Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 1, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Moving the Goalpost


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.



  1. Interestingly the charge of ‘Moving the Goalposts’ is routinely made against skeptics as well. It basically goes like this:

    1. Proponent (of 9/11 conspiracy, UFOs as aliens, etc.) makes an extraordinary claim.

    2. Skeptic points out the flaws in the claim, saying that one needs evidence to back it up, but without being too specific about what is required. Proponent assumes this to be the standard by which the skeptic will accept the claim to be true.

    3. Proponent gathers what they consider to be good evidence — for example testimony of on-site eyewitnesses — and presents to the skeptic.

    4. The skeptic shoots down the testimony as insufficient, perhaps pointing out additional problems with the claim that must be overcome.

    5. Proponent calls foul, saying the skeptic has moved the goalposts.

    The lesson here is that we as skeptics have to be crystal clear on what constitutes reliable evidence for a specific claim and where those goalposts stand.

    We might too have to make clear that often those goalposts move on their own, such as what we may have considered to be good evidence (fingerprints at a crime scene, e.g.) may no longer be sufficient.

    Comment by Reed Esau — December 2, 2009 @ 3:58 am | Reply

    • Reed, I agree with you there. We need to be very specific when asking for the “best evidence” or “good evidence.” For example, a friend of mine claimed he could tell the difference between the taste of tap vs. filtered water. I wanted to do a taste test with him. So I prepared the test. I was about to administer it when I stopped and added, “Just so we’re clear, one taste test is not going to convince me that you can tell the difference, nor will it convince me that you can’t.” I wanted to avoid the appearance of shifting the goalpost by (a) if he got it right to appear as though I was going through post hoc rationalization by explaining away the results, or simply (b) saying that that one 50/50 chance test was the end-all and be-all of taste tests.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — December 2, 2009 @ 9:43 am | Reply

  2. Could you please just get on with bashing YEC’s Planet X’rs and UFO cranks rather than the English lessons

    Comment by Gus — December 2, 2009 @ 5:08 am | Reply

  3. My all time favorite example of a moving goal post was an HIV denialist I debated. He claimed if HIV had been isolated someone would have won a Nobel prize for it. A couple months later, a Nobel prize was awarded for the isolation of HIV. I pointed out that his goal post had been met. He said what Montagnier had done was not isolation of the virus. I pointed out Montagnier’s paper which largely won him the prize was called “Isolation of a T-lymphotropic retrovirus from a patient at risk for acquired immune deficiency syndrome”. And the Nobel committee said in their own press release:

    “They detected activity of the retroviral enzyme reverse transcriptase, a direct sign of retrovirus replication. They also found retroviral particles budding from the infected cells. Isolated virus infected and killed lymphocytes from both diseased and healthy donors, and reacted with antibodies from infected patients.”

    That sounded like isolation to me. He said since he had taken 4 years of biology he knew for a fact what they had done did not qualify as true virus isolation. When I asked where I could find sources that lay out the gold standard for virus isolation he said I had to trust his authority.

    Two logical fallacies for the price of one, I guess.

    Comment by Karl — December 2, 2009 @ 9:03 am | Reply

  4. […] the response quoted by the Chancellor has nothing to do with ions. Rather, the person moved the goalpost to discuss magnetic therapy. This lends credence to my supposition that PowerForce is advocating […]

    Pingback by Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience? « Exposing PseudoAstronomy — October 27, 2010 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

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