Bad arguments and how to spot them

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Ygern
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Bad arguments and how to spot them

Post by Ygern » Mon Sep 29, 2008 9:26 am

There are some things that cannot be rationally or logically decided by argument. An example of this would be whether the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is better art than Michaelangelo’s David; or whether ice-cream is nicer than a cappuccino. One can advance preferences and values, and even advance good reasons for holding those views. But you probably cannot conclusively make a case that trumps the other case.

There are other issues that can be explored reasonably well by argument:
* is X true?
* does X exist?

When arguments get heated, there are tactics sometimes used that are not to the point and merely detract from the actual issue. They are bad arguments, either completely beside the point or off-topic; or illogical. Here are some of the often-seen bad types of argument or fallacies - pseudoscientific thinking.

Ad hominem attacks & ‘You too’

Example:
Isaac Newton discovered differential calculus
Isaac Newton believed in alchemy which is an entirely discredited form of primitive chemistry.
Therefore differential calculus must be suspect.


The fact that Newton may have had some strange ideas about chemistry does not have anything to do with his ability to create a brilliant new section of mathematics. Attacking the man’s character or flaws says nothing about his ability to create a new branch of mathematics. This type of arguing can also use the ‘Well, you’re just as bad as I am because…’ (Tu quoque) type of retort. As you can see, its completely off-topic; nothing to do with the issue being discussed. To cast doubt on calculus you would need to show that the mathematical proofs were wrong.


Argument from mass consensus
Example:
Thousands of people believe in ghosts. Therefore ghosts must exist.
There are so many stories about dragons. Therefore there must have been dragons once upon a time.


A thousand years ago you might have said:
Everyone knows the earth is flat
Therefore if you sail your boat too far out, you will go over the edge.

And you still would have been wrong, in both sentences.
Thousands, even millions of people can be wrong.

Anecdotes and rumours are not evidence
Much like the above, stories get around. However, they do not constitute proof of anything by themselves. The best you can claim for a plethora of anecdotes seeming to support an argument is that it might be grounds for genuine investigation of the facts.

Jargon does not equal fact
This is a favourite trick of quacks and more recently, Creationists. Couching language in obscure jargon that sounds vaguely scientific to the uninitiated is an extremely dishonest way of trying to obscure the real point of the argument. The reason for this is that the real argument is either obviously weak or flat out wrong. By hiding it behind language that the target audience might not understand this bad argument stands a better chance of being believed.
Example: Creationism is renamed Sudden emergence theory, to make it sound scientific.
An honest argument deserves to be understood. Clear, straightforward language is the way to get your message across. This doesn’t mean dumb it down, it just means (as Shakespeare advised) ‘Speak plainly’ .

Heresy does not equal correctness
Louis Armstrong sang They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/ When he said the world was round.
Leaving aside the fallacious nature of that line (it was widely accepted that the world was round in Columbus’ day), the message of this song is that sometimes genuine truth goes unaccepted for a long time. However, that does not mean that just because an idea is laughed at, the Discoverer is a martyr to his True Cause. Sometimes the Discoverer is just plain wrong; and that is why people are laughing (or angry). Examples of this are Flat Earth believers, most conspiracy theorists. The facts need to be collected and checked and proved or disproved before the ‘theory’ can be regarded as valid.

Burden of proof
The burden of proof is not always 50/50 in competing points of view.
I believe the earth is flat carries a far higher burden of proof than I believe the earth is a sphere. This becomes even more clear when you start to hear the ‘evidence’ for a flat earth involves government conspiracies (unproven), moon-landing hoaxes (unproven) and satellite and telescope hoaxes (unproven). A theory that is based on a collection of unsubstantiated hunches and guesses and beliefs does not deserve the same credibility and plausibility as one that has a mountain of evidence to support it; and absolutely nothing that disproves it or throws doubt on it.


Unexplained does not equal inexplicable
This fallacious line of reasoning is frequently employed in the God-of-the-Gaps arguments. Quantum theory isn’t completely understood? String theory has physicists puzzled? Haven’t quite worked out what caused the Big Bang? Right then. God did it.
This argument involves a leap of illogic and resolves itself by plonking Favourite Idea #1 into the gap without any evidence to support it whatsoever. Its also frequently employed by UFO enthusiasts along the lines of unexplained strange lights ‘must’ be an alien visitor.

After-the-fact reasoning
Another leap of illogic that doesn’t bother to eliminate other possible causes before announcing that X must have caused, or be proof of Y.
Example: I won the first two matches and I was wearing my red T-shirt. I lost the third match and I was wearing my white T-shirt. Therefore my red T-shirt must be lucky.
Or:
I went into hospital to have my appendix removed, and I put special healing crystals around my bed. Now I have recovered quickly from my surgery without any complications. Therefore, the crystals must have special healing powers.
In both examples other (more likely) contributing causes are completely discounted in favour of a pet theory.

Circular reasoning
This one is pretty easy to spot.
Y is true because X says so
And we know X is true because Y says so

This is used all the time to ‘prove’ dogma true. E.g. The Koran is the perfect word of Allah. It says so in the Koran.
This says nothing about the truth of X or Y. They both may in fact be true, but you haven’t proved it by this argument. You need to find better evidence.


Arguments from Ignorance / Beauty / Design / Fear etc
These are just truly dreadful non-sequiturs that get used all the time to justify beliefs.
I just can’t believe that there is no Heaven, without it life makes no sense. Therefore God exists.
Natural selection just couldn’t have made the butterfly so beautiful, therefore God must have made it.
I can’t imagine any reason to be good if there wasn’t any God, therefore God must exist.


Argument from authority
Trust me, trust me. I’m a doctor.
This gets used remarkably often to make a claim sound more plausible or believable. But even if someone really is an authority in a certain field, it does not make them an authority in all fields. Having a PhD in Literature does not in any way boost your authority or believability about UFOs; being a respected theologian makes you an expert on Scripture, not morality. It does not mean that you can’t express your opinion on these matters, and indeed your opinions might be excellent and lucid. But your argument does not get given extra gravitas simply because you have some expert knowledge on other subjects.

This type of argument also appears in the ‘Speaking as a’ format.
Speaking as a mother, I think vaccines are dangerous for children.
Sometimes this is used merely for clarification purposes (useful on an anonymous internet forum eg I’m a mother so I know what its like to go through 6 hours of labour); but beware of it being used to give the speaker an added claim to authority that they are not entitled to.

Straw-man
This involves pretending that your opponent’s argument is something different from what it really is.
You then disprove the pretend argument and claim to have destroyed the real argument.
This is not the same as distilling your opponent’s argument down to its simplest form to reveal its weakness, it involves shifting the argument to something else. Even worse than the straw-man argument is the straw-man defence; pretending that your opponent is attacking a straw-man to avoid confronting issues.
Example:
Atheist: Religion can incite hatred and intolerance because of its teachings.
Response: That’s not my religion you are criticising. You are talking about a fundamentalist point of view. I don’t believe in that.
But in fact: Pope publicly states Harry Potter books promote evil, Catholic cardinals tell congregations homosexuality is evil etc.


Lying for a good cause
A very dishonest approach to argument or debate; but often very difficult to deal with because anecdotes can be concocted to seemingly provide some sort of support for the claim. By its nature, it often tends to be hearsay or personal testimony; and so the best way to counter it is by asking for some sort of reference or supporting data to back up the ‘proof’.

References:
Why people believe weird things by Michael Shermer
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

There are plenty of other bad arguments, please add your own or expand on points I started.
DollarLama
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Post by DollarLama » Mon Sep 29, 2008 12:19 pm

Superb post, Ygern - thanks a lot. This deserves to be a sticky. You didn't lift this from anywhere, did you? The language sounds like you!

regards
DL
Ygern
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Post by Ygern » Mon Sep 29, 2008 12:29 pm

I wrote it myself, but I thought it was only right to mention the two books I did because both address the issue of bad arguments in some detail.

But my list is certainly not comprehensive... add some of your own :)
FXR
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Post by FXR » Mon Sep 29, 2008 1:39 pm

And the number one dummy fallback of all religious purveyours.................................It's a MYSTERY!
Human communication is a very rickety rope bridge between minds. Its too narrow to allow but a few thoughts to cross at a time. Many are lost in the chasms of noise, suspicion, misinterpretation and shooting the message through dislike of the messenger.
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Post by DollarLama » Mon Sep 29, 2008 1:49 pm

I first came across the notion of logical fallacies in Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" and much later read and thoroughly enjoyed Jamie Whyte's polemic "Bad Thoughts". Both of these book will go a long way towards helping you to spot a bad argument and subsequently avoid being drawn into irrelevancies.

Another very good resource which I'm working through right now is The Teaching Company's "Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning (Second Edition)". I listen to that when I'm exercising. I'll distil some of the key notions from this into a post here.

regards
DL
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Post by DollarLama » Mon Sep 29, 2008 1:57 pm

FXR wrote:And the number one dummy fallback of all religious purveyours.................................It's a MYSTERY!


...which falls into the category "Argument from Ignorance": I can't rationally counter your claim about my religion, so I argue that the answer is so complex, neither of us could understand it, and hence it will forever remain a mystery.

Following on from that, I dunno how many of you are Dublin southsiders - remember the big banner hanging up on the Church of the Immaculate Sucker at the top of Kill Lane in Cabinteely on the N11? "God has a plan for my little life", it stated. My wife and I reckoned that was one of the most chillingly disempowering ideas you could foist on anybody.
Ygern
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Post by Ygern » Mon Sep 29, 2008 4:22 pm

FXR wrote:And the number one dummy fallback of all religious purveyours.................................It's a MYSTERY!


Ah, but that's not even an argument, is it? :D
Its the internet forum equivalent of sticking your fingers in both ears and going 'la...la...la' at the top of your voice. In other words, childish and pathetic.

I think we could do with a list called Argument Cop-outs - completely illicit moves where the user essentially disqualifies themself.

DollarLama wrote: "God has a plan for my little life" .... one of the most chillingly disempowering ideas you could foist on anybody


Agreed, and how.
Its demeaning and ever so slightly sinister, and states confidently as fact something that the writer couldn't possibly know.
I think Hitchens encapsulated it beautifully when he said (tongue in cheek):

I suddenly realised that the Universe was all about me, and felt terrifically humble about it

He added afterwards:
I think we can laugh people out of that one...
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Post by inedifix » Tue Sep 30, 2008 10:47 am

It strikes me that the entire edifice of Creationism and ID theory rest on the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, in the form.

1. If not A / If evolution is not true
2. Then B / Then creation is

This is of course fallacious, and cannot be reversed either. Each theory: Evolution and Creationism, has to stand on its own merits, not the demerits of the other.

The merits of evolutionary theory are clear for all to see in the vast quantity of empirical peer reviewed science available and constantly being generated on the subject.

But the merits of creationism theory (beyond scripture) are non-existent. There are no empirical findings to examine. As a result, Creationists resort to the fallacy of Affirming the Consequent.

I
“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher. What we can't understand we call nonsense. There is no free will. There are no variables. There is only the inevitable.” Chuck Palahniuk
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Post by FXR » Tue Sep 30, 2008 8:13 pm

I don't know it this qualifies as a fallacy (I left school at fourteen) but if not you could call it shape shifting. I noticed there is a very subtle trick used in particular by apologists for the CCL.
For example almost imperceptibly they will shift from Catholicism to Christianity. For example concerning Catholicism and Science in response to the accusation that Catholicism is anti-science the response is Christianity is not anti-science. Then you get a list of scientists who were not Catholics but Christians. What gets lost is the fact that were it not for Martin Luther the Christian scientists would have been burned at the stake. That is why I think it is better to talk about individual religions rather than give the apologists wider scope to answer by attacking religion in general.

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/let ... 90729.html
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Science and the Catholic Church
Madam, - Martin Kinsella's claim that the Galileo case proves Church hostility to science won't stand up and ignores too much (September 23rd).
First, it assumes that Galileo and his opponents understood their clash as religion versus science. But that interpretation dates only from the late 19th century in J.W. Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875) and A.D. White's History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1895).
Galileo, who died a Catholic, didn't see it that way. Nor could the institution that, 40 years earlier, produced the Gregorian calendar we still use be described as "anti-science".
Second, while Newton's work in the late 17th century vindicated Galileo decisively, it was not obvious in the early 17th century that Galileo was correct. One could reasonably think differently, as did the Danish scientist Tycho Brahe.
Mr Kinsella ignores the long list of Christian scientists, and nobody has ever demonstrated that their faith obstructed their scientific achievements or that they were viewed by their church as "bad" Christians.
Johannes Kepler in astronomy, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in physics, and Asa Gray and Theodosius Dobzhansky in evolutionary biology are obvious examples.
As for clergy, Fr Georges Lemaître was one of the first to develop the Big Bang theory in the early 20th century, and the 19th-century "father" of genetics was the Augustinian Gregor Mendel. There are also some 30 craters on the moon named after Jesuit astronomers.
Finally, the Judaeo-Christian view of the world as (a) real, (b) not evil, and (c) not divine indirectly facilitated the emergence of science. Further, it held that the physical world is the product of a rational mind, thus supporting the faith of the scientist that the universe is intelligible and that the sciences can yield knowledge. - Yours, etc,
Dr SEAMUS MURPHY SJ,
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy,
Milltown Institute,
Dublin 6.
Human communication is a very rickety rope bridge between minds. Its too narrow to allow but a few thoughts to cross at a time. Many are lost in the chasms of noise, suspicion, misinterpretation and shooting the message through dislike of the messenger.
inedifix
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Post by inedifix » Tue Sep 30, 2008 10:00 pm

FXR wrote:I don't know it this qualifies as a fallacy (I left school at fourteen) but if not you could call it shape shifting. I noticed there is a very subtle trick used in particular by apologists for the CCL.
For example almost imperceptibly they will shift from Catholicism to Christianity. For example concerning Catholicism and Science in response to the accusation that Catholicism is anti-science the response is Christianity is not anti-science.

I think its a Fallacy of Division, in the form:

1. Religion per se, and/or Christianity, is not hostile to Science
2. Roman Catholicism is a Christian religion
Therefore
3. Roman Catholicism in not hostile to Science

As for Dr Seamus Murphy's letter, I doubt Galileo would have been impressed as his Inquisitors were stretching him on the rack had they roared: "recant your science and submit to the church's rule, even though we're not actually against your science because Catholicism is a Christian religion and Christianity is not hostile to science, it's just that all this moving earth business is really confusing."

I
“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher. What we can't understand we call nonsense. There is no free will. There are no variables. There is only the inevitable.” Chuck Palahniuk
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