ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 23: RUSSELL'S TEAPOT

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on February 25th, 2013 by Ed

As a person with no children, I learned long ago that when people with children are talking about parenting it's best not to participate conversation. I used to take the "Just ask questions" approach but I found myself on the receiving end of too many rants. Unfortunately my new strategy doesn't work well in one-on-one situations. Recently I was getting the "Parenting is overwhelming" speech from someone I know pretty well, and I was at a point where I needed to say…something. I thought it would be safe to mention a few things I've read about the Parenting Guilt industry – you know, those commercials and "news" stories about how you're hurting your baby unless you do/buy X, Y, and Z. A lot of new parents live in fear that if they ever feed their child something that isn't certified organic quinoa with fresh kale, Junior is going to get cancer or, I don't know, burst into flames on the spot.

She indicated that she was worried all the time about saying the wrong thing to her child, and I said, "It's not like one wrong word is going to turn your child into a serial killer." I was trying to be sympathetic, or something. She responded not-jokingly, "How do you know that?" Silence returned. I mean, I thought it was self-evident that saying, "Stop that! You're driving me nuts!" to a child is not going to scar him for life emotionally or turn him into a deviant. But hey, I can't prove it, so certainly my theory is invalid.

In 1952, Bertrand Russell wrote the following regarding the existence of god:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Russell was talking about religion specifically, but he raises a broadly applicable point about the burden of proof – which rests on the party advancing an implausible hypothesis – and the difficulty many people seem to have distinguishing between validating A and being unable to invalidate it. The fact that I can't prove to you that there is not a teapot orbiting Mars is not evidence, either logically or empirically, that there is. Not surprisingly, this kind of argument is quite popular. After all, if you can't prove me wrong then I guess I can keep the status quo! Win.

This is similar to argument from ignorance, which we've already covered. But that was back in 2007, and I like Russell's imagery enough to give it a post of its own.

And seriously, you can give your kid a damn Whopper or swear in his presence on occasion. It's not going to kill him.