Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Evidence Explained (or, Why Apologetics Fail)

Webster’s defines “evidence” as – : something which shows that something else exists or is true, : a visible sign of something, : material that is presented to a court of law to help find the truth about something.  To put things in more scientific terms, evidence is that which can be demonstrated, tested, verified, and falsified.

This would seem to be a pretty straight forward idea, and to most people about most things, it is.  However, a strange thing happens when people hold to ideas which can’t be demonstrated to be true with evidence.  Suddenly the definition of what constitutes “evidence” changes or broadens to encompass any arguments or claims they can muster that seem to lend credibility to their position.  This widened criteriaa, however, is only applicable to their own strongly held belief and does not extend to beliefs that other people hold that they disagree with.  More on this later.

Apologetics is defined as – reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.  Bible.org gives the simpler definition as “the defense of the Christian faith”.

When I was a Christian, I was big into apologetics, and spent many hours reading books and watching debates from such notable personalities as Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and others.  After becoming more familiar with the philosophy of critical thinking, logical fallacies, and the scientific method, I soon realized that there was something strangely missing from all apologetic works, both novice and professional: evidence.  Demonstrable, verifiable, empirical evidence.  Despite the common Christian claim that there is an abundance of evidence for their beliefs, I soon realized that this evidence is strangely absent from any work of apologetics I had ever come across.  What I did see over and over where justifications being substituted and passed of as “evidence”.  That’s what I want to talk about here; common apologetic tactics which are not “evidence” and should not be taken as such.

Arguments

Several years ago I served on a  jury.  Before the trial started the judge went over the rules and guidelines for how we determine a verdict.  One of the points that he made was that the opening and closing statements could not be used in out determination of a verdict.  There’s a very good reason for this – arguments (or argumentation), no mater how compelling, well thought out, or convincing, are not evidence. 

Apologists love their arguments.  The Cosmological Argument, Argument from Morality, Argument from Design, Ontological Argument, Pascals Wager, etc.  There are some problems with this however.

First, arguments can be used to show the plausibility of almost anything.  I’ve heard very convincing arguments for the existence of Bigfoot and the Yeti.  I’ve watched documentaries on how aliens are the only explanation for the how the pyramids of Egypt were built.  Many people are convinced that Hitler escaped Berlin at the end of WWII.  Does this mean that Bigfoot is real, Hitler is alive, or that aliens are responsible for one of the great wonders of the Earth?  Of course not.  Yet this same logic applies to apologetics – just because you can come up with a convincing argument for the existence of something does not mean it is “proof” of its existence.

Second, if arguments are not evidence, then fallacious arguments are even less so.  I’ve yet to encounter an apologist give an argument that wasn’t some form of a logical fallacy.   To use the example listed above, the Cosmological Argument is a classic “God of the Gaps” fallacy as is the Argument from Morality.  The Argument from Design suffers from many fallacies, most notably the Weak Analogy fallacy.   The Ontological Argument is a form of Circular Reasoning and Pascals Wager is an example of Begging the Question.  If anyone can find me a work of apologetics that doesn’t contain logical fallacies, I’ll buy you dinner.

Anecdotes/Personal Testimony

Christians love their personal testimonies.  Whether it’s at church, on social media, at music festivals, or in personal conversations, every Christian has a story about how God answered some prayer,  worked in their lives, or performed a miracle.  For many people, these personal experiences are the main reason for their belief in God.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a Christian claim,”I’ve experienced him working in my life” as their “evidence” of God’s existence…

Personal experiences and anecdotes are not evidence, no matter how real or convincing they may seem to people.  There are several reasons for this.

First, when people use anecdotes as evidence, they are usually committing a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (post hoc for short).  The Latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this,” and it occurs whenever an argument takes the following form:

  • X happened before Y
  • Therefore, X caused Y

The reason that post hoc arguments are invalid should be obvious: the fact that Y happened after X does not mean that X caused Y.

Anytime someone claims that God answered a prayer, they are committing a post hoc fallacy.  When someone gives an emotional testimony about how they were an addict, criminal, all around shitty person, and then God miraculously changed their lives, they make the mistake of assuming that since they got better after accepting Jesus into their lives, that it was Jesus who changed them around.

Second, if one is going to admit anecdotes as evidence, then you have to admit all personal stories as equally credible.  That means that the personal stories of Muslims is proof of Allah, anecdotes by Scientologists are proof that their religion is true, and thousands of accounts of alien encounters are proof of aliens.  It is not hard to find very convincing stories by very credible witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens.  These people are so convinced of this that they are able to pass polygraph tests when questioned about their encounters.  Is this hard evidence that aliens are visiting earth and kidnapping people?  Most theists would say no, yet they would like to claim that their own stories are “evidence” of God’s existence.  This double standard is known as special pleading –  applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification.  You can’t attempt to argue that your experiences constitute as evidence and then try to discredit the experiences of other believers who disagree with you.

Lastly, anecdotes that affirm a position often ignore anecdotal evidence that contradicts the same position.  Theists can claim that prayer works only by ignoring all the times that it didn’t work.  You can claim that God got you out of addiction, but what about all the people who also reached out to God and are still addicts?  This is confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing view points, and subsequently ignore information that goes against them, both positive and negative.

Luciano Gonzalez over at Patheos sums it up nicely:

“Your experiences are AT BEST reasons for you to believe. They are not (or at least they shouldn’t be) compelling evidence for other people that you want to convince you are right. If you are arguing that your experiences are compelling evidence, I want to know what separates your experiences from the experiences of others that somehow their experiences are not as convincing as yours, or are somehow inferior to yours in such a way that you know your experiences are true while knowing or believing that theirs are not (in cases when you share your experiences with people who disagree with you).”

*(For a more in-depth look at why anecdotes aren’t evidence, check out this article over at The Logic of Science blog)

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The Supernatural/Miracles

In a recent debate between Matt Dillahunty and Blake Giunta on the topic of the Resurrection of Jesus, Guinta made the argument that the most plausible explanation for the testimonies found in the Bible, and other sources of people encountering Jesus after his death, was that he had miraculously risen from the dead after three days.  He claims that the actual, physical resurrection is the only plausible explanation for how so many people could have had such similar and lucid encounters.  Remember how we talked earlier about alien abductions?

Miracles, by definition, are a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, thus making them supernatural.  David Hume characterized them as “a transgression of the law of nature” and were thereforethe least likely event possible“.  Yet, miracles abound in apologetics.  In fact, much of the foundation of the Christian faith, such as the Resurrection, prayer, and the divine inspiration of scripture, depend on the supernatural being a very real and active agent in this world.  Contrary to what many apologists think, science can test supernatural claims, and since the scientific revolution four centuries ago, we have learned that there is no supernatural realm.  Natural explanations have been found for that which was previously thought to have supernatural origins in every case that it has been studied.

Occam’s Razor states that when there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better.  Another way of saying it is; the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.  When it comes to the “evidence” produced by apologists for the existence of God, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always going to be more likely than a supernatural one.  Back to the debate mentioned earlier, when it comes to an explanation for all the witnesses who claim to have seen Jesus after he arose, there are many natural explanations – mass hallucinations, shared psychotic disorder, groupthink, legendary accretion, mistaken identity, false memories, etc.  No matter how implausible some of these explanations may be, they are far more plausible than the supernatural explanation of a bodily resurrection.  You cannot claim that the most likely explanation is the least likely event possible; a miracle.

One final note, the use of the supernatural by apologetics is another good example of special pleading.  If you are going to accept that the supernatural is real then you must also accept the supernatural claims made by other religions.

Awe and Wonder

“The evidence for God is all around us.  Just go outside and look around!”  Sadly, his kind of thinking abounds within Christianity –   people believing that the natural world is somehow evidence for their particular god-claims.  The Bible claims that God reveals himself through nature (Rom 1:20) and many take that to heart.  When asked for evidence of God, some have claimed that He  is “self-evident” in nature and that is all the “proof” they need.

This is similar to what we discussed above about anecdotes.  Personal experiences, including awe and wonder, are not evidence.  They are nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain that give some of us a pleasurable sensation when enjoying nature.  I say “some” because this is not universal.  Not everyone has the same feelings or experiences when being outdoors.

Also, the thing about nature is that it is natural and we have natural explanations for why it’s there, where it came from, etc.  No supernatural explanation needed.  A neighbor said to me the other day, “How can people look up at the stars and not believe in a God?”  My answer was, “Study cosmology”.  This isn’t to say that there can’t be mystery in the universe, but you don’t get to fill in your ignorance of the natural world with “God” and then credit that as evidence.

A common logical fallacy that falls under this category is an appeal to emotions – the use emotion in place of reason in order to attempt to win the argument.  This happens when someone attempts to manipulates peoples’ emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true.  This one is easy to spot; anytime someone makes of “feeling God in their heart”, or knowing that “the Holy Spirit is at work”, or feeling some sort of positive emotion and correlating them to a deity.

Absence of Evidence

This one presents itself in a couple of ways.  The most obvious is the classic argument from ignorance – when a proposition is considered true from the fact that it is not known to be false.  It’s common for people to argue that since you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, then he likely exists.  This line of reasoning could be used to support almost any claim: aliens, vampires, fairies, other gods, or a teapot orbiting the sun.  Ignorance about something says nothing about its existence or non-existence.

Another common argument is that, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.  The basic idea being that we can’t be sure something doesn’t exist just because we haven’t seen it yet.  First of all; this isn’t entirely correct.  But more importantly, most situations which make very specific claims can test for evidence.  In these cases, a lack of evidence is evidence of absence.  Put simply – the absence of evidence, when evidence should be present, is evidence of absence.

Apologists often claim the “historical reliability of the Bible” as evidence for their God.  Yet, we’ve seen over and over that when evidence for very specific events, such as the Exodus and Israels’ forty years of wandering are investigated, no historical or archaeological can be found.  It is therefore more likely that these events never took place.  Many apologists would like to claim that just because evidence hasn’t been found, that these events could still have taken place, and we just haven’t found the evidence yet.  This is not rational thinking.  As Matt Dillahunty is fond of saying, “The time to believe in something is after evidence presents itself, not before.”  This goes for aliens, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, and deities.  It’s completely reasonable to lack a belief in something as extraordinary as a deity if you know of no evidence to support such a claim being reflective of reality.  It is unreasonable to lack extraordinary evidence and still have an extraordinary belief.

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People will go to great lengths to justify unsubstantiated beliefs.  When these beliefs are challenged, things like “evidence” and “proof” suddenly take on a different meaning than they would in a normal, day-to-day, situation.  A good rule of thumb when debating an apologist is this – would this kind of reasoning hold up in a court of law or a science lab?  If not, then they are likely trying to substitute something else for real evidence, and have no solid case.  And as Hitchens famously said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  

Hope this was helpful.  Thanks for reading.

Critical Thinking: Even More Logical Fallacies

Over the last several months I have engaged in or witnessed a number of debates, both political and religious, in which faulty arguments were used.  I realized that some of them were fallacies I hadn’t covered in my previous Logical Fallacies posts (here and here).

Just to recap,  a logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts.  To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support.  So, here’s another installment to my Critical Thinking series.

Ad Hoc Argument

Very often, we desperately want to be right and hold on to certain beliefs, despite any evidence presented to the contrary.  As a result, we begin to make up excuses as to why our belief could still be true, and is still true, despite the fact that we have no real evidence for what we are making up.  Ad Hoc arguments, simply put, are the fallacy of “Making Shit Up”.

They occur when someone is faced with an argument that discredits their position, and they respond by making something up that serves no purpose except to patch the hole in their view.  Here is a simple way to tell if an ad hoc fallacy has been committed; ask yourself the following three questions.

  1. Did they just make something up?
  2. Is their claim based on evidence/is there a good reason to accept this claim other than that it solves the problem in their argument?
  3. Would someone who wasn’t already convinced of their view accept that claim?

When pointing out to theists the numerous studies that have been done that show the inefficacy of prayer, a common response is something along the lines of, “God can’t be tested.  The studies didn’t work because God knew it was a test.” This is clearly a made up on-the-spot response, with no evidence to back it up, and only makes sense to those who already believe in the power of prayer.

Another common ad hoc argument is the use of “sin” to explain away things that don’t make sense in a world supposedly created and run by an all-knowing, all-powerful God, such as why there is so much suffering in the world or why there are so many design flaws in human anatomy.

Any argument involving magic, miracles, or the supernatural could also be considered ad hoc arguments.  Conspiracy Theories are also a hot bed for made-up arguments devoid of evidence.

“God of the Gaps” fallacy

This is a variation on the Argument from Ignorance fallacy.  This argument generally takes the following form:

  1. Scientists don’t have an explanation for A
  2. Therefore God caused A

Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) rely heavily on this fallacy, as does apologetics. A common example of this is what is sometimes referred to as the  Cosmological Argument.  Simply put, it looks like this:

  1. The universe began to exist at the Big Bang
  2. Something apart from the universe caused this
  3. Therefore, a creator exists

Just because something can’t currently be explained doesn’t mean that an explanation doesn’t exist, nor that you can simply assume that “God did it”. There is a long history of the “gaps” in our understanding being filled by scientific explanations and the “god gaps” thus getting smaller and smaller.

Another form of this fallacy that I see often is the Argument from Incredulity when someone decides that something did not happen because they cannot personally understand how it could happen.  This fallacy comes up often when discussing “spiritual experiences”; people have a profound experience that they cannot explain, so they automatically assign an explanation to God, the Holy Spirit, etc.

Weak Analogy

Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren’t really alike in the relevant aspects, the analogy is a weak one.  It’s most commonly referred to as an “apples and oranges” argument.

For example, William Paley’s argument from design suggests that a watch and the universe are similar (both display order and complexity), and therefore infers from the fact that watches are the product of intelligent design that the universe must be a product of intelligent design too.  The argument fails because of the many differences between a watch and anything found in nature. Watches are not caused naturally, whereas the universe could have a natural cause.

The weak analogy fallacy is often used by pro-life advocates who compare embryo’s to fully developed, adult human beings, and then argue that treatment that would violate the rights of an adult human being also violates the rights of fetuses.

Equivocation Fallacy

The fallacy of equivocation is committed when a term is used in two or more different senses within a single argument.  For an argument to work, words must have the same meaning each time they appear in its premises or conclusion.  Arguments that switch between different meanings of words equivocate, and don’t work. This is because the change in meaning introduces a change in subject. If the words in the premises and the conclusion mean different things, then the premises and the conclusion are about different things, and so the former cannot support the latter.

A good example of this is seen when Creationists claim that evolution is “just a theory”, failing to understand the difference between the common use of the word the word “theory”, and the scientific use of the word.

Another example of this can be found in the common apologetics argument for “laws of nature” that I covered in a previous post.  The author states that, “the fact that our solar system is called a system is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.”  He fails to understand the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive.  We give such titles to help us make sense of the natural world, it does not mean that there is an outside agent that assigns these titles.

Sharpshooter Fallacy

Also known as”confirmation bias“, this fallacy gets its name from an illustration that demonstrates how it works: Imagine that someone fired an arrow or bullet at the side of a barn. Then, after firing, they painted a bull’s eye around whatever spot they happened to hit and proceed to proclaim that they were a “sharpshooter.” Obviously they weren’t a sharpshooter, they simply created the illusion of accuracy by painting the target after firing the shot

In actual debates, this fallacy typically occurs as a form of cherry-picking data where you present an isolated result or relationship and proclaim that it is what would be expected if they were right, when, in fact, there are other results that discredit your position.

Theist will claim that prayer works by sighting examples of prayers being “answered”, yet fail to mention all the times that a particular prayer was not answered.  After natural disasters, people are often quick to point out the “miracles” of people surviving, yet ignore all the other lives lost.  These are examples of the Sharpshooter fallacy.

Special Pleading

Special pleading occurs when people fail to apply the same standards of critical analysis to their own views as they do to other views. This fallacious argument involves an attempt to cite something as an exception to a generally accepted rule, principle, etc. without justifying the exception.  Special pleading is often a result of strong emotional beliefs that interfere with reason.

Special pleading  comes up often in religion.  Christians will dismiss the supernatural claims made by other religions, while believing in the claims made by their own.  They will claim that the Bible is the only true “Word of God”, while criticizing other sacred texts.  When pointing out the similarities between the story of Jesus’s Resurrection and other legends of deities rising from the dead, they will insist that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but the other stories are just myths.

Another good example comes from the previously mentioned Cosmological Argument.  Its proponents will insist that something cannot come from nothing, therefore God must have caused it.  Yet, when the question is raised, “Then who caused God?”, proponents will insist that he is the exception to the rule.


In my next post we will be talking about how these, and other types of faulty arguments are often used in apologetics in lieu of actual evidence.  If you haven’t already, please go and read my previous post on logical fallacies (here and here) and critical thinking, as it will help to understand why arguments are not evidence, especially fallacious ones.  Thanks for reading

 

Not All Opinions Are Equal

You’ve likely encountered this scenario: You’re in a debate with someone, either on-line or in person.  You are discussing a topic of which you and the other party disagree.  You’ve laid out your case, presenting sound and difficult to refute evidence, yet the other person persists that they are right and you are wrong.  The other person ends the conversation in frustration by boldly proclaiming, “I have a right to my opinion!”

Sound familiar?  Most of us have probably been in this situation and walked away shaking our heads at the seemingly ignorant responses.  Some of us have likely used that very same line as a way of dodging any further discussion.  Because that’s what remarks like “I have a right to my opinion!” are: a close-ended statement meant to shut down the conversation and get the last word in.  More on this later.  First, let’s start with some definitions.

“Opinion” is defined as, “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.”  This is a very different concept than the concept of facts, yet it’s surprising how many people consider their own opinions iron-clad.  Opinions can range from tastes or preferences, to views about  politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.  However, there is a very big difference between subjective claims, such as tastes in music, art, sports teams, etc., and objective claims; those which carry the weight of empirical evidence.

Professor of Philosophy Patrick Stokes tells his students when they enter his class: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”  He goes on to explain: “The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.”

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding different “facts”.  For example, arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.  Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is.  

This “feeling” of being right has led to this ingrained idea in much of the populous that their views, beliefs, and opinions should be given equal standing in public discourse.  To be clear, no one is suggesting that people cannot hold differing opinions or even speak them publicly.  What I (and Stokes) am saying is that if “entitled to an opinion” means “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth”, then it’s clearly false.

“We don’t respect people’s beliefs, we evaluate their reasons.” – Sam Harris

All too often, when one sees a debate, it is between only two individuals on opposite ends of the issue.  This can give the illusion that both sides of the argument carry equal weight.  This, however, is not always the case.  When it comes to many issues, including climate change, vaccines, or Evolution vs Creationism, there isn’t equal weight on both sides.  There is overwhelming consensus, and then there is the fringe science-denier who feels that the evidence conflicts with their own personal views.  This false equivalence was perfectly explained and demonstrated on an episode of Last Week Tonight dealing with the “controversy” surrounding climate change:

Best line of the video:

Who gives a shit? You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: “Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?” or “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats?”

People’s misconceptions about their own opinions are very often the result of what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effectthe unshakable illusion that you’re much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than you really are.  Far too many people labor under the illusion that their knowledge about things is at least as good as, if not better than, the actual facts. For these people, their knowledge isn’t just superior – it’s superior even to those who have an intimate and detailed knowledge of the subject at hand.  To put it simply – it’s possible to be too dumb to realize you’re dumb.

While everyone is susceptible to having an over-inflated view of their own intelligence, you can see the Dunning-Kruger effect most prevalent in conspiracy theorists, radical political groups, fundamentalist religions, and science-deniers.  Donald Trump supporters are also an excellent example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action.  David Dunning himself wrote an excellent op-ed about this phenomenon in Trump supporters and even Trump himself:

“Trump has served up numerous illustrative examples of the effect as he continues his confident audition to be leader of the free world, even as he seems to lack crucial information about the job.”  

“In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable, but perhaps not so worrisome, if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests something different. It suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps… Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories, that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.”  

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So what are we do do about this.  Is it possible to have informed opinions without being an expert on the subject(s)?  Yes it is.  But it takes some careful thought, time doing research, an awareness of our own biases and limitations, and a willingness to consider we could be wrong.

Science blogger Fallacy Man came up with a good rule of thumb that is helpful to remember when discussing empirical claims, particularly those made by science – you don’t need to be an expert to accept a consensus, but you do need to be an expert to reject one. In other words, your default position should always be the one held by the majority of experts in that field, especially if it is a very large majority. To be clear, it is always possible that the consensus is wrong. I’m not advocating that you view a consensus as irrefutable proof of a position. Rather, what I am arguing is that you, as a non-expert, should be very, very cautious about claiming that the majority of experts are wrong. To put this another way, how likely do you actually think it is that you figured out something that the majority of experts missed?”  

You don’t need to be a climatologist to accept climate-change, but you do if you’re going to claim it’s a myth.  You don’t need to have a Ph.D in biology to accept evolution, but if you’re going to claim that it’s not true, you better have some serious credentials and evidence to back it up (you listening Ken Ham?).

This really shouldn’t be a difficult concept for people to grasp.  We rely on experts all the time in our day-to-day life, yet somehow there are those who think they know better than scientists and experts when it comes to topics they don’t agree with.  As Fallacy Man puts it, “If we go to several doctors with a problem and all or most of them tell us the same thing, we usually have no trouble accepting their diagnosis, because they’re experts. We defer to expert lawyers, contractors, mechanics, etc. all the time, but for some strange reason, when it comes to science, people suddenly feel empowered to reject the expert consensus and side with some internet quackery instead. This is a very dangerous thing to do. On topics like global climate change where roughly 97% of expert climatologists agree that we are causing it, it seems rather risky to side with the 3% who disagree with the consensus.”  

It never ceases to amaze me how scientifically illiterate people can honestly believe that their opinions carry more weight than that of educated, experienced, professional scientists.  Case in your point:

A few months ago I posted a link to an interview with Lawrence Krauss talking about how the universe can, in fact, come from “nothing” and that no supernatural agency was necessary.  One persons reply was, “Just another viewpoint”.  The implication being, of course, that this person doesn’t agree with Krauss’s position, and her position is equally valid.

No, it’s not.

Said person has no formal, or even informal, training or education in any scientific field.  Krauss, on the other hand, is a renowned theoretical physicist with over 300 scientific publications under his belt.  Her opinion is not equal to his on this subject; not even close.  Ironically enough, Krauss is asked about science being a matter of opinion in this interview:

Nogueira: Do you think there is a misconception that science is a matter of opinion and that we should hear all sides of the story?

Krauss: Yes. As I often like to say, a great thing about science is that one side is usually wrong. There are open questions where there is uncertainty and debate. However, the resolution of these debates is not rhetoric or volume but rather nature. So, if you have an idea that simply disagrees with observation, then you throw it out; there is no discussion. There is no need to debate the question of whether Earth is round or whether it’s flat. There are still people who claim Earth is flat, but they are just simply wrong. Similarly, there are some people who don’t think evolution happens, but they are wrong. And those people who argue against human-induced climate change are also simply wrong.

None of this is to say that you can’t be skeptical about the general consensus or empirical claims.  You should always make every effort to learn as much about a topic as you can, but after you have carefully reviewed all of the evidence, if you have reached a different conclusion than the vast majority of credentialed experts, you should be very trepid and cautious about that conclusion.

Thanks for reading.

 

Is Atheism Foolish? – A Response

I recently came across a post on a conservative, Evangelical website called Inspired Walk, called “5 Reasons Why Atheism is Foolish.”  I saw the link via Twitter, and being the glutton for punishment that I am, I clicked on it.  The post reads like every other apologetic argument I’ve read – presuppositionalism mixed with a healthy dose of logical fallacies.  So, I decided I should write a response to the reasons listed.  Not because the author lays out a good, reasonable argument; just the opposite, in fact.  But because the points that are brought up are ones that atheists hear all… the… time!  

You can read the full post in the link above.  I’ll be using the main bullet points here and quoting the article when needed.

At the very start of the article, the presuppositional theology comes out – “Below are various reasons why the word of God is 100% true and correct according to Psalms 14:1 when it states that atheism is foolish.”   This is a great example of the Begging the Question fallacy –  The author concludes that atheism is foolish by assuming (presupposes) that the Bible is the literal word of God, and therefore “100% true” and universal.  Logical fallacy #1.  You’ll notice that he continues to use verses from the Bible as “evidence” of his claims throughout the article as a means of bolstering his arguments.  Let’s look dig into some of these arguments.

1. Atheist Don’t Appreciate That Every Design Has A Designer

The author spends the first half of this point talking about complex machines, such as jet liners and the Large Hadron Collider, how long they took to build, how many people were involved, etc.  It is then stated that, “if we were to use the same thought process or the same thought pattern that the atheist uses in relation to creation, it would be very easy to understand why atheism is extremely foolish and why atheists are regarded as being fools by God. Somehow, the atheist cannot appreciate the complexity but yet harmonious aspects of nature or the universe and come to the conclusion that there is a vastly superior Being behind creation.”

Let’s start by pointing out logical fallacy #2 – a False Analogy: when someone applies facts from one situation to another situation but the situations are substantially different and the same conclusions cannot logically be drawn.  In this case, the author is comparing man-made machines build over the course of several years, to nature which has evolved over millions of years.  It’s apples and oranges, but let’s address the point.

This is what’s commonly known as the Watchmaker Analogy or Teleological argument.  This argument relies on a complete misunderstanding of evolution and how it works.  First, it fails to understand that seemingly complex systems in nature did not suddenly appear in their natural form, but are the product of millions of years of natural selection from much simpler organisms.  Second, it assumes that nature has an end-goal in mind and that what we currently see is what we get.  In fact, nature is continuing to evolve and most species on earth will continue to change over time.  Lastly, it’s very easy for scientifically-illiterate people to look at certain aspects of nature and gasp in wonder over how “complex” it is, but are either unaware or don’t acknowledge the endless examples in nature of things that aren’t “properly designed”.  For example, sea turtles having to come to shore and dig a hole in the sand for their nest, a long and difficult process with flippers.  The turtle needs to lay 50-200 eggs at a time to assure that some of them, when hatched, actually make it through the gauntlet of predators trying to eat them.  Also, the fact that human babies have heads that are generally too big to fit through the birth canal, not only resulting in a long and painful delivery, but a dangerous one as well.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth was dangerous business.

The argument from design takes place in another form known as the irreducible complexity argument.  From The Logic of Science blog:  The basic idea is that some systems are too complex to evolve because they aren’t functional until all of the parts are in place. For example, an eye that is missing a single piece no longer sees, and a bacterial flagellum that is missing a single protein can no longer act as a flagellum. So the argument claims that these systems could not have evolved because there would have been steps that served no useful function, and nature could not have selected for those steps. The problem is that this argument ignores the fact that evolution is blind. Traits don’t need to function for some ultimate final product in order to be selected for. Rather, if they provide any useful function at all, nature will select them. Indeed, no one has ever been able to find a truly irreducible system, and we have evolutionary pathways that explain how complex systems evolve. For example, an early precursor of the eye would have simply involved a few light sensitive cells (much like some flatworms have). They don’t function as an eye, but they still function, so nature will select for them. Similarly, the proteins that make up a flagellum all serve other functions in the cell, and we have even figured out a step-wise series of events that would form a flagellum with each step serving a useful function for the cell, even though only the final step actually serves as a flagellum. So there is just no truth to the notion that some systems are too complex to evolve.

It’s unfortunate that this argument is still used today, as Darwin addressed it 150 years ago in Origin of the Species.  Yet, theists with little or no understanding of how evolution works continue to regurgitate it.  This is a common theme in apologetics – keep rehashing the same arguments in hopes that they will eventually stick.

2. Atheists Think Accidents Can Create Complex & Harmonious Systems & Life-forms

Again, a simplistic and inaccurate understanding of how evolution works.  Evolution does not rely on chance, but on natural selection.  These are two very different ideas.  Evolution works through a process of non-random selection of random variation.  Dale Thomas writes:

One main criticism of evolution from creationists is that it is based on random chance. That’s kind of true, there is chance involved, but it is important to know where the chance is and how it is used.  When organisms reproduce, the genetic duplication is not perfect, leading to some variation in the genes (mutations). That is where the randomness is. But then that individual grows up and interacts with the world. Those random changes in the genotype may or may lead to a small change in the body or behavior.  If this change helps the individual in its goal of surviving to adulthood and finding a mate, then those genes will be reproduced in the next generation. The point here is that the environment (which encompasses everything, from the laws of physics, the terrain, weather, climate, predators, prey, vegetation, mates, etc) will do the ‘selecting’. If the organism dies or cannot find a mate, those genes have been deemed unworthy of reproduction, but if it can, they are worthy, and will persist in the species.  It is such a beautifully simplistic, and easily understandable process.”

I also want to address a point the author brings up regarding word usage.  The author states: “The atheist thinks he is clever but yet is foolish because he cannot understand that the fact that our solar system is called a system is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.”  This is similar to an argument I often hear regarding the “Laws of Nature”; Creationists will claim that if there is a law then there must be a lawgiver.  This is another logical fallacy – false equivocation.  In this case, misunderstanding the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive. 

Oh, and contrary to what the author asserts, the universe is not as harmonious as he thinks, but is in fact full of chaos and unpredictability.

3. The Atheist Foolishly Thinks Science Has The Answers To Everything

Here we have your classic Straw Man fallacy – when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.  In this case making the claim that atheists think science has the answer to everything, when in fact you would be hard pressed to find an atheists (or scientist) that makes such a claim.  Most atheists are scientifically-literate and understand the limitations of science, but also its accomplishments.

The author then claims that since science deals with the physical and natural world, and God resides the supernatural realm, that “science is NOT the best means by which a person can learn or observe the nature of God” nor can it disprove His existence.  This argument presupposes that there is a supernatural realm and that his god is a part of it.  The problem with this argument is that science can test supernatural claims and has been doing so for centuries.  Most all claims of the supernatural involve forces acting upon the natural world, thus we are able to test these claims using scientific means.  As Jerry Cohen puts it: “If you invoke a form of the supernatural that claims to have real-world consequences, then those consequences necessarily fall within the ambit of science.  This means that any type of theistic faith involves hypotheses that are ‘scientific’. Dawkins was right to call the existence of God a ‘scientific hypothesis.'” 

4. Atheists Don’t Know That Atheism is a Belief System

First, let’s address the authors claim that, “Neither evolution nor the big bang can be proved by experimentation or observation.
None of these 2 theories can scientifically explain nor give observable evidence of the origin of life.” Yes they can – and have.  The evidence to support both is immeasurable.  Creationists’ continuing insistence that there is no scientific evidence for evolution, the Big Bang, or the origins of life is willfully ignorant and empirically false.   I’m not even going to waste my time putting links here, because the amount of information out there is overwhelming.  The author’s ignorance of science is not a good argument against it.

The author claims that since there is no evidence to support evolution and the Big Bang theory, atheists have to accept them on faith.  This is another example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – we have evidence-based trust. 

5. The Atheist Cannot Disprove The Existence of God

This is perhaps the best example of an Argument from Ignorance – because something cannot be completely disproved, it must therefore be true.  It’s a ridiculous argument, but it’s surprising how often it’s used.  This same argument could be used for aliens, UFOs, unicorns, fairies, vampires, or a tea pot floating around the sun.  It’s an attempt to shift the burden of proof.  The burden of proof always sits with the person making the claim, not the person refuting it.  It’s not an atheist’s job to disprove God, it’s the theist’s job to provide evidence that he exists.

We also can’t skip past the well-worn anecdote used by theists that, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Therefore just because a person has never seen a physical manifestation of God, it does not mean that God does not exist.”  This is only partly true.  Absence of evidence, when evidence should be presentis evidence of absence.  Going back to the discussion on natural vs supernatural, theism makes claims of God interacting and intervening in this, the natural world, which would leave evidence.  Therefore, such claims can be tested, and thus far no evidence for supernatural intervention in the natural world has been found.  Carl Sagan brilliantly counters the “absence of evidence” argument in his story “The Dragon in My Garage”.  After asking multiple questions regarding evidence for a dragon living in a garage and coming up empty handed, this is his response:

“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of ‘not proved.'” 

I’ve underlined the parts of this paragraph that I find most fitting the current discussion.  Just replace “dragon” with “God” and you can see my point.  The author is right in positing that because we don’t have evidence of theism, it does not prove empirically that god(s) do not exist.  But it does mean that until such evidence is found, it is far from foolish to discount the idea.

 

 

Two things become apparent when reading through this article.  The first is that the author has no idea what atheists actually believe.  The entire article reads like one, big Straw Man argument.  The author projects his own idea of what atheists believe (as opposed to what they actually believe) and then attempts to tear down those beliefs.  His overall view of atheists can be found in the article itself where he states, “I would personally prefer the following definition of atheism that I once saw on one of the social media platforms: Atheism is the belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs, birds, trees, fish and the like.”  

Second, the author shows that he is completely ignorant of the most basic principles of evolution and how it works.  This isn’t surprising as Creationism depends on a willful dismissal of science and all the evidence that it provides, as well as how the scientific method works.  This makes the author unsuited for having any debate in which science is going to be one of the main topics.

It’s also worth noting the condescending nature that the author takes throughout the article.  His contempt for atheists comes through loud and clear throughout the article, and he takes special care to use “fool” and “foolish” as often as he can.  For all his use off scripture, he conveniently left out Matt 5:22 – “…whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

As I mentioned at the beginning – these are not strong, well-thought-out arguments.  This is what Matt Dillahunty would refer to as “Kindergarten Theology”.   Lest you accuse me of going after low-hanging fruit, it should be noted that these are very common arguments used by apologists, both amateur and professional.  Hopefully this post will prove useful for anyone who comes across these types of arguments in future discussions.  Thanks for reading.

 

Climate Change Deniers, Religious Freedom, and the Smokers’ Rights Army

In the early 90’s, the public was becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of smoking.  The cigarette industry had long known about the dangers of smoking, yet had gone to great lengths to suppress this information.  Companies like R.J. Renolds (RJR), the largest cigarette company in America at the time, maintained large lobbying and public affairs team and had succeeded for decades in pushing back most anti-smoking efforts.  But with more information coming out about the health risks associated of cigarettes, the public was quickly turning on them.  Local, state, and even national politicians were proposing a number of restrictions – raising cigarette taxes, banning smoking in public places, recognizing tobacco as a dangerous drug.

With public pressure mounting, and RJR standing to lose considerable revenue, they went on the defense.  The first scheme they came up with was to appeal to the smokers themselves, and create a “smokers’ rights” army.  About a fifth of Americans smoked at the time and many had contacted RJR complaining about being hassled at the work place, prices of cigarettes going up in their towns, and being kicked out of restaurants and bowling alleys.   Following the led of Philip Morris, they launched a magazine catering to American smokers – Choice.  The main topic: smoking was a fundamental freedom, and it was under attack.

Choice depicted the world as a place of woe for the smokers and urged them to act.  Smokers needed to stand up, organize, write letters, call legislators, circulate petitions, and fight for what was theirs.  RJR even started organizing “smokers’ rights” chapters across the country, for citizens to come together and battle the growing legions of anti-smokers.  They even went as far as to equate their struggle to women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement.

One of RJR’s strategies was to plead with non-smokers to consider their feelings.  They would complain about being singled out, about how they were often segregated, discriminated against, and even legislated against.  All for doing something perfectly legal.  The solution to the impasse, the company said, was obvious: “Common courtesy”.  If smokers and nonsmokers could only be civil to each other – the smoker ask whether others wouldn’t mind if he lit up, the non-smoker doesn’t try to get cigarettes banned in public places – tobacco would become a nonissue.

RJR’s strategy didn’t work.  They were unable to get the support they needed from smoking community as many of them hated their addiction and wanted to quit.  Also, RJR direct appeals met with tremendous opposition.  The company was demonized every time a new ad would come out, and received far more feedback from critics than from supporters.  In 1994, with the FDA and OCHA looking into regulating tobacco, RJR needed a new strategy.

RJR hired an outside PR firm, Mongoven, Biscoe, and Duchin (MBD) to run a new campaign – instead of smokers’ rights, they would aim at a larger, more universal scourge: the government was getting too damn powerful, too damn nagging, and two damn invasive.  The campaign was called Get Government Off Our Backs, or GGOOB.  The campaign urged smokers to stand up what they considered the first step in a long line of actions to take away people’s rights in America.

The campaign attracted a diverse cross section of supporters, most of whom didn’t care one way or another about tobacco, but who all expressed anti-government sentiments.  While RJR sponsored GGOOB and contributed donations to many of the groups that joined the cause, they were careful  to keep their name out of the campaign.  RJR’s direct approach hadn’t worked, so they had decided to take their propaganda underground.  By turning the battle onto one about big government rather than big tobacco and by hiding its own association with the plan, RJR could ride towards its goal upon a wave of anti-regulatory activism.  And the plan worked, at least for a while.

In 1995, GGOOB won many victories in Washington.  Other then prohibiting tobacco advertisements aimed at teens, no strict rules – including an outright ban on cigarettes – were imposed.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that while RJR may have won the battle they would eventually lose the war; many restrictions have been placed on the tobacco industries since the 90’s.  Yet it is precisely the tobacco industry’s failures that proved the importance  – and lasting appeal, to propagandists – of a deception PR plan like GGOOB.

And this sort of propagandist deception machine is alive and well today.  I want to talk about two such examples that closely parallel RJR’s strategy  – climate change denialism and religious freedom activists.


Since the 90’s the general consensus amongst scientists has been that greenhouse gases were deeply involved in most climate changes and human caused emissions were bringing serious global warming.  Since that time, multiple disciplines of scientific research have increased our understanding of climate change and its causes.  Presently, there is a 97% consensus position amongst scientists that humans are causing global warming.  Recent studies have led some scientist to conclude with 99.9% certainty that global warming since 1880 has been mostly caused by man-made emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and long-term temperature variations not caused by nature.

Faced with the threat of legislation aimed at curbing green house emissions, large coal and oil companies started their own propaganda campaigns aimed at not only the general public, but Washington as well.

A recent scientific study has revealed the role corporate money plays in the divide over the issue of climate change.  “The report, a systematic review of 20 years’ worth of data, highlights the connection between corporate funding and messages that raise doubts about the science of climate change and whether humans are responsible for the warming of the planet. The analysis suggests that corporations have used their wealth to amplify contrarian views and create an impression of greater scientific uncertainty than actually exists.”  Where’s the money coming from?

Exxon Mobile, the country’s largest oil and gas company, is under investigation for reportedly lying to investors about how global warming could hurt its balance sheets and also hid the risks posed by climate change from the public.  As early as 1977 a senior company scientist warned executives that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” InsideClimate News reported.  But, between 2005 and 2008, Exxon spent $8.9 million dollars spreading climate change propaganda.

Koch Industries, one of the largest private owned corporations in America, has become a financial kingpin of climate science denial and clean energy opposition.  A company that makes a point of staying out of the public eye,  Koch Ind. along with the foundations they sponsor have contributed $24.9 million in funding to organizations of the “climate denial machine”.

Since the general public doesn’t trust what oil companies have to say about climate change, companies like Koch and Exxon spend millions on think tanks, front-groups, business groups, and so-called “scientists” who lie and distort the facts to spread seeds of doubt amongst the public.  They also spend millions on lobbying and political donations to thwart laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

An their efforts have worked to some degree.  While climate change doubters are becoming fewer, roughly 1 in 4 Americans still don’t believe in man-made climate change.  Every likely 2016 Republican presidential contender expresses uncertainty, at best, about climate science.  Time and time again, Congressional Republicans have made it clear that reducing fossil fuel consumption through efficiency or expansion of renewable energies is of no interest to them. They recently killed a bill that would have helped the private sector with voluntary efficiency improvements because it did not include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.  They are also turning against the wind energy production tax credit, even as fossil fuels drain billions of dollars from the Federal Treasury in tax subsidies.

Thankfully, climate change denialism seems to be largely an American problem.  Of all the major conservative parties in the democratic world, the Republican Party stands alone in its denial of the legitimacy of climate science.  Last December, delegates from 196 countries convened in Paris and agreed to make efforts to reduce carbon emissions to a relatively safe level.  It seems Koch and Exxon’s influence only extends so far.


Since Nov. 16, 1993 when President Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, religious organizations have been attempting to use the bill to be exempt from state and federal laws, namely anti-discrimination laws.  In 2015, seventeen states introduced legislation regarding the creation of, or alteration to, a state religious freedom law.

Despite living in a country that is a majority Christian, and invokes the Christian God on its currency and in its national pledge, many people of faith still feel like they are being oppressed in America.  Much of this stems from the growing acceptance of LGBT’s and same-sex marriage.  Over the last decade, religious leaders and political leaders have been fanning the flames of fear and paranoia amongst conservative Christians and pushed for concerned people of faith to stand up for their “religious freedom” as American citizens. 

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has warned that the Supreme Court is on the verge of crushing all freedom in America and putting people in prison for expressing their faith.  Ben Carson has stated that anti-discrimination laws are authored by communists and that gay rights are part of a larger conspiracy to destroy America.  Religious leader Franklin Graham praised Kim Davis for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, claiming that, “Our religious rights and freedoms are being trampled on.”  He encouraged more people to “stand for religious freedoms and biblical values” to preserve America.  Focus on Family’s founder James Dobson warned that gay rights activists real goals are to shut down churches, destroy Christian businesses and organizations, and ultimately take control of your children… just like Hitler did.

Like the climate change denial machine, the religious freedom crusade also has it’s billionaire investors.  The Wilks brothers, who made their fortune in fracking, have invested tens of millions of dollars into right-wing groups, as well as anti-LGBT and anti-choice groups.  Groups such as Liberty Counsel, which has gained attention in recent years for its “religious liberty” litigation, has a long history of spreading anti-LGBT propaganda.  The Family Research Council, designated an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has since the the early ’90’s championed for “traditional family values” and in recent years been active in lobbying for religious freedom causes.  The Franklin Center; a non-profit news organization that claims to publish “news and commentary from a free market, limited government perspective on state and local politics”, but in reality is a front-group for conservative political advocacy.  (It’s worth noting that the Franklin Center is also part of the Koch brothers’ right-wing political network)

Religious Freedom has now become synonymous with discrimination, with advocacy groups working tirelessly to keep LGBTs from having equal rights in this country.  Like RJR’s attempt to appeal to citizens’ anti-government sentiments to advance it’s own company, far-right political groups have been pushing their anti-LGBT agenda under the guise of “religious freedom”.  Thanks to media outlets funded by these groups, many people of faith are under the impression that they are being persecuted, despite the fact that not a single person has every been jailed or prosecuted for simply practicing their religion.  These fears lead them to support religious freedom policies, often without understanding the repercussions of such measures or what their real intent is.


These stories all relate to a topic I’ve discussed beforehow digital media and social media can have a profound effect on people’s ability to think critical and make informed opinions.

The digital revolution has done much to connect the world, yet it has also done much to divide it as well.  No longer are Americans merely holding opinions different from one another; they’re also holding different facts.  Arguments are no longer about what we should be doing about climate change, but whether or not climate change is actually happening.  People are now fighting over competing versions of reality.  And now more then ever, it is becoming convenient for some people to live in a world built out of their own facts.

Stephen Colbert has coined this alternate reality as “truthiness” – something feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually is. 

The internet has made it easier then ever to choose what you read, what you watch, and what you listen to – while blocking out everything else.  This has led to what Farhad Manjoo calls selective exposure – not only can you choose the information that suits you, but you can choose people that suit you.  And it’s people that matter.  Whether it’s climate change, cigarettes, or religious freedom, it’s through our connections with others that we choose our social reality.

Stay informed.  Check your sources.  Always demand evidence.  When conspiracy theories pop up, follow the money.  In this day of information at our fingertips, ignorance is a choice.  Thanks for reading.

 

NOTE: The story of RJR and some of the content for this post was taken from Farhad Manjoo’s book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

 

How Social Media Affects Critical Thinking

The most recent statistics show that 73% of Americans have social media profiles.  This number has been steadily increasing each year, and there’s no sign of it slowing down.

Social media has changed our culture in a myriad of ways.  We can connect with people from all over the world, see their likes, share in their interests, and peek into their lives even if on a superficial level.

Social media has also changed the way we receive news and information.  Most online news sharing now occurs through social media, and many people forgo traditional news sites all together.  Most of the time, social media is as fast, if not faster, than “regular” news outlets.  People now have the ability to receive information from multiple sights at the same time.  In theory, this would seem like a good thing – the more information one has on hand the more informed they will be on any given subject and therefore able to act, if necessary, in the correct matter.  But is this really how it plays out in real life?  Does social media (SM from here on out) affect people’s ability to think critically?

It turns out that SM does have a profound effect on one’s critical thought process.  There are two main reason for this.

The first is that by nature, people seek out other like-minded people.  We all have a tendency to only want to view things that fall in line with our own worldview, while simultaneously ignoring everything and everyone else.  With SM, this is easy to do.  The user gets to determine who and what he follows, and “like” or “ignore” any material he doesn’t.  This essentially creates an “echo chamber” with users staying within their own bubble with like-minded friends and strangers with whom they agree.

The Talking Heads’ David Byrne noted this when discussing why Trump supporters are seemingly unaware of Donald Trump’s lies and bullshit:

“The problem with Facebook and Twitter is that those platforms mostly present a point of view that you already agree with, since you only see what your ‘friends’ are sharing,” he wrote. “The algorithms built into those social networks are designed to reinforce this natural human tendency and expand upon it—if you like this, you’ll like this. The networks reinforce your existing point of view in order to give you more of what you like, as that will make you happy and keep you on the network — and, in turn, more ads can be accurately targeted your way. You remain blissfully happy ‘knowing’ or, rather, believing, more and more about less and less.”

“Once you’ve surrounded yourself with only one point of view, soon that point of view is all you hear,” he adds.

Very often that “one point of view” can be unequivocally wrong.  As I talked about in a previous post, SM has now allowed wild conspiracy theories to “go viral” in a matter of hours.  Regardless of how truthful or accurate these theories are, it seem that there is no shortage of ignorant people willing to swallow them hook, line, and sinker.  These ignorant individuals generally surround themselves with other equally ignorant people who only reinforce their worldview instead of challenging it.  Whatever the emotions one may be feeling, there is solidarity in having others around you that feel the same way.  This brings us to my second point:

Emotions are the Achilles heel” of critical thinking.  The more emotionally involved someone is about an issue, the less likely they are to be able to think reasonably and rationally.  This is why unbiased juries are so important and why peer-reviewed studies are a staple of the sciences.  Emotions can skew results and opinions.  SM capitalizes on this fact in a profound way.

The below video addresses this issue by likening SM posts to  germs, and demonstrates how one’s emotional state makes people more susceptible to different “thought germs” and why they can have such rapid transmission:

A couple things to note from this video.  The first being related to thought germs, “The most enraging but not necessarily the most accurate spread the fastest.”  How many times have you clicked on a link because of the sensationalized headline?  This is known as “clickbait” in the SM world – internet content of a sensational or provocative nature that is meant to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page or article.  These articles don’t need to actually be true in order for them to garner attention, they just have to appeal to some demographic  of people you thinks they’re true.

Also, the video rightly points out that, “When opposing groups get big they don’t really argue with each other, they mostly argue with themselves about how angry the other group makes them.”  Rather then trying to see the other positions point of view they simply talk amongst themselves and produce more “thought germs” about the other group and just how valid or truthful these thoughts are becomes irrelevant.  It’s all about feeding the emotions that sustain the position or group.

To see this is action go to some far-right “news “sight like The Blaze and read through the comments section.  Read what people are saying about “liberals”, Muslims, or Obama.  How much of this stuff is actually true compared to how much is just sensationalize stereotypes?

So how do we avoid falling into this trap?  How do we avoid the pitfalls of getting stuck in an echo chamber producing more negative thought germs?

The key is diversity – purposely not surrounding yourself with only like-minded friends, news sights, pages, etc.  

If you’re only getting your news from one source, there’s a good chance you’re are not getting the whole picture.  Byrne says that he scans four or five different news sources a day, and I would recommend doing the same.  A little tip; if you read some outrageous story that should be national news, but no other news source is reporting it – chances are it’s bullshit and you can dismiss it as such.  Also be aware of any sight that doesn’t just give the news, but also interprets the news in a way that fits their ideologies.

The same advice goes for message boards and blogs.  If you were to look at the blogs I follow you would see them pretty evenly split between atheist and Christian blogs.  I feel it’s important to still have a toe in the “other world” in order to stay informed and to not loose perspective.

It can be tricky applying this same rule to friends.  There are some people who are incapable of having a rational conversations about topics they don’t agree on and are too emotionally involved.  It might be best to just love these people from a distance, so to say.  However, if you know someone who can have an honest, rational conversation but has opposing views; it would be helpful and wise to hear them out and dialogue with them.  I’ve found that with most people, you are going to agree on far more than you disagree.  As Byrne points out, “If it’s not already been filtered and combed through, sometimes we discover that friends hold some surprising viewpoints. And because they’re friends—or at least because I respect them—I’ll take those ideas on board, for a little while at least.” 

The last bit of advice comes from the above video: “It’s useful to be aware of how thoughts can use our emotions to spread. […] if you want to maintain a healthy brain it pays to be cautious of thoughts that have passed thorough a lot of other brains and poke you where you are weakest.”  If you come across something that get’s you riled up and you’re just itching to click the “Share” button; take a step back, check the sources, sit on it for a minute and see if the emotions pass, and then decide if this thought germ is really informative and helpful or is it just satisfying your own emotional needs.  (Preaching to myself here too)

It’s surprising to me how many people share stories that they haven’t even read all the way through; they just saw the clickbait headline and hit “Share”.  I’ve also seen a fair number of people get enraged over articles from satire sights like The Onion.  Don’t be one of these people.

Use your head.  Think critically.  Don’t let your emotions get the better of you.  Thanks for reading.

 

When Stupid Goes Mainstream

On Jan 26, the Texas Grand Jury cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrong doing after a two month long investigation that was spurred by secretly-recorded videos that came to light last year.  Surprisingly, the men responsible for the videos, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, were indicted on numerous charges.  These videos, released by a then unknown company Center for Medical Progress, purportedly proved Planned Parenthood was in the business of selling baby parts for profit.

When the first of several videos was released last year, all hell broke loose amongst Christians, right-wing politicians, and anti-abortion groups.  Finally, the smoking gun they had all been looking for!  Yet, all was not as it seemed.  The videos seemed a little too good to be true.

In the weeks that followed it was confirmed that the videos were heavily doctored and edited propaganda pieces.   The Center for Medical Progress was found to have ties to radical anti-abortion groups that were hellbent on smearing Planned Parenthood by any means necessary.  Nearly a dozen states had launched formal investigations to see if there was any wrong doing on Planned Parenthood’s part.  They were cleared in every instance.

Yet, none of these facts were enough to stop or even slow down the shit-storm conservatives had brewed up over the issue.  Social media was filled with outrage over the videos, with each new one sparking more fervor.  Evidence of doctoring and CMPs corruption were dismissed outright.  Prominent figures were also caught up in the whirlwind of self-righteous anger.  Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina uses the videos as talking points in her speeches and Ted Cruz is still vowing to defund Planned Parenthood on his website.  Just last month, everyone’s favorite Bigot for Jesus, Franklin Graham was still spreading the lie that Planned Parenthood was selling body parts.

Despite the decision of the Texas Supreme Court, which is almost certainly the final nail in the coffin over the issue, GOP candidates are still doubling-down on their opposition of Planned Parenthood.  A petition was being posted online to urging that charges be dropped against Daleiden and investigations of Planned Parenthood continue.  The petition garnered more than 40,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.  People in both religious and political camps are livid over what they consider an “injustice”, despite the fact that the videos were proven to be fraudulent, the makers of the videos being charged, and Planned Parenthood having never broken any laws.

The Planned Parenthood fiasco is a prime example of what happens when critical thinking goes out the window in favor of emotional outrage and confirmation bias.  It’s what happens when ignorance is treated as a virtue, and when one’s opinions and “strongly held beliefs” are elevated above facts and evidence.   One can understand the emotional reactions to the first video that was released – people candidly talking about things that some may find off-putting (despite that it did not depict anything illegal).  But what followed was simply inexcusable.  As Zack Hunt stated in his recent post on the subject,

“…gullibility and ignorance may have been passable excuses in the beginning and if the news from Texas was the first report we had revealing that the Center for Medical Progress videos were bogus, then this would simply be an embarrassing case of being wrong. But month after month as investigation after investigation cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, the continual denouncement of Planned Parenthood as traffickers of baby parts stopped being misguided and became willful participation in a wholesale lie.” 

For whatever reason, critical thinking has become a rare thing in our society.  People being able to make choices or form opinions that are well informed, evidence based, and free of personal bias are like unicorns these days.  We’ve all been guilty of falling for some sensationalized news story, but most people have at least some form of a bullshit-detector that keeps them for falling for the really outlandish stories.

Once upon a time, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and paranormal claims were largely dismissed by society, given only a passing glance for entertainment purposes.  People who believed in things like government conspiracies and alien abduction were stereotyped as tinfoil-hat-wearing weirdos who lived in their parents basements, spending their days playing W.O.W and reading about the latest UFO sightings on the internet.

Not anymore.

Now, conspiracy theories have gone mainstream.  Fear sells – and politicians, media voices, religious leaders, and prominent social figures are capitalizing on it like never before.  This past year saw an alarming amount of farcical stories being swallowed hook, line, and sinker by people who should know better – people who are supposed to be leaders, people who you one would think would have to have some level of intelligence and education to be in the positions they occupy.  But apparently not.  Let’s take a look at a few more examples.

Obama Invading Texas

After a handful of instructions for a routine U.S. military exercise (set for July 15 and dubbed “Jade Helm 15”)were leaked, conspiracy theory nut Alex Jones began spreading the rumor that the government was preparing for a hostile takeover concocted by the White House to keep President Obama in the office for a third term.  It was also thought that the exercise was a covert operation to invade Texas and take away citizens guns.  Martial law was then going to go in effects and citizens were going to be rounded up and imprisoned in closed down Wal-Marts.

While most rational people dismissed this as the rantings of some right-wing, anti-government nuts (which is exactly what it was), others were convinced that this was the long awaited government-taking-over-it’s-own-country-that-it-already-controls conspiracy that they had been prophesying would happen.  Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to take action and monitor the military’s activities wherever possible.  Texas representative Louie Gohmert said that because of the Obama administration’s hostility to the Constitution and its defenders, “patriotic Americans have reason to be concerned.”  Ted Cruz made it a point to contact the Pentagon to inquire on the matter stating that, “I understand the reason for concern and uncertainty, because when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration.” 

Jade Helm went off without a hitch, and absolutely none of the crazy conspiracies came true.

ISIS In Mexico

Last September, Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, said his state faced an imminent threat in a phone conference with conservative nonprofit Staying True to America’s National Destiny, “It is true, that we know that ISIS is present in Ciudad Juarez or they were within the last few weeks… So there’s no question that they have designs on trying to come into Arizona. The comment that I’ve made is that if unaccompanied minors can cross the border then certainly trained terrorists probably can, too. It is something that is real.”

Conservative online media, like the, Daily Caller, Breitbart News and pundits Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck quickly fanned the flames of paranoia, despite the fact that the federal government asserted that there was no credible threat that ISIS was planning an attack on United States soil or was even in Mexico.  It wasn’t long before other politicians, swept up in the hysteria, started making similar claims, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Lou Barletta, and Sen. Marco Rubio.

It turns out that ever piece of “evidence” produced by the far-right media was completely fallacious.  But that hasn’t kept vigilantes from patrolling the US-Mexico border to keep ISIS out of America.

SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

In June of last year, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry nationwide, establishing a new civil right and handing gay rights advocates a historic victory.  Not everyone was happy, however.

Within hours of the decision, people took to the media to air their bitter grievances.  Expectantly, the Christian persecution complex reared its ugly head once again.  Many people felt that because gays and lesbians were not granted the same rights and freedoms as the rest of us, it was somehow a slight on them.  But the worst of it was the dire “THE SKY IS FALLING!” rhetoric of those who honestly believed that same-sex marriage marked the beginning of rampant persecution of Christians in America.

Much like when conservatives claimed that the 2009 Hate Crimes Act would ban all expressions of anti-gay political opinions and criminalize religious beliefs (it didn’t), Religious Right activists were predicting that the Supreme Court decision would bring about the end of free speech and would criminalize pastors who refused to marry same sex couples.  And elected officials wasted no time in fanning the flames.

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee warned, “When you elevate a lifestyle to the status of a civil right, I don’t think a lot of believers fully understand or comprehend that once it’s risen to that level and our government accepts it, then anyone who disagrees with it could be at least civilly liable, but more than likely would be criminally liable,”  Huckabee also stated that the gay rights movement “won’t stop until there are no more churches, until there are no more people who are spreading the Gospel.According to Huckabee, gay marriage will lead to “the criminalization of Christianity” and “criminal charges” against pastors who preach against it or refuse to officiate the wedding of a gay couple.  Mike Huckabee has also warned that gay marriage will unleash divine punishment on America.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, said in a lengthy statement that the decision “will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision.”

GOP presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, also predicted that “Christian pastors who decline to perform gay marriages” or “speak out and preach biblical truths on marriage” will be punished for committing “hate speech.”

Religious Right leaders like Sandy Rios of the American Family Association and David Lane of the American Renewal Project have warned of impending “martyrdom,” while Rick Scarborough, a Religious Right activist and leading proponent of the “hate speech” myth, has insisted that gay marriage will make it “illegal” to “share the Gospel” and predicted that jails will soon fill up with pastors. He has even told conservatives that they should be prepared to “burn” if the court backs marriage equality.

It has now been seven months since the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage, and the current number of pastors who have faced legal proceedings for refusing to marry a same-sex couple is ZERO.  The number of Christians who have bean penalized for speaking out against same-sex marriage is exactly ZERO.  The number of churches that the government has closed down because of the their stance on homosexuality is hovering around ZERO.  You get my point…

Look, this isn’t about people’s personal stance on abortion, Obama, or politics.  It’s about people choosing to remain ignorant and letting their emotions dictate their thoughts and actions.  This is unacceptable behavior in a society where any information is readily available to any and all.  Fear-mongering is an epidemic in our society and the only way to cure it is by being informed.

The above examples are just a handful of the many reasons I’ve been devoting more and more time on this blog to the subject of critical thinking.  My hope is that regardless of religious of political leanings, there are some who are wanting to be better informed and educated and have the tools necessary to sift through the bullshit to get to the facts and the evidence.  If I can help with that in some way; all the better.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Critical Thinking: More Logical Fallacies

In a previous post, we looked at the Ten Commandments of Logic, that laid out the most popular logical fallacies.  In this post we’ll go over some of the other common fallacious arguments that one is likely to encounter in almost any debate.

Just to recap,  a logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts.  To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support.

Off we go…

“No True Scotsman”

Also referred to as the “No True Christian” argument, it is an informal fallacy; an ad hoc attempt to retain an un-reasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (“no Scotsman would do such a thing”), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule.  Put more simply, this fallacy occurs when either A) someone changes the definition of a word to make a claim true by default or B) a term is defined biasedly to allow easier use of the first form.  Instead of acknowledging that some members of a group have undesirable characteristics, the fallacy tries to redefine the group to exclude them.  Example:

Person A:  “Christians have waged just as much violence over the centuries as Muslims have – the Crusades, Inquisitions, Witch trials, etc.”                                                                                                                                               Person B:  “The people who did those things weren’t true Christians, because a true Christian would do that.”

Appeal to Authority

This is an argument from the fact that a person judged to be an “expert” or authority affirms a proposition to the claim that the proposition is true.  This can be a fallacy for two reasons: first, even a legitimate authority speaking on his area of expertise may affirm a falsehood, so no testimony of any authority is guaranteed to be true.  Second, the authority cited either (a) is not an authority, or (b) is not an authority on the subject on which he is being cited.

Whenever an authority is used, the following assessments must be made:

  • Does the person have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question?
  • Is the claim being made by the person within his/her area(s) of expertise?
  • Is there is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question?
  • Does the person in question have reason to be significantly biased?
  • Is the area of expertise a legitimate area or discipline?
  • Is the authority in question identified?

Slippery Slope

Closely related to a false dilemma, the slippery slope fallacy falsely assume that one thing must lead to another. This argument begins by suggesting that if we do one thing then that will lead to another, and before we know it we’ll be doing something that we don’t want to do. They conclude that we, therefore, shouldn’t do the first thing.  Examples:

Claim:  “If we allow gay people to get married, then that will open the door for people wanting to marry their pets or their relatives!”

Claim:  “If the government starts imposing stricter gun laws, before you know it, all guns will be banned!”

The problem with these arguments is that it is possible to do the first thing that they mention without going on to do the other things –  there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim.  This is especially clear in cases in which there is a significant number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

Appeal to Consequences of a Belief

In it’s much simpler terms – “wishful thinking”, an appeal to consequences is an attempt to motivate belief with an appeal either to the good consequences of believing or the bad consequences of disbelieving.  Some good examples of this can be found in the reasons people give for believing in God:

Claim:  “I acknowledge that I have no argument for the existence of God. However, I have a great desire for God to exist and for there to be an afterlife. Therefore I accept that God exists.”

Claim:  “If God did not exist, then all basis for morality would be lost and the world would be a horrible place!”

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the consequences of a belief have no bearing on whether the belief is true or false.

It is important to note that the consequences in question are the consequences that stem from the belief.  It is important to distinguish between a rational reason to believe (RRB) (evidence) and a prudential reason to believe (PRB) (motivation).   A RRB is evidence that objectively and logically supports the claim.   A PRB is a reason to accept the belief because of some external factor (such as fear, a threat, or a benefit or harm that may stem from the belief) that is relevant to what a person values but is not relevant to the truth or falsity of the claim.

Red Herring

Simply put, this is when the arguer diverts the attention by changing the subject.  The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic, but merely changing the topic of discussion doesn’t count as an argument against a claim.  Example:

Claim:  “Evolution is not a very good explanation for human life. Anyway, I am pretty offended that anyone would suggest that I came from a monkey.”

Appeal to Emotions

Closely related to Appeal to Popularity fallacy, this fallacy is committed when someone manipulates peoples’ emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true.  More formally, this sort of “reasoning” involves the substitution of strong emotions in place of evidence for a claim.

Appeals to emotion are very common in politics and religion, and it serves as the basis for a large portion of modern advertising.  Peoples’ emotions often carry much more force than their reason. Logical argumentation is often difficult and time consuming and it rarely has the power to spurn people to action.  It is the power of this fallacy that explains its great popularity and wide usage.

 

There are many more logical fallacies out there, but this (plus the Top 10 covered earlier) covers the majority of the ones you’ll come across.  If you are interested in a more complete list, you can check out the links below.

These last few posts have been more informational then my typical posts, but I wanted to write them as much for my own understanding as for others.  It will also be good to have them on here as reference in future posts.  Now that I have them out of the way we can “return now to our regular scheduled programming” as they say.  I can get back to speaking from the heart and ruffling a few feathers!  Thanks for reading.

 

NOTE:  Most of the descriptions found in this post were taken from other websites, namely the Nizkor Project, and Logical Fallacies.info

Critical Thinking: The Ten Commandments

As promised, we are going to be diving into some of the most common logical fallacies used in debates.  Put simply – a logical fallacy is an error in reasoning.  This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts.  To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support.  Logical fallacies are most often found in debates centered on politics, religion, or social problems, but can be used in almost every subject.  Being mindful of logical fallacies is one of the key components to critical thinking.  It is important to be aware of them when presenting your own case, as well as spotting them in others’ arguments.

We’ll start by going over the “Top 10” fallacies listed above in greater detail.

Ad Hominem

Translated from Latin to English, “Ad Hominem” means “against the man” or “against the person.”  This is when the person or source of information is attacked rather then the information being presented.  Examples:

Person A:  “You shouldn’t give baby formula to infants because it is made with soy, which has been shown to have adverse effects on children.”                                                                                                                         Person B:  “You don’t even have children, so what would you know about raising them!”

Person B ignores the argument, focusing only on the arguer.  Whenever an arguer cannot defend his position with evidence, facts or reason, he or she may resort to attacking an opponent either through labeling, straw man arguments, name-calling, offensive remarks, or anger.  Another example where the source of information is attacked:

Person A:  “CNN reported that gun violence has increased in the last ten years”                                                                                                                                       Person B:  “CNN is a liberal news site!  You can’t trust anything they say”

The reason why an Ad Hominem is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person or source do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Straw Man

A straw man argument is one that misrepresents a position in order to make it appear weaker than it actually is, refutes this misrepresentation of the position, and then concludes that the real position has been refuted. Examples:

Person A:  “I don’t believe in an gods, including the Christian one.”       Person B:  “So, you have no objective base for morality then?  Basically, there is no right or wrong and anything goes?”

Person A:  “I believe we need to cut military spending and put that money towards education health care.”                                                               Person B:  “Oh, you want to leave our country defenseless from invasions from other countries?”

These are fallacies because the position that has been claimed to be refuted is different to that which has actually been refuted; the real target of the argument is untouched by it.

Straw men arguments can often take the form of caricatures – representing a group or person using exaggerations, stereotypes, and falsehoods.  Example:

Hasty Generalization

A hasty generalization is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample size that is too small.  It is important to have samples that are large enough when making a generalization.  Example:

Person A:  “Smoking has been proven to have a negative effect on ones’ overall health”.                                                                                               Person B:  “My uncle smoked two packs a day since he was a teenager and he lived to be 80!  Smoking can’t be all that bad.”

People often commit Hasty Generalizations because of bias or prejudice.  People also commonly commit Hasty Generalizations because of laziness or sloppiness.  It is very easy to simply leap to a conclusion and much harder to gather an adequate sample and draw a justified conclusion.  Thus, avoiding this fallacy requires minimizing the influence of bias and taking care to select a sample that is large enough.

Another way in which this fallacy is used is by going after “low hanging fruit”, or using a particularly bad example of a subject matter to validate ones argument.  Examples would be using ISIS as an example of Muslims, or using the Westboro Baptist as examples of Christians.

Circular Reasoning/Begging the Question

An argument is circular if its conclusion is among its premises, if it assumes (either explicitly or not) what it is trying to prove.  A good example of this can be found in Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God, where Keller argues for the reliability of the Bible in the following way:

If eventually we put our faith in Jesus, then his view of the Bible will become ours. Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible.

Keller suggests that we should accept the entire Bible as “reliable” because Jesus viewed the entire Bible as reliable.  And how do we know that Jesus viewed the entire Bible as reliable?  Because the Bible says that Jesus did.  Circular argument.

Such arguments are said to “beg the question”.  This sort of reasoning is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion.  Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim.  A circular argument fails as a proof because it will only be judged to be sound by those who already accept its conclusion.

Post Hoc (Post hoc ergo propter hoc)

Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by”, Post Hoc fallacy is committed when it is assumed that because one thing occurred after another, it must have occurred as a result of it.  Example:

Person A:  “I know that prayer works!”                                                                 Person B:  “Based on what evidence?”                                                                       Person A:  “A lady in out church had cancer, and after the congregation prayed over her, she got better.”

There could be a number of other reasons that the lady recovered.  It is also possible that she never had cancer in the first place.  Because prayer proceeded recovery is not sufficient evidence to actually warrant the claim that prayers work.

Post Hoc resembles a Hasty Generalization in that it involves making a leap to an unwarranted conclusion.  Many superstitious beliefs often arise from people committing the Post Hoc fallacy – good luck charms, post-game rituals, prayers, etc.

Post Hoc fallacies are typically committed because people are simply not careful enough when they reason.  Leaping to a causal conclusion is always easier and faster than actually investigating the phenomenon.  However, such leaps tend to land far from the truth of the matter.  Because Post Hoc fallacies are committed by drawing an unjustified causal conclusion, the key to avoiding them is careful investigation.

False Dichotomy (Extruded Middle)

Also known as black & white thinking, the false dichotomy fallacy is committed when a false dilemma is presented, i.e. when someone is asked to choose between two options when there is at least one other option available, or a spectrum of possible choices exists between two extremes.  False dilemmas are usually characterized by “either this or that” language, but can also be characterized by omissions of choices.  Examples:

Claim:  “You are either with God, or against him!”

Claim: “If we don’t teach kids abstinence, they will all become promiscuous!”

Person A:  “I don’t believe in school-sanctioned prayers in public schools.”                                                                                                                           Person B:  “What are you, an atheist?”

Appeal to Ignorance (Ad ignorantom)

Often referred to as “trying to prove a negative”, arguments from ignorance infer that a proposition is true from the fact that it is not known to be false.  Example:

Claim:  “Scientists haven’t been able to prove God doesn’t exist, therefore he must exist.”

Ignorance about something says nothing about its existence or non-existence.

Burden of Proof Reversal

Closely related to ad ignorantom is the burden of proof reversal, where the the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side of the debate.  It is important to note that the burden of proof always lies with the one making the claim.  A popular example, used often in apologetics and movies such as God’s Not Dead is the argument;

“Proof to me that God doesn’t exist!”

The side making the claim is the one charged with providing evidence, not the one calling it into question.

Non Sequitur (Affirming the Consequent)

Non sequitur is a Latin phrase that means “that which does not follow”. It means that the conclusion reached does not follow from the premise(s).   A good example of this:

Person A:  “If the Bible is correct, then we must accept Jesus as our personal savior.”                                                                                                        Person B:  “Jesus is my personal savior!”                                       Conclusion:  The Bible is correct.

Here, the fallacy is that Person A and Person B may in fact be correct, but the conclusion is not a valid conclusion. It does not follow that the Bible must be correct because one person finds that Jesus is their savior, even if to a believer this seems like the case.

A subtle but easy use of the fallacy is related slightly to belief in belief. It could be formed like this:

Claim:  “Religion gives great comfort to people and causes them to do good things.  Millions of people are comforted and are good people.  Therefore God is real.”

The non-sequitur here is a failure to distinguish between what the act of believing can accomplish, and the (almost) completely unrelated question of the truth value of that belief.  Without external evidence to say otherwise, you cannot tell the difference between someone being comforted because God exists, or because they just believe God exists.  In short: the premises say nothing about the existence of God, only that some people believe in it.

Bandwagon Fallacy (Appeal to Popularity)

The basic idea is that a claim is accepted as being true simply because most people are favorably inclined towards the claim. More formally, the fact that most people have favorable emotions associated with the claim is substituted in place of actual evidence for the claim.  A person falls prey to this fallacy if he accepts a claim as being true simply because most other people approve of the claim.

Other variations of this can be Appeal to Belief – the appeal to the fact that most people believe a claim, and Appeal to Common Practice – the appeal to the fact that many people take the action in question.

That about covers it for the Top 10.  Next time we’ll look at a few more of the more popular fallacies that I see used.  Any questions, clarifications, or comments, please leave below.  Thanks for reading.

NOTE:  Most of the descriptions found in this post were taken from other websites, namely the Nizkor Project, and Logical Fallacies.info

 

Critical Thinking 101

Critical thinking is a topic I speak often about on this blog, and one that you will come across on most skeptics’ writings.  I thought it would be useful to go into what critical thinking is, common characteristics and philosophies, and how to apply it.  I will also be starting a series looking at one of the cornerstones of critical thinking  – identifying logical fallacies.

Put simply, critical thinking can be described as “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”  A more detailed definition, provided by the The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

So, what are some of the characteristics of critical thinking?

  1. Critical thinking is reasonable and rational. Critical thinkers do not jump to conclusions.  Collect data, weigh the facts, and think the matter through.
  2. Critical thinking is reflective. Thinking the matter through, weighing the facts and evidence.
  3. Critical thinking inspires an attitude of inquiry.  Be inquisitive but also skeptical.
  4. Critical thinking is autonomous thinking.  Critical thinkers are not easily manipulated or swayed by popular opinion.
  5. Critical thinking includes creative thinking.
  6. Critical thinking is fair thinking. It is not biased or one-sided.
  7. Critical thinking focuses on deciding what to believe or do. Critical thinking is used to decide on a course of action; make reliable observations; draw sound conclusions, solve problems; and evaluate claims, and actions.

The National League of Nursing came up with this list (you can view the full version here) and considered critical thinking so important, they added it as a mandatory criterion for accreditation of schools of nursing 20 years ago.  I wanted to add to this list by pointing out what I consider to be the foundations of critical thinking and the common stumbling blocks that get can get in way.

Bias

Everyone posses the ability to think critically, and most of us do in our day-to-day lives.  But very often, when a person holds a core belief very strongly, it can be easy to put on blinders and only seek out information that agrees with one’s own beliefs or pre-conceived ideas, while dismissing any evidence that works against their core beliefs.  This is known as confirmation biasthe tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.  Everyone has the disposition of being bias, which why it is so important to have an open mind, be willing to admit that you could be wrong, and have a system in place to filter through information to determine it’s validity.   

Evidence

If anyone has ever served on jury duty or watched a lot of courtroom drama, then they know how important evidence is.   Evidence is defined as the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.  In the scientific world, evidence is defined as evidence which serves to either support or counter a scientific theory or hypothesis. Such evidence is expected to be empirical evidence and interpretation in accordance with scientific method.   A few important points about evidence:

First, some things that are not considered evidence: Opinions are not evidence.  Arguments are not evidence.  Conspiracy Theories are not evidence.  Hearsay is not evidence.  “Strongly held beliefs” are not evidence.  Emotions are not evidence.

Second, the judicial system has mandated that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution.  In other words, the burden of proof, or evidence is always with the one making the claim.  If I tell my neighbor that aliens have been visiting me at night in my back yard, it is up to me to provide him with evidence to back up this claim.  It is not his responsibility to prove me wrong.  You will often see people trying to deflect their responsibility to provide evidence onto the person demanding said evidence.  This is what’s known as an Appeal to Ignorance fallacy.  A common example can be found when a skeptics asks for evidence for God, the response will often be, “Prove to me that there isn’t a God!”

And lastly, using a phrase first said by Marcello Truzzi, but made famous by Carl Sagan: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  The more a claim differentiates from what we consider to be a “normal” occurrence, the more evidence is required for validating the claim.  If I told my neighbor that I saw a hawk in my backyard, he would most likely take my word for it, as hawks are often seen in our neighborhood and strong evidence is not needed.  If I was to say that I saw a Sasquatch in my back yard, a great deal of evidence (footprints, hair samples, photographs, etc) is going to be needed before he could be convinced.

Probability Spectrum

Sometimes known as Bayes’ theorem, the probability spectrum describes the probability of an event, based on conditions that might be related to the event.  In debates regarding far-fetched claims, often a last-ditch effort is made by appealing to the idea of possibility.  Speaking of possibility gives the illusion of leaving the door open that such a claim may be true, despite the evidence pointing out the improbability of the claim.  As the old saying goes, there are very few certainties in life, but we all make decisions based on the probability of what’s going to happen.  I know that when I leave my home in the morning, there is the possibility that I may get in an accident, but that doesn’t stop me from going to work, because I know that the probability is relatively low.  This same principle applies to critical thinking – in cases where a definitive conclusion cannot be made, the most probable answer or scenario should be the taken.  Another way to think of it is to draw a line, and have “very unlikely” at one end and “very likely” at the other and postulate where a claim or explanation falls on that line.  In his book, The God Argument, A.C. Grayling explains the possibility spectrum like this:

One line of thinking in the theory of knowledge has it that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair, but a matter of degree.  The degree in question can be represented as a probability value.  A virtue of this approach is said to be that it explains how people adjust the weighting they give to their various beliefs as the evidence in support of them changes when more and better information becomes available.  People might not talk of probabilities unless challenged to say just how strongly the believe something, but their beliefs are nevertheless measurable in terms of how subjectively probable they appear to their holder.  

Along these same principles is the idea of Occam’s Razor.  Occam’s Razor is a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian.  The principle can be be interpreted as, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”  In other words, the simplest explanation is generally the right one.

Another important aspect of probability is natural vs. supernatural explanations.  Supernatural is anything that goes against or beyond the natural world.  When debating religious claims, the supernatural is often invoked as “evidence”.  This is a cop-out of sorts, as supernatural claims, by their very nature, cannot be tested by normal means.  This is why in any discussion; a natural explanation is always favorable to a supernatural one.  Put another way: the supernatural is the least likely explanation explanation for events.  Divine intervention, miracles, the paranormal, psychic powers, angles/demons, spirits, etc are all considered supernatural and should send off warning bells whenever they are used in a debate.  Supernatural explanations are unacceptable in the courtroom and in the science lab, and they should be equally unacceptable in critical thought.

Falsifiability

Last, but certainly not least, we must talk about falsifiability.  Falsifiability (or reputability) of a statement, hypothesis, or theory is the inherent possibility that it can be proven false. A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument that negates the statement in question.  For any hypothesis to have credence, it must be inherently disprovable before it can become accepted as a scientific hypothesis or theory.

Falsifiability is a cornerstone of the scientific method and should be equally applied to critical thinking.  For a statement to be questioned using observation, it needs to be at least theoretically possible that it can come in conflict with observation.

For example, I can make the claim that “All polar bears are white”, and it is logically possible to falsify this statement by observing just a single black polar bear.  In the same way, Newton’s Theory of Gravity has been accepted as truth for centuries because objects do not randomly float away.  If they were to start floating away, then scientists would need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a different hypothesis.

Example of falsifiable vs non-falsifiable

With all of that out of the way, we’ll next be looking at some of the most common logical fallacies.  They are easy to spot once you recognize them and will help you in navigating the endless sea of nonsense that permeates our social media and literature.  Hopefully this has been helpful.  If you have any questions or need clarification, please leave a comment below.  I’m no expert, but I’ll do my best to answer or at least point you in the direction of someone who can.  Thanks for reading.