Tag Archive | Straw Man

Project Logicality | Reducing to Absurdity

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 21.28.48What happens when we carry a train of reasoning to its ultimate extreme, far past the reaches of sanity to the realm of the patently absurd? Here, we discuss such an argument in informal logic, borrowed from formal mathematical reasoning, and here known as the Reductio ad Absurdum.

In formal logic 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. Typical of most of the claims of pseudo-archaeology, especially where ancient non-whites are not given due credit for their accomplishments.

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

Meh!

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: historical 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.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)

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Evaluating Arguments & the Creeping Spectre of Gullibility

I’ve strived from the start to be a fair skeptic, to see arguments as they are, to analyse and evaluate them in such a way that I see errors in reasoning, logical fallacies, only where they actually exist, and so to avoid attacking straw-person caricatures of what is being argued…to see an argument as it really is, and to attack it only on its merits, or lack of them.

But as someone diagnosed with an illness like mine, I find that the real danger is not seeing fallacies of argument where they are not, but failing to see them where they are, and this I find unsettling. It’s sometimes the case that I’ll read or hear an argument, and while a skeptic without my disorder would easily note the error, rather than to not make out the sense of a reasonable argument, I sometimes make out too much sense out of unreasonable arguments — I sometimes see valid arguments where they are not.

While my treatment plan helps substantially with the more overt forms of delusional thinking, aided to a degree with skeptical thinking, I can and sometimes do, without thinking carefully, experience a feeling of sensibility when none is actually warranted.

Sometimes, I catch myself, with a brief mental “Aha! Gotcha!” followed by a rejection of the spurious feeling of sensibleness, sometimes, though, it slips past me, and lo, I am fooled.

This means that I sometimes miss what would be obvious and glaring logical errors to others with even the same knowledge and experience as I, minus the diagnosis of course.

I’m currently expanding my understanding of logical and rhetorical fallacies, and this has been very helpful, but I know that if anything, I must learn more and train my intuitive faculties further still. There is much to learn, still much to take in.

I must always be on the lookout for my overactive intuition, and I’m engaged at reining it in, to limit its purview to — mostly at least — those things that actually do make sense once truly understood, and not misleading fallacies, deepities, and word-salad with no real meaning at all.

While I can’t ever be absolutely certain to avoid that, so what? I’m not convinced that anything in the world can be known as absolutely certain, nor needs to be absolute to count as knowledge.

That it does is a claim that I’m deeply suspicious of, and maybe that’s a good sign.

Funny thing, that, the common phrase denoting claims to absolute knowledge, “set in stone,” when it doesn’t take a scientist to know that a stone wears away with time, and even the universe has a lifespan.

There’s hope yet. And where there is hope, there is life.

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Some Basics for Intellectually Honest Discussion

In any discussion involving disagreement between two or more parties, in order for that discussion to actually accomplish something meaningful, I’ve noticed a few guidelines that should generally be observed for the discussion to successfully carry.

This is needed when what is desired is more than just flaming common message-board trolls, more than a bickering pissing contest or argument by assertion, when what is desired is willing agreement, agreement to disagree, or to clarify or elaborate on a previously asserted position.

Here are a few I find handy, and I expect these, under near ideal conditions, of those I argue with as well:

  1. Avoid using partisan-sounding loaded language, and try to be clear in your meaning if the goal is illumination, not obfuscation. Use of loaded language that appeals to ideologies and attitudes your interlocutor doesn’t share is inappropriate and may prevent them from seeing things ‘your way’ via a negative attitudinal reaction to your choice of words. Presentation is everything.
  2. Mind the soundness of your reasoning, and try to avoid committing obvious logical and rhetorical fallacies. This is even more important than pointing out such fallacies in your partner’s arguments, and if you cannot see the flaws in your own reasoning, he or she almost certainly can and will if so inclined and skilled.
  3. Avoid the use of cherry-picked quotes, factoids, or other data out of its proper context to support your point, and make sure your sources both pertain to the topic of discussion and support your case. Nothing is more embarrassing that quoting a source to shore up your point only to find out that it has nothing to do with what you said in its full context, or that it even outright contradicts your point.
  4. This should go with [3.] but is important on its own, too: Make sure your sources are reliably trustworthy and the information you use from them is factually correct. Check your facts — if you don’t, your argument partner will, and will call you on it if not.
  5. Address the argument made, and only the argument, not a straw-person caricature of the argument, and not the person making it, unless some circumstance both true and relevant to the argument warrants questioning its source. Insults and snark should be used as adjuncts to, not replacements for, strong or valid argument. Don’t be a dick unless the other person is as well, then, all bets are off and you may fire at will, Mr. Gridley.
  6. Respect your opponent. Showing respect for your argument partner’s/opponent’s personhood, rights, autonomy, intelligence, and perspective allows you to claim that same respect for yourself, and all of the previous guidelines rest upon this one.
  7. Be prepared to admit when you are shown wrong, allow yourself to be corrected, and move on. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more destructive to civil discourse than a dogmatic need for certainty, and nothing more tempting in our tumultuous, ever-changing world with metaphysical certitude’s siren song of absolute Truth™ calling to the unwary.
  8. Finally, and most importantly, know your own biases and consider how they may intrude on your objectivity: None of us are as objective as we think ourselves to be, but we can make ourselves more so if we know and account for our biases in our thinking and perspective. Typical examples are confirmation bias, selective thinking, the attribution error, the representativeness heuristic, the superiority bias, the availability error, and many, many others. I encourage you to read up on these and similar errors and shortcuts in thinking — you won’t be sorry that you did. Every one of us is skewed in our views, but by learning of and accounting for this, we are the wiser for it.

Namaste.

Project Logicality | Notes on Common Fallacies & the Fallacist’s Fallacy

Identifying and labeling logical fallacies when they are used as argument strategies is useful – It weakens the rhetorical effect of the labeled argument, possibly even disqualifying it as viable support for a position.

But common fallacies can be used not only to legitimately point out truly inductively weak, logically invalid, or otherwise unpersuasive arguments, but may be overextended as well – they may be misapplied to label sound, cogent, and persuasive arguments as fallacies if and when this is not the case.

The appeal to authority:

This is often used to dismiss a position as merely an argument from authority, if and when it is actually an argument by authority – that the claimed credentials and qualifications of the authority are both true and relevant to the matter discussed, and the authority appealed to has a genuine basis for making their statements.

Example:

“Oh, that’s just something that those Establishment archaeologists say to hide the Truth about the Mayan pyramids!”

Incorrect cause:

This can often be used to deny an actual causative correlation that has been shown real, claiming even then that “correlation is not causation,” and invoking a more complex causative relation than needed when the evidence may well point to the simpler relation that A causes B.

Example:

“Actually, the warming of the climate is not caused by human industrial pollution, it’s really just a natural cycle that correlates instead with the warming of Mars – and cow farts!”

Ad hominem:

This can be used to argue that the critic of an idea is attacking the proponent of an idea rather than the idea itself – note that an insult, by itself, is not an ad hominem. – it only becomes that when the insult is used as a reason that the one insulted is wrong without substantially addressing the argument itself. An ad hominem is not always a fallacy and can also be used in a legitimate way, as in pointing out a real and relevant conflict of interest or bias in the subject.

Examples:

“You just say that because you’ve closed your mind to the very possibility of the unconventional.”

“I don’t trust anything you say…you’re in the pay of those well-funded liberal environmental lobbyists.”

“Scientists are arrogant for claiming they know anything.”

Reductio ad absurdum:

Like some other fallacies, this may be used as part of an inductively strong argument or logically valid one and is often used in formal logical proofs. It becomes a fallacy, a false reductio ad absurdum, and a straw man(see below) when used to argue the silliness of a position without using the actual, original line of reasoning in the argument.

Straw man:

This one is easy to commit, and easy to overextend when applied to a legitimate critique of one’s position using the premises and logic actually involved in the original argument. To avoid this, it is necessary to do whatever is required to understand an opponent’s argument and interpret it as charitably as possible, without over-generously ignoring non sequiturs and inconsistencies, or being too proud to ask for clarifications.

To overplay this fallacy and falsely accuse your opponent of a straw man is to commit one yourself through misunderstanding the counterargument given.

An example of both a false reductio ad absurdum and a common straw man:

“If you don’t believe in psychic powers, then you must also not believe in dark energy and dark matter, so 90% of the universe must not exist, because you haven’t seen those either!”

Special pleading:

This form of reasoning is not itself innately fallacious, and can be a perfectly good logical strategy for constructing hypotheses for testing. The fallacy comes when it is used to dismiss fair criticism of an idea or used in an ad hoc manner to patch together a set of hypotheses in an overly limited fashion and render them untestable – neither falsifiable nor meaningfully verifiable. It is also over-employed when used to criticize a valid or strong argument as being ad hoc, when in fact the argument’s premises and assumptions are supported through prior evidence, arguments, or observations and the reasoning is not overly baroque in structure.

Examples:

“Psi is real, and has been successfully replicated, but skeptical readers of journals these studies are published in use an unconscious, retroactive, and unobservable psychokinesis that reaches through time and causes the successful replications to fail.”

“The big bang model of cosmology can’t possibly be viable…it’s got too many patches like fairy-tale dark matter, undetectable dark energy, and imaginary inflation propping it up from falsification by protecting it from the data.”

The Fallacist’s fallacy…

…which is to argue that because an argument is invalid or weak that the argument’s conclusion is therefore false.

This shows a misunderstanding of the relationship between the truth value of the conclusion and the nature of validity or strength.

Deductive validity means that if the premises are true then the conclusion follows automatically – There is no valid logical argument in which the premises can be true and the conclusion false, because the chain of reasoning follows with certainty, but it is possible for an argument to be fallacious and still have a true conclusion – it just doesn’t follow from the reasoning, requiring a better argument for one’s position.

A conclusion can be false, even with true premises, and an argument therefore not follow, but not following from the premises does not imply the falsehood of the conclusion, only that the argument itself is not cogent, is unpersuasive, and cannot be used to support that position.

Arguments BTW, cannot themselves be true or false, only the individual statements making them up.

(Updated as of 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | Begging the Question & Other Fun Forms of Specious Reasoning

 

Picking out logical fallacies can be fun, so here are a few more to add to your critical thinking arsenal, all while considering, as per Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

Begging the Question…

…additionally known as assuming the answer, a form of circular reasoning.

As an informal argument, this is borrows from the form of a tautology. It’s a common fallacy, in particular involving arguments which the conclusion of the argument is one of its own premises, or one of the reasons given to support it.

With this fallacy, in claims of fact rather than its use in pure mathematics or symbolic logic, where this form of argument can be valid if trivially true, the premise assumes the conclusion’s proof when this is the very thing that needs demonstrating, especially in 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 a significant deviation from the laws of chance, so any significant deviation from the laws of chance must mean that psi is at work.

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 eldritch alien gods speak directly to me when I read Their Unholy Word, since Their Unholy 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!

Use 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…

…The Straw Man Argument:

This is an often-encountered and generally rude flaw in arguments, from discussions to formal debates, though more conducive to annoying and heated quarrels than constructive dialogue, it’s both common and well-known as a red-herring strategy.

It’s most often appreciated by those who intentionally use it, for this fallacy is incredibly easy to carry out.

A quick and easy way to appear to win a debate is to deliberately misrepresent the opposing position, especially by distorting it to make it look ridiculous or weak and easily refuted to the target audience.

Once this is done, the user can argue against the misrepresented position and claim that the opponent’s actual argument has been defeated.

A straw man is an informal fallacy and often intended to avoid or distract from the real argument instead of actually addressing the position actually taken. For this reason it’s always an unsound and dishonest form of argument.

Included in this fallacy are such tactics as intentionally misdefining words, such as the following, the first misdefining the word ‘religion’:

“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 or completely fabricating a quote, which is then an argument from quotation.

Straw man arguments are often committed unintentionally, out of a genuine misunderstanding of the actual position, so it is important to actually understand an argument before offering a rebuttal.

Believing that you understand an opponent’s position when you really don’t is what psychologist Ray Hyman has referred 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 much 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.

This fallacy may take its name from the idea of two individuals being at odds, whereupon one builds a straw effigy of his foe, and destroying it, claims to have vanquished his actual opponent…

…but sources vary, and another likely 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 other pointy things.

It is committing a straw man to falsely claim that your opponent is committing a straw man, when actually countering the original argument using its own definitions and in context.

And then there is…

…Shifting the Burden of Proof:

This is one of the more common intellectual strategies of anti-science contrarians, also called the negative proof fallacy.

The intent is to attempt to shift the burden of proof for a claim away from oneself, and onto the critics, arguing that said critics must prove that the pet claim in question isn’t true, or to 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 sensible 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 isn’t possible to prove a universal negative when it comes to something existing, to prove absolutely that something isn’t real with a finite data set. You can move the probability of something existing ever closer to zero, but never quite there.

Nor is it possible to prove anything absolutely and forever true regarding facts of the real world with finite information. Facts change over time, after all.

Repeatable phenomena can only be demonstrated beyond a rational doubt, which is really all that is needed in science.

Unfortunately, not all 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 that cannot be met, claiming that if it is not, that the standard theory is ‘in crisis’ or ‘on shaky ground.’

It’s just a rhetorical stunt, and any attempt to shift the burden of proof in these ways should simply be met with a refusal to comply with this tactic, and a firm reminder of on whom 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.

And finally…

…The Tu Quoque Argument:

Tu Quoque is a Latin term, for the “you too” fallacy. It is a type of ad hominem in which one attempts to justify wrong doing by accusing one opponent of hypocritically doing the same. This is a fallacy because two wrongs do not make a right! It’s dismissing an argument without actually addressing it, by attacking the one argued with rather than the argument.

A few examples follow:

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 RV of the same make and model as mine? Your argument is bogus!

Or another…

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!

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.

While you probably won’t spontaneously develop pointed ears, arched eyebrows or a black goatee, familiarizing yourself with bad reasoning can make it easier to identify it in oneself even without being a member of the Evil Spock School of Logic.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Updated as of 2017.06.06)

Project Logicality | Reducing to Absurdity

What happens when we carry a train of reasoning to its ultimate extreme, far past the reaches of sanity to the realm of the patently absurd? Here, we discuss such an argument in informal logic, borrowed from formal mathematical reasoning, and here known as the Reductio ad Absurdum.

In formal logic 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. Typical of most of the claims of pseudo-archaeology, especially where ancient non-whites are not given due credit for their accomplishments.

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

Meh!

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: historical 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.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)