Steve Vigdor, Nov. 21, 2020
1. “The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit”
Future historians looking backward may well label the 21st century as the Age of Misinformation. We are all now subjected to a barrage of bullshit in a steady stream. We have to decide how to process much of it, because it relates to potential dangers we may be facing. Some of it comes in the form of positive spin that marketers and advertisers, or political campaigns, use to oversell or invent the advantages of their product or their candidate. Some of it is negative, or even slanderous, discrediting of the motives of those who offer opposing viewpoints. Some is a collection of wild-eyed, evidence-poor conspiracy theories spread virally on social media to consumers eager to believe anything that casts a negative light on people they resent or that makes them feel in possession of rare knowledge. Some is propaganda spread by, or on behalf of, shameless politicians who view their path to power as based on getting enough voters to trust frequently repeated disinformation. Some of it results from poorly constrained or inadvertently contaminated research results. And some – most of what we deal with on this site – comprises flawed, occasionally ludicrous, arguments used in an attempt to deny scientific evidence that might provoke public policy debates the arguers would rather avoid.
“The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit” is a phrase coined by Brian Earp to describe a principle attributed to Alberto Brandolini: “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” In debate formats, the manifestation of this bullshit asymmetry principle is sometimes referred to as the “Gish Gallop.” That term was intended to dishonor Duane Gish, an American biochemist turned Young Earth Creationist, who “relished the confrontations of formal debates with prominent evolutionary biologists, usually held on university campuses.” According to Eugenie Scott, Gish would typically “run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.” Nowadays, we might refer to this tactic instead as the “Trump Torrent.” The result was on painful display during the first 2020 U.S. Presidential debate, where Donald Trump systematically interrupted, insulted and spoke loudly over his opponent Joe Biden’s answers throughout. The failed part of Trump’s strategy was to get under Biden’s skin – he got under the skin of most Americans in the television audience much sooner, and came off as an overbearing bully. But the other aspect of the strategy was to spout such a density of falsehoods about his own and Biden’s accomplishments and plans that not all could be refuted during the debate, and some would hopefully stick in the minds of at least some still persuadable voters.
But the phenomenon that has made the bullshit asymmetry more pronounced now than ever before is the advent of social media platforms whose business model relies on advertisers who pay the platform owners a certain sum “per click.” As described in detail in the recent documentary The Social Dilemma (see Fig. 1.1), that model places a premium on the development of algorithms that absorb and archive as much information as possible about each individual user’s interests, biases and preferences, and that then feed each user with advertisements, posts, news items and (mis)information filtered to align with those predetermined interests, so as best to attract new clicks. This individual targeting has fueled a revolution in the effectiveness of advertising and the spread of information. But the result, as found by research at the MIT Media Lab, is that “fake news travels six times faster than the truth on Twitter.” Travel speed was determined from the length of time it took for any one of 126,000 “stories” tracked by the researchers to reach at least 1500 among three million Twitter users included in the study. The result is hardly confined to Twitter. Social media has many benefits, but it has evolved into the primary mode for transmission of bullshit in the modern age.
The asymmetry of bullshit also accounts for the lengthy posts we produce for this blog site in order to provide serious arguments to debunk science denial in many forms. We hope that ours is one of a number of trusted resources interested readers can use to help them wade through all the garbage that appears across a variety of media. But as we point out in our header image, “To navigate through the fog of war against facts, we need beacons of critical thinking.” Trusted resources can be helpful in sorting facts from bullshit, but even trusted resources can get things wrong from time to time. There is no substitute for each individual taking it upon themselves to develop their own effective bullshit detector and to keep it well tuned. This post is intended to provide guidance for how to tune your BS detector.
2. A Questioning Attitude
About 20 years ago I was accosted by a member of my research group during a coffee break at a scientific workshop. He got in my face as I sipped my coffee and shouted angrily, so that many in the lounge area could hear him: “Your only talent is somehow finding just the right question to ask, even when you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” The triggering incident for this outburst was a pointed question I had posed at the end of one presentation (given by a third party) in the session just ended, a question that had stimulated a good deal of productive discussion. But the tension between my collaborator and me had been increasing over the preceding year. He was in charge of computer simulations to evaluate the scientific advances we would be able to make with a new detector we were constructing, and he often seemed to take as a personal affront the questions I posed, at the end of his progress presentations, in order to understand underlying assumptions and methods. He also felt I was getting too much credit as leader of the group, while he was not getting enough as the group member most in command of the nitty-gritty details.
I did not respond to the outburst as I viewed it as letting off steam. Both my collaborator and I actually understood quite well that I had a number of other talents as a scientist. But “finding just the right question to ask” is perhaps my most important skill, and is an essential component of both scientific creativity and skepticism. It is, more generally, at the heart of critical thinking. It is not something that came naturally to me. It is an acquired skill, one developed in my case by observing early-career mentors who were very good at it, and then honed through many years of professional scientific research.
Learning to ask the right questions when evaluating claims or arguments made by others, or by you yourself, is central to the fine art of BS detection. Are the arguments logically sound, plausible and lucidly presented, without weak or missing links? Are they based on firmly established and referenced evidence or just on opinion? Are the premises underlying the arguments clearly articulated and well established, or do they reflect the arguer’s biases? Does the arguer freely acknowledge still open questions? Is the arguer a reputable, self-questioning source or someone instructing you to believe based on his/her authority as an expert or as a guardian of precious secrets?
If the arguments are based on quantitative observational data, are the methods used to obtain those data well explained and do they appear to be robust? Are the data plausible, internally consistent, independently reproduced, and consistent with previous observations? If there are significant discrepancies in the data, are they pointed out, understood and explained? Are graphs of data and model predictions objective and clearly explained, or rather misleadingly plotted to guide the viewer’s eye to the author’s conclusion? If data result from computer calculations, was the input to those calculations sensible? Have all the data been used, or only those that support the arguer’s conclusions? Are those conclusions logically justified by the data and the arguments, or has the arguer either leapt to conclusions or tailored data and arguments to support predetermined conclusions (i.e., what you or the arguer want to believe, as opposed to what nature establishes)? Are there implications of the arguer’s interpretations and conclusions that seem inconsistent with previously established facts? Can you imagine alternative interpretations that might also be consistent with the data? Is the arguer willing to make critical predictions that can be verified or falsified by future observations?
The questioning attitude is central to science and to BS detection. But as you learn to apply it, it is essential that you do so to your own arguments as well as to those of others. This principle is encapsulated in a quote (see Fig. 2.1) from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and best-selling author Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” You must also welcome questions posed to you by others. As Feynman also said: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” You can pose questions to yourself and others without becoming a contrarian. If your questions are successfully answered and an argument or claim or theory seems robust, you can accept it as the best current understanding. But remain open to the possibility that future observations may call that best current understanding into question. And if you’re not convinced, embrace your doubt. Feynman again: “If you thought before that science was certain – well that is just an error on your part.” On the other hand, our survival may sometimes rely on actions informed by the best current understanding of nature’s impacts, even when that understanding is not the final word.
You don’t have to be an expert in a subject to pose sensible questions. What you learn from experience is to recognize many of the standard “tricks” BSers use to mislead you and to pose questions that probe/expose those tricks. In many cases, you can learn these tricks from the experiences of other people. In the remaining sections of this post, I will survey some of these tricks with examples, relying in part on my own experience and in part on a number of very useful resources: Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit,” provided in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark; free educational resources for recognizing logical fallacies and cognitive biases produced by Jesse Richardson and available at www.thethinkingshop.org; Daniel J. Levitin’s book Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era; and the new book Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, written by Carl T. Bergstrom and Kevin D. West as the basis for a course they have developed on this subject at the University of Washington.
3. Recognizing Logical Fallacies
There is a growing worldwide recognition, in this age of misinformation, that it is essential to teach techniques to aid critical thinking in schools and universities, much more so than has been done traditionally. An enterprising Australian advertising executive, Jesse Richardson, has taken the initiative to launch a virtual School of Thought International, with the aim of providing free or inexpensive aids, and eventually online courses, to teach these techniques. One of the first of these aids is a poster explaining, with examples, 24 common logical fallacies, many of which are used frequently in arguments attempting to promote bullshit. The full poster is shown in Fig. 3.1 (because permission to reprint the material requires display of the full poster), but then Figs. 3.2-3.7 show blowups to allow for easier reading of the fallacy definitions and examples, four at a time. You can exercise your ability to recognize these flaws by identifying their use in the science denial arguments we debunk in other posts on this site; some examples are provided in the text following each of the figures below.
The four flaws described in Fig. 3.2 are all regularly used in efforts to refute scientific arguments. A simple example of a strawman argument arises whenever concerns about human impacts on the extinction of species are dismissed by claims of the sort “environmentalists care more about spotted owls than about people, so they should be ignored.” A more subtle example occurs when believers in divine creation quote the late astrophysicist Fred Hoyle to dismiss the theory of abiogenesis– the natural generation, over hundreds of millions of years, of living organisms via assembly of initially non-living matter containing organic compounds. Hoyle said: “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.” But his “junkyard tornado” strawman analogy is based on “probability arguments that stem from the implausible assumption that complex protein structures are constructed in a single step…from the basic [organic] building blocks of life.” In other words, his argument misrepresents the abiogenetic model of myriad random small steps accumulating over eons to form an enormous variety of macromolecules, a tiny fraction of which turn out to be capable of efficient self-replication – hence, proliferation – from the ambient materials. (Hoyle’s strawman furthermore provided little support for his own pet theory that life on Earth arrived from pre-existing life in space.)
Slippery slope arguments are often the first refuge of those who vehemently resist all government regulation, even when it is intended to protect public health. Thus, those who object to mask-wearing mandates to mitigate community spread of COVID-19 describe such mandates as a small step down the slippery slope to tyrannical obliteration of individual liberty. Occasionally the hyperbole is ratcheted up to include genocide. An example we have described elsewhere is offered by Lewis DuPont Smith, who fought vehemently against the DuPont Chemical Company’s agreement to adhere to an international ban on production of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) that were causing a depletion in the stratospheric ozone layer. In a letter to DuPont shareholders, Smith wrote: “The cost to consumers of the ban on CFCs will exceed $5 trillion: the consequences on human health will be devastating…The CFC ban may cause hunger in the United States, but in the Third World countries, there will be widespread starvation and death as a result of spoiled vaccine and medical supplies… Increasingly, it is being said that the CFC ban is simply a convenient way for those immoral individuals who want population control of the dark skinned races, to do it through hunger and starvation.” None of these dire predictions came true: chemical replacements for CFCs were developed rapidly, introduced very minor increases in refrigeration costs, and helped enormously to stem the growth in the Antarctic ozone hole and to prevent a wide range of health hazards.
False cause arguments play prominent roles in a number of conspiracy theories, whose proponents connect random dots. For example, some COVID-19 deniers have found it suspicious that the pandemic occurred just as cell phone companies were introducing the new 5G technology (albeit not in some of the hardest-hit countries), just as some had argued at the time that the 1918 influenza pandemic was caused by the newly developed electric light. On the other hand, many climate change deniers have also accused scientists studying global warming of using false cause arguments, claiming that the correlation of global temperature increases with increased worldwide fossil fuel burning is not proof of causation. However, in this instance the arguments in favor of causation are based on well-established physics, and the temperature rise is accompanied by additional correlations with a significant number of other predicted climate change impacts of increased greenhouse gas concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere. Comparable robust scientific modeling is completely lacking in attributions of COVID to 5G technology.
In a time of growing political tribalization, ad hominem attacks are unfortunately playing an increasing role in science denial. For example, prominent physicist and climate change denier Will Happer has compared those who warn of the dangers of global warming to hysterics, opportunists, thugs and Nazis. A few examples from Happer’s writings and interviews: “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.” “[Concern about climate change is] another one of these sort of mass hysterias that have gripped humanity since it began. In our country, in America, we had a sort of similar case of mass hysteria with Prohibition…More sinister are these movements in Europe: the fascists, the communists. They were mass hysteria too…Any movement can be captured by thugs, and that’s what’s happened.” “A major problem has been the co-option of climate science by politics, ambition, greed, and what seems to be a hereditary human need for a righteous cause. What better cause than saving the planet, especially if one can get ample, secure funding at the same time? Huge amounts of money are available from governments and wealthy foundations for climate institutes and for climate-related research.”
Referring to Fig. 3.3, special pleading is rampant among conspiracy theory proponents and COVID-19 deniers. Donald Trump has been telling the public since February 2020 that the pandemic would soon “disappear.” As each timeline he proposed for this promise has passed with no end in sight to ongoing infections and deaths, he has continually pushed back the timeline for his prediction, claiming perpetually that we will soon be “rounding the final turn” on the disease, as though he were a hamster running on a treadmill. When libertarian Richard Epstein’s early March prediction that the U.S. would suffer only “about 500 deaths at the end” of the COVID-19 pandemic was surpassed within a week, he then insisted he’d meant to say 5000 deaths. That “corrected” prediction was also quickly surpassed as the U.S. continued on its path to hundreds of thousands of COVID deaths. As QAnon “predictions” have systematically failed to materialize, the conspiracy theory’s purveyors have instructed their cultists to keep the faith, because “nothing can stop what is coming.” The proponents just seem to have a very hard time making accurate, or even credible, predictions of what is coming.
The gambler’s fallacy is not only the cause of losing gaming strategies in which a bettor incorrectly assumes that future outcomes of random events are influenced by past results. A form of the same fallacy is behind dangerous extrapolations from perceived past experience. For example, Richard Epstein and other libertarians influenced Trump administration policy with early predictions that the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 would naturally weaken over time as a result of evolutionary changes, so that government response was unnecessary. In a late March interview published in The New Yorker, Epstein invoked the gambler’s fallacy: “I do think that the tendency to weaken is there, and I’m willing to bet a great deal of money on it, in the sense that I think that this is right.” Why did he think this is right? Largely because of his misperception that this weakening occurred in all previous pandemics: “Is this a hundred percent tendency? No. Is there any known exception to it? No.”
Epstein was dead wrong on his understanding of pandemic history and very shaky on his understanding of evolutionary processes. RNA-based viruses, such as the coronaviruses, undergo frequent random mutations during replication, leading to many viral strains. Some of these may make the virus more virulent, some less virulent, and most are neutral. The evolution of past viruses, even when correctly characterized, does not influence which mutations will survive longest for the present virus. And Epstein’s attempt at a scientific argument – that the more virulent strains will die out by natural selection because they will kill their hosts before they can spread to other individuals – is disastrously at odds with the reality of a virus whose mortality rate is well below 10% and which is often transmitted by asymptomatic individuals.
The classic loaded question is “When did you stop beating your wife?” But comparably egregious forms appear regularly in partisan surveys. George W. Bush pollsters were frequent practitioners. In his 1994 campaign for Texas governor, his pollsters asked residents “Would you be more or less likely to vote for incumbent Ann Richards if you knew that lesbians dominated on her staff?” Similarly, during the primary campaign in South Carolina for the 2000 Republican Presidential nomination, they asked residents “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” Surveys sent to Trump supporters often sport loaded questions intended to reinforce the decades-long conservative campaign to sow distrust in mainstream media. For example, a 2018 survey included the question: “On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing President Trump?” The practice is bipartisan. For example, a 2019 Democratic Party survey asked: “Are you bothered by Donald Trump’s reckless and dangerous foreign policy positions?” Loaded questions do not actually require answers; the questioners simply intend to implant ideas by the way the questions are posed. But their appearance should put any functioning BS detector on full alert.
Bandwagon arguments fuel the growth of conspiracy theories. They provide conspiracy believers with a sense of permission and belonging to what may be a fringe group, but one that shares their resentment of the “elites” who work to refute the sometimes fairly absurd “alternative facts” on which they base their belief. Bandwagon arguments are fueled especially by social media echo chambers, and the consumers susceptible to such arguments often become invested in multiple conspiracy theories. For example: “Speaking with attendees at the biggest annual gathering of flat Earthers in both 2017 and 2018, the research team [from Texas Tech University] found that people who fell into the world of flat Earth were often those who were already spending time on YouTube watching other conspiracy videos (about 9/11 for example).” As the author of the New York Magazine article from which that last quote is taken points out: “Flat-Earthers might seem like a joke, but the jumps from ‘the Earth isn’t round’ to ‘jet fuel can’t melt steel beams’ to ‘science isn’t real’ to ‘vaccines are harmful’ are easy ones to make,” especially when people are told that many others already believe.
Bandwagon arguments featuring “many people say that…” also form a central aspect of Donald Trump’s rhetorical repertoire, as he attempts to distance himself from a baseless claim he wants to get across. As just one of many examples, at a 2016 campaign rally he insinuated that the U.S. negotiators on the Iran Nuclear Deal may have been intentionally abetting the enemy: “Some people say it’s worse than stupidity. There’s something going on that we don’t know about. And you almost think — I’m not saying that, and I’m not a conspiracy person. … Half the people in this room are saying it. I’m trying to be — you know, I’m just hoping they’re just stupid people, okay?” In fact, A Lot of People Are Saying is the title of a recent book describing the threat to democracy from the relatively new QAnon-like phenomenon that promotes conspiracies without so much as bothering with “theory.”
Appeal to authority arguments are central to denial of the well-established science behind our understanding of the evolution of the universe and of living species. In both cases, the Judeo-Christian bible is taken to be the ultimate authority, with its words interpreted literally, to which our notions of science must bend to provide “proof.” Fundamentalists who proselytize this viewpoint usually also try to attract a few scientists to their cause, in order to provide authority figures for possible doubters of literal bible interpretations. Appeal to nature arguments are behind the widespread belief in homeopathy, crystal healing and various wellness fads, despite the complete lack of scientific support that we document on this site.
One form of the composition/division fallacy is apparent in the arguments of some climate change deniers that increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will benefit humanity. For example, Will Happer has claimed: “Plants grow better and have better flowers and fruit at higher CO2 levels. Commercial greenhouse operators recognize this when they artificially increase the CO2 concentrations inside their greenhouses to over 1000 ppm.” His explicit point is that what’s good for greenhouses is necessarily good for the Earth as a whole. What he neglects to mention is that commercial greenhouses, unlike the Earth, are controlled environments, where operators also maintain optimal temperatures and other nutrient supplies for the plants. In our global climate, all these issues are coupled and models suggest that the net effect of continued rapid rise in CO2 concentrations will be detrimental to world agriculture, on average.
Another form of composition/division, complemented by temporal assumptions, is being used at the moment to promote a herd immunity “solution” for the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the U.S. The argument goes basically like this: many people who have survived the disease test positive for antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus; therefore, we will eliminate the spread of the disease by infecting as many people as possible to spread these antibodies throughout 60-70% of the total U.S. population. There are two serious flaws in this reasoning. One is that we have no evidence yet that those antibodies are long-lasting; indeed, we know of a handful of cases of deadly reinfections with different strains of the virus. Flu survivors do not attain long-term immunity, which explains why we need annual flu vaccines. The second flaw in this extremely risky strategy is that the virus is deadly. Thus, by the time you infect more than 60% of the population, millions more may have died of the disease, and those infected early may have already lost their immunity, or never attained it to newly mutated strains of the virus, so that herd immunity remains permanently out of reach. As the head of the World Health Organization has recently pointed out, “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity [by mass infection] been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak.”
Anecdotal arguments have been used in spring 2020 to promote hydroxychloroquine as a “miracle cure” for COVID-19, on the basis of cherry-picked data from small-sample observational studies. Since that time, numerous much more reliable, higher-statistics clinical trials – involving much larger patient samples with control groups, in which hydroxychloroquine or placebos were administered randomly to participants – have shown that the drug offers no particular benefit for COVID patients. Similarly, large-sample worldwide studies have revealed no statistically significant link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and childhood autism, despite the fact that early anecdotal (and subsequently retracted) reports of such a causal link continue to drive much of the anti-vaxxer movement.
Appeals to emotion (e.g., fear, pity, nationalism, resentment) and tu quoque (or, in modern parlance, what-aboutism) arguments are the lifeblood of many political campaigns and autocratic regimes, which use these techniques to paper over the lack of serious evidence or logic to support their claims. But both approaches are also common in science denial. Opposition to vaccines and to COVID-19 health regulations often hinges on appeals to emotion. For example, Robert Kennedy Jr. has accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of having “poisoned an entire generation of Americans” with vaccines and of seeking to poison a new generation with a COVID-19 vaccine. He has claimed that COVID-19 health regulations support Bill Gates’ globalist agenda for mandatory vaccinations as part of a conspiracy that will give Gates “dictatorial control of global health policy.”
In a scientific example of tu quoque, Will Happer, after comparing climate researchers who warn of serious global warming consequences to hysterics, opportunists, thugs and Nazis, then complains about treatment of “skeptics” like him: “Skeptics’ motives are publicly impugned; denigrating names are used routinely in media reports and in the blogosphere; and we now see attempts to use the same tactics that Big Brother applied to Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984.”
The fallacy fallacy has also played an important role in climate change denial. Many of the early claims that global warming was a hoax centered on rejection of the so-called “hockey stick” graph presented by Mann, Bradley and Hughes. The graph showed global mean temperature trends over the millennium from the year 1000 to 2000. Over the past 150 years or so, the data were obtained primarily from worldwide meteorological station records. But the graph also used data over the entire millennium from proxies – natural phenomena known to be sensitive to temperature, including the width and density of tree rings, features of corals, oxygen isotope ratios in ice cores, and the species of organisms found in ocean and lake sediments. Critics accused Mann, Bradley and Hughes of engaging in the “Texas Sharpshooter fallacy” (see Fig. 3.7 below), by cherry-picking data to enhance the apparent rapid rise in global temperatures, and used these accusations to claim that global warming is nothing to worry about. In doing so, the critics magnified relatively minor shortcomings of the original analysis to dismiss the robust conclusions of that analysis.
The specific complaints included two aspects of the plot: first, recent tree ring proxy data were selectively omitted from the analysis because they deviated for unknown reasons from the (much more precise) meteorological station measurements; second, the cutoff at the year 1000 was claimed to hide the so-called Medieval Warm Period, which some critics argued was just as warm or warmer than today’s planet. As we detail in our post on Ten False Narratives of Climate Change Deniers, the dismissal of global warming on these bases was unjustified, and has been shown to be erroneous by a more recent analysis of the more complete proxy database over two millennia, which validated the original Mann, Bradley and Hughes conclusions. As the authors of that more recent analysis conclude: “even when we push our perspective back to the earliest days of the Roman Empire, we cannot discern any event that is remotely equivalent — either in degree or extent — to the warming over the past few decades. Today’s climate stands apart in its torrid global synchrony.”
Arguments based on personal incredulity underlie much of the current denial of scientific topics we deal with, and try to explain, on this site. Most people who refuse to accept the scientific evidence supporting the age of the universe or the evolution of species by random mutation and natural selection are unwilling or unable to analyze the scientific arguments. They rely instead on authorities’ declarations, or oversimplified, flawed counter-arguments, which aim to invalidate the science. (Again, “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”) Anti-vaxxers and hydroxychloroquine proponents distrust clinical studies whose robust, randomized, high-statistics methods they fail to understand. Many people bombarded with contradictory claims from both sides of the climate change “debate” simply throw up their hands and retreat to the stance supported by their chosen partisan tribe.
Attempts to shift the burden of proof are standard rhetorical devices used by quacks and conspiracy theory believers. As we point out in our post on Conspiracy Theory True Believers, most people who believe deeply that climate change and the moon landing are hoaxes, or that the truth about the disastrous impacts of vaccines or about long-established cancer cures are being hidden by vast conspiracies, develop “a nearly iron-clad, ‘catch-22,’ defense mechanism. They claim that their only responsibility is to point out what they perceive as flaws or gaps in the ‘official’ account. It is not their responsibility to find evidence to support their own belief in what happened, but rather a challenge for others to disprove their version of reality. But scientists who endeavor to disprove their claims, or to address the flaws or gaps the conspiracy believers highlight in the consensus view, are immediately judged to be part of the (ever-growing) conspiracy and therefore not to be trusted. For example, there have been many ironclad disproofs of the Flat Earth hypothesis, yet the true believers simply reject them, often claiming falsely that such demonstrations support their theory! Conspiracy belief thereby becomes unfalsifiable, or ‘quasi-religious.’ The true believers are able to hold supreme confidence in their own beliefs because it is impossible to prove them wrong to their satisfaction.”
A version of the no true Scotsman fallacy has cropped up in debates about evolution perpetuated by Intelligent Design proponents. Their last, best hope has been pinned on Michael Behe’s theory that there are irreducibly complex biomolecular systems in living organisms that cannot possibly have evolved by natural selection, because they rely on multiple interacting parts and would cease functioning all together if any one of those parts were removed. Thus, Behe argues, step-by-step mutations favored by natural selection could not plausibly have resulted in such complex features. His arguments, however, overlook the ubiquitous evolutionary role of exaptation, the process by which nature retools existing biomolecular structures that served one purpose to perform quite a different function after subsequent mutations.
The concept of irreducible complexity has been refuted in part by laboratory experiments that show bacteria regrowing removed, and supposedly irreducibly complex, flagella to regain motility, by repurposing proteins normally needed for a secretion system. The concept has been further refuted by simulations of “digital life,” where model organisms have been shown to attain complex computational functionality strictly relying on many interacting parts, via diverse many-step evolutionary paths, each of which provides the model organism some advantage unrelated to the final functionality. But Intelligent Design advocates still reject this evidence by invoking the no true Scotsman fallacy. For example, rejectionist Casey Luskin has stated: “In a true irreducibly complex system, there will be no selective advantage along an evolutionary pathway.” In other words, if research reveals such a pathway marked by stepwise naturally selected advantages, then the system evolved is not a “true irreducibly complex system.”It remains an open question whether any such “true irreducibly complex systems” occur in nature. Are there any “true Scotsmen?”
Science deniers often exploit ambiguities that stem from the different meanings of some words in a scientific context and in everyday vernacular. During his Presidential campaign in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously echoed many creationists when asked by reporters whether he believed in evolution of the species: “Well, it is just a theory.” In scientific usage, a “theory” refers to an efficient and coherent explanation of a set of observed natural phenomena, an explanation validated by the agreement of many of the theory’s predictions with subsequent observations. The word denotes high praise for the understanding encapsulated in the theory. But evolution deniers invoke the ambiguity fallacy when they imply that the word has its everyday connotation of a hunch or a guess without much supporting evidence. Climate change deniers often exploit the common confusion between “climate” and “weather,” as when Senator James Inhofe lobbed a snowball in the U.S. Senate to reinforce his earlier oil-money-funded question: “…could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people?”
Climate change deniers also engage in the ambiguity fallacy when they suggest that scientists’ migration from using the term “global warming”to “climate change” is evidence that global warming is not really taking place. In reality, global warming is the real primary impact of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, but the collateral effects of that warming go far beyond just temperature changes. They include polar ice melt, sea level rise, ocean acidification, changing ocean currents, increasing severity of storms and droughts, impacts on agriculture and forests, species extinctions, and so forth. The term “climate change” has been introduced to encompass the entire set of consequences to the global environment and living species. Global warming is one part of climate change, not a distinct phenomenon.
The genetic fallacy underlies a half-century of systematic efforts by the U.S. conservative movement to promote distrust of mainstream scientific research carried out by “liberal elites” at universities, and to promote instead “alternative science” (most often, pseudoscience) promulgated by conservative “think tanks” like the George C. Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, and the Discovery Institute. The distinction is driven by ideological ends, rather than by a belief in the scientific method. This point has been emphasized by Matt Grossman and David Hopkins in their book Asymmetric Politics: “Liberals often assume that if conservatives believed the scientific evidence for problems like global warming, they would accept the necessity of their proposed regulatory solutions. The evidence suggests otherwise: conservatives oppose the solutions on ideological grounds and therefore work backward to reject the evidence supposedly justifying them.”
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is the cherry-picking heart of much science denial. Many instances inform the false narratives about climate change that we debunk here. Toxic product defenders often selectively use results from biased, industry-funded reanalyses of epidemiological studies, while discrediting the original analyses that were based on principles and methods decided beforehand to minimize systematic analysis bias. If the cherry-picking doesn’t work in convincing regulators or juries, well at least it casts doubt that the science is settled. And the Texas sharpshooter’s search for evidentiary patterns that might support predetermined conclusions, while ignoring all the rest of the evidence, is central to conspiracy theorists, such as those who have convinced themselves that men never landed on the Moon.
The black-or-white fallacy is often used by science deniers. For example, climate change deniers like those behind the CO2 Coalition basically make the case that because carbon dioxide is a vital source of nutrients for plants, it cannot be hazardous to Earth’s climate. It is either beneficial or harmful, they falsely claim, overlooking the fact that it can be both, depending on the concentration in the atmosphere. Similarly, proponents of Intelligent Design claim that bones from the jawbone of ancient species cannot possibly have been repurposed by evolution to play a role in hearing function in later species. Their argument is that in transitional species those bones could not have supported either function, so the transitional species could not have survived. But in fact, transitional fossils have now been unearthed in which bones have a role in both jaw and hearing functions. Nature often finds intermediate solutions between the black and white extremes.
The black-or-white fallacy also appears often in arguments defending a literal, fundamentalist reading of the Bible in opposition to clear scientific evidence of a nearly 14-billion-year-old universe, in which Earth does not play a central role. While many scientists and religious leaders are willing to consider a role for a Creator in filling in gaps in our scientific knowledge (e.g., to address how the laws of physics were imposed on the universe, rather than how the universe evolved according to those laws), some Christians have laid down the gauntlet. For example, Charles Alfred Coulson has written: “Either God is in the whole of Nature, with no gaps, or He’s not there at all.” That attitude leads to the black-or-white choice: either Earth is a 6000-year-old center of the universe, as Young Earth Creationists claim is the literal interpretation of “God’s word,” or God does not exist. Christian proponents of Intelligent Design extend this black-or-white choice to creation vs. evolution, leading to non-overlapping cultural values, as illustrated by the starkly separated trees in Fig. 3.8. The black-or-white choice has been defended as essential by creationist Henry Morris, because “Christians who flirt with less-than-literal readings of biblical texts are also flirting with theological disaster.”
Pope Francis, in a 2014 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, offered a “less-than-literal” theological middle ground to this black-or-white choice: “When we read the account of Creation in Genesis, we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. …God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives life to all beings. …The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve.”
On the other hand, a middle ground compromise can sometimes create a flawed argument. The pseudoscientific “theories” promoted by many “creation scientists” to reconcile the scientific and biblical accounts of the birth and evolution of the universe all suffer from the middle ground fallacy. They invoke magical alterations to scientific theories that are incompatible with vast amounts of scientific evidence. For example, various of these pseudoscientific “compromises” assume that light gets “tired” on its way to Earth from distant stars, or that the speed of light changed rapidly during the days of creation, or that the rate of decay of radioactive nuclei got enormously accelerated at the time of several significant biblical events, or that the distinct fossil species in different geological strata simply reflect variations in the ability of different species to outrun the rising waters of the Great Flood. None of these efforts stand up to scrutiny.
Circular arguments abound in creationist views. For them, evolution is clearly false, and more generally, the natural sciences that support it are fundamentally flawed, because they represent the word of man and deviate from the word of God. This begs the question of how they know the “word of God.” Their answer is that it is written plainly in the Bible, which never mentions evolution. But how can they reconcile that answer with the fact that the Bible was written by, and translated by men, often with substantial ambiguity about how to interpret the words in ancient texts? Their answer is that the writing and translation were guided by the Holy Spirit. How do they know this? Because it is written in the Bible.
The founders of the Intelligent Design movement have urged their followers to avoid the explicit ties of evolution (more precisely, Darwinism) denial to Christianity and the Bible, in order to avoid running afoul of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as had occurred previously in court cases dealing with attempts to mandate teaching of “creation science.” But the philosophy they promoted to underpin this attempt, dubbed “theistic realism” by Philip E. Johnson, still invoked circular reasoning. Johnson maintained that “science, by relying on methodological naturalism, demands an a priori adoption of a naturalistic philosophy that wrongly dismisses out of hand any explanation that contains a supernatural cause.” In other words, scientific attempts to understand nature must allow introduction of supernatural pseudoscience. Phony claims that the supernatural causes they favored were not necessarily based on the “word of God” failed to convince courts. Judge John E. Jones, in a 2005 Pennsylvania case regarding the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID), ruled that “ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism” and is not science.
While we have illustrated the logical fallacies in Figs. 3.2-3.7 with examples from science denial, they also appear in flawed arguments about many other subjects. Learning to recognize and question them are important aspects of tuning your BS detector. We consider other, equally important aspects, in Part II of this post.