Welcome to The Fallacy Files book shelf, which is a collection of reviews of books related in some way to logical fallacies, whether exposing them or committing them.
Title: With Good Reason
Subtitle: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies
Author: S. Morris Engel
Review: Unfortunately, as its subtitle indicates, With Good Reason does not cover formal logical fallacies. However, it is one of the best introductions to informal ones.
For those who are new to logic, there is introductory material on arguments, the central notions of validity and soundness, and the distinction between deduction and induction. Engel also explains linguistic issues which play an important role in many informal fallacies, such as ambiguity and vagueness.
Unlike many textbooks, this one includes many "raw" examples, taken from the popular press, instead of just "cooked-up" ones. Cooked-up examples have both advantages and disadvantages: The advantages include the ease of acquiring examplesjust cook them up!as well as the fact that they can be constructed to be both obvious and unambiguous. This is good for learning the distinctions between different fallacies, and the basics of spotting fallacious arguments. The disadvantages, however, include the fact that fallacious arguments in their natural settings are much harder to spot than are the artificial examples in most textbooks. Engel's text is a step in the direction of providing practice on realistic examples.
Many of the raw examples that Engel gives are not arguments, so they are not full-fledged examples of fallacies, but boobytraps. Of course, boobytraps are fallacies waiting to happen, so they are legitimate examples, but the reader should keep this distinction in mind.
Engel divides informal fallacies into three broad categories:
- Ambiguity: Equivocation, Amphiboly, etc.
- Presumption: Begging the Question, Slippery Slope, etc.
- Relevance: Ad Hominem, Appeal to Authority, etc.
"Presumption" seems to be a "miscellaneous" category to catch the fallacies which don't easily fit into the other two categories, so this grouping shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Engel describes, and provides examples of, over thirty specific informal fallacies, including the most frequently occurring ones, and those most prominently discussed in the logical literature. If you want to learn about informal logical fallacies, this is a good place to start.
Also, by the same author:
- Analyzing Informal Fallacies (Prentice-Hall, 1980). An out-of-print collection of examples of the fallacies and boobytraps discussed in Engel's other books.
- Fallacies and Pitfalls of Language: The Language Trap (Dover, 1994). This book covers the same material as With Good Reason, but it's not a textbook, rather it's written for the general reader.
Title: Damned Lies and Statistics
Subtitle: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists
Author: Joel Best
Date of Publication: 2001
Quote: "This book offers some guidelines for thinking critically about social statistics. It identifies some common problems with social statistics and illustrates them with specific examples. It is often easier to understand a particular example than to understand and recognize the general problem or principle that the example illustrates. Still, I hope that, having read this book, you [will] become more familiar with some of the most common flaws that bedevil social statistics; that you can ask some basic questions about a statistic's origins (definition, measurement, sampling, and the other issues covered in chapter 2); that you are familiar with some of the ways that statistics can be mangled (chapter 3); that you understand the risks of inappropriate comparisons (chapter 4); and that you can do more than simply throw up your hands when confronted with a debate featuring competing statistics (chapter 5)." (Pp. 161-162)
Review: Joel Best is a sociologist and, as a result, this is not a book about the mathematics of statistics, but about its sociology. That is, it's about the ways in which bad statistics are generated and spread through society.
People tend to accept statistics as facts, but all statistics are created by people, and many of those people have agendas. Social statistics―statistics about social problems, such as prostitution or suicide―are often produced by activists who are concerned about the problem, and may exaggerate it. When not produced by activists, statistics are often a product of government, which may be motivated in the opposite direction of the activists, namely, to play down a problem.
Given that statistics are created by people, there are three questions that should be asked about them, according to Best:
- Who created the statistic? (P. 27)
- Why was the statistic created? (P. 28)
- How was the statistic created?
Answering questions 1 and 2 may give reasons to doubt the statistic's accuracy, if the source has a motive for exaggerating or downplaying it (1), or if it was created to advance a particular cause or to sell a product (2). Also, if you can answer the first two questions, you may be able to allow for the bias of a statistic. In contrast, learning that the source was unbiased should increase your confidence in the statistic.
However, most of the book concerns question 3, that is, the way in which flawed statistics are produced. There are four main ways that people come up with bad statistics, according to Best (Ch. 2):
- Guessing (p. 32): Guessing about social statistics is more common than you might think. Social problems that have been ignored or are hard to count―such as rape, prostitution, homosexuality, AIDS, etc.―have a "dark figure", that is, a number of cases that are not counted for various reasons, including embarrassment or fear of arrest. So, when activists or bureaucrats are called upon by reporters to estimate the size of a problem, they may have to guess.
- Bad Definitions (p. 39): Most social problems are vague, for instance, child abuse: non-abusive treatment of children gradually shades over into abusive beatings or neglect. In order to count instances of child abuse, decisions must be made about whether to include or exclude borderline cases. Those who wish to call attention to the problem are motivated to include borderline cases, while those who want to ignore it will exclude those same cases. Both sides may claim to be counting incidents of "child abuse", though they come up with different numbers.
Also, activists tend to pick extreme examples to publicize a problem (p. 56). Such examples are selected because they are not typical of the problem, yet they may mislead people into committing the Anecdotal Fallacy. For example, in order to call attention to the problem of child abuse, activists may point to a case of murder, though neglect is a more typical form of abuse.
- Flawed Measurement (pp. 45-52): Flawed measurement can come about through badly-worded survey questions, for instance. However, if I have one criticism of this book, it is that Best's main illustration of the problem of flawed measurement is "poverty". While there are doubtlessly measurement problems involved in counting the poor, Best's discussion centers on a definition problem, and thus belongs under the previous heading. "Poverty" is a vague concept, which leads to all of the problems mentioned above of counting the number of cases of vague concepts, and of contrary definitions used by those with competing interests, so well explained by Best in the rest of the book.
- Weak Sampling (p. 52): Poor sampling takes two forms:
- Samples that are too small: See the entry for Hasty Generalization.
- Unrepresentative Samples: See the entry of the same name.
Another all too common source of weak samples is what's known as "convenience sampling" (p. 55): a convenience sample is a nonrandom, "unscientific" sample that is drawn in whatever way is most convenient. Such samples are cheap and easy, which is what makes them "convenient", and also what makes them attractive to the media or interest groups. However, the most convenient sample is likely to be unrepresentative of the larger population. When you read that a poll is "scientific" that means that it was conducted using random sampling, as opposed to convenience sampling.
Even when all of these pitfalls have been avoided and good statistics produced, there are still what Best calls "mutant statistics". These are numbers that have been reported and passed from person to person, mutating in the process, as in the game of "telephone". Such mutations can come about through incorrect generalizations, misinterpretation, or misunderstanding. For example, an estimate that 150,000 American women had anorexia mutated into the claim that that many women died of anorexia each year (pp. 63-64).
Finally, there is the "apples to oranges" comparison. One of the most common such comparisons is the comparing of prices at different times. Because of inflation, money tends to lose value over time, which means that comparing the price of, say, a gallon of gasoline today with one ten years ago is an "apples to oranges" comparison. To compare apples to apples or oranges to oranges, monetary comparisons need to take inflation into account.
"Stat wars" occur when competing interests advance contrary statistics for a problem and attack each others numbers. It's hard to untangle the statistics bandied about in the press by activists and politicians during such wars, because the media often just report the different numbers without attempting to figure out which are right, leaving most of their readers in the dark (p. 137). Of course, if different sides are using contrary definitions of a problem, then each side's numbers may be right; but this won't be obvious if the different definitions are not reported, as is often the case. Luckily, in the years since Best's book was published, there are a number of new media outlets that look critically at statistics, such as The Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy", and Annenberg Political Fact Check.
The final chapter (ch. 6) discusses four mindsets towards social statistics:
- Awestruck (p. 162): Treating statistics as unchallengeable facts.
- Naive (p. 162): This is where most of us are.
- Cynical (p. 164): The cynical treat all statistics as "damned lies" and reject them without due consideration. Also, from the ranks of the cynics come some of the worst statistical abuses.
- Critical (p. 166): A critical mindset does not swallow all statistics whole―as the awestruck do―nor does it reject them all without thought―as the cynics do.
These same mindsets apply more generally to argumentation. One of the dangers of a book such as this is that learning about misleading statistics may lead to a cynical dismissal of all statistics. Similarly, learning about logical fallacies may lead to the rejection of all argumentation as untrustworthy. Like Best, I hope that my readers will not turn into cynics but into critics.
The title of this book is, of course, taken from the cynical phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics", which is usually interpreted as grouping statistics with lies. Perhaps a more apt, more critical title would come from the phrase: "figures don't lie, but liars can figure". Despite its cynical title, Best's book is one of the best ways to learn how to cease being awestruck by statistics and to start critically evaluating them.
Also, by the same author:
- More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues (2004). Didn't get enough damned lies and statistics? Here're more!
- Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data (2008). Still not enough damned lies and statistics? Learn how to spot them!
The Shelf of Shame
Title: The Secret
Author: Rhonda Byrne
Publisher: Atria Books
Date of Publication: 2006
Quote: "I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them. The study of quantum physics helped me to have a deeper understanding of The Secret, on an energetic level." (P. 156)
Review: This book is the latest inductee to The Fallacy Files Shelf of Shame, which is a collection of books based entirely on logical fallacies. Other volumes on the shelf: The Abortion Holocaust, Comet of Nostradamus: August, 2004―Impact!, and Hitler: Neither Vegetarian nor Animal Lover.
So, what is the big secret? Actually, even the book itself as much as admits that it's no secret, since the idea has been around for a long time. So that you don't have to waste your time reading the book to find out, here's the so-called secret:
The Universe obeys what's called the "Law of Attraction". No, it's not gravity, nor is it magnetism, though the book likes to use these forces as metaphors and blurs the distinction between them. Rather the "Law of Attraction" is the notion that good thoughts attract good things and bad thoughts attract bad things. So, if you want a ham sandwich, all that you have to do is think that you have a ham sandwich, and the Universe will so arrange itself that you will have a ham sandwich, without having to do anything tiresome like go to the fridge. In other words, the Law of Attraction is a pseudoscientific euphemism for wishful thinking.
The Law of Attraction is just a version of the old idea of "positive thinking". Think happy thoughts and happy things will happen to you; think sad thoughts and the Universe will give you something to be sad about. However, there's one catch to the Law: you have to be careful what you wish for because the Universe is an idiot. The Universe will grant your every whim, but it doesn't understand negation. So, if you wish: "I don't want basal cell carcinoma", the stupid Universe understands you to say: "I want basal cell carcinoma", and gives it to you. So, the proper way to engage in wishful thinking is never to use a negative. "I want clear, healthy skin", is what you should wish for.
Why doesn't the Universe understand negation? The Law of Attraction is that positive thoughts attract positive things and negative thoughts attract negative things, but the word "negative" is ambiguous because it can mean either of two things:
- Bad or harmful. Antonym: Positive
- Having to do with logical negation. Antonym: Affirmative
The Universe, according to Byrne, can't understand the difference between these two ideas, though I suspect that the real reason is that Byrne herself doesn't understand it. Of course, if it weren't for this claim, the Law of Attraction would be even more obviously false than it already is. Since there's no evidence given in the book to believe that the Universe is so stupid as not to understand negation, the only explanation I can think of for this strange claim is that it's an ad hoc hypothesis adopted to save the theory from refutation. After all, anyone who isn't delusional will look around them and immediately realize that the world does not automatically conform itself to our whims; that the Universe misunderstands our wishes and keeps sending us things that we don't want helps explain wars, famines, and pestilences.
Another odd thing about The Secret is how concerned it is with making money. If you could get things just by wishing for them, what would you need money for? Here's Byrne's startling explanation of the spiritual significance of wealth:
If you have been brought up to believe that being wealthy is not spiritual, then I highly recommend you read The Millionaires of the Bible Series by Catherine Ponder. In these glorious books you will discover that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of. (P. 109)
I didn't make that up. I have my doubts about Jesus, but I have no doubt that Rhonda Byrne has managed to make herself a millionaire with The Secret.
What evidence does the book give for its dubious claims? Not much, but what there is falls into two categories:
- Appeals to authority: The book lists various great men of history who supposedly knew The Secret:
The greatest teachers who have ever lived have told us that the law of attraction is the most powerful law in the Universe. … Great thinkers including Socrates, Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pythagoras, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Victor Hugo shared it in their writings and teachings. (P. 4)
The only actual evidence given that any of these men wrote about or taught The Secret is a supposed Emerson quote: "The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will be." (P. 183) What secret? Assuming that this is a genuine quote, how do we know that he was talking about The Secret? The book gives no citation, so it's virtually impossible to actually check whether Emerson ever said this. I did a Google book search, but couldn't find it. Since I'm unwilling to give Byrne the benefit of the doubt, I consider the quote bogus until proven genuine.
I'm not an expert on Emerson, but I know quite a lot about Plato, and there's nothing in his philosophy that bears the remotest resemblance to The Secret. Maybe he knew of it but kept it secret! How, then, did Rhonda Byrne find that out?
Other authorities appealed to are the 24 "co-authors" who are extensively quoted in the book and interviewed in the companion video. Why should we give them any credence? Among them is a chiropractor, a feng shui master, and a "life adventurer". A few claim to be philosophers, but I've never heard of any of them before, and none of them list any academic credentials in philosophy in the biographies in the back of the book. So, they appear to be "philosophers" only in the sense in which anyone can make that claim.
One of the best known contributors to the book is John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Gray has a Ph.D. in psychology, but it's from the unaccredited Columbia Pacific University which was shut down by the state of California. So, he has a doctorate in psychology in about the same sense that the Scarecrow had a doctorate in Thinkology. He's also a signatory of the so-called "9/11 Truth Statement", which tells you something about both Gray and the statement.
The main thing that these people have in common is that most of them have books, programs, or seminars that they want to sell you. Now that you know The Secret I suggest that you just wish for them rather than forking over any cash.
So, the appeal to authority is fallacious because the so-called "authorities" appealed to are not experts on anything related to the subject matter, or anything at all in many cases.
- Quantum Quackery: The only other source of evidence for The Secret is the claim that the Law of Attraction is somehow based on quantum mechanics, and is therefore scientific. A couple of the contributors to the book are actual physicists. The best known one is John Hagelin, who got very few votes running three times for President of the United States on the Natural Law Party ticket, and currently is associated with the Maharishi University of Management. Both of these ventures are offshoots of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's transcendental meditation movement. In other words, Hagelin is an eccentric, to put it mildly.
Quantum Mechanics (QM) is a highly mathematical theory which is extremely difficult to understand and, therefore, is a favorite of pseudoscientists. All that they have to do is claim that QM supports their snake oil, in that way making the snake oil sound scientific, and scarcely anyone in their audience will be able to tell otherwise.
The Secret is simply the latest attempt to use QM to sell new age snake oil. I'm not a physicist, so I will simply let you consult the two articles on quantum quackery listed in the Sources below.
I've indulged in a lot of negative thoughts about The Secret, but I'll leave you with a couple of positive ones. It's beautifully designed and printed. Also, it's probably the most unintentionally funny book I've ever read.
- Michael Shermer, "Quantum Quackery", Scientific American, 1/2005
- Victor J. Stenger, "Quantum Quackery", Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2007
Reader Response: Lloyd Herring writes to raise three questions about this review, so I will address each one separately:
I have some questions about the review of The Secret. Is there a fallacy during the discussion on the two views of negation? You said something to the effect that the real reason that the Universe didn't understand the two views of negation was that Byrne herself didn't understand the two views. This may be true, but I am wondering if this is an attack against Byrne herself, in other word, an ad hominem.
It is an ad hominem―or, in this case, ad feminam―attack, but not a fallacious one. Not every criticism of a person commits a logical fallacy, only those that are logically irrelevant. In this case, Byrne's claim is obviously wrong to anyone who is logically literate. I'm not arguing against her silly views on the grounds that she is ignorant; rather, I am speculating that she is ignorant, because ignorance would explain why she adopts such silly views. Another explanation is that she does understand the difference between logical negation and "negativity", but thinks that her readers will not and wishes to mislead them. Ignorance and ignominy are the only explanations that I can think of for this absurd idea.
I would also like to ask if there is a fallacy where you try to explain why the author thought the Universe is stupid. You say: "Since there's no evidence given in the book to believe that the Universe is so stupid as not to understand negation, the only explanation I can think of for this strange claim is that it's an ad hoc hypothesis adopted to save the theory from refutation." I am wondering if this is the fallacy of ignorance. I don't mean that you're ignorant. Instead, could this be a fallacy in the sense that just because you can't think of an explanation doesn't mean an explanation doesn't exist. However, I'm not sure if I am applying the fallacy correctly.
It's possible that there is some reason for Byrne's claim that isn't given in the book or accompanying video, but the burden is on her to provide the evidence. In this case, given her failure to provide such evidence it's reasonable to conclude that she lacks any. This is a nonfallacious type of appeal to ignorance, such as the conclusion that there is no Loch Ness monster given the lack of good evidence for its existence. See the Exposure section of the entry for the appeal to ignorance for more explanation and examples.
I am also wondering if there is a fallacy in the manner of your characterization of John Hagelin. You say Hagelin is associated with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation fame through the Maharishi University of Management. You say that this shows that Hagelin is "an eccentric." Is this an example of guilt by association? Again, I am not sure if I am applying the fallacy correctly.
This is another nonfallacious personal attack. In the book and video, Byrne trots out Hagelin as part of an appeal to authority. Since Hagelin is a physicist we are supposed to be convinced that there is something scientific about The Secret. As I explain in the Exposition section of the entry for the appeal to misleading authority, it's almost always possible to find eccentric scientists who take any position you like. For instance, there's an eccentric physicist who claims that the government is covering up a crashed flying saucer. An appeal to such authorities is worthless as evidence: it's not any different than going from doctor to doctor until you find one who will tell you what you want to hear. My point about Hagelin's eccentricity is that he represents a minority opinion among physicists, and that most would tell you that The Secret is pseudoscientific nonsense. Specifically, its references to QM are quantum quackery.
Please don't get me wrong about all these questions about the criticism of the Byrne book. I am not a fan of this book or its type. I just want to make sure and get the criticism right so supporters of this book have no ammunition for their responding criticisms.
Title: The Book of the Fallacy
Subtitle: A Training Manual for Intellectual Subversives
Author: Madsen Pirie
Review: This book is the closest thing to an encyclopedia of logical fallacies to have been published, and it is a shame that it has gone out of print. There are 83 fallacies arranged in alphabetical order, and a standard classification in the back. Pirie classifies fallacies into formal and informal, then further divides informal ones into linguistic (such as Equivocation), and relevance; fallacies of relevance are subdivided into classes of Omission (Straw Man, for instance), Intrusion (Ad Baculum, among others), and Presumption (Bifurcation, for example).
In the introduction, Pirie explains:
"I take a very broad view of fallacies. Any trick of logic or language which allows a statement or a claim to be passed off as something it is not, has an admission card to the enclosure reserved for fallacies."
For this reason, some of the "fallacies" are linguistic boobytraps ("Loaded Words", for instance), or non-rational techniques of persuasion, such as "Emotional Appeals".
This is a good reference book to keep on a handy shelf, but it also makes an entertaining read. The entries are wittily written and easily understood but, given its A to Z format, it's not the best introduction to fallacies for the beginner. For that, see With Good Reason, above. Unlike Engel's book, Pirie's examples are mostly cooked-up, but there is compensation in the fact that they are memorable and amusing.
Update (8/24/2017): As mentioned above, the original edition of this book is out of print, and it's both hard to find a copy and expensive when found. Thankfully, an expanded and undated edition is now available under the title: How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic (2nd edition, 2015).
Title: Historians' Fallacies
Subtitle: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
Author: David Hackett Fischer
Review: There are three reasons why this is a valuable book on fallacies:
- It is an extensive application of logic, especially logical fallacies, to an area of study, namely, history.
- It has the second-longest list of fallacies of any book I know about: 112 are listed in the index. This makes it useful as a reference book on fallacies. Because of its focus on historical reasoning, some of these fallacies are specific to history (which is one reason why there are so many!), but most can be generalized to other areas of thought.
- It is a treasure trove of real examples drawn, of course, from the works of historians.
Fischer, an historian rather than a logician, works with a broad conception of "fallacy" (which is another reason why there are so many!). As a result, some of the "fallacies" are more properly boobytraps or cognitive biases, but they are no less interesting or important for all that.
The book categorizes historical fallacies into eleven broad categories, of which the following are examples:
- Fallacies of Question-Framing: Many Questions, for example.
- Fallacies of Semantical Distortion: Ambiguity, Amphiboly, Equivocation, among others.
- Fallacies of Substantive Distraction: Includes the "ad" fallacies, such as Ad Hominem.
Of special interest are the two categories Fallacies of Causation and Fallacies of False Analogy, which give the best and most thorough treatments of mistakes in reasoning about causation, and by analogy, that I've ever read. In these two chapters, Fischer goes beyond application to make real contributions to the theory of fallacies.
In addition to being a rich reference source for fallacies and examples of them, Historians' Fallacies is intelligently written, and makes especially good reading for those interested in history. I hope that future historians and logicians will study this book carefully, with an eye to improving both fields.
Title: Suspicious Minds
Subtitle: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories
Author: Rob Brotherton
Quote: "A conspiracy theory, according to…literal-minded definitions, is essentially just a theory about a conspiracy. But when people call something a conspiracy theory, they're usually not talking about just any old conspiracy. Conspiracies, after all, are a dime a dozen. From outlaws plotting bank heists to corporate executives planning to mislead their customers, and from drug smuggling and bribery to coups, kidnappings, assassinations, and terrorist attacks, plenty of things [that] happen in the world are the result of conspiracy between interested parties or secret plots by powerful conspirators. There's nothing especially noteworthy about theorizing the existence of conspiracies like these. Our definition ought to reflect how people actually use the term, and in regular conversation not every theory about a conspiracy qualifies as a conspiracy theory. The term is more than the sum of its parts." (P. 62)
Review: I've had some criticisms of the subtitle of psychologist Rob Brotherton's new book, as well as of an article that Brotherton wrote for the Los Angeles Times―see the Resources, below. My guess is that the subtitle was imposed by its publisher as there is little in the book that supports it, but I stand by my criticism of both it and the newspaper article. Nonetheless, despite my previous criticisms, I have good news about this book: it's excellent!
If you know someone who believes "weird things"―and I suspect that most of us these days do know at least one conspiracy theorist (CTist)―and you wonder what makes them tick, then this book may help you understand. Why is it that an otherwise sane, intelligent person believes [insert your favorite conspiracy theory (CT) here]? Of course, I'm assuming that you don't also believe that CT, for if you did you wouldn't be puzzled.
Even if you're a conspiracist yourself, you can always find a CT so far out there that you wonder how anyone could take it seriously. So, if you do believe some CT, a useful thought experiment is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't: that person is thinking about you in the same way you think about your crazy CTist friend. So, you believe that JFK was assassinated by the CIA, but those 9/11 CTists are kooks. Or, maybe you're a 9/11 "kook" yourself, but those who claim that the moon landings were faked are lunatics.
My point here is not the bogus one that we're all CTists, but that even if you are a CTist about some particular CT, you are very likely to find yourself in the same position as the rest of us. How is it that those other CTists can believe that crazy stuff? In contrast, if you believe every CT out there, then this book isn't for you. In fact, you might want to get some therapy―just a suggestion.
Conspiracy thinking is a type of fallacious thinking, and fallacious thinking is normal human thinking. It's normal for people to think poorly much of time and in many situations, especially when nothing of immediate serious consequence is at stake, and because it's normal none of us is immune. However, that doesn't mean that some of us do not think better than others, or that we can't all learn to think better. Learning about conspiracy thinking―what it is, how to recognize it, and how to resist being seduced by it―is one way to improve your thinking.
This book is not a history of CTs―though we do learn a little in the first chapter―nor is it a book aimed at debunking specific CTs―though a bit of debunking is done in passing. In the first chapter, we discover that CTs have always been with us, though perhaps not to the degree that they are today. If one is tempted to believe that CTs are just harmless entertainment, or all CTists delightful eccentrics, the second chapter explains that there can be great harm in conspiricist thinking. In particular, Nazism was a CT based on a plagiarized forgery. Of course, most CTs are not as destructive as Nazism, but that's about like saying that most diseases are not as bad as AIDS.
I've argued previously―see the Resource under "Confirmation Bias", below―that CTs are not genuine theories since they lack one necessary characteristic of theories, namely, falsifiability. This is one reason why arguing with CTists can be such a frustrating experience, as Brotherton explains:
…[A]ttempting to refute a conspiracy theory is like nailing jelly to a wall. …[T]he theory is always a work in progress, able to dodge refutation by inventing new twists and turns. Each debunking can be construed as disinformation designed to throw truth seekers off the scent, while the conspiracy theorists' continued failure to blow the lid off the conspiracy merely testifies to the power of their enemy (and the gullibility of the masses). Conspiracy theories aren't just immune to refutation―they thrive on it. If it doesn't look like a conspiracy, it was definitely a conspiracy. Evidence against the conspiracy theory becomes evidence of conspiracy. Heads I win, tails you lose. (P. 77)
Since Brotherton is a psychologist, the aim of the book is to explain what is known about the psychology of conspiracist thinking. Regular readers of The Fallacy Files should already be familiar with many of the psychological phenomena that play a role in CTs:
- Black-or-white Thinking: Chapter 7
- Post Hoc Thinking: Ch. 8
Fallacy: Post Hoc
- Over-Sensitive Pattern Detection: Also ch. 8
One skill in which people are still far superior to computers is pattern detection. At mathematical operations, or even games such as chess or go, computers can now beat even the best people. But an average person can recognize human faces far better than the best computer can. In a sense, we are too good at this task in that we err on the side of detecting patterns even when they aren't there. For instance, we all have a tendency to see patterns in random arrangements such as clouds and inkblots. The connection to conspiracy theorizing should be obvious, namely, that most CTs are like the faces or animals that one sees in clouds: they're patterns that aren't really there.
- Over-Sensitive Intention Seeking: Ch. 9
This is the tendency to anthropomorphize everything, interpreting every event in terms of human motivations. Like pattern detection, this is a useful and important human skill, but people tend to overdo it. For example, CTs have grown up around accidents, such as the death of Princess Diana, because people are unhappy when an important person dies from unintended causes.
- "Proportionality Bias": Ch. 10
A causal heuristic that people use is that effects have proportionate causes, so that events that we take to be big and important must have big, important causes. Here's what Brotherton has to say about it:
…[T]his isn't always a bad rule of thumb. A lot of the time, big events really do have big causes. If you pick up a rock and give it a gentle toss, you won't be surprised to find that it doesn't get very far. But reel back, wind up, put everything you've got into it and it'll go much farther. … We know the bigger effort will produce a bigger effect. … But it's not always true that the size of the cause matches the size of its consequence. Sometimes one small twist of circumstance can change the course of our lives.
The proportionality bias plays a role in many CTs, such as the granddaddy of all CTs, the assassination of President Kennedy: many people are reluctant to accept that a lone loser such as Lee Harvey Oswald could have murdered the most powerful man in the world. A traditional poem makes this point:
For the want of a nail a shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe a horse was lost,
For the want of a horse a rider was lost,
For the want of a rider a message was lost,
For the want of a message a battle was lost,
For the want of a battle a kingdom was lost,
All for the want of a horseshoe-nail.
- Confirmation Bias: Ch. 11
Resource: Check it Out, 11/21/2013
I could nitpick Suspicious Minds on a few minor points, but I don't want to; instead, I want to encourage you to read it. I do think the author tends to err on the side of tolerance of CTs, despite discussing the wacky theories of David Icke, who appears to have adopted his beliefs from the old science fiction television miniseries V. If Icke's theories aren't "crazy", then I'm a shape-shifting reptile from another dimension. However, no book is perfect. So, I highly recommend Suspicious Minds to anyone puzzled by the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, and nowadays that should be just about everyone.
Fun with Fallacies
Author: Robert Thornton
Review: Logical error has serious consequences, but it is also a laughing matter. Many logical fallacies have been the basis of jokes, but the biggest laughs seem to come from the fallacies of ambiguity. There is something about double entendres that we find funny, and tapping into this vein of comedy is the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations.
The context of this book was a spate of litigation against writers of unfavorable letters of recommendation. You may be called upon to write letters of recommendation for people of whom you disapprove. If you turn them down, they may be angry with you; and if they don't get the job, due to the lack of your letter, you may have to continue working with them. If you write an honestly negative recommendation, you risk a lawsuit. Whereas, if you write a dishonestly positive one, you will have a lie on your conscience.
LIAR shows how to write an ambiguous letter which has two interpretations:
- Favorable enough to satisfy the subject of the recommendation.
- Unfavorable, for the eyes of the prospective employer who knows how to read such double-speaking recommendations.
I don't know whether such lawsuits are still a problem, and I wouldn't recommend LIAR for its stated use even if they were. In fact, I think that this little book's purported purpose is offered with tongue in cheek. Instead of a cynical self-help book for weasels, it's a satirical collection of backhanded insults. Here are some catty equivocations:
- For a coworker with a drinking problem:
"We generally found him loaded with work to do." (P. 30)
- For an unpopular colleague:
"You won't find many people like her." (P. 35)
- "I am confident that no matter what task he undertakes, he will be fired with enthusiasm." (P. 64)
And here are a few malicious amphibolies:
- For an employee who uses drugs on the job:
"She was always high in my opinion." (P. 29)
- Need a recommendation for a former Enron executive? How about:
"For the services he has rendered to our firm over the years, we find ourselves deeply indebted." (P. 45)
What I found most impressive about Thornton's book is his creativity in inventing new forms of ambiguity. For instance, there is a section devoted to ambiguous punctuation:
- The "quomma" ("questionable comma"): it might be a comma, or it might be a flyspeck.
Example: "He will never do anything ,which will disappoint you." (P. 52)
- The "schizocolon": is it a comma or a semicolon?
Example: "Once he came to work; he was all business." (P. 22)
- The space oddity: an ambiguously short space between lettersindicated by a "/"so that what might be one word also might be two.
Example: "Her trademark was in/decent dealings with others." (P. 56)
There is also a section on giving ambiguous oral recommendations using homophoneswords that are spelled differently, but sound the samesuch as "right" and "write". For instance, the following sentence in a letter would be unambiguous, but what about in a telephone recommendation?
"The breadth of the man is overwhelming and quite obvious to those working closely with him." (P. 102)
Politicians and propagandists should stay away from this little book, which could be dangerous in the hands of someone with no sense of humor.
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