"Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science." -Georges Seurat

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Telling Truth from Nonsense: "But what about" versus "If...then" Thinking

Conspiracy theorists, pseudoscience proponents, and various peddlers of nonsense can often be spotted by how they argue. An insightful method I've seen recently for spotting low-quality arguments (otherwise known as "B.S.") is figuring out whether an argument falls into one of these two types: "But what about" versus "If...then" reasoning.

Here are some common examples of "But what about" arguments offered by Bigfoot believers that I've happened to notice recently:
  • "But what about all the eyewitness reports of 'squatches?"
  • "But what about all the footprint evidence?"
  • "But what about the unidentified clumps of hair found in the woods?"
  • "But what about this clumpy pattern in the mud, where it looks like a primate-like creature laid down on their side under a log?"
  • "But what about all the recordings of strange sounds in the woods?!?"
The argument type of "But what about..." is more commonly understood as a type of logical fallacy known as special pleading, in which an arguer typically assumes one side of an argument to be true, and then demands the other side to explain some finding or strange occurence. The implication is that if the opposing side cannot explain it to their satisfaction, then by default the arguer's side is the correct one. Here's an example I just saw: A Bigfoot believer claims that dermal ridges (handprint lines) in some supposed Bigfoot footprint are in such a pattern that it could not possibly be human. Therefore, it was concluded, this is compelling physical evidence for Bigfoot. Basically, the argument is "But what about this footprint, it absolutely can't be human or be faked or be a misinterpretation, it must be proof of Sasquatches!"

The problem here is that strange or unexplained occurences do not necessary imply anything, since they are by definition unexplained. Anyone can pose a theoretical explanation (good or bad), but unless it's supported by some solid empirical evidence, it's just armchair theorizing with no necessary basis in reality.

One of the major problems with relying on unexplained phenomena as supporting evidence is that once a phenomena IS explained, the whole chain of reasoning and argument falls flat on its face. Think of all the exposed Bigfoot footprint hoaxes, or Bigfoot sighting hoaxes. Shouldn't we be more skeptical of such claims when more and more hoaxes are revealed? Instead, people seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

This is where "If...then..." thinking comes in handy. Suppose we are trying to explain a strange footprint. Someone makes a claim "It's Bigfoot." Well, IF this is a Bigfoot footprint, and Bigfoot really exists in large numbers, THEN there should be other footprints that are consistently of the same size, shape, pattern, etc. IF Bigfoot exists in large numbers, THEN we should expect to see some hit by cars. IF Bigfoot exists, THEN some should have accidentally been killed by hunters. IF Bigfoot exists, THEN some should have died of natural causes so that a body was recovered. IF Bigfoot exists, THEN we should have clear and undeniable photographic or videographic evidence by now. You see the difference in thinking here?

Using "If...then..." reasoning let's you explore the real-world implications of a claim or argument. Then evidence can be assessed as being either for it, against it, or neutral (unclear). If you are serious about understanding reality, avoid "But what about..." arguments, and use "If...then..." thinking to explore a claim. And remember, good solid irrefutable physical evidence (otherwise known as "data" or "facts") are the final decider in any debate.

1 comment:

  1. I like this article. The "If...then" examples at the end are logically airtight, so long as the premises are true.