote their claims still must bear the burden of proof if they wish to be taken seriously by those doing genuine research work, or not. And if they wish to do so, the first thing to be done is to use evidence for their claims that actually bear on the issues they raise, to avoid these crimes of relevance, for science answers to a higher authority than any one researcher — reality — and while you can fool individual scientists, reality is not so easily fooled, and the truth will come out no matter how facile the argument against it.
The content of this post may contain NSFW language and at least one rather graphic example, not particularly kid-friendly, is provided.
You’ve been warned.
In this installment I’ll discuss the ad baculum argument, or just for the sake of annoying pedantry, because I’m evil like that, the ‘argument from the cudgel,’ or otherwise known as the appeal to force.
This is an informal argument, and often fallacious in its use of an irrelevant appeal, to compel compliance or at least feigned agreement with a conclusion by duress or by the threat of it, whether that duress be physical, psychological, or legal.
It’s a subset of the argument from consequences, and in a simple but possibly vulgar formulation basically amounts to, “Agree with me and do as you’re told, or I’ll kick your ass,” or maybe a bit less crudely, “I’m right because I’m badder and meaner than you are and I can light you up easily. So there.”
There’s also the (in)famous “Do as I say, not as I do,” with the addendum, “…or else!”
It’s fallacious when the threat implied or expressed used has no logical relation to the claim offered, and it aims to exploit a demand for submission to authority and fear as a substitute for valid argument.
This is probably apocryphal, but there’s a classic example I’ve seen on various places on the Web, of a statement of Hitler’s upon hearing the then-current Pope’s displeasure with his policies, whereupon he is to have said, “…and how many tanks does the Pope have?”
Not exactly a rhetorical question…
…and it quite nicely illustrates the specious use of this argument in making use of the idea that ‘might makes right.’
Another example of this is Pascal’s Wager, with its choice, actually a false dilemma, of either belief in God while supposedly losing nothing and a chance at winning everything, or non-belief and risking perdition if one is ‘wrong,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean, since to many religious believers, everyone else’s beliefs, or lack of them as the case may be, are wrong, even intolerable, and sometimes pure evil to boot.
Never mind the underlying self-serving motivation for belief promoted by the Wager, but that’s a subject for a future post…
But an ad baculum argument not always a fallacy, and can have valid applications, such as when the threat, force or punishment invoked has a direct relation to the claims of the argument and is not merely used to overthrow a discussion by substituting intimidation or fear for actual justification of a claim, such as the criminal penalties imposed to support the edicts of various legal systems that certain activities, including but not limited to theft, fraud, and treason, are wrong, or unethical, and should be punished by law, such as by narfling the Garthok, or being consigned to Jabba’s Rancor pit for making bad SF movie references on this blog. Ouch.
- 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 would be very unpleasant, and worse than death, for madness comes as they eat your brain.
- So to best avoid this unpleasant fate, you must not read ‘Reflections on Infinity.’
Yes, that was a little over the top, but I did say this post wasn’t kid-safe.
Like several forms of argumentation, sometimes fallacies and others not, the valid or invalid use of it is dependent on context, and the use of it for the promotion or squelching of a critical discussion, valid when used for the former, invalid for the latter…
…or sound or unsound, strong or weak, in any case, even though the logic used is probabilistic rather than certain in nature.
Most informal fallacies are not simple matters of incorrect structure having nothing to do with the content of an argument, as with syllogistic logic, but are heavily dependent on the meaning bound up in the language used, for language is inextricably bound into informal argumentation, not mere decorative filler.
(Last Update: 2011/07/03, 1:00 A.M. Text Corrections Made. Meaning Unchanged)
This post deals with several forms of invalid reasoning, and the first of these is of course Begging the Question, additionally known as Assuming the Answer, and is also called circular reasoning.
As an informal argument, this is borrows its structure from the form of a tautological argument, and a common fallacy when misapplied to certain forms of informal reasoning, in particular those involving factual, definitional, value, or policy claims or arguments which the conclusion of the argument, that particular argument’s central claim or statement, is one of its own premises, or reasons given to support that conclusion or statement. Regardless of whether the argument in question is validly applied or not, this reasoning has the general logical structure of:
P (the premise) requires C (the conclusion) to be true,
C (the conclusion) requires P (the premise) to be true,
So I conclude that therefore P (the premise) is true.
With this fallacy, specious in the context of claims of fact rather than its use in pure mathematics or strict symbolic logic, where this form of argumentation can be valid, the premise assumes the conclusion’s proof as a given when this is the very thing that has to be demonstrated, especially in those arguments where the conclusion is in some way controversial or otherwise uncertain.
- I’ve heard that this house is haunted, and I saw a ghost last week when I was drifting off to sleep, so this house must be really haunted.
- Psi abilities are defined as a significant deviation from the laws of chance, so any significant deviation from the laws of chance must mean that psi abilities are operating.
- The uncanny precision of the fine-tuning of universal constants that allow life to exist requires the work of an intelligent agency to perform the fine-tuning, therefore an intelligent agency fine-tuned the universe.
- My gods speak directly to me when I read Their holy Word, since Their holy Word states that They speak directly to me when I read it.
- Of course Cthulhu will eat his brain if he reads that dangerous book, because if it wasn’t dangerous, Cthulhu wouldn’t eat his brain for reading it!
Employment of the phrase ‘begging the question’ in ordinary language isn’t a fallacy as long as no argument is being made, in the usage of ‘questions that beg for answers.’
Next in line we have…
This is a frequently encountered and generally rude flaw in arguments, from discussions to formal debates, though more conducive to annoying and heated quarrels than constructive dialogue, a common fallacy, and well-known as a commonly used red-herring strategy.
It’s use is most often appreciated by those who intentionally employ it, for this fallacy is incredibly easy to execute.
A quick and easy way to make it look like you won a debate is to deliberately misrepresent your opponent’s position, especially by distorting it or even pulling it out of your posterior from whole cloth, and so doing can make it look ridiculous or weak and easily refuted to your target audience.
Once this is done, the user can argue against the misrepresented position and claim that the opponent’s actual argument has been summarily dispatched.
A Straw Man argument is an informal fallacy and its use is intended to avoid or distract from the real argument instead of actually addressing the position an opponent is actually taking, and for this reason is always a logically unsound, and when purposely committed, intentionally dishonest form of argument.
Included in this fallacy are such tactics as intentionally misdefining words, such as the following:
- “Global Warming is a religion, and policies concerning it shouldn’t be undertaken by the Federal government…”
- Misdefining ‘Gravity’ and ‘theory’ and ‘fact’ to declare that “Gravity is not a fact, just a theory,”
- Putting words into one’s opponent’s mouth…
- …and that all-time favorite of ideological apologists of all mutant strains, quoting one’s opponent out of context, even completely fabricating a quote, which becomes an Argument from Quotation.
Straw man arguments are often committed, not intentionally, but out of a genuine misunderstanding of an opponent’s position, so it is important to actually understand your opponent’s arguments before offering your rebuttal.
Believing that you understand an opponent’s position when in fact you do not is what psychologist Ray Hyman refers to as a Type III cognitive error. Needless to say, this is something to be avoided.
A few more examples of this fallacy are below:
- If humans came from apes, then why are there still apes? (The question is a lot like “If children come from adults, why are there still adults?”)
- “Evolution teaches that energy, such as heat or light, plus matter, eventually becomes new life.”
- Mainstream cosmologists ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit their preconceived beliefs and deny that there is an electromagnetic causation for anything in space.
- If you don’t think that psychic phenomena are real, then you must also disbelieve in dark matter and dark energy, because you haven’t seen those either, and therefore you deny that 90% of the universe exists!
That last is an example of a Reductio Ad Absurdum as well…
This fallacy probably takes its name from the idea of two individuals being at odds with one another, whereupon one builds a straw effigy of his foe, and destroying it, claims to have vanquished his actual opponent…
…but sources vary, and another probable origin for the term is the use of straw target dummies used by some military training camps for bayonet and combat knife practice by recruits, effigies that crudely simulate a live but immobile opponent for the purpose of repeated poking with sharp objects and pointy things.
It is a straw man argument to claim that one’s opponent is committing a straw man himself, when in fact, the opponent is making a counterargument which deals with one’s own argument using the definitions established from the beginning and in its true context.
And then there is…
…Shifting the Burden of Proof:
This is one of the more common intellectual strategies of true-believers, also called the Negative Proof Fallacy.
The intent is to attempt to shift the burden of proof for their claims away from themselves, and onto their critics, arguing to the effect that said critics must prove that the pet claim in question isn’t true, or with anti-science contrarians, demand proof to an impossible standard of evidence that a widely accepted and otherwise well-supported theory is true. This last use is also a Moving Goalpost fallacy.
This is a fallacy because of a principle in science known as the Null Hypothesis, which demands that the burden of proof falls upon the party making a claim of fact that has yet to be established, not the claim’s critics.
Simply put, it demands that ‘Any new idea is to be considered probably untrue until it is tested and demonstrated true beyond the doubt of a reasonable person exercising critical judgment.’
This applies to all new theories, and any theory passing this gauntlet will become accepted by the scientific community at large, despite what you may hear from cranks. Any theory not passing this requirement is then relegated to the intellectual garbage heap of failed ideas.
Also, It is simply not possible to prove a universal negative, to prove absolutely that a claim of fact isn’t true with a finite data set. It may be possible to move the probability of something being true ever closer to zero, but you can never actually reach that with a finite amount of even negative evidence.
Nor is it possible to prove anything absolutely true, to a probability of exactly one excepting those singular documented events that have already happened, like life arising and evolving on Earth the way it has.
Repeatable phenomena can only be demonstrated beyond a rational doubt, which is really all that is needed in science.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s doubt is rational, thus leading to the commission of this fallacy by proponents of pseudoscience, who insist that critics explain away all of the data, to their satisfaction or demand that the critics explain absolutely any perceived ‘anomaly’ in a standard theory, such as evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics or such, again to a standard of satisfaction that cannot be met, arguing that if it is not, that the standard theory is ‘in crisis’ or ‘on shaky ground.’
It’s effectively just a rhetorical stunt, and any attempt to thus improperly shift the burden of proof in these ways should simply be met with a refusal to comply with this intellectually dishonest tactic, and a firm reminder of on who the burden actually rests. It’s most often used when the proponent of a theory has no real positive evidence in favor of his own idea, which is usually the case in pseudoscience.
…The Tu Quoque Argument:
Tu Quoque is a Latin term, and in English it means “you as well.” It is a subset of ad hominem in which one attempts to justify wrong doing by arguing that one’s opponent commits the same, that one’s opponent is no better. This is a way of cheaply dismissing an argument without actually addressing it, as per a normal ad hominem, by attacking the one argued with rather than the argument. A few examples are provided below:
Why should I accept your contention that global warming is real, and at least partly caused by human beings, when you drive a gas-guzzling SUV of the same make and model as mine? Your argument is bogus!
I do not feel compelled to hold free elections in this country to restore peace when your followers in the opposition party commit just as much violence against my militia and others of my own tribe as you claim mine do!
and a third comes to mind…
Your argument that the evidence for psi is not sufficiently robust to establish it’s reality carries no weight when your organization launches scathing personal attacks against my institute’s staff in response to our criticism of your blind materialistic ideology.
Needless to say, I find it amusing to go on forums and skim over the threads for these and other fallacies. It’s even fun to pick out and identify new ones, or new variations of familiar ones, and just as fun to construct counter-arguments for the examples you see there.
While you probably won’t spontaneously develop pointed ears, arched eyebrows or a black goatee, familiarizing yourself with invalid reasoning can make it easier to identify it in one’s own argument even without being a member of the Evil Spock school of logic.
(Last Update 2013/04/06, links updated)