Slow Clap

I started a post recently building off a myth that Ben Radford perpetuated in a recent hilariously terrible screed about (straw-)feminists, but it’s in need of some editing and revising and thinking whether it’s even a good idea before I actually post it.

But then he wrote this bit of inanity, complete with bad photoshop, elevating his rhetorical style to the level of “bad college newspaper satire.” And I scarcely know where to begin.

I think my favorite part is the dig at the fact that PZ Myers hasn’t published a book yet. There’s a relevant criticism in the digital age. Or any age, really, since “publishing a book” doesn’t say anything about…well, anything. Except one’s ability to convince a publisher that they’re worth taking a risk on, and in the digital age, even that’s a diminishing factor.

Comparing peer-reviewed publication citations provides greater hilarity. Especially since BA-in-psychology-cryptid-expert Radford makes digs at PZ’s “writing outside of his field [of biology]”, and being “once known for his work as a biologist.”

If you’re not inclined to read through Radford’s attempt at humor (hint: it’s worse than his poetry), here’s the tl;dr: PZ strawmanned me!

No, seriously, that’s it. Radford made nearly 800 words out of an accusation that PZ strawmanned him. It’s a shame that, in the whole effort, he never actually said what PZ was supposedly strawmanning.

Look, here’s a bit of Arguing 102 for the would-be skeptics and internet debaters out there: it’s awesome that you found a list of fallacies on some website someplace, and you’re so happy that you’re learning all the Latin names and everything. And you totally understand what a straw man argument is and why it’s a fallacy and now you’re seeing just how common they are. In fact, maybe someone crafted a straw man argument in a conversation with you and you noticed it and furiously went a-typing away at your keyboard.

Here’s the thing: there’s a productive way to go about responding to someone’s straw man version of your argument, and a very unproductive way. First, the unproductive way:

“You strawmanned me! That’s a strawman!”

Also, the very unproductive way: “You strawmanned me!” x 258.

The productive way is to go beyond the accusation. The easiest way to do this is to quote your opponent’s straw man argument and either restate your original argument, quote it, or link back to it. Better still is to do that and then explain how your opponent distorted your argument, or why their response failed to address your actual points. That follow-through is actually important; it’s what separates the people who legitimately recognize fallacious reasoning and can explain what’s wrong with it (and thus help make their own arguments look even better) from the people who just learned the term online and don’t really understand the argumentation process, and the people who are using the term as a way to dodge legitimate criticism. Such people–both groups–are fairly common online.

As for Ben Radford, maybe someday he’ll get the hang of this skeptical argumentation and writing stuff.

How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

Credulous Books by Skeptics

I’ve been doing some reading here and there, first to prepare for our awesome GenCon presentations, and then to get ready for the upcoming academic year. And in each case, some of the reading I’ve been doing has forced my palm to meet my face.

First, as part of the last surge of brainstorming-and-research phase for our presentation on conspiracy theories, I read chapters from The Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories. It’s an entertaining book, written as a critical examination of conspiracy nuttery with “penned-in” annotations by a conspiracy theorist caricature, or possibly just Alex Jones. Where the book really lost me, though, was in the chapter on the JFK assassination. In it, the author claims that the “magic bullet” theory–that a single bullet hit Kennedy, zig-zagged through the air, then hit Connally in at least two places, emerging almost unscathed–is an aspect of the official story. He also notes a litany of “suspicious” deaths that occurred to people peripherally involved with the assassination, and based on these traits assigned the JFK assassination conspiracy theory a fairly high degree of plausibility.

Now, I’ll admit that as far as conspiracy theories go, the JFK assassination is firmly ensconced on the more plausible end of the spectrum. In fact, Don and I put together this graphic of conspiracy theories that we didn’t get to use in the talk, and you can see that we were generally pretty favorable to the JFK assassination buffs.
Legend to be printed in a future post.
See, JFK is right there in the “pretty darn significant” and “only somewhat batshit insane” section of the graph. And even that’s largely because the secret has somehow been kept for over fifty years, and the conspiracies get pretty crazy pretty quickly. But it’s not hard to imagine, what with his Communist sympathies, that maybe Oswald was put up to it, or that Jack Ruby was working for the mob, or something along those lines.

That being said, the whole “magic bullet” thing smacks of not doing the research. The “magic bullet” is not a feature of the official story, but an anomaly seized-upon by the conspiracy theorists, based entirely on a misunderstanding of how Kennedy and Connally were seated in the car. When you account for the actual seating arrangement, with Connally sitting somewhat inboard and Kennedy elevated, the path of the “magic bullet” suddenly becomes a fairly straight-line path expected by an average bullet. And, of course, the “unscathed” bit is based on one misleading photo of the bullet; other photos show that it was all smushed in on one side and kind of twisted.

So that soured me on Cook’s book; if he could miss that bit of research–something that’s easily found in any number of sources, from TV specials to Vincent Bugliosi’s encyclopedia of the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History, then what else might he have missed? I own the book, so I suspect that I’ll come back to it eventually–everyone makes mistakes after all–but it was a little disheartening to see a book with “skeptic” right there in the title, and one of the few readily available skeptical guides on conspiracy theories, make such an appeal to credulity.

Fast-forward a few days, and my wife was looking to round out an Amazon order to get the free shipping. A book called Amazing…But False! had been floating around my “saved items” section of the Amazon cart for a year or three, and had recently dropped below $7. It seemed like exactly what I’d need for examples to stimulate critical thinking skills–there’s a foreword by James Randi!–and so forth, so I had her add it.

The book arrived today, and I started flipping through, reading items here and there. Most of them have been pretty good, although a lot of them were already pretty familiar. I was intrigued by one teased on the back of the book–“All Crop Circles are Hoaxes”–but it was presented there under the “True or False” header. The article was a whole lot less ambiguous, unfortunately. Author David Diefendorf gives a decent overview of the crop circle phenomenon, but cites “some experts” claiming they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and goes on to make a distinction between “true crop circles” and hoaxes. “There is a long list of characteristics that make it unlikely if not impossible for the ‘natural’ crop circles to have been fabricated by humans,” he says, then lists eight bullet-pointed traits of “genuine” crop circles that seem an awful lot like credulously repeating believers’ anomaly-hunting. Among the reasons are that “the leaves and stems of the plants manipulated in genuine crop circles are woven together in a fashion so intricate as to be impossible for pranksters to duplicate” and “of the legions of crop circles scattered all over the world, many are far too complex in design to have been fabricated by pranksters.” Most of them are like that: anomalies that make it “impossible” for any human to have crafted them. As St. Peter said, “You’re right, no human being could stack books like this.”

It’s disheartening to see such a failure of skepticism in the face of typical woo-woo tactics, but it’s especially galling in a book endorsed by James Randi.

I guess the takeaway is the same one that one should get from Snopes’s “Lost Legends” page: you can’t believe everything you read, even from otherwise skeptical sources. Unfortunately, it puts me in the position of having to independently research every entry before I present it to anyone else.

Please feel free to dismiss the following

What should have been a relatively academic conversation has become a feud, and I’m already finding it rather tiresome. I’m Phil Plait’s proverbial “dick,” you see, because I referenced an obscure little movie from twelve whole years ago made by a pair of independent directors with only, like, two Academy Awards to their names, and starring a bunch of unknown Oscar-winning actors, which only ranks #135 in IMDB’s Top 250 films of all time. Maybe it would have been better if I’d referenced a series of porn videos of drunk young women.

Also, because I’m snarky and sarcastic. Well, okay, guilty as charged.

So I’m exactly what Phil Plait was referring to, even though Phil’s clarifications make me suspect that even he doesn’t know exactly what he was referring to, and his speech has become a Rorschach Test for whatever tactic(s) any particular skeptic wants to authoritatively decry. Sure, fine, whatever. I’ve been called worse. By myself, no less.

Anyway, Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton weighed in on Skepdude’s tweet:

Now, I’m no great fan of Loxton. I was; I enjoy Junior Skeptic, and I like his Evolution book. But I disagree with nearly everything he writes on skepticism, I think he tends to adopt a very condescending tone and a very authoritarian attitude over the skeptical movement (such as it is), and I lose a great deal of respect for anyone–especially a skeptic–who blocks people for disagreeing with them. You can read through my Twitter feed, if you like; I defy you to find any abuse or insult which would justify blockage.

So that’s my stated bias out of the way. I address Loxton’s point here not out of bitterness, but out of genuine surprise that someone who is so vocal and respected in the skeptical movement could be so very wrong about basic logical fallacies like ad hominem and poisoning the well. I also can’t help but feel a little prophetic with that whole last post I wrote about sloppy thinking.

Edit: I also want to offer a brief point in defense of Daniel Loxton: being a Twitter user, and knowing the limitations of the medium, it’s possible that truncating his thoughts in that medium impeded what he was trying to say, and that the mistakes are due less to sloppy thinking or misunderstanding, and more to trying to fit complex thoughts into ~140 characters. That being said, the proper place to make such a complex point without sacrificing clarity would have been here, at the linked post, in the comment section.

Loxton’s first claim, as I understand it, is that most insults belong to the “poisoning the well” subcategory of the ad hominem fallacy. This is wrong on a couple of levels. While poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem, neither category can be said, by any reasonable standard, to include “most insults.”

A little background: the ad hominem fallacy belongs to a category of fallacies of relevance, which are arguments whose premises offer insufficient support for their conclusions, and which are generally used to divert or obscure the topic of a debate. Ad hominem accomplishes this in one of two related ways: attempting to draw a conclusion about someone’s argument or points or claims by relying on an irrelevant personal attack, and by attempting to divert the topic of a debate from claims and arguments to the character of one of the debaters.

It becomes fairly easy, then, to see why “most insults” do not qualify as the ad hominem fallacy: most insults are not arguments. A logical fallacy, by definition, is an error in reasoning; in order for something to qualify as a fallacy, it must at least make an attempt at reasoning. If I say “Kevin Trudeau is a motherfucker,” I’m not making any actual argument. There are no premises, there is no conclusion, there is no attempt at reasoning, and so there can be no fallacy.

In order for there to be fallacious reasoning, there must first be some attempt at reasoning, which requires some semblance of premises and a conclusion. “Kevin Trudeau says colloidal silver is a useful remedy. But Kevin Trudeau is an idiot. So, yeah,” is more obviously fallacious (even though, as Skepdude would happily and correctly point out, the conclusion–“therefore Kevin Trudeau is wrong about colloidal silver”–is only implied). The implied conclusion is not sufficiently justified by the premises; that abusive second premise says nothing about the truth or falsehood of Kevin Trudeau’s claim. Even if it’s true, even an idiot is capable of valid arguments and true statements.

I could leave this here, I suppose; if poisoning the well is indeed a subcategory of ad hominem fallacies, and “most insults” are not in fact ad hominem fallacies, then “most insults” could not also be part of a subset of ad hominem fallacies. But poisoning the well is a tricky special case, and if there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s belaboring a point.

So what of poisoning the well? It’s a way of loading the audience, of turning a potential audience against your opponent before they even get a chance to present their argument. You present some information about your opponent–true or false–that you know your audience will perceive as negative, before your opponent gets a chance to state their case. The implication (and it’s almost always implied, as Loxton rightly notes) is that anything your opponent says thereafter is unreliable or incorrect.

Here’s where it gets tricky: it barely qualifies as a fallacy, because all the speaker is doing is offering an irrelevant fact about his opponent’s character. As we said, in order for something to be a logical fallacy, it has to contain an error in reasoning. The point of poisoning the well is not to actually commit a fallacy, but to make the audience commit a fallacy, specifically to commit an ad hominem fallacy, by dismissing your opponent’s claims and arguments based on the irrelevant information you provided at the beginning. So poisoning the well is a subset of ad hominem fallacies, where the fallacy is committed by an audience at the prompting of the well-poisoning speaker.

Here’s where Loxton gets it wrong–and only fairly slightly, I might add. I had to do a fairly large amount of research before I felt confident that this was a key point–is that the key feature of poisoning the well is that it’s done pre-emptively. Insults offered after your opponent has stated their case may be an attempt to manipulate the audience into the same ad hominem fallacy, but they do not qualify as poisoning the well.

An example: You open up a copy of “Natural Cures THEY Don’t Want You To Know About” by Kevin Trudeau, and someone has placed inside the front cover a description of Trudeau’s various fraud convictions. Consequently, everything you read in the book will be tainted by your knowledge that Trudeau is a convicted fraud. The well has been thus poisoned, and now you’re prompted to dismiss anything he says on the basis of his personal characteristics.

If someone places that same note halfway through the book, or at the end, and you don’t encounter it until you finish or partly finish, then you may still be inclined to commit an ad hominem fallacy based on the contents of that note. However, this is not poisoning the well, which requires preemption.

There’s an issue here, and it touches on all the talk I’ve been doing recently about using arguments based on ethos in various situations. See, the fact that Kevin Trudeau is a convicted fraud is relevant if the point is whether or not you should trust what he has to say, or bother spending time and effort listening to it. The truth or falsehood of his arguments absolutely stand on their own, but his past as a huckster is of great relevance to the consideration of whether or not to take his word on anything.

It is a sad fact of life that no one person can conduct all the relevant research necessary to establish or refute any given claim or argument. Consequently, we must often rely on trust to some degree in considering how to direct our efforts, which claims merit deep investigation, and which we can provisionally accept based on someone’s word. This splits the hairs between the matter of whether or not a claim is true and whether or not a claim warrants belief. While it’s a laudable ideal to make those two categories as close to one another as possible, that goal remains impractical.

What this means is that, when considering whether or not to believe a claim or accept an argument (again, not whether or not the claim or argument is true), we generally use a person’s credibility as a piece of evidence used to evaluate whether or not belief is warranted. It’s rarely the only piece of evidence, and it only really qualifies as sufficient evidence in particularly ordinary claims, but it’s a relevant piece of evidence to consider nonetheless.

But, and I want to make this abundantly clear, it has nothing to do with the truth of a claim or the validity of an argument, it has only to do with the credibility of the speaker making the claim and whether or not the claim warrants belief. We should be very clear and very careful about this point: Kevin Trudeau’s record as a fraudster has no bearing on whether or not his claims are true. It does, however, have a bearing on whether or not you or I or anyone else should trust him or believe what he has to say.

In other words, if most people told me it was sunny out, I’d take their word for it. If Kevin Trudeau told me it was sunny out, I’d look up. And I’d wonder if he had some way of profiting off people’s mistaken belief about the relative sunniness of a given day.

So, back to the issue of insults. There’s one more problem with saying that “most insults” are a subcategory of any fallacy, and that’s that, at least with fallacies of relevance, the fallacious nature of an argument is in the argument’s flawed structure, in its failure of logic, and not in the words which are used. An ad hominem fallacy is not fallacious because it contains an insult, but because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Containing the insult is what makes it “ad hominem,” but it’s the flawed logic that makes it a fallacy.

For instance, take this argument:

If a person copulates with his or her mother, then that person is a motherfucker.
Oedipus copulated with his mother.
Therefore, Oedipus is a motherfucker.

The fact that this argument is vulgar and contains an insult has no bearing whatsoever on its validity. And it’s clearly valid; and within the context of “Oedipus Rex,” it’s also sound. An insult alone does not make an argument into an ad hominem fallacy.

Take this argument, then:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates smells like day-old goat shit, on account of his not bathing.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

A valid argument is one in which the conclusion is logically implied by and supported by the premises. The conclusion here is, in fact, logically implied by the premises, and is justified by them. The insulting third premise does not support the conclusion, but the conclusion also does not rely on it. Its inclusion is unnecessary, but including it does nothing to invalidate the argument.

Finally, take this argument:

All men are mortal.
Plato is a really smart guy, and he says that Socrates is mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

This is a fallacious argument–a pro hominem argument, sort of the opposite of ad hominem–because the conclusion is not sufficiently supported by the premises. The conclusion relies upon an irrelevant premise, which renders the logic invalid–obviously, despite not being insulting at all.

I hope I laid that all out in a way that is clear, because I really don’t think I could make it any clearer. It bothers me to see terms which have distinct, specific, clear meanings being applied inaccurately by people who ought to know better. It further bothers me to see skeptics, who of all people should relish being corrected and doing the research to correct prior misconceptions, digging in their heels, committing style over substance fallacies, and generally misunderstanding basic principles of logic and argumentation.

But because I like to belabor a point, and because it’s been several paragraphs since I’ve been sufficiently snarky, let me offer one more example–pulled from real life, this time!–to clarify poisoning the well.


Here, the speaker offers a link to an opponent’s argument, but primes the audience first by obliquely calling his opponent a dick, and moreover, suggesting that the opponent is using tactics specifically identified by an authority in the relevant field as unacceptable and ill-advised. The speaker’s audience, on clicking through to the opposing article, is thus primed to read the article through the lens of the author’s suggested dickishness, and to dismiss it as dirty tactics from a dick, rather than actually considering the merits of the argument. This is classic poisoning the well, which, you’ll recall, is intended to cause the audience to commit an ad hominem fallacy.

We skeptics take pride in our allegiance to logic and evidence; we are aware of our own shortcomings; we are aware that we are fallible and that we make mistakes. In my opinion the above comments about Jenny McCarthy are a mistake that we should own up to and make amends, and stop using it. If you really want to counter Jenny’s anti-vaccine views, choose one of the claims she makes, do some research, and write a nice blog entry showing where she goes wrong and what the evidence says, but do not resort to ad-hominem attacks. We are skeptics and we ought to be better than that.

–Skepdude, “Skeptics Gone Wild,” 8/23/10.


An incomplete list of sources used for this post: