Exposing PseudoAstronomy

December 21, 2009

Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguing: Misrepresenting Quotes, or a Position


Introduction

Following my week-long break from a 6-week series (so far) on logical fallacies, I’m going to again take a slight detour from the more formal logical fallacies and address a fallacious way of arguing a point, and that is the complete misrepresentation of a position.

What Do I Mean by the Misrepresentation?

I suppose at its core, this can be the same as quote-mining or the Straw Man or even misusing an Argument from Authority, and it can be used either to bolster or to denigrate a claim.

In effect, what I’m talking about here is when someone is trying to stake out a position (for or against something), they bring in an apparent authoritative argument or a piece of evidence, they may actually quote it properly with or without context, but then they simply misunderstand what it actually is saying.

How did I come up with this? From an episode of Coast to Coast AM that I was listening to …

Example from a Conspiratorial Standpoint, Thinking Scientists Are Holding Back Earth-Shattering Information

The context of this example is a person, Mitch Battros, an “Earth changes expert,” trying to link together the Yellowstone supervolcano, apparent Mayan prophecy, the current solar cycle (#24), and multiple universes leaking into ours.

The following is a direct quote from Mitch Battros during the fourth hour of the December 17, 2009, Coast to Coast AM radio show, starting at approximately 11 minutes into the hour:

In this article, [the scientists with the European Space Agency’s “Planck” satellite mission] say that they’re concerned about exposing too much information, that it would be overwhelming. I’ll quote: “To one’s surprise, there are astrophysicists and cosmologists who are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data, setting new paradigms, and unsettling current models.” That goes back to Mayan prophecy. The galactic alignment.

Now, within the context of the show and everything that Battros spoke about, it’s fairly obvious that he at least is presenting this in the following way: Scientists think these missions will (a) Provide lots of new data that will make their “theories” certain to (b) set new paradigms that will (c) revolutionize the way we look at the universe. Within the context of the show and his very next sentence fragments, he seems to think that means that legitimate scientists will verify his ideas.

However, as an actual scientist who is likely more familiar with (1) the way that scientists write and think, (2) the way science operates, and even (3) some of the problems facing astronomy today, I have a different take on his quote.

My take is that, first, there is a real data problem in astronomy. For example, a single instrument on a single space craft (specifically, the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft) is returning images from Mars at up to a few 10s of centimeters per pixel. Each image is generally around a gigabyte in size. The instrument has been in orbit for a few years and has taken thousands of images, comprising terabytes (TB) of data. If any of you are computer folks, you’ll know that at the consumer level, we’re just now (Dec. 2009) getting hard drives out that store up to 2 TB. Now, multiply that by about 6 for the number of instruments on that craft. Multiply that by a dozen or two for the number of spacecraft out there. Multiply that out many times to include gigapixel camera arrays on world-class ground-based telescopes.

With that in mind, the phrase that scientists “are concerned the Plank mission as well as other spacecraft will provide an overwhelming amount of data” takes on a much less sinister and conspiratorial mentality. Figuring out how to store the data and then how to retrieve (from searching) that data is a real problem these days.

Now let’s look at the next two parts – new data creating new paradigms and unsettling current models. Again – and I say “again” because I’ve said this many times in this blog – this is the whole point of science. With new, high-quality data when testing models of very cutting-edge physics, you are almost always going to cause a paradigm shift, be it simply being able to rule out one model from another (a paradigm shift) or having good, reproducible, high-quality data that does not fit with any of the current models, forcing them to be “unsettled” and for a new model to take its place.

Hence, by misrepresenting what someone likely meant, they have used a fallacious form of arguing — their premise or apparent evidence from that quote is useless as it does not actually mean what they think.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common method of arguing AND it is difficult to identify if you do not actually know the field well. It is VERY often used by young-Earth creationists and Intelligent Design proponents (see my post on Casey Luskin’s ignorance about library books), but everyone can fall into the trap, whether knowingly (in which case it’s no longer a fallacy other than plain ol’ lying) or unknowingly.

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