Tag Archive | Fallacy

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 | 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 | 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™…

Another:

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 | 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.

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.