Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 7, 2010

“I’m Just Putting it Out There …”


Introduction

While drawing circles for my ever-elusive crater database so I can graduate, I was listening to an old Coast to Coast AM episode that featured Neal Adams as a guest. For those of you who do not know, Neal Adams made a name for himself decades ago bringing the character Batman back from a comical character to the dark knight that we know and love today.

But Adams is infamously known for something else: He is a proponent of a whole new field of physics he created in order to explain that Earth, and indeed all the planets, are expanding and creating new matter in their cores.

This post is not about that, however, but rather about the refrain by a branch of pseudoscientists, “I’m just putting it out there …”

The Refrain

I’ve heard this a few times. It’s not done by many die-hard people, such as anti-vaxers, or vehement conspiracy theorists who state their positions with absolute and unwavering conviction, often in a very in-your-face way.

Rather, it is a more insidious method of promoting their particular pseudoscience that comes off as appearing rather humble. My case study here is, as stated in the intro, Neal Adams. Throughout his interview on March 16, 2006, and other interviews of him that I have heard (such as on one of the first Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episodes), Adams will make some very wild claims, but then he gives the appearance of being humble and backing away. He will make his claim and then state, “But I don’t want you to necessarily believe me. I’m just a comic book artist. I’m just putting this out there.”

Richard C. Hoagland – the “face on Mars” guy – does the same thing frequently where he will talk for hours about some new implication for his special brand of crazy (“hyperdimensional physics”) and then say, “George, I’m just putting this out there for our listeners so they have the information and can do their own research.” More arm-chair conspiracy theorists will also do this: “I’m just putting it out there that shadows should be parallel but aren’t in the Apollo photos.”

False Modesty

To a point, one can accept that. I’m finishing up a paper at the moment about secondary cratering on Mars (I briefly talked about these in my post on why there is no crisis in crater age-dating). In my research, I discovered a new phenomenon related to these craters, and in the paper I suggest a possible explanation – a hypothesis that could be tested by more work (plea$e fund m€!). I’m “putting it out there.”

The first time it’s said, one may accept it. Perhaps the second. But when it is repeated every 10 minutes for three hours, it gets annoying. And it is hollow. And it’s simply a “get out of a corner free” card.

For example, Adams was claiming that you can start with a hydrogen atom (a proton) and by adding a neutron create helium (which is wrong — helium is 2 protons). When a caller confronted him about that, Adams backtracked and appeared to show complete deference to the caller and again reiterated, “I’m just a comic book author, I believe you.” Yet in future interviews I’ve heard and read, and in his current material, Adams claims the same or similar things. When called on pretty much all his claims, he’ll repeat the Argument from Personal Incredulity (“well that just doesn’t make sense to me”), sometimes appear to accept the arguments of his confronter, and then when the conversation is over he’ll go back to what he said before.

More information is usually good. I’m having oral surgery next week to extract two wisdom teeth and I’ve been reading up a lot on the effects of N2O versus IV sedation and what I can expect for recovery (twinkie and ice cream diet for 4 days, here I come!). But the dental websites I’m reading are not trying to convince me that they’re correct and then saying, “Oh, by the way, I’m a law student and have no expertise in this subject, but I’m just putting this information out there.”

Final Thoughts

Neal Adams – and people like him – should stand behind what they say or not say it at all. Creating a whole elaborate “alternative” scenario, and then extolling the cop-out of, “But I’m not an expert, I’m just putting this out there,” and falling back on it when confronted is disingenuous, slippery, and sleazy. Pretending that you are effectively musing out loud when in fact you are actively and consistently promoting yourself is more annoying than the loud and proud true believers. At least they have the guts to really stand behind what they claim.

For skeptics, this is yet another catch phrase to be aware of. If someone is promoting an idea but constantly qualifies it with, “I’m just putting this information out there, you don’t have to believe me but isn’t this interesting …” be wary! Do your own independent research on the subject, post in a skeptics forum, or ask an actual expert in the field. Don’t rely upon an artist who thinks he has independently rewritten all the physics textbooks to have any factual knowledge about the subject.

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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.

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