Four more fallacies that aren’t always fallacies

This is a follow up to a previous post highlighting exceptions and false positive identifications of logical fallacies. Identifying logical fallacies is a powerful, if imperfect, tool for separating the truth from the bullshit. Reflecting on false positives can be a useful way of keeping yourself from using a list of fallacies as a substitute for critical analysis.


Moving the Goalpost

What it is:
This is a sportball analogy that likens a shift in an argument to one sportball team getting to change their mind about where their goal is after the opposing team scores a point.

What it looks like in the wild:
A good example of this fallacy is in the tactics of the anti-LBGT rights movement. They will claim that being gay harms the individual who is gay. When this claim is discredited, they shift to claiming that being gay harms children. When evidence is brought to bear disproving that claim, suddenly that was never the focus of their argument. It turns out they were worried about maintaining tradition, not the well-being of kids.

When it isn’t a fallacy:
A claim can have multiple claims nested within it, and sometimes shifting the goals is not a way of punting the criticism, but is in fact a way of accepting the point and moving on to another level in good faith. For example, let’s say that I have a set of criteria that, if met, would be sufficient for my belief in a god. If and when those conditions are met, I would then have further questions that require answering. Such as how to verify the deity’s identity and whether or not the deity is moral or worth following. These questions are separate from the question of existence, but to a believer it could seem to be a moving goalpost.


The same is true of bigfoot. If we found proof that there was a large bipedal mammal in the Pacific Northwest, we’d still have to find out what exactly it is since we couldn’t just take it at face value that it’s a hominid. The stated goals change as they are met. The trick is not to conflate multiple goalposts with a moving goalpost.

The Gish Gallop

What it is:
Overwhelming your opponent with false claims at a rate faster than they can possibly be rebutted. Named after a creationist who would use this technique and then claim to have won the debate because the scientist was unable to debunk all of his claims in the allotted time.

What it looks like in the wild:
“I can’t believe you buy into the ‘official’ version of the 9/11 false flag attack! Let me pull the wool from your eyes, sheeple. *posts 70 links to dubious claims*”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
This happens a lot with conspiracy theorists and creationists because they tend to be very educated. By that I mean that they typically are highly motivated researchers who are very good at soaking up information. As a result, they often have a plethora of resources to share at a moment’s notice. The problem is that their sources are full of it. It bears mentioning that people using accurate sources can also argue in this way. Many of the atheist activists that I know can write several chapters worth detailing why they don’t buy a religious explanation and cram it into one post. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but rather that their opponent won’t be able to address the claims in any meaningful way. I think this is still not the best way to go about conveying information, it is probably more helpful to address one point at a time. But we should be cautious not to assume that this is always meant to rig the game the way Gish did. Often it’s just enthusiasm for the argument getting the better of someone.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

What it is:
This is when someone has defined what is natural as being synonymous with what is good. It is very similar to David Hume’s ought-is problem.

What it looks like in the wild:
“Scientists tampering with genes in the lab are making Frankenfood and playing God!”
THANKS-MONSANTO-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Because skeptics deal with people opposing genetic modification, gay rights, and new technology on the basis of it being unnatural, we have developed a trigger finger for this one. Plenty of “unnatural” things are a boon to humanity, such as vaccines. But just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s bad either. And sometimes what is natural can be preferable by a wide margin. If you have a cat and try to feed them a diet that ignores the fact that they are obligate carnivores, your cat will be in pretty bad shape. It it reasonable to say that because cats evolved the way they did, they should eat food that they have adapted to survive on. This doesn’t mean that in all circumstances we should feel shackled to the constraints of what is “natural” as many ideologically motivated New Agers would have us believe, but rather that the natural world can offer up a track record of sorts that we can and should reference when making decisions.

Argument from Antiquity

What it is:
Popular with alternative medicine proponents and religious conservatives, the argument from antiquity is a subset of the argument from authority which claims that because something is old, it is therefore correct.

What it looks like in the wild:
“People have been using acupuncture for thousands of years, who are you to say it doesn’t work?”

When it isn’t a fallacy:
Most tend to think epic failures in history as cautionary tales to those of us modern folk wise enough to learn the lesson. However, the reverse is also true. If something has historically been a success, that should be weighed accordingly when asking if a tradition is worth keeping around. Particularly with political ideas, the proof is in the pudding. You can look back as far as the Roman Empire to see how well progressive taxation works compared to other tax models, or to persistent designs as a clue to what sort of architecture or technology works. Often humanists have to confront harmful traditions when we have a better solution to offer. There are plenty of awful traditions to oppose, and we should never let their staying power dissuade us from taking them on. But neither approach can be a replacement for critical analysis. Eschew all old things and you’ll find yourself reinventing the wheel all the time. Value tradition too highly and you can fall into survivorship bias and all sorts of other flawed conclusions.

Four more fallacies that aren’t always fallacies

Quote of the day

“Does anybody think Donald Trump is a racist? I don’t. I mean, I really don’t. I don’t know of anything in his life that indicates that this man has racist tendencies.”

— Mike Huckabee, a man who thinks the world of Ted Nugent, makes derogatory jokes about Asians, and insists on derailing Black Lives Matter discussions with “All Lives Matter”

Quote of the day

Review: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

I’ve decided to do some reviews of books, movies, and video games relevant to atheists. Without respect to timeliness. So to start things out, I cracked open Greta Christina’s Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless.

Greta is focused like a laser. With incredible clarity, she makes the case for what we should be angry about, which is available to read for free on her blog. That part is inspiring and rousing on its own, but Greta also makes a perfect case for why anger is the appropriate response to injustice. You may already be persuaded on the efficacy of anger, but this is not true of the general population. When I posted Greta’s talk about the subject, the reaction I got from a lot of people was revulsion. Not at the crimes she lists in her Litany of Rage, but at the idea that anger is a useful or even acceptable reaction to those crimes. I was told that the way to deal with these religiously-based problems is with “respect.” Not just by criticism-shy theists, but atheists also had a problem with anger. This is of course absurd on the face of it. I’ve never once seen someone stop persecuting gay people because someone was respectful to them. Rather, such respect validates their beliefs and encourages more bad behavior.

The case for anger is one of the most important ones we can make. Not only is it useful and appropriate, but in a conflict averse society we need anger to wake us up enough to take action. When good people stay silent, the bad people get to do what they want.

Greta spends the rest of the book demonstrating that the fault for these problems belongs to irrationality. Whether it’s fundamentalist religion, “nice” Christians, or free-range-crystal-worshiping Wiccans with fully balanced chakras. Not caring about whether something is true is always a recipe for trouble, no matter how nice you are about it. The cultural norm is to give people a wide berth with their pet beliefs, and it’s seen as rude to correct someone. Greta does an excellent job of articulating why we should take ourselves out of that comfort zone and point out that the emperor is buck naked.

Not only is Greta one of the best communicators I’ve come across, she’s also damn funny(I’m a comedy writer, I have my biases). Throughout this book about anger, I found myself disturbing my coworkers in the lunch room with my guffaws. I particularly enjoyed this line from the chapter “Why This Really Is Religion’s Fault” pointing out that she isn’t placing the blame for all evil in the lap of religion:

“I’m not arguing that a world without religion would be a blissful utopia where everyone holds hands and chocolate flows in the streets(and then we would all die, because the chocolate is drowning us and we can’t swim because we’re holding hands).”

I’m not by nature an angry person. When my old apartment manager tried to scam me out of several hundred dollars, my wife said it was the first time she’d seen me mad. I don’t debate about religion at work, I tend not to talk about it with my religious family members, and I take great pains to criticize ideas and actions rather than people. However, all of this is often unnoticed by the religious and I am still considered “militant.” As much as we may may not want to rock the boat, we’re already considered disruptive and mean just for disagreeing with them about magic being real. For out atheists there isn’t a social benefit to not rocking the boat, but there is a net downside to letting irrational beliefs go unchecked. Because of that, I’ve been trying to be more outspoken. It’s very difficult for me, but often the most important things we can do in this life are. And this book has helped nudge me in that direction.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? was a great read and I recommend it to any atheist or to any theist who is curious about us. It’s available in ereader and dead tree format. If you already have a copy, check out her sexy time stories in Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Review: Why Are You Atheists So Angry?

Trump worries

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Photo by Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA

In politicians there are a lot of crucial factors you have to consider.

Without looking into the specific issues that matter, there are some general categories: ideology, campaign skills, and competence level.

Sometimes these overlap, but I think it helps to weigh each one independently. Sometimes I agree ideologically with a candidate, but think they couldn’t possibly perform the day to day duties.
Maybe they’d be great at the job, but wholly unelectable.

What this election cycle seems like to me is a D&D game and Donald Trump has allocated all his character points to campaign skill and despite an increasingly frustrated GM, is winning.

I’m a bit worried about a Trump presidency becoming a reality. But what worries me more is, whether he wins or not, he’s let everyone with an ounce of media savvy see that this game can be won by just bullshitting your way through.

So while I wouldn’t have voted for Jeb Bush in the general election… I can’t help but feel like his inability to win is a rejection of competence as a worthwhile concern. Me and him sharply disagree ideologically, but I would feel comfortable hiring him as a general manager if I owned a chain of restaurants. He wouldn’t burn the country down for the insurance money at least. Each time that a competent candidate is driven off, future competent ones are incentivized to focus on wooing the crowd over touting their skill. Which will make it even harder for those voters that do care about competence to make it out in a crowd of awful showmanship.

It’s easy enough to say, “Good. Hand the Democrats an easy win each time.” But that isn’t how it works out in practice. One Trump we can probably handle. But what do we do when these tactics become textbook down ticket? How many Trump brand Senators and Representatives can you fight off each cycle?

Even if these toxic candidates lose, the damage done by having that kind of bigotry and bullshit given a megaphone and free publicity will set us back in ways we can’t even calculate yet. And that’s saying a lot given that this is already talking about the Republicans.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. I hope so.

Trump worries

What do colanders accomplish?

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Photo by G.dallorto

Yesterday my sister sent me a story about a man being allowed to wear a colander as a hat for his driver’s license photo. It’s not an isolated incident. I tend to enjoy stuff like this because I think the world could stand to be more fun and whimsical.

But I have to put on my buzzkill pants for a minute. Is the goal of this exercise to be silly? Is it to say “I’m an atheist”  in a public way?  Those don’t bother me.  But if the goal is to mock religious exemptions for what you wear in official photos, it seems petty.

Certainly there are plenty of examples of people claiming a right of religious exemption that aren’t reasonable. Like people refusing to do their job because they want to discriminate. But wearing something that doesn’t hide who you are doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t interfere with the purpose of an ID.

I don’t really know if this was the goal. I haven’t seen any of these stories list a reason beyond membership in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So I suspect it’s just whimsy. But it wouldn’t be the only valid criticism of the whole FSM thing. And even the funny bits of the FSM have gotten played out about as much as the “Atheists eating babies” jokes.

What do colanders accomplish?

Atheist parenting

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Not long after my first kid was born, people began asking me for input on parenting as an atheist. When they did, I always answered that they’re too young for it to be an important issue yet.

For whatever reason, I only processed the situation as a function of their understanding of the concepts and their interactions with religious institutions.

But that ignores the interactions between the parents and religion, which definitely informs how they’re raised. So, even though my kids are one and three, religion and atheism do matter. Here’s a few of the differences in atheist parenting.

We don’t hit our kids
Our arrival at this decision was informed by the findings of psychology indicating that physical harm and pain don’t get the desired result. You’re more likely to end up raising someone who avoids coming to you when they need help… and who’s internalized the idea that violence can solve conflicts. (We also don’t, ya know, want to inflict pain. They’re kids for fucks sake)
There isn’t anything about being an atheist that necessarily leads you away from hitting kids. You certainly don’t have to look far to find ones who do. But atheists aren’t beholden to religious direction on how to discipline children. This frees us to look for alternative approaches.

We don’t really care about nudity
Without any religious beliefs telling us it’s inherently dirty, we’ve felt comfortable letting our kids run around naked as needed. It makes potty training a bit easier. And sometimes they just don’t want pants. I can relate. *shrugs*

There is a smaller or nonexistent support community
Anyone who is a parent knows that childcare is not cheap. It’s important for daycare workers and babysitters to be fairly compensated of course, but that doesn’t mean that most parents have access to that much money.
Churches often offer daycare that is cheaper than the market value of the service. There are reasons to avoid this as an atheist. Some states have lax safety regulations for religious daycare, they might be teaching your kids harmful ideas, and you might not be eligible without lying about what you believe. But it’s impossible to discount the boon to families struggling to make ends meet.

Family may not be as helpful
Thankfully, our family is awesome and religious disagreements have never overshadowed our love for each other or the kids. But not everyone is so lucky. Some atheists are disowned by their parents and siblings entirely. And that level of support towers over anything a church offers. Not just the cooperation on raising the kids, hand-me-downs, and financial help, but the moral support of family is crucial when dealing with stressful parenting.

I can’t help but think that the local skeptic and atheist groups could, eventually fill some of the support roles that atheists sometimes lack. Of course I know from having been an organizer for one that the operating budget is approximately $0 and it’s the size of religious organizations that allow them to extend that kind of help. It’s a worthy goal to shoot for though.

This is an incomplete list of course, and I’m sure as my kids get older there will be more we can talk about on the subject.

Atheist parenting

De-platforming and free speech

It’s incredibly hard for me to feel sympathy when someone like Richard Dawkins is disinvited from a keynote speaker slot because of the way he behaves (the conference rescinded, but that’s beside the point).

The theme of attacks on his critics is that such disinvitation represents harm to his freedom of speech.
The man is a bestselling author, has numerous TV specials, is a frequent talk show guest, established speaker, and has over a million followers on Twitter. His free speech rights and ability to exercise them are utterly unassailable.

This did get me thinking about how and when a disinvitation could potentially be harmful to free speech. What kept coming to mind are activists from nations with severe restrictions on speech and Internet use. If your government is telling you what not to say and preventing you from taking the obvious route to publicly disagree, there is an obvious free speech problem. So, maybe if the speaker you’re considering disinviting fits into this scenario it would be a bad move to remove a platform. This is obviously a simplified approach to what is a real life problem too big to solve with a speech at a conference. But it’s worth looking for how and to what degree you may be wrong.

But what if we took the free speech claim at face value, but we took it a bit father and looked at who we invite to speak and not just who we ask not to. If our goal is to use our platform to advance free speech, why not give speaking positions to people of color and trans people? Or members of minority religions that Donald Trump wants to deport? Hell, if GamerGate showed us anything is that cis women are often silenced by threats and harassment. Maybe we should not invite cis men to speak until we resolve the disparity in who can speak without fear.

Some of this makes sense to weigh in the decision making process. Some people are poorly represented in public life, or are vilified. If we are going to worry about the free speech of a rich guy with a large and devoted audience, why aren’t we worried about people who are prevented in one way or another from having a platform?

De-platforming and free speech