Sunday, January 25, 2009

New Feature

Skeptical Sunday
Our logical fallacy of the week...
False Dichotomy
Simply put, it’s when someone in an argument sets up an either/or choice that can be either blatantly false, or simplifies an argument that ignores a whole spectrum of choices in between the end extremes of either side of the argument.

One of my favorites: "Evolution can’t explain X, so Intelligent Design must be right."
Commonly, evolution is so poorly understood by ID proponents (see: Cameron, Kirk: that the first half of the above statement often incorrect. Add insult to injury, and conclude that ID is thus, by fiat, the correct explanation.

I actually understand how evolution is so misunderstood: it’s pretty complex. The biology alone is mind-boggling (which makes it so fascinating), and is corroborated by a dozen or so other scientific disciplines, which also require years of study to get a firm grasp on.

Tangent: that’s one of beauties of science, that as our body of knowledge grows, so does our need for ever more people to work together to progress our understanding, and create beneficial applications based on our understanding. I'd like to buy the world a coke, and an education.

One of the biggest problems in the E vs. ID debate is that E is poorly explained. There are some pretty basic, and simple principles involved. How to make them interesting to an audience is problematic. ID debaters usually rely on charisma ( and a whole host of logical fallacies ) to appear to win debates, even if their facts and reasoning are torn to shreds. It’s a matter of presentation, and approach, and most scientists aren’t equipped to present complicated facts concisely, and simply, and with the appealing flair of a game show host. This will change, however. My greatest fear is that it won’t be in enough time to combat more ideological insertion into science classes, currently under the guise of “academic freedom,” passed in a bill in Louisiana, and currently under fierce debate in Texas.

Example 2: “You weren’t there to see it happen, so your theory can’t possibly be right.” Every murderer in the world would absolutely adore it if our legal systems adopted this kind of reasoning. I’m assuming anyone who’s a fan of any one of the 415 CSI’s can see right through this one. Additionally baffling is how even if this illogic was even remotely reasonable, how would it make the other position (ID) correct?

“Academic Freedom!” Who can argue with that? Isn’t that the essence of democracy? If it was an honest principle, sort of, though it presents its own problems. One could attempt to ban the study of Shakespeare based on academic freedom, arguing that it’s not necessary to study 400 year old English plays, and even if it was, it’s entirely subjective that Shakespeare should be the one we study, and not some more obscure author from the period. So difficult not to Tangent here, because I have plenty to say about Shakespeare; how and how he’s taught. Alas, discipline. What makes the current premise of academic freedom despicable is it’s utter dishonesty. It’s yet another re-branded tactic to insert ideology where it doesn’t belong.

Tangent: Hooray! Another gorgeous aspect of science is its intellectual honesty, which I can distill to the succinct phrase, “Holy shit, we’ve been so completely wrong about nearly everything for just about our entire history! Let’s use a method of inquiry that makes that very assumption, and devise it so that any assertion made must pass a rigorous amount of testing and review before it’s accepted, and even then we’ll look over our shoulder for ever after just in case we’re wrong even after all that!” Science is often claimed by apologists to have nothing to say about God (or gods). Debatable, though very polite. What science does have is plenty to say about human history, and human nature, and is the most honest we’ve been with, and about ourselves yet.

There might be a positive to all this academic freedom nonsense. While it’s purpose is to challenge evolution, there’s nothing to say that it couldn’t as well be used to challenge Intelligent Design. If ID is actually brought into a science classroom, and evaluated with the same rigor as evolution (mini-tangent: challenging evolution is also throwing a gauntlet in front of geology, archeology, paleontology, astronomy and astrophysics, chemistry, and nuclear physics. Really, they’d all have to be wrong to allow ID remotely even footing with evolution. They being wrong wouldn’t mean that ID is right: it would still have to prove its case if it wanted to claim being a science) it would be torn to shreds within one classroom session.
That’s where introducing logical fallacies comes into the picture. Logic is a main component of critical thinking, and while the scientific method is taught in schools, it’s taught as a list of steps. What it is, is a constantly evolving, self-improving method of inquiry that involves thinking skills that are simply not innate, generally, to human beings. We go through life shooting from the emotional hip about everything. The whole paradigm shift in the way one has to think is just lost in a miasma of facts. I think a curriculum is required to teach this way of thinking. Critical thinking isn’t just about logic, but also the ability to evaluate evidence, and is self-reflective, in that one has to analyze one’s own arguments. These are skill sets that must be taught, as reason is a product of education, not birth.

If good critical thinking skills were a required component of public education, the benefits would reach far beyond the controversy about ID (make no mistake, it’s ID that’s the controversy. It’s proponents’ tactic is to reframe it into what is wrong with evolution, when the real issue is inserting a specific religion into public schools), though it would help students see through all the crap that surrounds the ID issue, and allow them to evaluate it on its own merits, which would be disastrous for ID if it’s done in a science classroom. Additionally, it would save the American consumer billions of wasted dollars. I can’t even get a handle on how much money is thrown out the window on pseudo-scientific snake oil, and numerous other products that with a few seconds of rational thought, would be seen to be unable to deliver on ridiculous claims of benefit. Incidentally, I’ve personally discovered that militantly reducing my consumption of television provides some immunity to the advertiser’s rhetorical charms. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also appears to make the brain more careful. In addition, future generations that are brought up to give careful thought about the claims of others, and to their own decisions, would eventually filter into a government that might just think twice about going to war for no good reason (yes, I know the real reasons for war in Iraq are numerous, and far-reaching: it doesn’t make them wise or right) other than an executive that goes with the momentum, and believes he’s anointed by a very specific, intelligently designing creator, to go to war. Oops, did I just get all political?

So thus, I introduce Skeptical Sundays, the goal being to introduce a new logical fallacy every week, and attempting to use timely examples from the real world. Keep it real. No, really.

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