Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 27, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Circular Reasoning, AKA the Tautology


In my continuing series on logical fallacies, today we’re going to explore circular reasoning, more formally known as a “tautology” or a “tautological argument.”

What is a Tautology?

Throughout this post, I’m probably going to mainly use the term “tautology” rather than “circular reasoning” because it’s less to type. Circular reasoning is, like most fallacies, just what it sounds like: Making a circular argument, or when each stage of an argument refers back to the previous stage, or uses the previous stage as justification for that one. You just go around in circles.

Another way in which a tautological argument is used is to simply state the same thing twice, but in different ways. Like saying, “This is a brand-new never-before seen product!” is considered a tautology because “brand-new” and “never-before seen” mean the same thing.

The Example of Biblical Authority

This isn’t directly related to astronomy, but it underlies almost all young-Earth creationist claims and so I’ll put it in here. It would seem that the idea of biblical authority would be better-relegated to my upcoming post on the Argument from Authority, but it actually is a tautological argument as well.

If you ask a young-Earth creationist (YEC), or probably any person who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, why the Bible is true, you will get a tautology as illustrated in the diagram below:

Let’s have a hypothetical conversation:

Me: Why is the Bible true?
YEC: Because the Bible is infallible.
Me: Why is it infallible?
YEC: Because the Bible is the word of God.
Me: How do you know it’s the word of God?
YEC: Because the bible says it is the word of God.
Me: But how do you know that it’s telling you the truth?
YEC: Because the Bible is infallible.

We have entered the tautology. The YEC has not brought in outside information into the argument to back up the claim, they simply continue to go in circles.

Example from Family Life

An example of a tautology that’s closer to the second use I explained above is often found in every-day parlance, especially between parents and their children:

Parent: “It’s bed time, go to bed.”
Child: “Why?”
Parent: “Because I said so.”

Final Thoughts

Circular arguments and/or tautologies are yet another illogical way to argue because they do not bring any new information into the discussion. Rather, they argue what has already been (correctly or incorrectly) stated, and do not back it up with something else.

November 25, 2009

Logical Fallacies: The Non Sequitur


In my continuing series on logical fallacies that, once completed, will be organized into a somewhat methodical outline and links posted at the top of all relevant posts, I’m going to now address the incredibly common “Non sequitur” fallacy.

What Is the Non Sequitur Fallacy?

The phrase, “non sequitur,” is Latin, and it literally translates as, “It does not follow.” And like most logical fallacies, it really means just that: The non sequitur fallacy is when any rebuttal is given that, well, just has nothing to do with the original claim. In that sense, many logical fallacies could be non sequiturs, such as the Straw Man, but this post is really about the broad, more obvious type rather than sub-types.

Example of a Non Sequitur from Young-Earth Creationism

I’ve been wanting to bring this in for awhile, an example from Kent Hovind, possibly better known as “Dr. Dino,” and definitely better known now as the, “I’m-an-employee-of-God-so-I-don’t-have-to-pay-taxes” guy who’s serving a 10-year prison sentence, with his wife, for tax evasion.

Anyway, in Hovind’s very long video lecture series on young-Earth creationism (YEC), which I have watched over 10 hours of, he makes several examples of this fallacy. One of them is when he is discussing ages of fossils, specifically within the context of how radioactive dating methods work.

Hovind makes a rather interesting claim when he is trying to make the point that radioactive dating methods don’t work, and they don’t work to the point that “even scientists” won’t use them. One of the many examples is that he says fossils are NOT dated by radiocarbon methods.

*Gasp!* But how could this be!? Surely, geologists would use carbon-14 dating methods to determine how old a fossil is, like a dinosaur, right? And if they don’t, then how can we, the common citizen, trust that carbon-14 is a valid method? And if carbon-14 doesn’t work, then why should we trust anything else that those scientists say!?

This is probably what Hovind wants you to think. However, the claim that we don’t date fossils through radiocarbon methods is perfectly true, but a perfect non sequitur. Pointing out that we don’t use the decay of carbon-14 into nitrogen-14 is like pointing out that a repairman won’t use a hammer to apply paint. It’s completely base and unnecessary.

Why? Because fossils don’t contain carbon. A fossil is formed when minerals replace the organic material that was there. The organic material was what had the carbon in it, but the fossil does not. Hence, we can no more use carbon-14 dating to determine how old a fossil is than a surgeon can use his or her car keys to form a triple bypass.

An Example from a Grant Review

Last March, I received back a review of a grant that I had submitted in order to fund the rest of my grad student career separately from my advisor (save him money, great CV builder). Unfortunately, I did not get funded, but when I got the comments back, most of them were, well, non sequiturs, which frustrated me to no end.

For example, without trying to get into 15 pages of background information, my proposal was to complete my database of craters on Mars. One of the key points in any database is to actually identify the objects. I had stated how I would do that, by outlining (tracing) the rim of every crater, and that each point along the rim would be recorded in decimal degrees (such as, 56.23421345° North, 128.2342134239° East). Fairly straight-forward.

One of the “Intrinsic Merit Weaknesses, Major” that was noted was, “There is no information provided on the projection and coordinate system that will be used.” That’s a non sequitur because it doesn’t matter — if the data is recorded in decimal degrees, then it can be projected into any coordinate system someone wants.

Another example was the following paragraph. I had stated in the proposal that the database, when completed, would be distributed among the general research community for them to use (that’s right, I learned how to share in kindergarden … I also learned that I was mentally retarded because I’m left-handed). I stated twice in the proposal that it would be distributed through the Mars Crater Consortium’s website, PIGWAD (the USGS’s data website), and PDS (NASA’s data website). This was what the reviewers noted: “No detail is provided as to how the resulting database will be distributed, a task that will not be straightforward given that the [researcher] will be using in-house algorithms.”

Okay, so, first-off we can see that the reviewer missed where I stated that information, twice. But we can also see the non sequitur because the algorithms are to do things like fit a circle to the crater rim, or calculate the average elevation. Those are used to create the database, while the database itself is, well, just a database. “In-house,” “commercial,” “GPN,” and other algorithms are irrelevant to how the final database would be released.

Final Thoughts

The non sequitur is generally fairly easy to spot because it’s one of those things that, when used, will usually make you go, “Huh?” because it doesn’t make sense — it doesn’t follow from the original argument/claim. It’s frequently used in everyday life, just like the ad hominem, though probably the non sequitur is a little harder to spot.

November 23, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire (AKA, Hasty Conclusion, or Jumping to a Conclusion)


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.

Final Thoughts

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.

November 19, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Straw Man Argument


In my ongoing series about logical fallacy types, the discussion this time is about the “Straw Man.”

What is the “Straw Man” Fallacy?

In a nutshell, a “Straw Man” is an argument against a claim that was never made. An extreme case would be that someone claims, “The sky is blue,” and then the person who argues against it says that that person actually said, “The sky is green” and chose to argue against the sky being green.

Example from Creationism

As seems to be the case so far, my example from Creationism of this claim is the origin of the universe. Cosmologists argue that the Big Bang was the first thing that happened in our universe. From this event, everything that we know originated. Cosmologists do not know how the Big Bang happened/occurred/originated, but there are several different hypotheses that are being worked on (bubble universes, brane theory, etc.). For two sentences, that’s a fair description of the state of things.

However, what you will often see creationists argue is that we came from “Nothing.” Yep, the common claim is that, “Nothing happened to create something which created us.” They then go through hoops to effectively say, “Well isn’t that silly,” or, “Isn’t that the same thing as God created everything?”

But, what the creationist argument really is, is simply a Straw Man — they are taking something that astronomers never claimed and then arguing against it. This is done usually because either (a) they don’t actually understand the claim and hence the difference between it and what they argue, or (b) because they are purposely trying to make the original claim or claimant appear foolish.

Final Thoughts

Straw Man arguments are usually fairly easy to pick out if the incorrect argument is actually stated. To use my original contrived example of the color of the sky, if the second person does not explicitly state something to the effect of, “Well if the sky is green …” to indicate that is what they are arguing against, it can be a little tricky. That’s because you will have to pay careful attention to how and what they argue in order to see what they are actually arguing against.

November 17, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Ad hominem Follow-Up

Ad hominems and Assessing a Person’s Veracity

One thing I left out of my discussion of the ad hominem logical fallacy is that of assessing whether someone is actually being truthful or whether they may be trusted given their level of expertise with an issue.

While an ad hominem is still an ad hominem if it attacks a person rather than a claim, it can still speak towards the level of whether you should actually believe what someone claims.

For example, one of my secret pleasures is to watch Judge Judy court cases. Often during those cases, litigants – both defendants and plaintiffs – will try to bring up ad hominem attacks against their opponent in order to try to undermine the other’s case. Such as, “But he does drugs [so you shouldn’t trust him].”

While these are blatant ad hominems and the Judge often either ignores them or tells the person to just answer the question that was asked and to leave out commentary, sometimes very relevant ad hominems are allowed to stand and are explored. These are often of the circumstantial ad hominem variety. For example, if the plaintiff is suing for vandalism and brings up that the defendant has been prosecuted before for unrelated vandalism. While that does not provide any evidence as to whether the person did it this time, it does speak to the person’s character and a Judge can and often does consider that. Likewise, in federal and civil cases in “real” courts, cases will often hinge simply upon whether a jury believes one person or the other, and that is done based upon an analysis of their character as opposed to hard evidence about the actual circumstances.

Final Thoughts

While an ad hominem is still an ad hominem and does not speak at all to the actual claims or evidence that is presented, and hence it cannot be used to say whether or not that evidence is valid, they can be used and often are to asses whether the person’s claims actually should be looked at. Think of it as a “first pass:” If someone often lies about a topic, then they are unlikely to be believed about the next claim they make, regardless of whether that claim is true. For example, Rich Orman on the Dogma Free America podcast recently stated that Scientologists lie so often that if they said the sun rises in the east, he would start looking for it to come up in the west.

November 13, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Ad Hominem Attacks and the Sub-Types of Tu Quoque and Poisoning the Well


In my third installment of my series on Logical Fallacies, we’re going to cover the “ad hominem” attack along with several sub-types.

What’s an Ad hominem?

Ad hominem is a Latin phrase that literally translates as, “to the person” (and because it is in a language other than English, when using it in an English sentence it should be italicized). This is apropos because the fallacy is when one attacks a person making claims rather than the claims themselves — in other words, they address their arguments “to the person” rather than the claims. Because this is a fairly general fallacy, there are several sub-types.

Example of the Ad hominem, Abusive

There is no real standard ad hominem that I could think of in terms of creationism, intelligent design, UFOs, 2012 doomsday people, Planet Xers, astrologers, and all the rest of the pseudosciences that I’ve addressed on this blog. Really, the ad hominem is usually a spur-of-the-moment type of fallacy and generally used when one is just plain annoyed and wishes to use malice.

A contrived example would be the following situation: A die-hard UFO=aliens believer is debating with the virtuous skeptic when, frustrated, the UFO believer cries out, “Well of course you don’t believe me, you just believe whatever those scientists tell you to believe.”

Now, of course, this can easily go both ways. For example: A skeptic walking down the street sees a sign for a Psychic / Palm Reader / Tarot Card Reader / Astrologer, sees someone walk in, and obnoxiously declares, “Yeah, you’re gonna trust her — she doesn’t even have a real job!” The skeptic has just addressed the person rather than the actual claims.

Example of the Ad hominem, Circumstantial

This variety of ad hominem, rather than direct character assassination, uses circumstances rather than the person. For example, to pick on the Noble Skeptic, a skeptic might claim of a seriologist (someone who studies crop circles), “Well of course they believe crop circles are caused by aliens. That’s because they run a tour company and charge lots of money to bring people to see the formations.”

Assuming the seriologist in question actually does this, then the skeptic has just used the circumstantial ad hominem where they have drawn an albeit valid link that may be some of the seriologist’s motivation, it still does not address the actual claims of crop circle believers.

Sub-Type: Tu quoque

Lots of Latin in this blog post! Tu quoque literally translates as, “You, too.” This form of ad hominem attack, rather than being used initially, often follows one lobbied against its user. It’s really the quite childish playground taunt of, “Oh yeah! Well so do you!”

To continue my above example of the seriologist, once the Noble Skeptic has used such a logically fallacious circumstantial ad hominem, the seriologist may come right back with, “But you charge admissions to your lectures against aliens, crop circles, and UFOs!” In other words, they’ve just pointed out that the very ad hominem used against them – financial ties to the cherished belief – can also apply to the skeptic.

But again, the actual claim itself of whether crop circles are caused by aliens has not been addressed.

Sub-Type: Poisoning the Well

“Poisoning the Well” is a sub-type of ad hominem where, rather than outright attacks on a person or group, the attack is subtle and tries to get the listeners to distrust the person or group being attacked. They have been, effectively, “poisoned.”

An example of this that is often used by both creationists but much more so by the Intelligent Design proponents is calling pretty much anyone who disagrees with them a “Darwinist,” “Evolutionist,” or even “Evilutionist.” In other words, without addressing any of the claims themselves, they have already biased their audience against those people by giving them a seemingly unfavorable characteristic.

The Inverse ad hominem

I’ll address this more in my upcoming post on the Argument from Authority as a sub-sub-sub-…-sub type of that, but suffice to say here that the inverse ad hominem is just what it would seem to be. But rather than used to argue against someone or something, it’s used to try to give undue support for their position.

For example: “That Creationist on-stage is much better dressed than his opponent. He must really know what he’s doing to show up like that.”

Or, in every-day life, when walking down the street people will usually give much more sidewalk space to someone dressed in a tuxedo, evening gown, or priestly garb than a person walking in sweat pants and a t-shirt.

Final Thoughts

Everyone uses ad hominem attacks. I’ve used them, you’ve used them, we’ve all used them. But, it’s an argument ad populum (again, future post!) to say that because everyone uses them, they’re a good way of arguing. They’re so often used in politics that most people have turned away from politicians and created the joke of “politicks = poly + ticks, or “many” + “blood-sucking insects.” Of course this, in itself, is an ad hominem.

I should note, by the way, that something is only an ad hominem IF it is used as an argument in itself. Just using it in an argument or on the school playground to call someone a “jerk” for example is NOT an ad hominem. However, the poisoning the well fallacy is not as subject to this restriction.

And before some commenter points it out, I used ad hominems and inverse ad hominems throughout this post, such as the “Noble Skeptic” or “die-hard UFO=aliens believer.” Yes, I know I used them. I did it on purpose. Thank you for not using your own tu quoque in the Comments section.

November 11, 2009

Logical Fallacies: Argument from Final Consequences


Continuing my series on logical fallacies, this post will address the fallacy of the Argument from Final Consequences.

What is the “Argument from Final Consequences?”

The “Argument from Final Consequences” fallacy can effectively be stated as: “Something exists, therefore [this] caused it.” In other words, it confuses cause and effect, starting with an effect and then assuming a cause.

Main Example from Creationism

One of the best astronomy/physics-related examples of this logical fallacy from Creationism (and Intelligent Design) proponents is the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. Since I have addressed this argument in detail in a previous post, the very short argument goes as follows: “In order for us to exist, the universe has to be very fine-tuned in order for that to happen, therefore God (or an “Intelligence”) was the one that created it.”

If we deconstruct that argument, we have an observation and conclusion of an effect — the universe must be fine-tuned for us to exist here — and then we have the cause — God did it. In other words, we have the effect placed before the cause in the argument, or an Argument from Final Consequences logical fallacy.

A more honest ay of addressing this situation is to observe that we exist the way we do because of the way the universe is. We have the cause — the universe is the way it is — and the effect — we exist as we do to take advantage of the physical laws of the universe that we inhabit. Saying that we could not exist if the universe were different is probably true, but that does not mean that no type nor form of life could exist, just our particular kind of life.

Final Thoughts

The Argument from Final Consequences is a little harder to spot in discussions because you generally have to pause, deconstruct the argument, and really look at what they’re claiming to be the cause and effect to determine if they are using the effect to justify the cause.

November 9, 2009

Logical Fallacies: God of the Gaps


I’ve wanted to do a series on logical fallacies for quite awhile. In general, I am going to use young-Earth creationist (YEC) arguments because, well, they commit a lot of them, despite Jason Lisle’s recent series on the Answers in Genesis website about fallacious arguing.

What is “God of the Gaps?”

The “God of the Gaps” argument is really just what it sounds like: It is a way to fill a gap in our knowledge with God.

Young-Earth Creationist Astronomy Example

Probably the most prolific use of the God of the Gaps fallacy in YEC arguments is that of the universe’s “first cause.” The YEC claim goes as follows: “Something must have caused the Big Bang. Astronomers don’t know what that was. It was God.” Or, substitute for that last sentence, “Why couldn’t it have been God?”

The answer is simple — it could have been. But it also may not have been. We now know what causes lightning. Three thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks did not, and they created an elaborate pantheon of gods where the King of the Gods, Zeus, was the one who threw lightning bolts to earth after they were made by his son, the god Hephaestus. They literally stuck not one, but two gods into that gap. Now that we know what causes lightning, I don’t think I’ve met any modern religious person who still claims that it is caused by a god.

Similarly, Apollo was once thought to draw the sun across the sky each day, since the ancient Greeks could not explain naturally why the sun seemed to cross the sky every day, only to return back where it was for the next. Today, we know why – because Earth rotates on its axis. That gap in human knowledge is no longer there.

The same could happen for the origin of the universe. Right now, we don’t know what happened to originate it. Many Christians – if not people from most religions around the world – use the God of the Gaps to fill that void in our knowledge with a divine creation. But we may in the future know what natural means caused the Big Bang. We may not. Regardless, to jump to the conclusion that God did it and we cannot know the mind of god or find a natural cause is to invoke this logical fallacy.

God of the Gaps: The Science-Stopper

Scientists, rational thinkers, and skeptics will often argue that the God of the Gaps fallacy is a “science-stopper.” I have seen Intelligent Design proponents and YECers argue that it is not, though I remain fairly unconvinced by their arguments.

The reason that this fallacy is a science-stopper is that once you say “God Did It,” you don’t have to go any further. If Benjamin Franklin followed the Greek pantheon and believed that lightning was simply Zeus throwing things ’cause he was mad, then what impetus would he have had to find out its true nature?

Using God as an answer simply gives you a supernatural answer. It doesn’t cause you to look for a deeper, natural explanation, but leaves you satisfied that it is beyond our understanding ’cause God Did It.

The Shrinking Role of God

Philosophically, if I were a believer in the divine, I don’t think I would care to use this fallacy, and that’s because of the ever-shrinking role of God. Each time someone uses the fallacy – that God is used to explain something – and then we are able to explain it in a purely naturalistic method, then God’s role has suddenly diminished, shrinking away from that claim.

Final Thoughts

The God of the Gaps fallacy is usually a pretty easy one to spot.

December 29, 2008

Answers in Genesis Year-End Review of Astronomy – An Assessment


Answers in Genesis (AiG), a young-Earth creationism think tank headed by Ken Ham (the folks that built the creationism “museum” within an hour’s drive of my hometown), has published their Year in Review for 2008, featuring a recap of their biggest headlines.

They address 13 main points, the first four being astronomy related. While they are mostly fairly benign in and of themselves, I thought I’d briefly address them myself and express my own opinions about their take on them.

(1) In Search of the Big Bang

The top of their list is a story about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an experiment that was unfortunately taken off-line until at least next summer due to a helium leak. The purpose of the LHC, operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is to conduct four main experiments for the purpose of creating densities and energy levels (in very tiny volumes of space) that approach what physicists think the universe was like soon after the Big Bang.

Possibly because the LHC was never fully functional, this AiG wrap-up really has nothing much to say about it. Rather, the author devoted half the space to an ad hominem, non sequitur attack at something that (by the nature of it being a non sequitur) is not related to the LHC operations nor experiments at all.

(2) Water, Water Everywhere

NASA’s mantra has been “Follow the Water” for several years now, something that I addressed in this blog post. Briefly, the main reasoning is that the search for life is perceived to be “sexy” and something that inspires the public, and then hopefully congressional purse strings. The relation between water and life is that every form of life that we know of requires water in order to be active. Hence, we are most likely – based on our experience here – to find extraterrestrial life where there is extraterrestrial water. And it is much easier to find water than it is to just start searching for life.

With that in mind, AiG’s article then states, “Evolutionists seem to believe that observing the ingredients of life is evidence that those ingredients could self-organize. Taking this logic into the kitchen, couldn’t we say that since we observe flour, sugar, eggs, and the like, cakes are able to mix and bake themselves?”

There are two logical fallacies here, one for each sentence. The first is a straw man. As I have just explained, us “evolutionists” (“evilutionists?”) do not believe that observing ingredients for life is evidence that they could self-organize. We’re simply narrowing the search.

For example, let’s say that you were going shopping for a new shirt. The first thing you would do is to figure out where the stores are that sell clothes. The second would be to then systemmatically go from one to the other until you found one that sells shirts, and then from those you would search for a shirt you liked. That’s what astronomers are doing with the search for life. What you would not do is just go from store to store – be it a video store, grocery store, pet store, etc. – in search of your shirt because there’s no point in looking for a shirt in a store that doesn’t sell clothes.

The second fallacy is a false analogy. Putting out ingredients for a cake on a kitchen counter and then expecting them to assemble into a baked cake is just stupid. And that’s not what we’re saying happened with life. First off, origin of life study is not evolution. But besides that, what the current ideas for origin of life are is that you had molecules (not macroscopic cups of flour and sugar and eggs) that over time (as in not in the hour you leave them on your counter) happened to come together via external forces (as in not doing nothing with the ingredients sitting on your counter) to make a self-contained, self-replicating-capable protocell.

That’s very different from a cake magically assembling and baking itself.

(3) Earth Versus the Other Worlds

This section is just a massive two-paragraph argument from ignorance (not meant as an insult, but as a formal logical fallacy). This year was impressive in exoplanet research, which included the first real imaging of exoplanetary systems (one from Keck, the other from the Hubble Space Telescope) and the lightest-mass planet yet, one about 5 times Earth’s mass.

One of the many difficulties in finding exoplanets is that our methods work best with massive planets that are very close to their parent stars. And — gasp!! — that’s what we’ve found so far!! We, quite simply, do not have the technology to detect Earth-like planets yet. It’s really as plain as that. Saying that they don’t exist is a conclusion from complete lack of data – an argument from ignorance.

With that in mind, I will simply provide AiG’s section on this and then move on:

Exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) have become one of the hottest topics of late in astronomy, as secular “astrobiologists” search for Earth-like planets among the stars. This year, we covered Super-Earths and the search for Earth’s twin; planets MOA-2007-BLG-192L, WASP-12b, and “Vulcan”; and the first-ever true “sighting” of an exoplanet.

Yet all this time, we’re still learning about how special Earth and our solar system are. As we wrote in July, “[I]n spite of the evidence that Earth is indeed unique and that the existence of life on Earth is no mere accident, evolutionists cling by faith to their worldview,” and (separately), “Everything we learn continues to point to the fact that Earth and its astronomical environment are anything but ordinary—in fact, our planet and solar system are unique.”

(4) Our Friend Phoenix

This is pretty similar to the first news item on the LHC – they’re grasping at straws:

As for most of Phoenix’s discoveries, we said in July that, “though [they don’t] prove the possibility of life, [they don’t] disprove it, either—and thus evolutionists use it as a basis for clinging to the hope that evidence of life may some day be found (and prove an evolutionary origin for life on Mars and elsewhere).”

What do they mean by “clinging to … hope” about finding ET life? Personally, I’m not big on astrobiology. It doesn’t interest me a huge amount. I think it’s a fascinating question, but I also think that influenza is fascinating and I’m glad other people are out there researching it but not me. But Phoenix had as much to do about “finding life” as finding water on Enceladus (a moon of Saturn). The instruments on the craft were not designed to detect life, they were designed to look for water (on Phoenix) and do general chemical analysis (on Phoenix and Cassini). I’m still not completely honed in on logical fallacies, but my call on this is pretty much an argument from ignorance wrapped up in a non sequitur.


I won’t be doing my own year-end astronomy news review, partly because I just started this blog in September. Personally, I may say that the biggest pseudoastro news would relate to either the conspiracies surrounding the LHC or Edgar Mitchell’s take on UFOs (he’s a former Apollo astronaut, so the UFO community used him as a massive argument from authority to back up their claims).

Consequently, I’m going to just address other folks’ wrap-ups, if they exist. And AiG has provided my first opportunity to do so. They bring up some very important advances in astronomy, but as usual, their interpretation is steeped in fallacies and misunderstandings.

December 19, 2008

Record and Unusual Snows and Cold – Proof Against Global Warming?


It seems as though every winter now for the past few years, there’s some report of record snowfall or cold temperatures. Last year it was snow in Baghdad for the first time in a century. This year it just snowed in Las Vegas, NV and we have record cold in New England.

And, for the past few years, whenever this has happened we have had global warming deniers clamoring to say that this is proof that not only is man-made (anthropogenic) global warming not true, but global warming period is not true. And predictably, this has happened in the last few days.

I haven’t yet written a post focusing on global warming in this blog, and I don’t really intend to concentrate on it – this is more of an astronomy blog. However, as an astronomer/geophysicist as well as someone sharpening my teeth on instances of bad logic, I wanted to address this issue at least once.

Logical Fallacies

There are two main logical flaws here that I want to address – correlation without causation, and anomaly hunting.

The basic idea behind confusing a correlation (or association) with causation is that because two or more things seem to fit together (they look alike, they happen at the same time, etc.), then they must be related. For example, under this fallacy I would assume that if I turn on my computer and the doorbell rings, then me turing on my computer caused the doorbell to ring.

It should be noted that things that are correlated sometimes really are due to a cause and effect. In that above example, if I turn on my computer and I hear the Apple start-up chime come from my computer’s speakers, then those two correlated events really are causally connected.

The point of the fallacy is that you cannot – and should not – always assume that just because things are associated then they are connected.

The other fallacy is anomaly hunting, where you search for anything that will support your cause out of a vast array of information that doesn’t support your cause, and then use that as proof that your cause is correct. This is very often used in conspiracy theories – such as the Apollo Moon Hoax or even the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – and since the anti-global warming movement has by this point adopted many of the tactics of conspiracy theorists, it is no wonder that this fallacy abounds in their arguments.

What Global Warming Actually Is

The theory of global warming is that, over time, and on average, Earth’s temperature increases. Pretty darn simple. This is also referred to as “climate change.” And this terminology is key: When I took an intro weather geology class in undergrad, I was hammered on two vocabulary words that are often used interchangeably but really mean very different things: Weather and Climate.

Weather is the condition of Earth’s atmosphere at a given time and place, including such things as density, pressure, humidity, and temperature. Climate is the weather patterns over a long period of time. I hope by this point you can see where this post is headed — tying together three threads: Correlation is not causation, anomaly hunting, and weather is not climate.

Now the question is – what would happen if the overall temperature of Earth went up by just a few degrees? Well, the obvious answer is that things would be warmer. But this is NOT the only consequence. A result of areas becoming warmer is that weather patterns can change. Regions of Earth that once got plenty of rainfall could see that diminish, and vice versa. In addition, the overall warming can lead to more extreme weather patterns, including colder weather in some places during the winter. Just a few small changes in the jet stream over North America can easily bring cold air from over Canada down into the lower 48 states.

Why An Abnormally Cold Winter Does Not Sound the Death Knell for Global Warming

Let’s go in reverse order. First, these nay-sayers are focusing on weather events and are not looking at overall climate. Overall climate does show a trend of increased temperatures tightly correlated with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration over the last few decades.

Second, they are assuming, effectively, an anti-correlation here, saying that this abnormally cold weather is the effect of global cooling, far from global warming.

And third, they are anomaly hunting, searching for the few events of cold weather or snowfall amidst an incredibly large amount of data that show evidence of global warming, such as the afore-mentioned actual temperature tracking, shrinking glaciers, and longer term temperature tracking from ice core samples and tree rings.

Final Thoughts

I hope that this post has fairly clearly shown that snow in Baghdad does not prove that global warming is a vast conspiracy propagated by leftist media and liberal scientists. I have no desire, here, to get into the politics of global warming nor really consequences — I simply want to show that the cold weather that global warming deniers use as evidence against it are really missing the point in three main ways.

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