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Two equally bad fallacies - Comments

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 1 by Jos Gibbons

Were there two fallacies listed there?

On the "what's your least favourite fallacy?" question, I don't think I could narrow that massive shortlist down to just one, but there is one fallacy in particular I'd like to discuss because I've never seen it discussed anywhere else but have repeatedly spotted it being used on richarddawkins.net (not by typical posters, of course). You mentioned climate change deniers. Well, here's one to do with them that really riles me.

Someone comes on and says they're agnostic on the topic because, while they're familiar with the case for the scientific consensus, they've also read the deniers' case against it and can't work out for themselves which side is better, so you can't just go through the facts to convince them because apparently assessing facts exceeds their intellectual capacity. So what else can you do? You could point out they have no excuse for not accepting the scientific consensus, but they'll go on and on and on about how technically the consensus itself doesn't prove anything, but rather the reasons for the consensus do ... you know, the very reasons you can't use to persuade them for the aforesaid reason?

That only leaves you with one option: demand they reveal what deniers' arguments they genuinely think could in principle be right because they don't know enough stuff to realise what's wrong with those arguments, then debunk those arguments. Ah, but they have a trick there too; they keep coming up with more and more and more of them. That all the other ones were rubbish never sinks in. It's as if no matter how many episodes of "Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed" they've seen, this trick whose method they don't know might be genuinely supernatural.

I suppose technically this is a family of mutually supporting fallacies: 1. If I've heard the case for and against a claim and am too ignorant to realise which one is better, agnosticism is OK, or even best. 2. A "scientific consensus" is just as big an argument from authority or popularity as anything else using the word "consensus". (The definition of a scientific consensus is an overwhelming majority of the relevant experts on a topic agreeing for reasons explicitly traceable to the performance of ideas in peer-reviewed literature, findings proving reproducible but not successfully debunked. This isn't just a case of a vote being taken on this issue.) 3. No matter how long the one-sided whack-a-mole has gone on, agnosticism is STILL appropriate.

Plus these guys will always make the same basic mistakes like confusing climate with weather, denying they've done so when you point it out, then reiterating their "argument" in such a way as to repeat that confusion.

Also, they've always got some kind of science degree - an irrelevant one, but they do have on. They wouldn't be lying, right?

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 18:49:36 UTC | #912756

potteryshard's Avatar Comment 2 by potteryshard

My own particular annoyance is that too many times, people consider all opinions equally valid.

To be of significance, the holder of an opinion needs to demonstrate that he or she has the wit, training, and open-mindedness necessary to make the dissemination of said opinion a net advance for civilization. The more valueless an opinion, the more likely it seems that picked up and repeated.

Unfortunately, I've probably just proven my own point...

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 18:57:53 UTC | #912757

crookedshoes's Avatar Comment 3 by crookedshoes

Creationism is the fallacy that annoys me most. I cannot wrap my head around the idea that there is a mountain of evidence and facts that are reproducible and verifiable and people CHOOSE to ignore it so that they can believe a nursery rhyme.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 19:05:46 UTC | #912761

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 4 by Alan4discussion

I think one of the most irritating fallacious arguments is, when various people have rationally explained in detail,why a particular claim is irrational, vacuous, false, unevidenced rubbish, some poster ironically condemns them citing constructive criticism as ad-hominems in a mirror image of their own posts, while posturing as arbiters of "clear thinking"!!

This is supposed to be a site about clear-thinking and promoting reason, yet the responses to the letter and to the editor's response have simply been superficial, posturing, presumptious and personal ad-hominems; perfectly comfortable and easily digested within the arena in which they are expressed.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 19:45:37 UTC | #912776

cynicaloptimistrealist's Avatar Comment 5 by cynicaloptimistrealist

I find when dealing with the media or politics I often find myself somewhere in the middle. For example, you could read an report about the same event in the Guardian and the Telegraph ending up with two different views. I sometimes find myself agreeing with political ideas from both the centre right and centre left, but this usually leads me to think that the political establishment has lost touch with reality, or maybe I have.

When dealing with something like an illogical belief that is supported by a tiny minority in the scientific community against a raft of evidence, you may ask them what their evidence is? Who checked and cross checked the evidence? Have there been rebuttlas? Most importantly, who funded their research? When faced with a fence sitter where the evidence is more or less conclusive, just ask them exactly where they stand, if they cannot provide an opinion encourage them to go away and come back when they have figured out which way the rain is falling. I am sure you all remember medical reports from France extolling the benifits of a glass of red wine or similar results from German research regarding the benifits of a glass of beer a day. I do think there are some issues where it's impossible not to sit on the fence though, for me it's the Arab-Israeli problem. I've been in the middle east, I can see parts of each opposing argument as valid, but for me it's really one bunch of zealous nationalistic psychopaths versus another equally zealous bunch of nationalistic pschopaths. They can both be very resonable on some issues but as soon as you hit their magic button, they explode (some in quite a literal sense).

Regarding the original post, sometimes the goal has to be compromise, there are too many grey areas in some issues. When faced with the choice of achieving some goals through compromise or achieving none of them by sticking rigidly to your principles, what do you do? In the above case I think taking the middle ground is not only the sane choice, but the only honourable choice if the reward is a genuine improvement. It's far easier to cross a river if you can get to the island in the centre.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 20:42:07 UTC | #912801

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 6 by Schrodinger's Cat

What fallacy annoys you the most?

All attempts at generic use of fallacies.....of which the OP is one such.

The whole point of fallacies is that they apply to specific arguments. Whereas one can give specific examples of a 'type' of fallacy, the very nature of debate is such that one cannot state in advance that a particular argument will be fallacious. There would otherwise be no point in having an argument........and one could simply program a supercomputer to go through every possible combination of words and determine 'fallacious' or not.

The 'blanket' use of a fallacy is in my view one of the worst fallacies of all.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 21:24:34 UTC | #912816

Arnott Bird's Avatar Comment 7 by Arnott Bird

Comment 4 by Alan4discussion :

I think one of the most irritating fallacious arguments is, when various people have rationally explained in detail,why a particular claim is irrational, vacuous, false, unevidenced rubbish, some poster ironically condemns them citing constructive criticism as ad-hominems in a mirror image of their own posts, while posturing as arbiters of "clear thinking"!!

This is supposed to be a site about clear-thinking and promoting reason, yet the responses to the letter and to the editor's response have simply been superficial, posturing, presumptious and personal ad-hominems; perfectly comfortable and easily digested within the arena in which they are expressed.

Yes, foolish of me to think that

Assclown of the month award, more like.

or

I gives me great pleasure to award you the MUPPET OF THE MONTH AWARD for posturing servility to pseudo science!

were anyhting other than reasoned responses, rather than personal attacks.

Or that your conclusion that he was lying about being within the scientific community was anything but presumptious. Just as presumptious as the conclusion that I almost certainly can't be an atheist, as I had the audacity to question those presumptions, and also to question whether what you think the letter writer was saying was what you think it said.

I have to say Alan4Discussion (a more innapropriate name I could not imagine) that this constant linking to my posts seem a little...personal. Seems you are not 4discussion at all, are you.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 21:40:52 UTC | #912819

ollipehkonen's Avatar Comment 8 by ollipehkonen

Not necessarily a fallacy, but one of my least favourites at the moment is something that even the OP was committing: equating scientific and religious claims by calling both things believing. I hope most people don't "believe" in scientific findings the same way as religious claims.

With science you could do the experiments yourself if you are undecided, though it might take years of training to learn how to do a particular one. And other people who already know how are trying to look for flaws in the methods and findings. If you don't redo the experiments yourself, you are trusting the experts. But hopefully you don't believe them the same way as you would a religious authority.

Maybe this is a case of the straw man fallacy. Trying to make both things looks like the same type of believing. I prefer to say I trust the science.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 22:12:58 UTC | #912836

Misfire's Avatar Comment 9 by Misfire

@Comment 8 by ollipehkonen

Couldn't agree more with you there. A little while ago I actually submitted a topic for discussion on using language effectively (which was a little too dry to make it up), where I suggested in some contexts avoiding the word "believe" in favor of "think."

For one thing, "belief" has a positive ring to it. Also, while people feel comfortable "believing" any manner of nonsense, we're reluctant to "think" stupid thoughts. Phrasing a question as, "Do you think that everything the Pope says from the pulpit is true?" Is more challenging than asking someone what she believes about papal infallibility. Similarly, replacing "I don't believe in God," with, "I don't think there are any gods" takes the discussion out of the blurry world of beliefs.

That being said, I think I wrote that bit poorly, trying to exemplify a poor argument. "Trust" would have been better.

Mon, 30 Jan 2012 23:13:48 UTC | #912855

tboulay's Avatar Comment 10 by tboulay

Comment 2 by potteryshard :

My own particular annoyance is that too many times, people consider all opinions equally valid.

Mine is sort of along these lines, but rather it's the belief that opinions have any bearing at all when facts are available. In essence, I don't give a rats ass about how it makes you feel, evolution is a fact, if you don't accept that fact, you're an idiot and don't deserve a place in the conversation. You're opinion has no bearing, my opinion has no bearing. Reasoned argument, supported by logic and evidence is all that matters.

(of course the "you" I refer to is just some generic creationist and not directed at anyone here :))

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 00:28:55 UTC | #912889

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 11 by QuestioningKat

THAT PHOTO IS NOT BY ANSEL ADAMS!

(Besides the image is balanced by elements other than the mountain.)

The fallacy of the middle road being correct has it's flaws. A relative told me that the truth about evolution is somewhere between the evolutionary theory and the Bible. Neither one being fully correct. Taking the middle road can be good for your mental state or personal decisions, as in working at a steady pace rather than slow and meticulous or fast and furious. When two people argue, we consider that both people are probably incorrect somehow and contributed toward the problem. This is not necessarily true. Some people are absolutely dead wrong and there is no other way. Frequently situations are not cut and dry, but sometimes they are. When in comes to facts, people seem to still take the middle road because figuring out who is correct and who is false takes some work.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 00:40:31 UTC | #912893

potteryshard's Avatar Comment 12 by potteryshard

You're opinion has no bearing, my opinion has no bearing. Reasoned argument, supported by logic and evidence is all that matters.

Your evaluation of the facts is an opinion. My evaluation of the facts is an opinion. Reasoned argument isn't a free-standing event, it is mediated through imperfect human communications. Does the opinion holder know enough about the facts to be entitled to an opinion? Any feeling associated with a statement of opinion would seem to be secondary to the transmission of the evaluation under discussion.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 02:16:51 UTC | #912917

Steven Mading's Avatar Comment 13 by Steven Mading

What is the second fallacy?

The title said to expect two, but I only see one mentioned. Did I miss something?

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 02:32:20 UTC | #912920

DocWebster's Avatar Comment 14 by DocWebster

My pet peeve fallacy is Authority=Relevancy followed nose to butt like an elephant line by Emotion = Validity. Every time I watch a talking head, interviewing a TV evangelist, seek an opinion on anything outside of the easiest way to separate little old ladies from their Social Security checks I just want to reach through the screen and strangle them all. Only slightly less rage inducing is the skull jarringly moronic assertion that ignorance and prejudice make people feel good so it should be codified into our system of laws.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 02:37:18 UTC | #912921

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 15 by AtheistEgbert

I do think Misfire makes a good point about the non-position of the moderate. Moderation is to me, bad thinking, and part of the reason why culture has devolved into incoherence and relativism. Good critical thinking doesn't take a moderate position, but weighs the evidence or not for an argument.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 03:29:33 UTC | #912932

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 16 by Steve Zara

On the matter of annoying fallacies, I can think of several.

The first is "argument from authority". It's often used to condemn a position simply because whoever is putting that position refers to someone else. The fallacy is really "argument from inappropriate authority", which is so common it's actually the basis of much advertising, as it's the celebrity endorsement.

The second is "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence". It is! What this is supposed to mean is that you can't exclude the possibility of something if you haven't searched everywhere, especially something that could well be rare, such as alien civilizations. However, it's also used by theists in connection with gods. But, in that situation absence of evidence really is very good evidence of absence, because we are dealing with something that believers say that they have encountered in some way, through evidence, tradition, or revelation. Theism is equivalent not to the existence of aliens, but alien visitation.

Finally we have my favourite: "you can't disprove God". You can, for certain definitions of God. For the Christian God, it's actually quite simple.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 04:19:19 UTC | #912941

Starcrash's Avatar Comment 17 by Starcrash

Ad Hominem really, really annoys me. I'm so sick of being told that I don't understand the bible because I'm an atheist, as if atheists have difficulty understanding the English language if it's written in a "holy book". I'm sick of hearing arguments against family planning centered on its founder's alleged racism. I'm sick of hearing that the US media have a liberal bias based on the point-of-view of many of its members. I'm sick of hearing about the lack of morality in atheism based on individual cases such as Hitler and Stalin.

I wish that everyone understood logical fallacies. I try to educate my opponents, but when I cite sources that educate my opponents on the various fallacies (usually the Wikipedia link) I'm often told that these sources are biased because they've been cited by me, an atheist. That's why Ad Hominem is the worst.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 04:46:21 UTC | #912949

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 18 by Jos Gibbons

Starcrash, you remind me of another little-discussed fallacy I hate, that of assuming that bias is even relevant in a debate. I don't think it is. Either a person's arguments are irrefutable, in which case you must accept their conclusions, or they're not, in which case they may as well have never been made. If you don't know whether it's irrefutable or not you should do some digging round, rather than acting as if the argument's irrefutability is demonstrated by your own ignorance. That was a large point of my earlier comment on this thread. But I've never once seen something I'd call "biased" against my views that didn't turn out to have a real reason it was wrong anyway. I prefer to limit discussions to those.

Incidentally, I've heard French journalists have a different technique regarding bias from that of their American or British counterparts, which is to admit their bias up-front - essentially, it's a stance they hold - then spend the rest of their time making the case for that stance. Admittedly this could easily go into the "rhetoric before validity" style of debate teams (which is why I would never join such activities), but I think in principle that approach is better than the "don't admit a bias, convincingly pretend you don't, but trick people into taking on your biases in subtle ways they don't notice" techniques used elsewhere. (English classes are fascinating for showing you how it's done. Every irrelevant "mother/father of N" or "person, [aged] K" comment really is up to something sinister.) I also don't know how true this "that's how French journalists do it" claim is (maybe someone else here does?), but it's a fascinating idea.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 07:09:18 UTC | #912965

Quine's Avatar Comment 19 by Quine

Comment 18 by Jos Gibbons:
Either a person's arguments are irrefutable, in which case you must accept their conclusions, ...

Not exactly. Arguments may be irrefutable, but not true. For example, the argument that Intelligent Design works by divinely guided evolution, is irrefutable because there is no way to show that a divine hand is not involved (just that one need not be involved). You don't have to accept an argument as true when there has not been sufficient support, even if you can't refute it.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 07:56:54 UTC | #912972

Zulu's Avatar Comment 20 by Zulu

Misfire, I completely agree with you. There is an ongoing trend for people to instill a sense of "balance" in every aspect of there lives, including knowledge, which by definition is a collection be facts and not simply information. This in turn helps dictates their ideology, and that is worrisome. The truth often hurts, as it should, and we should fight the natural impulse that pushes us to reconcile inconvenient truths.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 08:03:57 UTC | #912973

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 21 by Jos Gibbons

Quine, I'm using the word "irrefutable" in a different sense from the one in which you're using it. Essentially you're considering an argument "irrefutable" iff the claim that the material conditional whose antecedent is the conjunction of those true premises present within it and whose consequent is the conclusion is itself a neither empirically nor a logically falsifiable statement, i.e. iff said material conditional is an irrefutable statement. What I meant when I spoke of an argument as being irrefutable is a much stronger condition than that, namely that one cannot demonstrate that, to be valid, the argument is contingent on unjustified assumptions. Sorry about the confusion.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 09:00:52 UTC | #912983

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 22 by Alan4discussion

Comment 20 by Zulu

Misfire, I completely agree with you. There is an ongoing trend for people to instill a sense of "balance" in every aspect of there lives, including knowledge,

I like a road "T" junction analogy when debating fudgists!

The driver thinks we should turn left. The navigator thinks right is a shorter route. The "balanced" fudgist thinks straight through the stone wall ahead is the best compromise!

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 12:04:33 UTC | #913011

irate_atheist's Avatar Comment 23 by irate_atheist

Comment 7 by Arnott Bird -

Assclown of the month award, more like.

Seems reasonable to me. The author of the pathetic letter was an assclown and he deserved an award for it.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 12:18:54 UTC | #913013

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 24 by Alan4discussion

Comment 7 by Arnott Bird

I gives me great pleasure to award you the MUPPET OF THE MONTH AWARD for posturing servility to pseudo science!

were anyhting other than reasoned responses, rather than personal attacks.

I also find quote-mining irritating!

Or that your conclusion that he was lying about being within the scientific community was anything but presumptious. Just as presumptious as the conclusion that I almost certainly can't be an atheist,

Misquoting others is also an irrational irritating habit! (My comment was on lying about atheist scientists claiming science had all the answers.)

@7I have to say Alan4Discussion (a more innapropriate name I could not imagine) that this constant linking to my posts seem a little...personal. Seems you are not 4discussion at all, are you.

I had noticed that your confused claims were unsupported by links!

@7 were anyhting other than reasoned responses, rather than personal attacks.

Mmmmmm! Reflections?

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 12:46:59 UTC | #913029

alphonsus's Avatar Comment 25 by alphonsus

Finally we have my favourite: "you can't disprove God". You can, for certain definitions of God. For the Christian God, it's actually quite simple.

Is it? Please would you share it. But I suppose it does depend on someone's definition of God.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 15:16:13 UTC | #913077

Frying Pantheist's Avatar Comment 26 by Frying Pantheist

One thing that always annoyings me is when people are arguing for creationism, conspiracies or any other kind of "the official explanation is a lie" woo, they always seem to have this idea that whatever they are arguing for is somehow the default answer. So if they can come up with a problem that the person they're arguing with can't explain, or even something that just seems odd, then not only does this rule out the official explanation but whatever they are arguing for must be true, even if it does no better at explaining whatever it is they were talking about.

People who say the Moon landings were a hoax tend to be extremely bad for this. For example there is one argument about the plus sign-shaped markings on the footage. These were actually on the camera lens and should show up in every shot, but sometimes the astronauts can be seen walking in front of them - you can't explain that! Well, first of all, we can explain it - the white space suits showed up brightly in the pictures and make it hard to see the crosshairs - but suppose we couldn't explain it, what is your explanation? Were the crosshairs painted on the back of the set? Were the astronauts digitally added using a 1960's version of Photoshop? No explanation will ever be given, just the fact that it looks a bit strange is enough to clearly support the argument that it was all shot on a sound stage.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 16:20:57 UTC | #913097

Misfire's Avatar Comment 27 by Misfire

QuestioningKat observed my poor critical reading skills--the photo I linked from a hasty Google search only, in fact, reminded the photographer of Ansel Adams. My bad.

QK didn't extrapolate from that error, but it still reminded me of an error in thinking that I admit I fall for constantly: concluding a position is wrong because it's poorly argued for. (If anyone can remember what this fallacy is called, it escapes me.)

It's an interesting case, because it certainly seems natural to reject an argument which someone fails to provide evidence for, and leaves you to do the legwork.

It can be a significant problem where the strongest supporters of a position argue en bloc, where adherents to an idea are encouraged not to deviate from standardized arguments. If those arguments aren't good, it's hard to look at the issue without a negative bias. I see this occurring to an extent both in conservatism and feminism.

Conservatism in the States is generally propounded by Republicans, who have run any credibility into the ground. I think that there is, though, at least limited value in some conservative positions--regulation can certainly get out of hand, and there are aspects of America which deserve more respect than many liberals believe. You'd just be unlikely to reach these conclusions listening to anything Republicans argue.

Feminism is quite possibly the most important and most successful social movement in human history, and yet I'm immensely frustrated reading (no longer partaking in) many discussions with fundamentalist feminists. (Radical I'm all for--fundamentalism is what bothers me.) Scan through a given feminist discussion online, Pharyngula hosts them frequently, and the omnicast accusations of rape-apology, seemingly deliberate misinterpretations, appeals to consequence and so forth paint a pretty lousy picture of feminism. None of which diminishes the imperative of equal rights in the least.

Of course the solution again is to base conclusions on evidence and reason, and ignore the style of argumentation, whether for its force or weakness. But as I said, that's a rough one for me, on par with reading captions.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 17:06:27 UTC | #913114

Viveca's Avatar Comment 28 by Viveca

People generally speaking want edification, or a battle of wits, or a pleasant distraction, or a means to earn a living. They don't, generally speaking, want truth at all. All human history proves this brute fact. Thus every kind of fallacy and sophistry will come to the aid of the advocate. Fallacies, generally speaking, are not innocent errors of reasoning, they are deliberate tools of persuasion.

Tue, 31 Jan 2012 23:31:15 UTC | #913252

Starcrash's Avatar Comment 29 by Starcrash

Comment 18 by Jos Gibbons :

Starcrash, you remind me of another little-discussed fallacy I hate, that of assuming that bias is even relevant in a debate. I don't think it is. . . .

I also don't know how true this "that's how French journalists do it" claim is (maybe someone else here does?), but it's a fascinating idea.

I've never heard this before about the French, but that's very interesting if it is true.

I agree that bias is irrelevant... usually. It matters only when discrediting someone's "argument from authority", and only if that authority does not cite any sources but makes assertions based on their "expert opinion".

For instance, I was arguing that gay sex is safer than heterosexual sex in the context of lesbians (a point I've heard made by Christopher Hitchens, I think) and my opponent cited this source. Now you'll notice that this argument from authority was not meant to be that, because the author cites the source of his statement... but that source doesn't support his argument (did he just think that nobody would ever check out his sources? how arrogant!) and so it became merely an argument from authority. And that authority has an obvious bias. In this case it was safe to say that the authority either made this fact up or cited the wrong source, but either way has not backed up his assertion with evidence. Either way, if we have only the word of someone with a bias against lesbians telling us that lesbians have a higher prevalence of STDs than heterosexuals, I'm simply not going to accept this as real evidence.

Wed, 01 Feb 2012 00:22:38 UTC | #913266

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 30 by QuestioningKat

Comment 27 by Misfire :

QuestioningKat observed my poor critical reading skills--the photo I linked from a hasty Google search only, in fact, reminded the photographer of Ansel Adams. My bad.

I just needed to read "France" and know you were mistaken. Adams would not have had areas that are out-of-focus and not perfectly exposed.

Wed, 01 Feb 2012 00:29:32 UTC | #913268