In more than a decade of writing posts here you've had numerous opportunities to hear me state that if I could change one thing about this country, I would require every voting adult to take and pass a course in basic logic. Nothing terribly advanced or difficult, but a course with actual rigor. All that "rigor" means here is that one could not fluke or finagle one's way into passing; it would be necessary to understand the material.

Think of how much more palatable our society would be with even a small increase in the percentage of the population capable of making logical arguments and identifying illogical ones. Again, I'm not talking about creating a nation of formal logicians here – just people who could look at statements to the effect of, "Autism is usually diagnosed after children are vaccinated, therefore autism is caused by vaccination" and think, "Hmm, that is not a valid conclusion."

I should temper my earlier criticism of the Bill Nye-Creation Museum spectacle posing as a "debate" earlier this year. I still contend that it was ineffective at doing much beyond allowing "Intelligent Design" mouthbreathers to pretend that they are worth taking seriously. However, the debate and some of the absolutely cringe-inducing responses like the "Questions from Creationists" meme gave me some useful insight into the problems with the way people in this country reason. This has nothing to do with logical fallacies, although there are plenty of those to go around. The problem is that millions of Americans do not understand even the most basic components of reasoning.

Start from the very beginning: deduction and induction. Four centuries after Bacon and Descartes, it still hasn't sunk in. This is deduction:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Mormons don't drink alcohol
= Bob doesn't drink alcohol

Deduction is painfully simple, yet we can't seem to get it. For the conclusion to be valid, both premises have to be true. Lots of people skip that part. The premises and conclusion are not transitive, either:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Bob doesn't drink alcohol
= Mormons don't drink alcohol

See, that doesn't work at all. That's an attempt to turn deduction (from the general to the specific) into induction (from the specific to the general). Induction is even more difficult for Americans to grasp because by its nature it can never produce 100% certain conclusions. In the above example, the conclusion is in fact true. However, the two premises do not provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion; we don't know that Mormons don't drink simply because Bob is one and he doesn't drink. If we had never heard of Mormonism before and knew nothing about it, that inductive conclusion would be tenuous at best.

That is not to say that inductive reasoning is always so flimsy – and this is where the skepticism about evolution ("It's just a theory!") comes into play. An inductive conclusion can be useful even when it is "only" 99.99% supporting. For example, "Every fish lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water" is inductive but highly reliable. It's possible, theoretically, that the next species of fish will be different from every other. It sure isn't likely, though. Similarly, "My window is broken and my valuables are gone; therefore my house was burglarized" is pretty darn reliable. I mean, it's possible that there is some other explanation (Aliens vaporized my property and then a random person threw a rock through the window on the same day) but it certainly is not a likely or even plausible one.

And the problem here as it relates specifically to Evolution is that it is an inductive conclusion. It is very, very reliable but we can't replicate human evolution in a lab or show a video of it happening. That some alternative explanation like creationism can be proposed and cannot be refuted with 100% certainty is all the ammo that creationists need. They demand that evolution is 100% reliable to be treated as the truth while of course believing in God and whatnot without being able to construct an inductive argument that can get within spitting distance of reliability.

That's what so many people fail to understand: that plenty of valid, reliable conclusions are less than 100% reliable because it is not possible for inductive arguments to be 100% reliable. And whenever it suits their biases and personal beliefs, people tend to demand 100% reliability from conclusions they choose not to believe before lowering the bar to about an inch off the ground for whatever tortured nonsense they are motivated to believe. That's how evolution or climate change are Just a Theory while supply side economics and the existence of god are ironclad facts.

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60 Responses to “FATALLY FLAWED”

  1. Alex SL Says:

    Is it really that hard to understand? Empirical science doesn't prove anything. It doesn't prove the link between smoking and cancer either. It merely tests hypotheses and models until we can say that an idea has survived so many tests that it is beyond reasonable doubt – but always still tentative.

    That is why the observation that easy availability of guns is one of the most important factors in gun deaths is not comparable with the perfect solution fallacy. The first is a valid inductive argument about the shape of reality, the second is a deductive fallacious argument about what to do in the face of an undisputed reality (i.e. there will still be a few gun deaths even if guns were restricted to police and army).

    Category error. Seriously, this is not rocket science.

    (Note by the way also: one of the most important factors. Obviously this is a multi-variable issue, but I am fairly sure that those of your compatriots who argue for stricter gun laws are fully aware of that, that they do understand that hypothetically given the same number of guns per capita, Somalia would still have significantly more gun deaths than Denmark due to factors unrelated to gun control. But that does not make a difference if the argument is to reduce gun deaths by tweaking one particularly easily controlled variable in this equation, which is the availability of guns.)

  2. Anon Says:

    I had intended to stay out of this, but frankly I'm finding Xynzee's intellectual dishonesty to be pretty repugnant.

    For starters, let's not forget what Xynzee actually said:

    "Therefore the intellectually honest answer is still C, unknown. Or in the case of a creating god, agnosticism."

    So Xynzee's "intellectually honest answer" – his ONLY intellectually honest answer- is AGNOSTICISM.

    Last I checked, Xynzee was not an agnostic. Xynzee, in fact, told me that he believes in the god of Leviticus, who ordered that people like me- queers- be rounded up and killed.

    Yep, that's honesty for you- a Christian arguing that the only reasonable conclusion is agnosticism.

    Don't even bother, Tom. Xynzee doesn't believe any of this- he's not an agnostic at all. He's just fucking with you.

    Xynzee's argument is painfully common among Christians. It can be summed up as follows:

    * Do you agree that Xynzee is *definitely* correct in saying that the universe was created by the murderously homophobic tribal deity of a tiny tribe of ancient barbarians? Then you're intellectually honest and open-minded.

    * Do you agree that Xynzee *might* be right that the universe was created by a bloodthirsty barbarian humbug? You are to be admired for your open mindedness.

    * But if you think Xynzee is *definitely wrong* to assert that the universe owes its existence to an anthopomorphic bugbear who is obsessed with fag-bashing…. then your opinions are obviously closed-minded and ignorant.

    Because remember, Xynzee deserves a medal for his open-mindedness and intellectual courage. As so many people like him have assured me over the years, the *real* bigots are those horrible queers, who don't appreciate how wonderful it is that Xynzee doesn't think God wants him to kill us *at this particular moment.*

    In fact, Xynzee is such a reasonable intellectual that he is completely unable to understand why queers like me don't embrace his petty, malevolent god. After all, killing me- back in the days of Leviticus- would have been a useful way to demonstrate how strict Yahweh's expectations are.

    "So given what evidence we have, look around you see the cosmos, and read the Bible"

    Oh, Jesus Fucking Christ. No. Fuck no. A thousand fucking times no.

    What's next? Are we going to tell Jews that they have an intellectual responsibility to look into Mein Kampf? That every Jew has a responsibility to diligenty investigate whether Hitler might have been right about them?

    I know Xynee loves his own crackpot bigotry, but I don't have the time to chase after the delusions of every crackpot bigot who says that the answer to "why does the universe exist?" is "murderous homophobia."

  3. Nick Says:

    Alex, again, this is where my original point comes into play–your assumption that the legal availability of firearms to citizens without a criminal record is both "one of the most important factors" in crime and also an "easily controlled variable" is accepted without any sort of need for proof, but my stating the opposite is treated as false until proven true. Exactly what Ed's talking about in his post. Again, my point was not to debate the effectiveness of gun control–I'm sure we'll have a chance to do that sometime, and if not, you can always search for Ed's past posts on the subject–but to point out that people tend to ignore invalidities in arguments with which they agree, a point which you've proven handily.

  4. Alex SL Says:


    Not sure who claimed that it is an important factor in "crime"; having guns available is an important factor in gun deaths, which range from mentally disturbed people gunning down a bunch of strangers to four year olds shooting their two year old siblings.

    And seriously, is it so hard to grasp that there is a relationship here? We have myriads of natural experiments for this, from areas and times where or when few to no guns were available to people. For example, how many toddlers were accidentally shot dead by their elder siblings in 10th century France? Take your time to figure that one out.

    You will obviously retort that there are other variables at play; for example, the parents could be sensible enough to lock the guns away, and society should simply miraculously identify all people who are prone to run amok and lock them away before they have done anything. Yep, this is a multi-dimensional issue. But these kinds of retorts merely demonstrate that you are fully equivalent to the people who claim that the connection between smoking and cancer is still up in the air because there are genetic and work-related and purely stochastic influences in cancer, or to those who claim that the connection between CO2 levels and global temperatures is still up in the air because sun spot activity also has an influence on the latter.

    However, you are clearly not going to accept this so there is little point in going on.

  5. Riccardo Cabeza Says:

    I was reading today's post by Prof Juan Cole. He talks about Godwins law, Ted Nugent and Nazis. Essentially he says you hold Nazi ideology (like Nugent), that is if you lift, use and believe language from America’s greatest enemy, (like Ted did) that it is not patriotism you speak of but treason.

    Cole also says that if republicans don't denounce Ted Nugent, who is the face of the republican party, for his treason, it means republicans tacitly approval of that treason. So here is my logic haiku:

    Today's republican cult is embodied by Ted Nugent.
    Ted Nugent is a neo-nazi.
    Republicans are neo-nazi!


  6. amil666 Says:

    Little late to the party, but just wanna point out that "Every fish lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water" is not inductive, it is deductive; if it is literally true that every fish lives in water, then it is necessarily true that the next fish, being a member of the set of "every fish," will live in water. I believe what you meant to say (and what is inductive) is "Every fish *so far discovered* lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water."

  7. Xynzee Says:

    @Riccardo: I thought "I'm a Man cause I shoot pigs from the air" hadn't so much denounced his words, but is deferring to those who are more media savvy than he is.

  8. Anon Says:

    Incidentally, Xynzee's "even or odd" argument is lifted from a recent interview with an apologeticist named Alvin Plantinga. Google it, and you'll find pages upon pages of people pointing out that Plantinga's argument is part of the rapidly accelerating death rattle of Christianity. Back in the days of John McDowell, apologetics was all about arguing for Christianity. Now the Christians are reduced to arguing for agnosticism.

    We're witnessing the transformation of apologetics from "rational people MUST believe in Jesus" to "please, please, don't give a shit… please? Not giving a shit is the only rational approach to Christianity, after all."

    But hey, it's not like Christianity *means* anything to these people. If it meant anything, they wouldn't equate the Almighty and Ever-Living LORD with irrelevant questions about meaningless counts of the cold, distant stars.