Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 22, 2011

On the Subject of Absolute Denial


Introduction

Lately, I’ve had a somewhat morbid fascination with the news feed over at Conservapedia where they post the most absolute conservative and Christian fundamentalist stories along with often laughable commentary. For example, we have, “Thousands of Christians, fed up with persecution at the hands of atheists, rally in Texas in a fight to save their Nativity scene.” Or:

Additional Climategate fraud exposed: U.S. Gov’t money helped fund a deliberate hiding of data: “Now a new batch posted in late November to a Russian server shows that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit refused to share their U.S. government-funded data with anyone they thought would disagree with them.” Not even replication is allowed, a basic tenet of science. And our critics say we’re anti-science!

At least a third of the time (at least it seems), their articles are direct links to Creation Ministries International (CMI) articles. Following their CMI bent, Conservapedia is a big supporter of the CMI’s “Question evolution!” campaign, often filling their news feed with notes that a new Question evolution! campaign was launched somewhere.

What brought me to write this hopefully short post is Conservapedia’s commentary with their latest update on said campaign: “How did life originate? Evolutionists and atheists don’t have any answers. Creation Ministries International unveils their second Question evolution! campaign video which no evolutionist/atheist is going to be able to rebut.”

Question evolution!

RationalWiki’s page on “Question evolution!”

That’s what mostly needs to be said, but to summarize, CMI came up with 15 questions that “evolutionists” supposedly can’t answer and where each of them disprove “Darwinism” with absolute certainty.

One problem with this is that several of their 15 questions have nothing to do with evolution, such as, say … Question 1, “How did life originate.” Sorry CMI, but origin of life studies has nothing to do with the change in the frequency of alleles in cells. Other of the questions are philosophical and have nothing to do with science, like Question 6, “Why do living things bear the hallmarks of design, [sic] if no one designed them?” (you’ll also notice they improperly use commas).

A second problem is that this sets up a false dichotomy with a god of the gaps on one end where CMI obviously wants you to think that because scientists supposedly can’t answer these questions, Goddidit.

The final “problem” is that the questions pertaining to evolution are answerable and have been answered many, many times. RationalWiki does a good job on that page I linked to.

The Point of This Post: Denial

It admittedly is difficult for me to imagine, with full knowledge of my own argument from personal incredulity, that the editors over at Conservapedia are ignorant of the responses by scientists to this campaign. After all, CMI did their own three-part series on it. Perhaps this is why Conservapedia often inserts the word, “satisfactorily” into their statement that these are questions “evolutionists cannot satisfactorily answer.” But that’s my own musing.

It is thus that I wanted to muse further about the idea of denial. Often in skepticism, we naïvely expect propagators of woo to play by the rules of logic, evidence, and acknowledgement of statements and full responses to them. We quickly learn that most don’t play by that game. The response is often moving the goalpost (conspiracy theorists often do this) or a Gish Gallop (named for the creationist who did this and often encountered with conspiracies as well as creationists).

It is in this spirit that I point out that Conservapedia is simply denying that scientists have answered their questions, they just don’t like the answers. I submit that people such as Andrew Schlafly (the founder and primary editor of Conservapedia) will never consider any response to these kinds of things “sufficient” for their purposes. Almost by definition, this is where we enter the realm of the “True Believer.”

Final Thoughts

In science, in contrast (and I know I’ve addressed this many times), the ideal is to never hold our own personal beliefs above the evidence for them and especially against them.

If someone were to present demonstrable evidence that Planet X were nearby and there was actually some mechanism for it to cause a pole flip in a year yesterday, I’d look at it and take it seriously. But a Planet X that’s 365 days away (2012 is a leap year, after all … oooo! scary!) would almost be the brightest object in our sky. Last time I looked up, I didn’t see it.

Similarly, if someone were able to present demonstrable evidence that pans out for, say, the Moon Hoax conspiracy, then that would be something. But I would expect that if I looked into that person’s claim and presented my findings to them, that that person would then look at my evidence and analysis and respond to it. That has never been the case so far (at least for me), all they do is not respond or move onto another claim.

So really, this is a guide to those who believe something that’s not generally accepted: If you lay out a specific claim, present specific evidence for it. If someone takes the time to look into that evidence and addresses your claim, have the courtesy to “play by the rules” and actually examine what they show you, and then respond to it. If the person shows that your evidence is flawed, acknowledge that. Don’t change the subject. Don’t say, “Oh, well I can’t give you anymore evidence because the men in black took it.” If you do, a rational person is not going to believe you because the only evidence you had was shown to be flawed.

And at that point, don’t turn around to the next person and completely ignore what had just happened (e.g., Bart Sibrel, I’m lookin’ at you). Don’t claim that your flawed evidence that you acknowledged was flawed (assuming we got that far) is valid again to the next person you talk to.

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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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