Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Name That Fallacy!

A reader recently posted a comment to this post of mine – regarding my lengthy debate with Donald Michael Kraig on his blog – that contained the following point, attempting to draw an analogy to claims about magical “results”:

I have never seen Paris.  All I have is admittedly massive amounts of anecdotal evidence that it exists. You could, I am sure, tell me how to get there, and if I followed your directions, and they were correct, and nothing unforeseen interfered, I could go to that location myself.  However, if I had decided beforehand that it did not exist, I might not see it then, even if it were there.

What this commenter is arguing, essentially, is that he (and everyone else who has never personally seen Paris) is accepting the claim “Paris exists” on the basis of anecdotal evidence. For that reason, the implied argument here runs, it is inconsistent to accept one claim (“Paris exists”) on the basis of anecdotes (lots of people who claim to have seen Paris) yet deny another claim (“Ritual magick can cause coincidences to happen”) on the basis of anecdotes (lots of people who claim to have had ritual magick “work” to cause coincidences).
Perhaps I’m overstating the argument. The commenter might not claim that it’s “inconsistent,” per se, but he is suggesting that most people accept a large number of claims not on the basis of personal experience but anecdotes. Therefore, it is at least unfair – if not completely inconsistent – to object so strongly to a claim that only has anecdotes to support it.

Well, I’ve done my best to give this argument its due. Needless to say, it’s a very flawed argument, so it’s time to play…


See if you can figure out what’s wrong with the argument. Read on for the correct answer.

The answer is [drumroll, please]…false equivalency!

First of all, it’s not true that – as the argument implies – all claims not supported by direct personal experience are based on “anecdotes.” I know perfectly well a great number of things that I haven’t personally observed, and my knowledge is based on very solid evidence, not just someone’s say-so.
But second, the argument is trying to draw a false equivalency between mundane claims and extraordinary claims.

If I had a friend who told me that he just adopted a cat last week, and another friend who told me that he just adopted a pet dragon last week, I would treat their claims very, very differently.
The friend who claimed to have adopted a cat? I would probably accept that claim at face value, without bothering to subject it to exhaustive scrutiny. Why? Well, a person owning a cat is an extremely mundane claim that is heard all the time. It’s well-known that cats are commonly owned as pets. There’s nothing at all outlandish about the idea of a person sharing his living space with a small creature, and there are certainly no logistical problems with it (unless, of course, I knew my friend lived, for example, in a building that prohibited owning pets, etc.). Assuming that my friend was trustworthy in reporting facts, I would have no problem accepting his claim at face value. Even if it turned out he were lying, it wouldn’t matter much: it wouldn’t, for example, overturn my understanding of the universe. For the purposes of talking about what he’s been up to, I’d be happy to grant that claim until I learned otherwise.

But the friend who claimed to have adopted a dragon? I most certainly would not accept that claim at face value. Why not? Well, for starters, it is widely accepted that dragons are fantasy creatures, and it is very well known that no one (at least, no one reliable) has ever claimed to have seen a dragon or to have had any evidence of the existence of anything resembling a dragon. It’s not at all a common claim for people to own dragons as pets. The logistics of it simply boggle the mind – even baby dragons, perhaps of the sort possessed by Daenerys Stormborn in the most recent season of Game of Thrones, would present logistical nightmares. In short, the claim flies in the face of everything that I know about the universe. If it actually turned to be true, it would overturn common understandings of reality. Obviously, I would insist on some very strong evidence before I accepted this extraordinary claim.
All claims are not created equal. The claim “There is a location on the earth that people call ‘Paris’” isn’t on the same level as “Ritual magick can cause coincidences to happen.” They have very different thresholds of evidence, at least for a person interested in believing as many true claims and as few false claims as possible.

And that’s all before we get to the point that there’s a massive amount of evidence for the existence of Paris (maps of France made independently, dating back a very long time; history books written by independent sources; testimony from people who come from there and who have been there; images of France; live televised events coming from France; satellite images of France that you could look at right now on google earth, if you felt like it). For all of that evidence to be false, there would have to be a conspiracy so massive that it defies all imagination.
But the “evidence” in favor of the other claim? A bunch of people who label coincidences “caused by ritual magick,” without any clear basis (and, as DMK himself freely admits, without any way of distinguishing causation from simple coincidence). For these pieces of “evidence” to be false, all there would have to be are relatively large numbers of people capable of making subjective mistakes of judgment, misattributing causality, and basically deluding themselves.

And sure, the fact is that the human brain is easy to trick, very capable tricking itself, and designed by evolution to trick itself because such tricks favored the survival of our ancestors. But without even considering that, we can point to the vast number of religious beliefs – most of them mutually exclusive so that they can’t all be true – supported by “personal experience” as an example of similar self-delusion on a massive scale.
To quote George Carlin on religious believers of various kinds and their prayers/rituals, “Somebody’s wasting their time. Could it be…everybody?”

It’s common, of course, for religious believers to say that their outlandish claims are on equal footing with mundane claims. There’s a clip from the public access call-in show The Atheist Experience in which a Christian caller presents an argument that resembles the one given by the commenter: "Do You Believe in Australia?"
As Matt Dillahunty points out in that call, the two claims are nowhere near equivalent and simply do not have the same burden of proof.

By the way, a lot of religious believers – including wand-waving occultists – get their panties in a bunch over the very valid observation that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
You hear some of these dunderheads saying contemptibly stupid things like, “There’s no clear definition of ‘extraordinary’! So it’s totally subjective!! It’s just a buzzword you pseudo-skeptics throw around so that you can just pick and choose the claims you demand your (limited, fundamentalist materialist, scientism-loving) ‘evidence’ [huge air quotes] for. And you just keep asking for ‘evidence’ [huge air quotes], always saying that it’s not enough because you move the goal posts!! It’s not fair, and I’m telling mom!!!!”
But what these simpletons don’t understand is that evaluating claims is an entirely subjective affair to begin with: the only person who can evaluate claims is the individual, and thus it is up to each individual to decide what, for him or her, constitutes “extraordinary claims.”

If you think it’s “extraordinary” for a person to claim to adopt a cat, then by all means badger your friend for exhaustive evidence of the cat’s existence: if he really has adopted a cat, you’ll find a ton of that evidence. But most people don’t think it’s an extraordinary claim because there is broad agreement among a fair number of people about the parameters of reality. Hence, when I say that cats are ordinary and dragons are extraordinary – even though I’m subjectively defining what *I* consider to be ordinary or not – most people agree because most people have built up a similar understanding of reality in their own minds, independent of me.
Obviously, people, on average, are going to be more willing to accept claims that “fit” with how they understand reality but more hesitant to accept – and understandably skeptical of – claims that fly in the face of what they know about the world.

So it’s not at all controversial for me to consider claims like “I adopted a cat” or “Paris exists” to be ordinary, while considering claims like “Ritual magick causes coincidences to happen!” or “There are spirits out there!” to be extraordinary and requiring some good evidence before I accept them. One category of claims is mundane, commonplace, and challenges nothing about what we know of the world. The other category of claims – if true – would turn our understanding of the universe practically on its head.

It’s for very good, practical reasons that we hold some claims to higher standards of evidence, and that’s not changed by the mere fact that there may be some gullible fools who don’t consider outlandish claims to be extraordinary.

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