This is from a while back, but for ten minutes, it’s the most complete, indepth discussion Dr. Tyson’s given on this subject.
I couldn’t have put it better! Another classic from the archives…
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.
A few months back, I got a comment from a visitor to this site on one of my older posts on SF psionic abilities, and thought I’d have a little fun replying to it here in more detail now that I’ve finally come up with a suitable response that doesn’t involve undue rudeness and snarkitude.
Here is the comment in its entirety:
As a healthy skeptic, why don’t you try it out yourself? Google psi beginner exercises or go to psipog.net and do it there. See if maybe you can do some of the things described. If you can, great, you’ve just proven (to yourself) that it is real. If you can’t, well then it reinforces your viewpoint. It’s a win-win situation all around.
This is, with all due respect to the commenter, a good example of the pragmatic fallacy, which basically amounts to, “If (fill in the blank) works for you, then it must be true.”
But this argument puts too much unwarranted trust in personal experience, as useful as it normally is, as being more reliable as a way of knowing than it often is.
Though we get most of the content for our thinking about reality from both direct (from our personal sense data) and secondhand experience (reading and hearing about things from others), as someone with the occasional tendency for self-deception, it’s ironic that my own firsthand experience has itself shown me how unreliable it is in some circumstances.
We can and often do misinterpret our experiences under surprisingly common conditions, causing us to think or believe we are perceiving and experiencing, often in vivid detail, something that we in fact are not, not as it may seem to us. Optical and auditory illusions, including various forms of pareidolia are obvious examples.
And, we may even have experiences of things that do not involve any external stimuli at all.
We humans have a pronounced tendency to hallucinate more frequently than most of us feel comfortable admitting we do.
This last can easily occur under conditions of great stress, fatigue from sleep deprivation, hypnopompic or hypnagogic dreams during sleep paralysis, and even various combinations of our expectations, heightened emotional states, and preexisting beliefs.
To some, seeing is believing, but more accurately, believing is seeing, even when what is seen is not really there.
Our subjective experience can be especially misleading when it involves inferring phenomena, such as those of complex causation by those factors not immediately apparent to us, nor directly apprehended by the physical senses, as is the case with alleged psi-abilities, because of our propensity to see causal patterns in events, oftentimes patterns that do not truly exist, this false pattern discernment involving a number of logical fallacies and cognitive errors that come into play.
So, no…I’d like to, but it’s not a good idea with me.
My propensity to occasionally hoodwink myself in coming to conclusions from untrained, uncontrolled, personal observation under questionable circumstances and of equally questionable sense data, coupled with my hobby of skepticism, and my own consistent experience with how the world appears to work, informs me that just ‘trying something to see if it works for me,’ like claims of psi-abilities, is more than likely to cause me to fool myself.
And that’s something I can do well enough without if it can be helped, thank you much.