UFOs. Ghosts. Astrology. Homeopathy. Telepathy. Miracle Cancer Cures. People all around the world fervently believe they exist and yet there isn’t a shred of good evidence that they are real in any sense of the word. On the other hand, there is strong scientific support for evolution, climate change and vaccines, yet millions reject the evidence entirely, preferring long debunked ideas instead.
In a wide-ranging talk, Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics explores the world of strange beliefs and discusses some ways to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Colm will talk about logical fallacies, brain flaws and other tricks that persuade us of things that aren’t so. He will also examine the crucial role that science plays in distinguishing fact from fiction.
Colm is the co-founder of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to the promotion of good science while challenging strange claims. Founded in 2010 in Blackrock Castle, we host regular public talks with topics ranging from ghosts to nuclear power and financial scams.
This event takes place in Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork City from 6pm on Saturday 14th November. It is free to attend, and all are welcome.
This time we’re looking at arguments that appear convincing just by the way they sound. The hypothesis is usually slick, professional and well presented and appears to be reasonable and even comprehensively researched. This could of course mean that what you are hearing is a solid theory, so you need to keep a skeptical ear open for a few warning signs.
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‘, which makes it sound vaguely science-y.
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’.
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‘.
The evidence provided by physics and astronomy has made the case for the latter claim fairly comprehensively already.
This becomes even more clear when you start to hear the ‘evidence’ for a flat earth involves government conspiracies (unproven), moon-landing hoaxes (unproven), a motley crew of science papers all with an age greater than a century (disproved) 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
Sometimes there are phenomena that have as of yet no natural explanation. Science either is still working on a theory or has not yet fully understood the mechanism by which it occurs.
There is a great temptation in these cases to fill in the gaps, so to speak. But of course the gaps need to be filled by testable evidence, not by an untestable hypothesis.
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, this is subtle proof of God.
Ironically, Quantum Theory itself frequently becomes the God-of-the-Gaps, and is used to explain all manner of pseudo-medical treatments and conditions from homeopathy to near death experience to healing-by-thinking-about-it, not to be confused with its kissing cousin healing-by-waving-your-hands. No actual mechanisms are demonstrated, which is why one has to remain skeptical, or downright suspicious of certain claims and arguments.
Notice how 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.
It’s also frequently employed by UFO enthusiasts along the lines of mysterious strange lights ‘must’ be an alien visitor. Instead of searching for alternative natural explanations, the observer prefers to replace his or her lack of an explanation with a claim that they have no way of verifying at all.
Perhaps this clip sums up all you need to know about jargon, gaps, claims and evidence.
“Just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy-tale most appeals to you.” ~ Dara O’Briain
There are a million places you can go to for information and very often you can get different opinions and “facts” about the same claim. Either evolution is true or it isn’t; the world is either round or it isn’t; vaccines either cause autism or they do not*.
[*The answers are: true, round & no, in case you were wondering.]
Credibility of your sources is something that isn’t always immediately obvious, but in general few things can beat comprehensive research, peer-reviewed and evidence-based theories and finally, consensus in the wider scientific community. This is not to say that theories are never over-turned by brilliant new insights. However, one can make mistakes in judging whether the source of an opinion or story or new theory is credible or not. Here are a few examples to watch out for.
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 Ph.D. 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 unrelated 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 e.g. I’m a mother so I know what its like to go through six hours of labour); but beware of it being used to give the speaker an added claim to authority that they are not entitled to.
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, and most conspiracy theorists. The facts need to be collected and checked and proved or disproved before the ‘theory’ can be regarded as valid.
The argument from heresy may be fallacious, but it’s a damn good song.
Argument from mass consensus
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.
Being a critical thinker means looking at facts carefully, critically and logically. There is no person or place that can be a repository of all knowledge, no-one knows all the answers or even has all the facts. In light of this we need tools to examine claims, tools that can steer us in the right direction even if we know little about the subject until we can find more information about it. However, there are certain forms of bad arguments, poor reasoning and illogic that are easy to spot, no matter their surroundings.
When you come across a logical fallacy in conversation you should flag it with your skeptical Flag of Examination and examine its claims critically.
I’m going to split this subject up into small digestible pieces over my next few posts.
Recently intrepid members of Cork Skeptics went to the local Mind, Body, Spirit trade fair (more about this if you attend our session on Friday). It was ablaze with colour, and filled with people young and old, most of whom were pleasant, good-natured and keen to chat about their wares and very open to answering skeptical questions. It is easy to see why people are left with the impression that alternative therapies really work when they are assured face to face by earnest, sane, well-spoken adults that it does. We all assume that on the whole people are trying to be honest and truthful when they speak. So how do you spot problems when you know that the person telling you about is not deliberately trying to deceive you?
Probably the most striking thing about all festival for me was that whether the purveyors were selling crystals, readings, colours, scents or physical manipulations, there was one thing they all had in common. They all used anecdotes to convince buyers of the efficacy of their product. These are perhaps the most commonly used logical fallacies of all and are often used in complete innocence by people who sincerely believe that personal stories count as evidence.
Anecdotes are not evidence
Personal stories and testimonies get around. However, they do not constitute proof of anything by themselves.
This comes as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people. After all, even courts take evidence from witnesses. However, as any policeman or lawyer will tell you, eye-witness testimony is horribly unreliable. Even the sincerest witness can get things completely wrong; perhaps by accident, perhaps they were intentionally misled, sometimes simply because they have attached a meaning to an incident that just isn’t there.
The Selective Attention Test here provides an illustration of how people can miss the blindingly obvious once their attention has been directed elsewhere.
In the test in this video, viewers did not notice the gorilla at all because they had been asked to count the number of passes made by people in white shirts. It seems hard to believe, but there you go: the power of human observation (or lack thereof).
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.
One of the reasons why people so often think that an anecdote is convincing is because they make another common mistake. This involves taking the end result and then trying to backwards engineer a cause.
It is a leap of illogic that doesn’t bother to eliminate other possible causes before announcing that X must have caused, or be proof of Y.
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.
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.
In the case of alternative medicine the bulk of the favourable evidence offered as “proof” of efficacy tends to fall into these categories. Very often no real scientifically conducted double-blinded tests have yielded anything positive beyond placebo. This is not to say that all alt-med treatments cannot work, just that those with only anecdotes to bolster their claims they have not proved their case at all.