Around Thanksgiving, I published a column on “begging the question,” prompting one commenter to praise my coverage of logical fallacies like that one (aw, thanks, WhoDo!) and me to plan for more such columns. Time and life (not the magazines) intervened, and I forgot about it.
That is, until two pugnacious online commenters on a recent letters page brought out some of the big guns of logical fallacies (slippery slope, false equivalency, etc.) in their arguments, as well as used unsourced statistics … which, as far as I know, they never supplied the citations for despite being asked, but which they are still using.
Pretty sure that those statistics (oddly specific yet wholly elusive on Google) came from their nether regions. That would explain the smell, anyway.
So, yeah, this will be the first of my occasional 2016 columns to take on logical fallacies. Maybe if more people are aware of them, they’ll be better able to advance debate … not that that’s what these guys want … they seem far more interested in stirring up trouble.
Besides, it’s my birthday today, and annoying trolls is one big gift to me.
This week’s focus: Appeals to ignorance (sometimes called “arguments from ignorance,” and closely related to appeals to emotion or popularity), described by logicallyfallacious.com as “the assumption of a conclusion or fact based primarily on lack of evidence to the contrary. Usually best described by ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’”
Or, as “Packman” said in a comment about Barack Obama’s executive actions (not orders) on guns last week:
“Nobody is even attempting to provide evidence these EO’s will do anything to curb gun violence. They will, however, cost taxpayers lots of money and burden law-abiding citizens for no public good. The lack of such evidence is evidence in and of itself that this is purely a political ploy for useful idiots incapable of or with an aversion for critical thought. It is absolutely political pandering at its very worst.”
Ignore that plural made with an apostrophe, if you can, and the lack of evidence for his point, and marvel at the implementation of not only an overtired talking point, but also an appeal to ignorance … just the sort of thing that stunts debate and ensures nothing will ever be accomplished. I can’t even call the “discussion” over guns (or climate change … or evolution … or abortion … or just about any even slightly contentious topic) a debate, as that implies a give and take. What happens more often is little more than a schoolyard fight … though kids usually have much better manners.
The appeal to ignorance does a neat little trick in that it puts the burden of proof on the listener to disprove what the speaker has said; all the better to hide behind not having evidence for your position. Fallacy Files notes that some forms of reasoning resemble the appeal to ignorance but are actually different, such as the presumption of innocence in the criminal-justice system, or the presumption of falsity to new and improbable claims.
Astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who consistently proves scientists have a sense of humor, remarked on this fallacy once when asked by an audience member if he believed in UFOs:
“Now there is a fascinating frailty to the human mind that psychologists know all about. It is called argument from ignorance. This is how it goes. Someone sees lights flashing in the sky. They’ve never seen it before. They don’t know what it is. They say ‘a UFO!’ The “U” stands for unidentified. So they say ‘I don’t know what it is, then it must be aliens visiting from another planet.’ Well, if you don’t know what it is, that’s where your conversation should stop. You don’t say it must be anything. Okay? That’s what argument from ignorance is.”
Sure, there’s always that urge to make yourself look more intelligent than you are, but making uneducated guesses, speaking out of your nether regions, or trying to make the audience do all the work for you (“You know how to use Google, don’t you?” is something I’ve seen time and again) just irritates those of us who are interested in actual debate and possibly hitting upon solutions.
Lack of evidence is not evidence, nor is ignoring evidence that disproves your point, such as calling polls you disagree with bogus despite their sound methodology (because Gallup, Quinnipiac, et al., are just not reliable at all … ptooie!).
There’s not a lot you can do with those who use this particular argument except maybe for pointing it out, then ignoring them. Trolls who use this method just want to play a sort of rhetorical shell game to derail substantive discussion by trying to make everyone else concentrate on proving them wrong, often (OK, probably 99 percent of the time) while insulting whoever disagrees. Sometimes they don’t even have any particular interest in the subject they’re talking about; all that matters is disruption.
And if they can also completely ignore all those pesky facts that might cause a problem … score!
As my favorite astrophysicist has also said: “There are no right or wrong opinions, unless you have invalidated yours for having ignored facts that conflict with them.”