In my continuing series on logical fallacies and how people use them in pseudoastronomy, this post will be on the somewhat interesting fallacy of, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.” And it’s being written at a comfortable cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.
What’s the “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire” Fallacy?
This fallacy is best-known as the, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” phrase because it’s catchy and easy to figure out what it means. The idea is simple: Where you see smoke, that means there’s a fire. The fallacy occurs because you have jumped to that conclusion without actually knowing what caused the smoke — several different things can create smoke or smoke-like effects without there being a fire involved.
This fallacy is more formally known as the “Hasty Conclusion” or “Jumping to a Conclusion” for that very reason — one jumps to a hasty conclusion without actually examining the evidence or anything behind the claim.
Example from UFOlogy
While most of my examples of fallacious logic have centered around Young-Earth creationists, some of the better examples of this fallacy in the realm of bad astronomy is employed by people who believe that UFOs are alien craft.
A timely example has to do with the very recent Vatican conference on astrobiology, where they invited many scientists from around the world to meet in the Vatican City to discuss the latest in that field. This is prefaced by, in recent years, the Vatican releasing edicts (sayings?, papers?, speeches? … whatever official stuff from the Vatican is called) stating that the existence of extraterrestrial life does not conflict with Church teachings.
UFOlogists have used the recent conference and each of these proclamations by the Vatican to to jump on this as evidence the “Vatican knows something,” and “The Vatican is about to do disclosure [of the UFO phenomenon.”
In my occasionally humble opinion, it is much more likely that the Vatican realizes it’s a distinct possibility that astrobiologists will, in the coming decades, find evidence of past or present life on other planets. Rather than take a very firm stand on something they realize could alienate more of the faithful by simply denying that would-be discovery, they are laying the foundation to be able to say, “See, it’s okay that life exists elsewhere, it doesn’t mean God didn’t create us, it just means that he also created life elsewhere!” As opposed to, “Yeah, that little green guy who’s shaking hands with the President? The Bible says he can’t exist, so he doesn’t.”
Another UFOlogy Example
One of the key tenants of the UFO = aliens movement is that The Government knows what’s going on and does its darndest to cover it up so the general public caan’t figure it out. Among The Government’s key enforcers are the “Men in Black” and the military.
Hence, whenever there’s a UFO sighting that gets any press, if there is any military activity in the area, be it troop movements, air drills, or the like, UFO proponents will call fire to that smoke: The military activity is proof that it really was an alien spaceship. This conclusion is made without any actual evidence of an alien biological entity or technology, it’s simply concluded after an unexplained sighting and then any subsequent military activity.
The Hasty Conclusion / Jumping to a Conclusion / Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire fallacy is usually an easy one to pick out. The fallacy simply relies upon, well, jumping to a conclusion on very limited evidence without actually trying to figure out what’s really going on.