The stated purpose of this blog is twofold: To examine claims of the supernatural and paranormal, and to promote critical thinking. Yet only two of my 34 posts thus far have dealt exclusively with the latter. Taking jabs at Tarot Cards, ghost hunts, and crystal healing have proven just too tempting.
But in the interest of balance, we are overdue for a critical thinking spotlight. We will go through some bad argument forms to see how to recognize and avoid them. Remember, this refers to the arguments’ structure and not the positions taken.
Also, a person’s intelligence has little to do with their critical thinking skills. A 140 IQ could be a plus toward thinking critically, but only if it’s used correctly. Jerome Corsi, a Harvard Ph.D., uses his vast intelligence to lead the Birther movement. Stanford alum Bryan Fischer argues that shaking iPod ear buds in a box will disprove evolution.
To keep from falling into these traps, learn to recognize logical fallacies. A frequent one is “Affirming the Consequent.” It can take a form like this: “If Madam X is psychic, she could correctly predict the future. Madam X correctly predicted that there would be an airplane crash in Asia this summer. Therefore, Madam X is psychic.”
Even if the first two statements are true, it can lead to a false conclusion. This is because the first two statements fail to take into account that there could be other factors in play. In this instance, persons can make correct predictions based on knowledge of the subject rather than paranormal abilities. Or, common in the prophecy field, someone may get a few hits and many more misses. Or Madam X could have researched airplane crash histories to determine which times and places are most likely to experience one. In fact, this very method was used in the 1980s by a skeptic, who correctly predicted a crash, then revealed his methods.
Closely related to affirming the consequent is “Confusion of the Inverse.” It is commonly heard that 95 percent of accidents occur within 10 miles of home. Deducing, then, that being far from home makes one safer would be confusing the inverse. Most accidents occur within 10 miles of home because that’s where people spend a majority of their time. Besides accidents, most meals, entertainment, and exercise also occur within 10 miles of home.
But being far from home won’t make one tired, bored, and lazy.
Another example: “People who sit at the front of the classroom make more A’s than those who sit in the back. So to make better grades, sit in the front.” But “A” students usually want to be close to the teacher and visual aids, whereas the more casual pupil prefers the rows of protection that allow them to pass notes and doodle.
Another similar logical fallacy is “Denying the Antecedent.” This follows the form, “If A, then B. Not B. Therefore, not A.” It is a doomed premise from the beginning because it is imposing false constraints on the subject.
An example would be: “If it is rush hour, the interstate will be packed. It is not rush hour. Therefore, traffic will be light.” Again, two correct statements might lead to an incorrect conclusion. An accident or, more excitingly, a sinkhole, might have traffic backed up.
Then we have special pleading. Here, a person needs to carve out an exception to one of their arguments in order for the overarching point to be made.
When discussing the existence of God with creationists, one line I frequently hear is that something cannot come from nothing. When this theological table is turned, and the creationist is asked what caused God or how he come from nothing, the usual replies are “He just always was,” or “He didn’t need to be created.” This, of course, contradicts the point the creationist made in the first place.
Next, we have tu quoque, which is literally “You too.” When a U.S. District Judge proscribed county commissioners in Carroll County, Md., from using exclusively Christian prayers before meetings, aforementioned theocrat Bryan Fischer claimed this was Christian persecution. I committed a tu quoque by chiming in with, “This outrage coming from a man who wants to ban the construction of mosques.” But Fischer’s hypocrisy was unrelated to the claim he made. There were good arguments against Fisher’s position, but I failed to make them.
Two other logical fallacies are composition and division. In composition, the implication is that because something is true in part, it must be true as a whole. But because atoms are unseen, it doesn’t mean that a desk comprised of them would likewise be invisible. Similarly, if a person at a soccer match stands up to improve his view, it doesn’t follow that if all his fellow fans join in, everyone will see better.
The inverse in division, which makes the false conclusion that because something is true as a whole, it must be true in part. One can safely consume salt, but not sodium or chloride individually.
I hope this has been enlightening, and I’ve enjoyed writing it. But now I’m ready again to start tackling exorcists and reincarnation.