“Assume the simple position” (Occam’s Razor)


I have been doing this long enough and with enough frequency that if one read a post a day it would take a year to finish the blog. I heartily encourage this activity, but for readers lacking the time or ambition, I can sum up the blog’s contents as being an endorsement of Occam’s Razor. This is the notion that, all other things being equal, the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. Closely related to the Razor is the notion of the burden of proof, which states that the person making an assertion is required to provide evidence for it and not merely challenge listeners to disprove it.

Carl Sagan famously noted that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Suppose I amble into work late and my co-workers wonder why. One postulates that I may have encountered the road construction they had. They were there, it happened to them, they know I take the same route, so that seems a likely reason. But another wonders if I was delayed by persons on horseback engaged in a medieval war reenactment, which had taken place over the weekend on a family farm. A third co-worker speculates that I may have slipped into a wormhole where aliens detained me to obtain skin and blood samples before releasing me back onto my usual route.

The first choice requires just one assumption, that I had encountered the same construction as my co-worker had. From there, the number of assumptions increase. The equestrian excuse would require that the reenactment went beyond the scheduled date and took place in a locale other than its designated point. The final explanation would require assuming the existence in Moline of both wormholes and aliens and assume I had encountered both on my commute.

Anyone espousing the third option would have the highest difficulty level since it employs the most assumptions to reach its conclusions. Still, such attempts to shift the burden of proof and bypass Occam’s Razor happen all the time.

O.J. Simpson’s defense team attempted to shift the burden to the prosecution by trying to make it prove that Nicole wasn’t killed by Colombian drug dealers who mistook her for Faye Resnick. Judge Lance Ito disallowed this line of reasoning, owing to a total lack of evidence. “Prove it wasn’t drug dealers” is not a valid defense argument and such reasoning is not critical thinking.

While the number of assumptions is important, so too are the quality of those assumptions. The Simpson trial, like most criminal cases, had prosecutors assuming  the defendant’s guilt and defense lawyers presuming his innocence. But there was no reason to think drug lords were targeting Faye Resnick, much less confusing her for Nicole Brown Simpson, as this required more assumptions than concluding that the relevant evidence included a trail of O.J.’s DNA leading from the crime scene to his vehicle and residence, his history of abusing the victim, and bloody shoe imprints. 

Now let’s apply this to science. A blogger at logicofscience.com wrote about authoring a paper on the diet of a turtle species. In his research, he collected the shelled creatures, had them defecate in a bucket, then examined the feces. There, he found a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish. The conclusion was that these turtles ate a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish, since this explanation required the fewest assumptions.

The biology blogger noted he could have instead deduced that “someone went out before me, captured the turtles, force fed them crawfish, then put the turtles back into the pond.” Or he could have assumed this force feeding was done by aliens. But theses options would require unfounded assumptions, the latter necessitating a step beyond even the middle choice. Such conclusions are usually instances of begging the question, where speakers reach the conclusion first, then attempt to buoy that conclusion with unproven premises.

No one takes issue with the science when it involves reptile diets or other noncontroversial topics that leave world views and favored industries untouched. But if the scientific conclusions do impact those areas, there are those who seek to dull Occam’s razor, beg the question, and contort themselves in order to finagle around the evidence.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, insist all animals and plants were destroyed in a worldwide flood 5,000 years ago. This means that in the YEC scenario, all corals today would had to have started growing around the time the Pyramids were constructed. But corals grow about a foot a year under ideal conditions. The Great Barrier Reef would have taken more than 500,000 years to reach its current size.

For corals to have gotten as large as they are today, if they only started growing 5,000 years ago, they would had to have grown at a rate many times more than  has ever been observed. The standard YEC response is that perhaps growth rates were much faster in the past than they are now and that the rate has slowed down exponentially since, for reasons unknown.

They employ the same thought process with being able to see stars millions of light years away. This proves Earth has been around at least as long as it has taken the most distant starlight to reach us. But the YEC answer is that maybe the speed of light has not been constant. The coral and starlight responses are both instances of ad hoc reasoning backed by no evidence. It requires assuming that an aspect of botany or astronomy is much different from what has ever been observed or recorded. It is also begging the question. They begin with the assumption that a worldwide flood wiped everything out 5,000 years ago, then try to make all evidence (or in these cases, speculation) fit that assumption. They go from conclusion to evidence, whereas science works the other way.

A third area of creative deduction by YECs centers of alternating layers of light and dark sediment that accumulate in lakes. The different colors are the result of seasonal changes, with light layers made in winter and dark ones made in the summer. Some lake centers feature millions of these layers, so we can draw one of these conclusions:

  1. A set of two layers forms every year in these lakes. Some lakes contain millions of layers. Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
  1. Layers were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. By a second unknown means, floodwaters sorted the particles into alternating layers of sediment, then the layers managed to form only over lake beds, and did so at a rate of 10 layers per minute, rather than two per annum, which is the only rate that has been observed.

The YEC takes on these occurrences requires rejecting all data and scientists’ understanding of the natural processes involved. Their response to the scientifically-deduced facts are to offer unsupported ad hoc speculation that proposes unknown and unworkable mechanisms. They fail to manage even the first step in the Scientific Method, observation, because no one has observed the phenomena they claim are occurring. As our turtle excrement-collecting blogger noted, “If we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. It is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument, which is why Occam’s Razor is so important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one.”

That is why almost all conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of Occam’s Razor. Some anti-vaxxers claim that pharmaceutical executives pay immunologists to say vaccines don’t cause autism. Here, we have two options:

  1. Ethical scientists reach their conclusions through sound research.
  2. These hundreds of researchers from multitudinous institutions and companies are being paid to falsify data. Moreover, none of these hundreds who are in it solely for ill-gotten gain have been lured away by wealthy anti-vaxxers offering to pay them more.

This shill accusation is similar to the charge leveled at climate scientists. On this issue, the two primary competing options are:

  1. 99.8 percent of the 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the last five years have attested to anthropogenic global warming, so this is likely happening.
  2. Anonymous elites are paying these thousands of climate scientists to reach this conclusion and fabricate data, yet this plan is being foiled by oil company executives and Facebook posters exposing the plot.

Again, from the logicofscience: “Ask whether there is any reason to think the scientists are corrupt other than the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.”

Going back to the Sagan quote, if one is going to assert the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccines, or GMOs, it is insufficient to offer, “Were you there when the universe began?” or “Follow the money trail.” The burden of proof is on the speaker to provide clear, well-researched, and reasoned evidence for their position.

In some instances, there is no damage other than to the listener’s intelligence. Ancient Aliens attempted to branch into evolutionary biology by suggesting extraterrestrial visitors may have altered dinosaur DNA in order to have them develop into smaller creatures like birds and coelacanth.

In other instances, the misinformation is fatal. Anti-vaxxers mistakenly cite improved sanitation and nutrition as the reason for the decline in infectious diseases over the last century and a half. While those were welcomed health advances, when it comes to disease eradication, here are the two choices offered:

  1. Vaccines work by mimicking disease agents for the real deal, which is why instances of the diseases plummet after vaccines are introduced, and spike when vaccination rates fall.
  2. The introduction of vaccines has coincidentally occurred at a time when the impacts of improved sanitation and nutrition were beginning to be seen. This benefit has extended to countries with deplorable sanitation like India. This has even effected airborne diseases like rubella, which are impacted by sanitation and nutrition improvements by an unknown means. A decline in vaccine rates does not impact disease; rather there has been a coincidental reduction in sanitary and nutrition benefits for unknown reasons when vaccine rates go down. The reason all this is not universal knowledge is because nearly every immunologist is pumping out fabricated propaganda to discredit sanitation and nutrition improvements and cover for vaccines, which actually cause disease.

Those who embrace the latter idea also cotton to the idea of a repressed cancer cure. But which requires the fewest assumptions: That oncologists have been unable to find a panacea for a disease that has more than 100 variations, or that they have, but are eschewing everlasting fame, untold fortune, worldwide adulation, and the chance to spare them and their loved ones, in order to continue enriching the pharmaceutical industry, which has yet to figure out there is more money to be saved in selling that cure?

Meanwhile, 9/11 Truthers talk about the hijackers having little flight training and Tower 7 collapsing despite not bearing a direct hit. They hypothesize that Flight 93 was shot down, insist that a missile hit the Pentagon, and make repeated references to jet fuel and steel beams. However, even if all their claims were valid, it would no more indicate guilt by the Bush Administration that it would cause blame to fall on Islamic terrorists, communists, the Irish Republican Army, or the few remaining Branch Davidians. Which requires the fewest assumptions: That a wealthy and committed terrorist leader with the means and stated desire to pull of such an attack did so, as indicated by passenger phone calls, conversations between hijackers and air traffic control, and flight manifests; or that it was all an elaborate hoax that included WTC security workers, victim’s family members, the airlines, Pentagon witnesses, BBC reporters, and even Philippines police officers, who in 1995 uncovered and turned over to the FBI evidence of what became the 9/11 plot?

One final example, focusing on Bigfoot, which has two primary options. Which of these contains the fewest assumptions?

  1. A complete lack of verifiable evidence strongly suggests its non-existence.
  2. A sustainable population of eight-foot bipedal apes has lived, bred, hunted, and roamed from the Northwest Territories to the Bayou for two centuries without once being shot by a hunter, hit by a vehicle, or leaving behind a corpse, skeleton, fur patch, or excrement.

It is not on me to disprove an ad hoc rationale about a troop of lumbering beasts mastering stealth and adroitly avoiding human contact at all cost. The burden falls on those who make these assertions the centerpiece of their Sasquatch Science.

“Judgement daze” (Prophecy News Watch)


Post hoc reasoning occurs when a person wrongly assumes that because two events happened in succession, one caused the other. This is fallacious thinking because it fails to consider other factors that might be involved. Post hoc reasoning is common in alternative medicine because of the fluctuating nature of many pains and illnesses, and because persons are more apt to try unorthodox methods when the discomfort is peaking. That’s why reflexology, Reiki, and aura cleansings have plenty of glowing testimonials but no double blind studies or control trials to support these anecdotes. Post hoc reasoning is also regularly employed by horoscope readers and ghost hunters.

But the most extreme example I’ve come across is from prophecynewswatch.com. This website focuses on U.S.-Israeli relations, most often in the form of dire warnings of what will befall America if it betrays its Middle Eastern ally. After the U.S. declined to use its UN veto on Security Resolution 2334 on Dec. 23, the website posted a story headlined, “10 previous times America faced major disaster after attempting to divide Israel.”

Whether the U.S. had tried to divide Israel in these instances is debatable, but our focus here is on the claim that such actions led to American harm. We will go over a few examples and the entire list is here if you are hard-up to kill some time: goo.gl/iKcGl7.

The ominous article wastes little time in getting to the post hoc reasoning. In the third sentence, author Michael Snyder warned, “Over the past several decades, whenever the U.S. government has taken a major step toward the division of the land of Israel it has resulted in a major disaster hitting the United States.”

Besides post hoc reasoning, this is also example of subjective validation, which is when something that is routine seems profound because it has personal meaning. Also at work is selective memory. Snyder thinks the U.S. has betrayed Israel, so he will be looking for signs that Yahweh’s wrath has been unleashed, and he will remember it if he thinks this has happened. But he will not remember instances where the wrath is seemingly withheld, nor times where wrath was seemingly leveled without a recent rift in U.S.-Israel relations. For example, there was no anti-Israel activity in the days immediately preceding Space Shuttle explosions, the Beirut barracks bombing, the King and Kennedy assassinations, or 9/11.

As to the disasters that did befall the U.S. for being insufficiently obsequious to Israel, here is some of Snyder’s list:

  1. January 16, 1994. President Clinton met with President Assad of Syria to discuss the possibility of Israel giving up the Golan Heights. Within 24 hours, the devastating Northridge earthquake hit southern California.
  2. January 21, 1998. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House but received a very cold reception. President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright refused to have lunch with him. That same day the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, sending the Clinton presidency into a tailspin from which it would never recover.
  3. September 28, 1998. Albright was working on finalizing a plan which would have had Israel give up approximately 13 percent of Judea and Samaria. On that day, Hurricane George slammed into the Gulf Coast with wind gusts of up to 175 miles an hour.
  4. May 19, 2011. Barack Obama told Israel that there must be a return to the pre-1967 borders. Three days later, an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo.

California earthquakes, Midwest tornadoes, and Gulf Coast hurricanes occur every year and require no invoking of the supernatural. They are explicable through what we know about meteorology and geology. And Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal to serve out his second term, and while the revelation might have been a personal embarrassment, it was not a national disaster. This, however, is a minor point. The main point is that Snyder offered no evidence that any of these incidents were the result of foreign policy or of being an ungracious dinner host.

To demonstrate how fallacious his thinking is, let’s look at some times where the U.S. worked to benefit Israel, only to befall disaster shortly thereafter.

On May 14, 1948, the U.S. became the first country to recognize Israel. Later that month, the Columbia River dike broke, killing 15 persons and leaving thousands homeless in Vanport, Ore.

The U.S. supported Israel during the Six Day War from June 5-10. 1967. Less than two weeks later, a Mohawk Air Flight plane crashed in New York, killing 34.

The Nixon Administration provided massive resupply support to Israel in the Yom Kippur War from Oct. 6-25, 1973. On Oct. 10 of that year, Spiro Agnew resigned. A few days later, Nixon ordered  the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. This led to the first calls for his impeachment and eventually doomed his presidency.

Writing about the recent veto declination, Snyder noted the president had previously used it and the U.S. benefited. “When Barack Obama blocked a similar resolution that France wanted to submit for a vote in September 2015, it resulted in America being blessed, and we definitely have been blessed over the past 16 months,” he asserted, conspicuously lacking to give even one example.

The 16 months in question featured the Pulse Nightclub massacre, the Flint water crisis, 13 dead in a California tour bus crash, multiple innocent civilians killed by police, and eight innocent officers killed in retaliation. There was also Hurricane Matthew, which killed 26 Americans. Two hurricanes made the author’s list of times the U.S. suffered for forsaking Israel, yet one also occurred during a time he said we were being blessed for adequate kowtowing.

Snyder also ignores when good fortune occurs in the wake of abandoning Israel. His list included Oct. 30, 1991, when Bush the Elder opened the Madrid Peace Conference, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for negotiations. Snyder noted this was followed by the “1991 Perfect Storm” which killed 13 people and slammed waves into Bush’s Kennebunkport home.

However, the rest of 1991 also brought Terry Anderson’s release, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, indictments of two Pan Am Flight 103 bombing conspirators, and David Duke’s gubernatorial race defeat.

Snyder is so determined to cram disasters into his narrative that he ascribes Hurricane Andrew making landfall to the Madrid Peace Conference being moved to Washington, D.C., the day prior. However, this move came after weather forecasters had already said Andrew was barreling toward Florida.

Snyder closes by writing, “Barack Obama has cursed Israel by stabbing them in the back at the United Nations. According to the Word of God we should be cursed as a nation as a result. And as surely as I am writing this article, we will be cursed.”

I too can prophesize and according to the Scroll of Skepticism, Snyder will count the next unrelated disaster as fulfillment of his prediction. 

“Cherish the thought” (Critical thinking)


Time for another critical thinking spotlight, where we will examine some of the logical fallacies that trip up an argument.

We’ll start with MAGICAL THINKING, where one event happens after another other, so a connection is assumed even if there is no causation. It could take the form of, “A black cat crossed my path and, sure enough, an hour later I broke my arm.” This was the logic that blamed hard rock for teen suicides in the 1980s. In a case from 1984, the parents of John McCollum blamed Ozzy Osbourne, specifically the song “Suicide Solution,” after their son took his life. In actuality, the song had an anti-alcohol message, but even if a song glorifies offing one’s self, it is not necessarily valid to draw a connection with listening to the song and acting on it. A teen can become aloof for many reasons and may use music as an escape from an increasingly unsatisfying existence. Unfortunately, some teens commit suicide and attributing it to what is on their iPod list requires magical thinking, AKA post hoc reasoning. These tragedies happened long before the advent of recorded music.

A RED HERRING is attempting to change the subject in order to divert from the real issue. A ticked-off driver examiner might exclaim, “A jayparking ticket?! Don’t police have real crime to worry about?” This reasoning is seen frequently in politics, as in, “The governor is touting the new bridges that opened ahead of time and under budget in order to deflect from his personal scandal.” This would be no more valid than an opponent saying, “They’re just bringing up the governor’s indiscretions because they want to deflect from his success with the bridges.” These are unrelated items and should be addressed individually.

Another way this ploy can be attempted is with the APPEAL TO HYPOCRISY, which is usually a subset of the genetic fallacy. Thomas Jefferson spoke some of the most eloquent words championing freedom, such as, “Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Another gem was, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Some say his words are vacuous because his status as a slave owner meant he wasn’t practicing them. He was being hypocritical, but that does not lessen the legitimacy of his statements. In a presidential election year, appeals to hypocrisy  are some of the most frequently-sited animals on the logical fallacy landscape. In the wake of the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal, I have seen liberals point out that Dick Cheney committed similar offenses, and have seen conservatives bring up Clinton when discussing Kim Davis potentially violating Kentucky’s Open Records Act. Cheney, Clinton, and Davis may have all violated the law, but none have anything to do with each others’ cases.

Next, we’ll look at the STRAW MAN, which is fabricating or greatly distorting an opponent’s position in order to have an easy target to attack. American Family Association founder Donald Wildmon said, “The humanist point of view is that man came from nowhere, is going nowhere, and has no responsibility to others.” Wildmon’s opening phrase is presumably referring to the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and evolution, which are documented with strong astronomical, geological, and anthropological evidence, making them the antithesis of nothing. Going nowhere presumably means thinking they are not going to Heaven or Hell, nor even Purgatory or into a reincarnated body. While most Humanists might agree with that part, Wildmon’s insinuation that they lead meaningless existences is nothing he bothers to substantiate. Persons can grow, have valuable experiences, and help their fellow man without religion. The no responsibility line is borderline slanderous, as Humanists engage in robust charity work and fight for the underprivileged. By falsely creating a nihilistic, selfish, aimless opponent, Wildmon has an easy opponent to topple.

While not usually associated with critical thinking errors, we sometimes see the NON SEQUITUR in logical fallacy form. Imagine a homeowner saying, “I have added insulation and installed new windows, but am still feeling a draft, so I need to call in a ghost hunter.” This is fallacious thinking because we would need to first establish there is a ghost and that it is the source of the draft. This example may seem silly, but thinking this ridiculous happens whenever police departments use psychics to try and find missing persons or a murderer. There have been no cases where this has been successful, yet it is a method still sometimes used.

The logical fallacy that I committed most often in my pre-critical thinking days was the SLIPPERY SLOPE, and I was especially guilty of it when discussing potential legislation. I would dream up the worst possible outcome, which sometimes would necessitate anticipating a series of future events in order for this calamity to occur. I should have been able to speak for or against the legislation simply on the merits or drawbacks of it. For instance, Congress made an attempt to censor the Internet in 1996, and the way the law was written, it would have been valid to say, “It could be illegal to e-mail your 17-year-old brother the Birth of Venus.” It would have been a slippery slope fallacy to declare, “If this law is passed this year, it may be illegal to criticize the president the next year, and the year after that we could all be behind barbed wire.”

Like the slippery slope, the FAULTY ANALOGY lacks focus. It relies on two unrelated cases to make a point. Rep. Charles Rose defended taxpayer money spent on telepathy research by saying, “This country wasn’t afraid to look into the strange physics behind lasers and semiconductors.” Lasers and semiconductors were the consequence of steady advances using the Scientific Method, something remote viewing conspicuously lacks. Or someone might say, “Rational thinking and Dilly Bars are both mighty fine. But too many Dilly Bars will rot your teeth and make you fat, so too much rational thinking is bad for your mind.” The most common occurrence of this fallacy asserts that if we sent a man to the moon, we can eradicate drugs (or some other goal that could not be reached by the same methods that were applied in the Apollo missions).

While the previous two fallacies may wind all over the place, the FALSE DICHOTOMY by contrast artificially limits the options. This is where two (or maybe three or four) choices are presented as the only options, with no other choice or middle ground available. An example would be, “You serve either Jesus or Satan.” In fact, one could serve Vishnu, Thor, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or no one. Another example would be, “You either support the war or hate the United States.” One might very well love the United States and feel that the war is not in its best interests.

With the COMPOSITION fallacy, the speaker incorrectly attributes the properties of one part to the whole. “Hydrogen and oxygen are both dry, so water is not wet.” Its opposite is the DIVISION fallacy, where it is falsely asserted that what is true of the whole must be true of the parts. “This is a great coaching hire. He played for Nick Saban’s Alabama teams, so you know he’s going to be committed and focused.”

Onto the FALLACY OF MISPLACED CONCRETENESS, in which an abstract concept is treated as tangible object. It occurs when declaring war on drugs, crime, poverty, or terrorism. These never achieve victory because they are abstract concepts incapable of surrendering or signing peace treaties. They cannot be shot, bombed, or interrogated for intelligence. A similar mistake is treating a word as equivalent to the act. Moral crusaders sometimes seek to eliminate references to thuggery in song, comic books, and video games in hopes this will reduce crime. This fails because words and deeds are separate.

Next, we’ll consider the ARGUMENT FROM NEGATIVITY. This is a frequent ploy of Flat Earthers, geocentrists, and creationists. In these cases, a supposed shortcoming in one aspect of astronomy or geology is considered proof of the alternate position. But even if your opponent is wrong, you might be mistaken as well. If your opponent says 2+2=5, that doesn’t mean your math of 2+2=7 is correct.

This fallacy is closely related is the APPEAL TO IGNORANCE, which is common among conspiracy theorists. In this fallacy, the speaker appeals to a lack of information to prove a point, or argues that since the opponent cannot disprove the claim, it is true. BBC, acting on information from an emergency worker that damage to Tower 7 meant its collapse was imminent, prematurely reported that it had fallen even though it was still standing in the background. 9/11 Truthers assert that since no video exists of the emergency worker saying this to the reporter that means it never happened, and that BBC was in on the plot.

Finally, we have the ARGUMENT FROM INCREDULITY, where one asserts an argument must be false because of the listener’s inability to understand it. But my ignorance of the intricacies of the internal combustion engine does not mean automobiles won’t run. Similarly, a lunar landing denier’s inability to conceive of how Mankind could have reached the moon doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Then again, if we didn’t send a man to the moon, maybe that explains why we haven’t eradicated drugs yet.


“Mindcraft” (Critical thinking)


Time again to take a break from posting about tarot card readers who see leprechaun ghosts while giving readings to craniosacral therapists, and to spotlight critical thinking.

Critical thinking entails separating one’s self from biases in order to analyze an issue, then using a series of sound statements free of logical fallacies to support a conclusion. While this requires ongoing effort and can be challenging and complex, there are two simple actions that build critical thinking skills. One is sticking to the point. Most logical fallacies in some way deflect from the issue being discussed. Second, remember that an idea must have supporting evidence. Just throwing something out and expecting it to be accepted on its face is the logical fallacy of Begging the Question, which we’ll address later.

In purporting to prove the existence of God, columnist Matt Barber wrote, “The manifest intentionality and fine-tuning of all creation reveals design of breathtaking complexity.” He assumed creation was a given, then used that assumption to try and prove that’s why we see design in the world. But he had failed to support his conclusion with anything other than the conclusion worded in another way.

Still the most common critical thinking error is the Genetic Fallacy. This is when the counterargument fails to address the points made, but instead focuses on the persons making the argument, or their characteristics. If National Review and Mother Jones both ran columns on whether the minimum wage should be raised, it’s easy to know which side both would come down on. However, if someone wanted to argue against the conclusions, it would be inadequate to say, “That comes from National Review/Mother Jones,” and dismiss it for that reason. The issues raised would still need to be addressed.

A similar tactic is to Poison the Well, where an unrelated characteristic of the speaker is highlighted rather than his or her argument. If a conservative Christian outlined his proposal to stimulate the economy, bringing up his opposition to gay marriage and support of gun rights in an attempt to win over liberals would be poisoning the well. Unrelated stances on other issues should never come into play. “Helium’s atomic number is 2” is an accurate statement whether it’s uttered by a Supreme Court justice, an information technology specialist, or a serial killer.

Also, beware the Ad Populum fallacy. Your mother understood this one when she asked, “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?” The ad populum attempts to use a subject’s popularity rather than its merits to make the case. In arguing for GMO labeling, Bernie Sanders, said, “All over Europe, we’ve got dozens and dozens of countries which do label GMO products. We should be able to do that in the United States as well.” Nothing in his statement addressed GMO safety or outlined why such products should be labeled.

An opposite approach portrays a position’s unpopularity as proof of the believers’ elite status. This is common among conspiracy theorists, who feel they and their fellow independent thinkers (who swallow everything from the YouTube channels they subscribe to) are vastly superior to brainwashed sheeple.  A third way this fallacy is used is in trying to get a target to believe that a position is the accepted one for a group the listener identifies with. For instance, it is almost de rigueur for Republican presidential candidates to do battle amongst themselves over whose positions most espouse true Christianity.

Related to the ad populum is the Appeal to Tradition, which holds that how long an idea or tactic has been used is related to its merits. But slavery lasted for millennium, while the polio vaccine came along just 80 years ago. The appeal to tradition fallacy is ubiquitous in New Age medicine, where a technique having been used in ancient Egypt, China, or Greece is highlighted to gloss over the lack of double blind studies indicating its efficiency. In most instances, the antiquity claim is also false, but even if true, the number of centuries thyme has been used to cure arthritis is unrelated to whether it will alleviate your aching joints.

This fallacy is sometimes manifested in the mantra, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” But perhaps another approach would improve the situation, perhaps circumstances have changed since the current way of doing things developed, and perhaps new evidence suggests there is a better way.

Going back to the Matt Barber example, when writers claim as evidence for their argument the conclusion they are attempting to prove, they are Begging the Question. Often, the first claim is loaded with the conclusion the speaker has yet to prove. An example would be, “Teenagers are old enough to look out for themselves, so curfew laws should be abolished.” The conclusion assumes that the introductory phrase is correct.

Another fallacy is Appealing to Irrelevant authority. The opinion of experts in their fields should carry weight, especially the closer the expert opinion is to a consensus. The authorities could be wrong, but until that is proven, it is proper to defer to the experts. But this fallacy refers to touting someone as an authority even when they address issues outside their area of expertise. To cite Steve Jobs’ opinion in an argument over the best fuel injectors would be fallacious. The appeal to irrelevant authority frequently occurs when fitness, nutrition, or alternative medicine products are hawked by celebrities.

Speaking of celebrities, Justin Timberlake was the focal point in the use of a logical fallacy by a Grio editor this week. Timberlake tweeted the seemingly innocuous and biologically correct observation that there is only one race, human. This earned the wrath of Blue Telusma, who argued against this proposition because “People of color need their identities and cultures embraced.” However much this may be true, it failed to address the scientific evidence that race is a social construct. Telusma had committed the logical fallacy of the Argument of Consequences, where a position’s possible outcome, rather than its accuracy, is attacked. Telusma further argued that Timberlake’s position was compromised since he was white, which you likely recognize as a genetic fallacy. Curiously, she said nothing about his music, about which there is much to criticize.


“Unappealing bananas” (Naturalistic fallacy)


The appeal to nature fallacy rests on the easily disprovable assumption that nature is necessarily good. It comes in forms such as, “I use herbal medicine because it’s what nature intended,” or “I won’t vaccinate because natures knows best.”

This assumption relies on nature being conscious and benevolent. Of course, nature is not conscious and, while human interaction with it may be good, bad, or neutral, it’s all by coincidence, and comes with no intent on nature’s part.

Berries that grow wild do so because the soil, conditions, and weather are conducive to that happening, not because nature wants to bestow upon us a free source of Vitamin C. Plants that excrete chemicals which lead to medicine don’t have our inflammation reduction in mind. It’s the result of natural selection and climate. Canada geese fly in formation for means of transportation and migration, not for our esthetic enjoyment.

What’s more, those who appeal to nature don’t realize many of their examples of it are actually unnatural. The banana, for instance, is synonymous with potassium and is one of the healthier foods available. But the one we eat is not natural. It has been modified over thousands of years, from a tiny, green fruit full of large, hard seeds, to today’s easily-peeled, delectable Corn Flakes accompaniment. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, savoy, and kohlrabi are all modified versions of brassica olearacea. This plant can usually only grow near limestone sea cliffs, but thanks to unnatural modifications, we have an abundance of leafy greens to eat. A diet high in these unnatural vegetables goes a long way toward reducing one’s chance of experiencing natural cancer.

Probably the best way to cure someone of their naturalistic fallacy is with a trip to the Australian Outback. If the sun, wind, and other natural elements don’t do them in, there are scorpions, taipans, and even venomous snail. The flora can be deadly as well.  One mushroom indigenous to the Outback will, if consumed, produce two days of anguish and pained vomiting, followed by death unless a liver transplant can be effected. Then there is the Stinging Brush, whose tiny hairs have been responsible for at least one human fatality. Another victim who survived the plant described his encounter with nature thusly: “For three days, the pain was almost unbearable. I couldn’t work or sleep. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower. It’s ten times worse than anything else.”

Leaving Australia for Africa, lions may seem majestic when they roam across the savannah with their manes waving. But the lion ripping a zebra’s back open with its claws and gashing its jugular vein with knife-like canines is also nature in action. Nature is what the Discovery Channel aired during its glory days. It is not represented by the adorable, chirping, cooperative gang of anthropomorphic animals in Disney movies. Examples of nature include poison oak, tapeworms, smallpox, earthquakes, hungry polar bears, and mercury poisoning.

Some people prefer to double dip their naturalistic fallacy and add the appeal to antiquity. They may say, “That’s the way people did it for thousands of years.” And in this naturopathic Shangri-La without gluten, vaccines, antibodies, or GMOs, and where food was grown locally and the medical treatment was herbs delivered by shamans, the average lifespan was one-fourth of what it is today. Since 1900 alone, the average lifespan has risen 50 percent, owing mostly to vaccines and antibiotics.

Some who appeal to nature claim that sanitation is the real reason for this, which is kind of strange since plumbing, sewers, and solid waste disposal are unnatural. But hypocrisy aside, the claim is only partly accurate. Sanitation was a major plus for public health, but sanitation standards in the developed world have changed little since being introduced. Meanwhile, lifespans keep increasing even though sanitation standards have been steady.

Another argument from the naturalistic crowd is that without vaccines and antibiotics, homo sapiens would evolve resistance to disease and, eventually, nature would act to our benefit. While this might be possible, the idea that this could happen a million years from now is a lousy reason to let your child die from polio today.

Besides, pathogens evolve just like humans do so natural selection might work against immunity. Whenever a new mutation arises, the pathogen may evolve a response to it and this could lead to an even more lethal disease.

Truth is, those who live this fallacy already realize how unnatural products improve their lives. They learn of all-natural shampoos on an unnatural blog; they live somewhere other than a cave; their organic squash in kept fresh using an unnatural storage method; and the hybrid that gets them to their anti-GMO protest is a Prius, not a mule.



“Cause and reflect” (Causation and correlation)


A favorite maxim of skeptics, right up there with the plural of anecdote not being data, is that correlation does not prove causation. Many times it does not even imply causation. To illustrate this point, there is a graph showing an almost identical correlation between organic food sales and autism, and another chart that demonstrates the stunning consistency of string cheese sales and persons dying while getting out of bed.

While few people would insist that nighttime provolone cravings are fatal, causation is often erroneously inferred in less obvious instances. Consider an example from the classroom. In general, student grades go down the farther back one sits. Yet some classrooms are arranged with the desks forming a circle and the teacher in the middle, so if distance from the teacher caused the grades, everyone would score the same. So sticking a D student front and center will not put him or her on the honor roll. The primary relationship between seating location and grades is that the more studious students want to be near the teacher and visual aids, while their more indifferent counterparts prefer to be out of view, in order to pass notes in days of yore, and to send text messages today.

The string cheese-accidental deathbed is only one example of unrelated items that produce mirror-image data. Another centers on the sale of ice cream and the commission of violent crimes. Overlaying graphs show almost identical peaks and valleys relating to these two incidents. This is not because Rocky Road engenders Road Rage, despite the name similarity. Rather, violent criminals, like other people, get out much more often when it’s warm, which is also when folks buy most of their cool confectioneries.

Most people would understand this, perhaps even intuitively. But less obvious correlation/causation errors are regular features in online news sites and in links shared by members of your social media circle. They take the form of, “Persons who drink tea daily are half as likely to catch cold,” “Young professionals who have goals in writing will accumulate 10 times the net worth of those who don’t,” and, “Excellent grades in high school will lead to better health as adults.”

Putting goals in writing indicates drive, organization, and planning, three traits frequently seen among successful professionals. As to the supposed link between grades and health, persons with strong high school grades have, in general, more resources than those with lower marks. They have the latest gizmos and gadgets, may attend private schools, have access to high-quality tutors, and enjoy the type of health care that leaves them less vulnerable to a lengthy illness that would keep them from school for a long stretch. This same affluence will later allow them access to healthy food, gym memberships, and premium health care plans that result in better fitness.

But pointing out that correlation does not necessarily imply causation is only getting at half of the equation. The other half is determining when correlation and causation are interwoven. Three criteria must be met to determine this.

The first and easiest step is to verify that there is indeed a correlation. We learned earlier there is a correlation between violent crime and ice cream sales. There is no such correlation between violent crime and rap album sales, much as William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker wish that there was.

Second, for X to lead to Y, X must come first. I have seen some persons blame public school shootings on mandatory prayer being removed from these institutions. But there were 119 deadly school incidents prior to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling forbidding the practice. So without even getting into the post hoc nature of such an assertion, X could not lead to Y because Y came first.

Thirdly, other potential causes must be ruled out. Persons who jump off the Empire State Building die. We can conclude that the jump (well the landing, really) causes the persons’ demise because the leap precedes the death, there is a fatality rate of 100 percent, and there is no other factor in the deaths.

This example is obvious, but let’s look at how causality can be inferred from correlation in less clear instances. We will do this by focusing on necessity and sufficiency.

A condition is necessary if the effect cannot occur without it. For an unassisted triple play to occur, at least two runners must be on base with nobody out. The condition is necessary, but insufficient. The overwhelming majority of plays with two on and none out result in something other than an unassisted triple play.

A condition is sufficient if the effect always occurs when the condition is met. For example, the aforementioned Empire State Building jumpers always die. Here, the condition is sufficient for death but not necessary since there are many other ways of dying.

For a condition to be both necessary and sufficient, the effect must always occur when the condition is met, and never happen when it is not met. For example: To be married, you must have a spouse.

The most difficult to detect is when a cause is neither necessary nor sufficient. To be a cause without these distinctions, it must be what James Randi Educational Foundation Programs Consultant Barbara Drescher calls “a non-redundant part of a sufficient condition.” To illustrate this, Derscher pondered a forest fire that resulted from a lit cigarette carelessly tossed aside.

The cigarette, of course, would not be a necessary condition for the blaze. Forest fires can also result from unattended campfires, arson, and lightning ripping a tree asunder (I woke up this morning determined to use that adverb).

Besides not being necessary to start a fire, a discarded lit cigarette is also insufficient. The initial spark would have last long enough to combust, sufficient oxygen would be needed to fuel it, the surrounding brush, leaves, or sticks would need to be dry, the weather would need to be conducive to blazes, and no one with the desire and means to put it out could be nearby.

But if all these criteria are met, the condition is sufficient for a forest fire to rage. But for the cigarette to be a cause, it must still be non-redundant. Meaning that nothing else in the equation can do the job of the cigarette. And, indeed, none of the other factors – combustion, weather, dryness, present oxygen, absent firefighters – does the job of the cigarette. Turning this around, the cigarette cannot do the job of any of the other factors. Oxygen is present with or without the cigarette, the weather and surroundings would be dry without it, the cigarette does not spontaneously combust, nor cause an area to be unpopulated. Hence, the tossed tobacco product is a non-redundant part of a sufficient condition, so in this case the correlation and causation are related.


“Fallacy galaxy” (Critical thinking)


I work most days on building critical thinking skills and am also on Facebook and other online sites each day. These two items go together. After all, if looking to spot logical fallacies, it is best to search for them in their natural habitat.

I have yet to see a definition of critical thinking that I find satisfactory. I have been working on my own, but am still at it. More than anything else, though, it is sticking to the point. Most logical fallacies in some way deflect the key point or stray from it.

Another distinction is that critical thinking reaches conclusions that are logically supported by a series of sound premises. Just declaring something to be so without offering proof is inadequate.

One key to critical thinking is to detach one’s self from one’s beliefs, for they are not the same. This may be the hardest part of the exercise. Cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect are potent enemies of critical thinking. But they can be overcome with practice. 

I saw an anti-vax article that included a graph which showed that measles rates were going down before the vaccine was introduced. To think critically about this, I would need to investigate the claim for accuracy and analyze what it would mean if true. Just dismissing it as the ramblings of a pro-disease lunatic would not be thinking critically.

Multiple reputable sources confirmed the chart’s findings. But this does not mean that the eradication of measles from U.S. is not owing to vaccination. Measles is an endemic disease, so populations can build resistance to it, but it can also be deadly when introduced to a new population. This, when combined with measles’ highly contagious nature and the susceptibly of preschoolers to it, explains the nine spikes on this chart, occurring at approximately four-year intervals. There has been no such spike, or even a tiny bump, since the vaccine was introduced in 1964. In fact, there were 364 measles deaths in 1963, and none in 2004, a reduction of 100 percent.

As this experience demonstrates, I am never afraid to have my views and beliefs challenged. If they are correct, they will survive the challenge. If they are wrong, I will be enlightened. Not everyone can embrace this concept. I have been unfriended multiple times for respectfully pointing out inconsistencies in an argument or offering a different opinion. Some persons are that welded to their positions. I can only lead them to the dihydrogen monoxide, I cannot force them to consume the liquefied molecule.

Maintaining its status as the runaway frontrunner for most frequent logical fallacy is the ad hominem. This is where the retort is to belittle the speaker rather than attempting to counter the argument. This is most often in the form of a genetic fallacy. It is ubiquitous in the anti-vax and anti-GMO camps, where the shill line is frequently employed. It is so extreme that some anti-vaxxers accused billionaire Mark Zuckerberg of being paid by Big Pharma to post a photo of his daughter getting her shots.

Almost every time the shill accusation is made, it is untrue and childish. But more importantly, it is irrelevant to the argument. I often point there are 1,783 studies that suggest GMO safety, and that vaccines work by mimicking disease in order to prep the immune system for the real thing. These statements are true whether or not someone is clandestinely paying me to write it.

Another common logical fallacy is the strawman. This is making up or greatly misrepresenting the opposing position to make it ridiculous and easy to tear down. For example, Ken Ham claims skeptics are desperate to find evidence of life on another planet since it would bolster the case for evolution. He then gleefully points out that no such evidence has been uncovered, so this proves the other side is wrong. In truth, skeptics are the most vocal in questioning claims of ancient aliens, abductions, Roswell, and Nirubians. Part of the reason for this position is realizing that the enormity of space makes contact unlikely, and that any hypothetical alien civilization would had to have developed the same type of technology as us for signals to reach from one planet to another.

Another example of misrepresenting a position comes in the form of challenging persons to shake disassembled watch parts in a box and see if a working timepiece results. This is meant to speak against the idea of random chance, and by extension, evolution. I could issue a counter challenge of providing an empty box and asking God put a watch in it. But that would be the logical fallacy of appealing to hypocrisy. A better response is to point out that while mutations are random, the natural selection that drives evolution is the opposite of chance. It’s also rather silly to tie the changes of biological population over time into a broken up Rolex, but that’s a little beyond a critical thinking lesson. So we’ll move on, but stay with the religion vs. atheism theme. 

Christian apologist author Frank Turek says there must be a God because if men created their own values, morals would be subjective and everyone would have their own and chaos would result. However, this is the argument from consequences. Whether chaos would result has no bearing on whether man got his idea of right and wrong from a deity or through experience, reflection, observation, upbringing, and society. As an aside, I don’t think Turek takes his morality from the Bible; otherwise he would support ISIS members who sell their daughters into slavery and stone adulterers.

Now we’ll look at some fallacies are that are more difficult to spot. Ad hominem are easy to detect since the person isn’t addressing the argument. We can know an argument to be a strawman if the opposing person didn’t say it. And it’s easy to see that possible results are not an argument for your point. But with denying the antecedent, it is possible to make a series of accurate statements, but structure them in such a way that makes for an illogical conclusion.

In this logical fallacy, the speaker starts with a conditional statement, then denies it, and finally arrives at a conclusion though these two. Example: “If Wayne is on the treadmill, he is exercising. Wayne is not on the treadmill. Therefore, Wayne is not exercising.” This is faulty logic since the treadmill is not the only way to exercise. Even if I were NOT exercising, this is still unsound thinking. Of course, an example this transparent would seldom be offered. In fact, other than Answers in Genesis, I know of no entity that speaks in such a manner. But more subtle examples abound. It might come in a form like this: “If the president cared about police officers, he would address the nation about the three killed this week. Yet all the White House offers is silence. So we know he hates cops and their families.”

Denying the antecedent has an equally erroneous twin, affirming the consequent. This switches the order of “if-then” propositions to include the consequent as part of the conditional statement. This is very common among creationists, in some cases being the central or only point. Answers in Genesis asserts that “No evidence can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record,” then points out that the Big Bang is incompatible with the Bible. It follows by deducing this means the Big Bang could not have happened. This is faulty logic because AIG assumed its original premise to be true without offering supporting evidence.

Another tactic AIG uses is to poison the well. In these instances, the information might be factual, but is irrelevant to the point being made. For example, AIG condemns Old Earth Creationists for not being anti-Big Bang enough when thinking God blew the universe into existence. The organization’s resident astrophysicist, Jason Lisle wrote, “Some professing Christians agree with atheistic astronomers that the stars and planets formed by slow natural processes over billions of years, but stipulate that God’s hand directed these processes.”

That this subset of Christians finds fairly narrow common ground with atheists and scientists has no bearing on whether their beliefs are true. Lisle drops the word “atheistic” only to bias AIG readers against the Old Earth Creationists.

A similar tactic is guilt by association, such as pointing out that Stalin was an atheist. Indeed he was, but he was also white, male, mustachioed, Caucus-born, a former choir boy, a Sagittarius, and the son of a cobbler. Having one common trait with someone does not mean every view or distinction is shared. Nazi Germany was 94 percent Christian, but that is not a sound argument against the religion.

Then we have the appeal to authority, when someone who is an expert in his or her field is assumed to know a lot about whatever the topic is being addressed. I made several attempts to explain science to one of the guys who unfriended me. It was without success, as this man considered every doctor and scientist to be part of an evil cabal that deliberately kept people sick and uninformed. Yet he allowed an exception for Linus Pauling, praising his Nobel Prize in chemistry (an honor he would otherwise belittle), since Pauling had an iconoclastic view on illness and thought Vitamin C could cure everything. The former friend held up Pauling’s accomplishments in chemistry as reason to suppose we should trust his views about an unrelated field. Incidentally, the former friend was also engaged in the logical fallacy of special pleading, where one must carve out an exception to one’s own rule in order to make the argument work. In this case, the pleading was what we can never trust any scientist, unless it’s Pauling.

This is different than relying on someone who has expertise in the area they are addressing. Five years ago I came across a manner for scoring NCAA Tournament pools that used the Fibonacci Method. It purported to be a better way of finding who picked the best tournament, but it used some advanced math, so I was clueless about it. I e-mailed the description to a mathematics Ph.D, who wrote back that the ideas were sound. Since he was an expert in the field, I could reasonably trust his conclusions. This is especially true when consensus is strong. Since 99.8 percent of peer-reviewed papers published over the last 25 years endorse the notion of anthropogenic climate change, this is overwhelming reason to believe it.

This doesn’t mean they or any other experts can never be questioned or be wrong. It means that we need to go where the evidence leads. In the case of climate change, it is backed by a ton of data, peer review, and proper science, and until someone comes up with something better, we go with what the evidence shows.

To be clear, a person with a chemistry degree can make an intelligent, accurate, and original observation about medicine. If they did so, a rebuttal of “Where did you get your medical degree” would be committing a genetic fallacy. But using only a degree, or similar authority, as evidence that they are correct, is erroneous. thinking. 

Finally, I know the mathematics Ph.D. was right about the pool method being a better way to determine a champion because I won it.