Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 21, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Misrepresenting Quotes, or a Position


Introduction

Following my week-long break from a 6-week series (so far) on logical fallacies, I’m going to again take a slight detour from the more formal logical fallacies and address a fallacious way of arguing a point, and that is the complete misrepresentation of a position.

What Do I Mean by the Misrepresentation?

I suppose at its core, this can be the same as quote-mining or the Straw Man or even misusing an Argument from Authority, and it can be used either to bolster or to denigrate a claim.

In effect, what I’m talking about here is when someone is trying to stake out a position (for or against something), they bring in an apparent authoritative argument or a piece of evidence, they may actually quote it properly with or without context, but then they simply misunderstand what it actually is saying.

How did I come up with this? From an episode of Coast to Coast AM that I was listening to …

Example from a Conspiratorial Standpoint, Thinking Scientists Are Holding Back Earth-Shattering Information

The context of this example is a person, Mitch Battros, an “Earth changes expert,” trying to link together the Yellowstone supervolcano, apparent Mayan prophecy, the current solar cycle (#24), and multiple universes leaking into ours.

The following is a direct quote from Mitch Battros during the fourth hour of the December 17, 2009, Coast to Coast AM radio show, starting at approximately 11 minutes into the hour:

In this article, [the scientists with the European Space Agency's "Planck" satellite mission] say that they’re concerned about exposing too much information, that it would be overwhelming. I’ll quote: “To one’s surprise, there are astrophysicists and cosmologists who are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data, setting new paradigms, and unsettling current models.” That goes back to Mayan prophecy. The galactic alignment.

Now, within the context of the show and everything that Battros spoke about, it’s fairly obvious that he at least is presenting this in the following way: Scientists think these missions will (a) Provide lots of new data that will make their “theories” certain to (b) set new paradigms that will (c) revolutionize the way we look at the universe. Within the context of the show and his very next sentence fragments, he seems to think that means that legitimate scientists will verify his ideas.

However, as an actual scientist who is likely more familiar with (1) the way that scientists write and think, (2) the way science operates, and even (3) some of the problems facing astronomy today, I have a different take on his quote.

My take is that, first, there is a real data problem in astronomy. For example, a single instrument on a single space craft (specifically, the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft) is returning images from Mars at up to a few 10s of centimeters per pixel. Each image is generally around a gigabyte in size. The instrument has been in orbit for a few years and has taken thousands of images, comprising terabytes (TB) of data. If any of you are computer folks, you’ll know that at the consumer level, we’re just now (Dec. 2009) getting hard drives out that store up to 2 TB. Now, multiply that by about 6 for the number of instruments on that craft. Multiply that by a dozen or two for the number of spacecraft out there. Multiply that out many times to include gigapixel camera arrays on world-class ground-based telescopes.

With that in mind, the phrase that scientists “are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data” takes on a much less sinister and conspiratorial mentality. Figuring out how to store the data and then how to retrieve (from searching) that data is a real problem these days.

Now let’s look at the next two parts – new data creating new paradigms and unsettling current models. Again – and I say “again” because I’ve said this many times in this blog – this is the whole point of science. With new, high-quality data when testing models of very cutting-edge physics, you are almost always going to cause a paradigm shift, be it simply being able to rule out one model from another (a paradigm shift) or having good, reproducible, high-quality data that does not fit with any of the current models, forcing them to be “unsettled” and for a new model to take its place.

Hence, by misrepresenting what someone likely meant, they have used a fallacious form of arguing — their premise or apparent evidence from that quote is useless as it does not actually mean what they think.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common method of arguing AND it is difficult to identify if you do not actually know the field well. It is VERY often used by young-Earth creationists and Intelligent Design proponents (see my post on Casey Luskin’s ignorance about library books), but everyone can fall into the trap, whether knowingly (in which case it’s no longer a fallacy other than plain ol’ lying) or unknowingly.

December 11, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Reductio ad absurdum


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies, this post is about a more subtle fallacy that is usually harder to catch than, say an ad hominem, and that’s the reductio ad absurdum.

What is the “Reductio ad absurdum” Fallacy?

The Latin term reductio ad absurdum literally translates to, “reduction to the absurd.” In formal logic, the reductio ad absurdum is actually a legitimate argument, but it is often applied fallaciously. The fallacy follows the idea that if the premises of someone’s argument are taken as true, then it necessarily will lead to absurd conclusions.

This is a fairly good fallacy to remember when watching courtroom drama series, as lawyers may try to use this fallacy to show that a witness is lying. For example, a witness could make a claim on the stand, such as, “I know she was driving a blue cars.”

Lawyer: “How do you know this?”

Witness: “Because I’m an interior decorator and I always notice the colors of cars on the road.”

Lawyer: “Oh really? Can you tell us then, when you came to court today, what was the color the car that parked in front of you? To your left? Your right? What was the color of the car that was behind you on the freeway? [etc.]“

The lawyer has just used a reductio ad absurdum in this rather contrived example to show that the witness’s testimony that they “always notice the colors of cars” is very likely to be a false premise because when it is followed to its logical extent (that they would be able to answer the lawyer’s question about every car they saw that day) it is an absurd claim.

Example from UFOlogy

An admittedly contrived example from a UFOlogist could be had in the following statement by them: “If you’re so skeptical that you need to see proof with your own eyes of an alien body before you’ll believe that they exist, then how do you believe in the existence of Paris? Or of a dodo bird? Or an echidna? You’ve never seen them, how do you know they exist?”

The person has just used the reductio ad absurdum fallaciously because they assumed there was only one premise – that I required the proof of the alien body to see with my own eyes. Rather, I would accept other evidence, such as a gazillion verifiable photographs, independent corroboration, real hard evidence that has been examined by the bulk of the scientific community that studies such things and has reached the conclusion that it is real.

For example, the existence of Paris is something that I have seen in books, magazines, and movies. I’ve read about it in history books, my parents have been there, and I’ve met people who claim they come from that city. It has apparently been an integral part of the world’s history for at least a few centuries. To me, that is enough evidence that I can trust that Paris exists.

(This example will actually work with any pseudoscientific field where the skeptic actually wants real hard evidence of the phenomenon, I just happened to apply it to UFOs.)

Final Thoughts

The reductio ad absurdum argument can be used logically so long as one understands what they are doing. The false use of it will usually occur when one assumes a limited initial premise to the claim (in the above example, that I would only “believe it when I see it”).

December 9, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Ignorance (or, Ad ignorantiam)


Introduction

In my ever-increasing series on logical fallacies, this post is going to discuss a rather large class of fallacies, underwhich the God of the Gaps fallacy falls — Argument from Ignorance.

What is the “Argument from Ignorance” Fallacy?

The Latin term for the fallacy is ad ignorantiam. The Argument from Ignorance is – yet again – a fallacy that is aptly named: It is an argument that is made from pure ignorance about a subject purely because of that ignorance. The basic structure of the argument is that there is an observation, that observation is unexplained (ignorance), and so someone will insert their own explanation with certitude.

Example from UFOlogy

Okay, first I have to make this side-comment: I write these posts in a separate text editor because I don’t like how little WordPress displays on the screen. I use Apple’s “Text Edit” program which automatically underlines words that are misspelled. Apparently, UFOs = aliens is so popular in our culture that “UFOlogy” is considered a real word in Apple’s built-in dictionary. Sigh.

Anyway … in the realm of pseudoastronomy (which Apple’s dictionary says is not a real word), UFOlogy folks are some of the biggest users of the Argument from Ignorance (unless you consider the sub-type of God of the Gaps, in which case it’s the young-Earth creationists). Most UFOlogists will generally follow the following “logic:” (1) Someone sees something in the sky. (2) They cannot explain what it is. (3) They make a report of it and their friendly neighborhood UFOlogist sees it. (4) If they pursue it, they will generally say that it is very likely to be an alien craft. This is despite any actual evidence of, well, anything other than an “eyewitness report” of something that that eyewitness could not explain.

This is a classic example of the Argument from Ignorance because they have taken an unknown (the UFO) and without any evidence have stated that it is likely to be an alien craft.

It is just as likely that they are demons (I have heard a Catholic monk claim this).

Or it is just as likely that they are the souls of people who have just died going up to the spirit world (I have also heard this claim made).

Or (now bear with me here …) it could much more easily be something they couldn’t identify, such as a satellite, a meteor, another celestial object, a white bird (I have 3 times seen what initially were UFOs making all sorts of weird moves only to watch a little longer as they headed towards a light source and were just a flock of white birds), a firefly, or something else.

Final Thoughts

The Argument from Ignorance has many sub-types, though really I think the God of the Gaps is the most often-used of the sub-types. It is pretty easy to spot as long as you pause after someone has made a claim and figure out if they have backed it up with anything. If not, then it could very well be an argument from ignorance.

December 7, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Personal Incredulity


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies, this post is going to be about another fairly common fallacy, and one that is almost always used to negate a claim rather than support it: the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

What is the “Argument from Personal Incredulity” Fallacy?

Yet again, we have a fallacy whose name is fairly descriptive, so long as you know what “incredulity” means (“the state of being unable or unwilling to believe something”). In short, this fallacy is invoked when someone simply says, “I don’t believe that” and leaves the rebuttal there.

Example from Neil Adams, the Expanding Earth

Neil Adams is a relatively famous illustrator who is credited with – among other things – reviving Batman as a dark hero in the comic book world several decades ago. Separate from Adams’ comic book pursuits, he fancies himself an “amateur scientist” who has, among other things, completely re-written modern physics, all stemming from his disbelief in the Theory of Continental Drift (Earth’s crust being made of many plates that move around on a plastic aesthenosphere).

I have listened to three interviews that Neil Adams has given – one being on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, another on Coast to Coast AM, and a third being on a podcast that had commercials so I stopped listening to it after that one episode. In all of the interviews, one of the main, founding points that Adams’ made as to why he started his re-writing of physics is that he simply doesn’t believe Earth’s crust can move around. He also states that he thinks that a planet with all the land masses on one side (as in Pangaea) would just look stupid and shouldn’t be able to happen.

That is an argument from personal incredulity — he ignores all evidence of continental drift, seafloor ages and spreading, evidence of Pangaea, and then of course the standard model of particle physics, simply by starting from the Argument from Personal Incredulity.

Example from Global Climate Change Deniers

I try to keep this blog apolitical, and I personally don’t think that global climate change should even be considered a political issue, but unfortunately these days it is. I have heard a few pieces of presumed evidence against human-caused global climate change that actually have some science behind them — this post is not meant to talk about them at all.

Rather, there are many on the anti-human-caused global climate change who start and end their arguments with, “Humans can’t possibly be responsible for global warming [sic] because Earth is too big of a system for us to have that great an effect on it.” Besides this (a) being not true, it is also (b) a rather simple argument from personal incredulity because they refuse to accept that something is possible, regardless of the evidence.

Final Thoughts

Woo-hoo! I did a Logical Fallacies post without broaching the subject of creationism. But anyway, the Argument from Personal Incredulity is another one that is incredibly easy to spot and I have seen almost everyone do it. Since becoming aware of it a year or so ago, I have tried very hard to avoid falling into the trap, though I probably have from time-to-time. It’s so easy for someone to make a claim you don’t agree with and say, “No, that’s wrong,” and leave it at that. I have even observed it when people have reviewed grants I’ve written, (start rant) stating that they don’t believe the work could be accomplished in the time stated despite me being already half-way done with it and the second half being exactly the same as the first (end rant). But now that you are aware of it, it should be simple enough to avoid using it in almost all cases.

December 3, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Quote Mining


Introduction

I’m going to interrupt my purely logical fallacies series to do one on a related idea, fallacious arguing. The difference that I’m drawing here is that there are still ways of arguing that are “wrong” or misleading without actually being formal logical flaws. The case I’m addressing here is that of “Quote Mining.”

What is “Quote Mining?”

In yet another aptly named term, quote mining is when you search for a quote – any actual statement – that someone has said, and then use it out of the actual context in order to imply that it meant something else.

In a completely contrived example, I could state, “The United States of America is a wonderful country where its citizens enjoy many freedoms. We have freedom of and from religion, the right to freely assemble, freedom of the press and speech, and we have the freedom to petition (something that I used in 10th grade to get an unpopular program removed from my high school). However, in recent years, this has come under attack by many people who claim that we are a Christian nation and they interpret the First Amendment to mean that everyone has the freedom to practice and promote their religion in all places at all times.”

Someone could then quote-mine that statement and claim that I said: “The United States of America … [has a First Amendment] that everyone has the freedom to practice and promote their religion in all places at all times.”

Grammatically, that is a perfectly valid thing to do. However, it has completely changed what I was arguing, and hence quote mining is a fallacious way to argue a point.

Example from Young-Earth Creationism

There are a tremendous number of examples of quote mining across nearly all fields of, well, anything. One might think of lawyers, politicians, and news reporters as some of the most prolific quote miners around.

Because of this, I’m not going to look too hard to try to find one, but rather I will use one that very clearly illustrates the idea from a presentation I gave about young-Earth creationist claims about astronomy (and geology).

The particular claim was made by Kent Hovind in his “Creation Science Evangelism” series, Disk 6 part 1. Hovind was trying to claim that Earth’s magnetic field has never reversed polarity (the magnetic “pole flip” that has many people worried for 2012). In order to bolster this claim, he used an apparent Argument from Authority (another logical fallacy) from a Science paper from 1979. The quote was: “It is clear that the simple model of uniformly magnetized crustal blocks of alternating polarity does not represent reality.”

That statement seems pretty damning. We’ll ignore that it’s been 30 years since that statement was made and that science changes with new evidence, since this is a clear example of quote mining. Fortunately, Hovind provides the reference and I was able to look up the article (Hall, J.M., and P.T. Robinson. (1979). “Deep Crustal Drilling in the North Atlantic Ocean.” Science, 204, pp. 573-586.). The VERY NEXT SENTENCE of that article reads, “Clear reversals of polarity with depth are observed.”

In other words, Hovind used the first sentence to claim that these authors were arguing that the entire model of alternating magnetic polarity embedded in the ocean crust is false. Rather, when put into context, we can see that the authors were rather arguing that the simple slab model of alternating magnetic polarity is not accurate, that they do see alternating polarity, but you need a more complicated model than a simple brick-like approach.

Final Thoughts

Through quote mining, one can effectively make anyone say almost anything. It’s an unfortunate thing, but nearly everyone does it. By leaving out context or by using enough ellipses (the “…”), it’s very difficult to actually know if what someone is “supposed” to have said is what they meant. This is especially the case in print media (newspapers, magazines, etc.), but even with video, a good editor can make it appear as though someone has said something that they did not mean.

The fallacious method of quote mining is definitely something to watch for.

With that said, I would like to try to reassure my readers that when I have used quotes from sources that I argue against, I have tried to not fall into this fallacy. That is partly why I provide links back to the original sources, or I provide references, if possible, so that you can go back to the source to check it for yourself.

December 1, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Moving the Goalpost


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies, in this post I’m going to address the relatively more rare fallacy of “Moving the Goalpost” (AKA, “Shifting the Goalpost”).

What Is “Moving the Goalpost?”

The “Moving the Goalpost” logical fallacy is another one that has a fairly descriptive name. It is the case when Person A makes a claim, Person B refutes it, and Person A moves on to a new or revised claim, generally without acknowledging or responding to Person B’s refutation. Hence, the goalpost of the claim has been shifted or moved in order to keep the claim alive.

Example of Moving the Goalpost from Young-Earth Creationism

I’m not going to spend much time here because (a) I’ve been accused of using this logical fallacy series to dwell too much on Creationism, and (b) I kinda agree and want to incorporate other fields of pseudo astronomy into my examples.

The classic case of Moving the Goalpost in YEC (young-Earth creationism) is commonly known as the “Gish Gallop,” so-named for Duane Gish, the former vice president of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). In debates, Gish would very commonly spout out many, many claims, half-truths, misrepresentations, and lies that take just a few seconds or minutes to state, while his opponent would be left trying to boil down 15-minute answers to something quick that is digestible to the audience. When a claim was refuted, Gish would quickly move on to the next claim without answering the objections raised by his opponents (reference 1, reference 2).

Example of Moving the Goalpost from the Apollo Moon Landing Hoax Believers

A very similar debate tactic is used by many conspiracy theorists, and the people who promote the idea that the United States never landed men on the moon are no exception. In debates, they will often raise a claim, and then when that claim is explained away, they will not acknowledge it nor try to explain away the explanation, but will simply move on to the next claim, often with a transitional phrase of, “Okay, what about this? …”

Rather than stay with that original goalpost of their original claim, they will move on to the next one.

Another example of this fallacy but as represented by a different phenomenon is by the case study moon hoax claim of, “If Apollo really landed on the moon, then why haven’t we taken pictures of it?” This claim is easily explained away with a very simple understanding of optics that you learn in any introductory high school or college physics class, and I have already done so in my blog post, “The Apollo Moon Hoax: Why Haven’t Any Pictures Been Taken of the Landing Sites?”

However, scientists, skeptics, and even many in the general public have maintained that it was simply a matter of time before we had a space craft in orbit of the moon that actually would have a high enough resolution camera to take photographs of the Apollo landing sites and show the relics. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which went into orbit this year (2009), was just such a craft and over the summer, NASA released photographs of several of the landing sites, showing the relics.

Now, logically, that case would be closed. The hoax claim was answered originally, and it was now even answered “better” with real photographs showing just what they said wouldn’t exist.

However, the Moving the Goalpost fallacy struck again and what many of us said would happen did: The hoax proponents who have actually spoken on these photographs have simply claimed that NASA has faked (“Photoshopped”) them. The goalpost hath been moved.

Non-Astronomy Example of Moving the Goalpost from Vaccines Give You Autism Crowds

Very very rarely have I strayed away from astronomy topics and claims on this blog, but this example of Moving the Goalpost was simply too good to pass up. For many years throughout the 1990s, a group of people claimed that the thimerosal mercury-based preservative in vaccines caused children to have autism. They lobbied hard for the preservative to be removed from all childhood vaccines, claiming that that would eliminate or greatly reduce apparently rising rates of childhood autism.

They made a VERY testable claim and prediction. And by about 2003, thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccinations, at least in the US.

Again, logically, one would think that the claim had been disproven. Their cause, thimerosal, had been removed, so their claimed effect, autism, should be greatly reduced. Autism rates continued to be the same, not even a statistical blip due to the removal of thimerosal. Yet the anti-vaccination movement persists today, still claiming that vaccines give children autism, though now they will usually claim it’s due to diverse “toxins” in the vaccines. And still, some will claim that it’s the thimerosal in the vaccines … a case which now is simply a lie. Again, they have shifted the goalpost, not acknowledging they were wrong about thimerosal, but moving on to some other claim.

Final Thoughts

Moving the Goalpost is a little harder to spot than some of the other fallacies I have addressed, such as the ubiquitous ad hominem. But, it’s still a fairly easy one to observe and is mainly evidenced in two different ways. The first is moving from claim to claim without answering any refutations. The second is staying on the same claim and just repeating it without acknowledging the evidence presented against it.

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