Category Archives: Fallacies

What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?

Pegasus 

So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.

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A Guide For Paranormal Investigators

Let us be clear about one thing: the existence of anything supernatural or paranormal (including alien visitation and abduction, not to mention magic medicine like homeopathy) has not been proven. For such claims to be true, there would have to be something fundamentally wrong with everything that science has discovered about the world around us and across the whole universe. The laws of nature are pretty well understood, and for the usual claims of the paranormalists to be valid, they would have to demonstrate how their claims do not contravene those laws, or at the very least they would have to show that they have discovered some hitherto unknown law or laws of physics.

It is claimed that telepathy, for instance, is real, but there is no testable hypothesis suggested, and there is certainly no theory (in the scientific sense) that explains how information can be transmitted directly from one person’s brain (or consciousness) to another. The proponents of such claims sometimes talk in terms of a mysterious energy that is undetectable to science (which just happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy), but which is somehow just transmitted and received by certain rare people who also cannot explain it in any sensible way that could lead to objective confirmation.

Parapsychologists, of course, claim they have the proof, but when their claims are tested by others they just don’t work. At least they usually seem to be following scientific protocols, but replication is the acid test for any scientific claim; so far, however, no one else can get the same results, so the paranormal is not taken seriously by science. That’s the way it is.

Quite honestly, however, I would not be bothered by science rejecting, say, dowsing, if those dowsers could actually do what they claim they do in the real world. If a dowser could clear minefield after minefield, I would be convinced, never mind what those “closed-minded” scientists say. My own hypothesis, however, is that the number of dowsers it would take to clear a minefield is exactly equal to the number of mines in any minefield. (That hypothesis is testable, so it is a scientific hypothesis. As a proposed experiment it would not pass any ethics committee, of course, but my other hypothesis is that no dowser would volunteer anyway, so it’s a moot point – unless any dowsers want to travel to any of the many war zones in the world to prove me and science wrong.)

Things get murky, however, because there are a lot of enthusiastic but scientifically illiterate paranormal “experts” who go on various “ghost hunts” and “vigils” and so on, promoting absolute nonsense in lieu of rationality. To put it bluntly, they have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about “energy” but flounder about when asked what, exactly, they mean. Over a year ago, I listened to a local radio station broadcast where a group of ghost hunters were interviewed by an equally credulous presenter. One of the interviewees, a local beauty therapist by trade, “explained” that when someone dies, their energy can’t dissipate. It’s electricity, she said, although she didn’t mention Ohm’s Law, or the relationship between voltage, current and resistance in a circuit, nor did she give any of the basic mathematical relationships between those concepts that would explain why the well-established laws of thermodynamics are invalid within her interpretation of reality. Michael Faraday, et al, did not rate even a mention. I can only assume that she is qualified in her chosen career, and that when her clients leave her beauty salon they are (at least in a statistically significant way) less ugly than when they entered. But I think she should stick with make-up rather than making it up.

In short, parapsychologists are doing it wrong, ghost hunters are doing it wrong; psychics, dowsers and all the rest of them are doing it wrong. If they could get it right, there would be no dispute. So, as an aid for those self-styled experts in the paranormal, and as a public service, I present the Bad Thinking Guide For Paranormal Investigators:

Arse elbow illustration 4

Feel free to use the above illustration for educational purposes.

Can Skeptics Handle The Truth About The Unexplained?

I got a sudden upsurge of traffic on the blog a couple of weeks ago after my last post. Mike Hallowell’s article claimed that a Neanderthal had been shot dead by time-travelling hunters using modern firearms. The article was picked up for criticism elsewhere, here, for example, so it obviously made an impression.

Since then, Mike has published a follow up article in the Shields Gazette, but rather than accepting that he made several factual errors and had fallen into various logical fallacies he has, in fact, dug himself deeper into a factual and logical hole. Let’s have a look.

The title of his article doesn’t start things off very well. It says,

Some can’t handle the truth about the unexplained

If something is unexplained, then it is unexplained. The only truth about the unexplained is that it is just that. What is the alternative? Maybe the usual, “We don’t know what this is, therefore aliens.” (Occam’s razor would come in useful there, and as it happens I am already busy drafting a post on that very subject.)

Mike starts his article with the statement (I have added bold for emphasis, and my comments are in square brackets):

MY recent article about an ancient animal skull and a human one which appeared to have a bullet holes in them created quite a bit of interest; more than any other column of mine this year, in fact.

That’s not just misleading but flat out wrong, because he stated specifically that it was a Neanderthal; there was no mention of a human being as the subject of the story. (I know from experience that Mike Hallowell will probably now accuse me of accusing him of being a liar, so I will make this as clear as I can for him: I am not claiming that Mike Hallowell is lying, I am claiming that he is contradicting himself; I have provided the links, and even if those Gazette articles mysteriously disappear for any reason, I also have copies of them that I can produce later.) He said in his previous article:

It was, in fact, a Neanderthal skull, and Neanderthal bones did not exactly come ten-a-penny. [Not in Africa anyway, at all.]

And:

As there were no radial fractures on the Neanderthal skull, it was unanimously concluded that the projectile must have had a far, far greater velocity than an arrow or spear. [Concluded by whom? Mike doesn’t say, so it’s not going to be easy for any (qualified) researcher or anyone else to follow up.]

As I pointed out in my previous post, the skull in question is neither human nor Neanderthal, although it is probably an ancestor of both. Although Mike said in his original article that the skull was Neanderthal, he now says he was writing about a human skull. (Pick the bones out of that. (as it were))

Mike’s response to those who pointed out to him that Neanderthals did not live in Africa is:

Really? And they know this how, I wonder? Absence of evidence is not absence of evidence. It is likely that Neanderthals did inhabit parts of Africa. [I think Mike means “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Carl Sagan’s famous quote.]

No, the absence of evidence of any Neanderthals in Africa indicates it is unlikely they lived there, and almost certainly did not. In any case, this is a red herring – the skull referred to in the original story is definitely not a Neanderthal, despite Mike’s original claim, and the main question (perhaps) is whether it was shot at all, never mind whether time-travellers did it with a modern firearm.

Mike says that “even if” the existence of Neanderthals in Africa is unlikely, he says that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean they didn’t live there, just that “…they may not have.” He doesn’t see the need for a positive claim to have positive supporting evidence before it can be taken seriously. That is basically the appeal to ignorance – the idea (whether stated explicitly or implicitly) that if a claim cannot be proven false, then by default it should be accepted or at least be given serious consideration. Then again, no one has found kangaroo fossils in Africa, so should we accept the possibility they evolved there with no evidence for that either? They haven’t found polar bear fossils in Antarctica; what should we make of that? It doesn’t prove they weren’t there, after all.

Mike reckons that sceptics are most upset at the idea that ancient people might have developed technology even more advanced than our own. He asks:

On what logical basis can we say that?

The logical basis is called induction. Archaeology and palaeontology have discovered tools and other artefacts that are associated with mankind’s evolutionary development, from stone axes to more advanced technology through the ages. Nothing equivalent to modern power tools, computers or other technology has ever been found at ancient sites.

Mike says it is extreme arrogance to suggest that no ancient peoples were our equals when it comes to “…their understanding of the sciences”. There are a number of links in the article, but good luck trying to get through to them. For me, all but one went to a “page not found” link, and the one I did get through to is nothing but the usual sensationalist and highly speculative rubbish that has been repeatedly debunked. And no, even if you can find the video of some astronauts claiming UFOs are real (and there is no shortage of them on Youtube), the number of people making an unsubstantiated claim does not make such a claim true. That’s the appeal to popularity – also a logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many people make a claim, it is of little use without corroboration.

(I’ll add a note here about that. A constant refrain from the woo people is that eyewitness testimony is allowed in a court of law, so it should also be “admissible” as evidence of paranormal claims. What they seem to be unaware of is that such testimony in court is subject to cross examination, and is still considered weak at best if there is no corroboration; if sufficient doubt is raised in the minds of a jury, then a defendant must be found to be not guilty, and a Crown Court Judge will tell a jury that that is the law. Sceptics also have their doubts when a paranormal claim is made without testable evidence to back it up.)

Mike then bemoans the fact that sceptics hold science in such high regard. He wants to know why “supposedly intelligent people” deny his claims. He says:

The answer lies in the obsession that some sceptics have with insisting that scientific testing, experimentation and observation are the only reliable means of establishing the veracity of something.

Well, when you can pick and choose your own criteria for establishing truth, and ignore completely such things as multiple eyewitness testimony, you’re on a pretty safe bet, of course.

Whether Mike likes it or not, science is the best method we have for finding out about the universe we live in. A subjective assessment of claims is worthless if you are asserting that a claim is an objective fact. It is the paranormal fraternity who pick and choose their own criteria for “establishing truth,” but they have to be anti-science because science requires testable evidence of any claim made – eye witness testimony is not scientific.

And:

So what do you do with those pesky eyewitnesses who insist they’ve seen things you don’t want to believe in?

Maybe accept that they have just been “seeing things”? Mike believes that sceptics respond with character assassination and various ad hominem attacks, but he does not accept that in fact the various claims made by  paranormal proponents are rejected because of a lack of credible evidence to support them.

He doesn’t help his argument by stating that there are various astronauts who make public claims that aliens are here. As he puts it:

They’re either outrageous liars, or they’re telling the truth, I’d venture.

That fallacy is called a false dichotomy – offering only two alternatives when there are others. Perhaps those witnesses are delusional, or maybe they have been given false information and they truly believe it. I can think of other possibilities, but Mike thinks they should be believed because he sees “…no reason for them to fib.”

Paranormal buffs like Mike criticise science, commonly saying things like, “science is always changing its mind about things.” But look at it this way: someone claims that a Neanderthal skull has a bullet hole and the force of the shot destroyed the opposite side of the skull. That’s a testable claim because the skull exists and can be examined.

Scientific examination of the skull reveals that it is not that of a Neanderthal anyway. It turns out that the “bullet hole” shows signs of healing, so the individual did not die from the wound. Evidence also suggests that it may have been caused by an infection in the overlying tissue. And, despite what he said, the opposite side of the skull is intact, and definitely not showing signs of a bullet’s exit wound.

All of that has been pointed out to Mike Hallowell, but not only will he not admit that he got it wrong, he defends his original article with self-contradictory statements and logical fallacies, and criticises science – the very discipline that could have upheld his claim if only it were true.

So it turns out that the skull in question is not a Neanderthal and it wasn’t shot dead by time travellers using a modern firearm. That’s the truth and yes, sceptics can handle it. There was nothing paranormal to explain n the first place.

Astrology On The NHS?

A few hundred years ago if you happened to fall ill, it quite often turned out to be a death sentence. The best that people could do then was to turn to superstition. Everything from charms to prayers would be used to try to cure ailments that no one had any idea what to do about. Mortality rates then were horrendous, and only a lucky few with some level of natural immunity would survive the various epidemics and plagues that swept across whole continents.

Over time, however, the patient work of many brilliant and dedicated researchers gradually found ways of beating the dark side of nature. An outbreak of cholera could be stopped if a supply of clean water was made available, for example, and  infections could be avoided by simple hand washing. Even if people had no idea about germ theory, some had discovered ways to tackle diseases even if they did not yet know exactly why their innovations worked.

More research gradually revealed the causes, and very often the cures, for various ailments that would have routinely sent a sufferer to an early grave. Prayers, charms and meaningless rituals slowly disappeared to be replaced by science-based medicine – a triumph of the human intellect over out-dated and useless (often dangerous) superstition, which was eventually replaced by everything from antibiotics to complex full body scanners.

David Tredinnick BBC photoAnd now that there is absolutely no need for superstition in medicine, along comes a modern day member of parliament who wants to see astrology provided on the National Health Service! David Tredinnick, MP, thinks that a throwback to the middle ages and beyond is going to be of use in a modern medical setting.

According to the BBC:

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

He’s a member of the what? The Health Committee and Science and Technology Committee? Well, it’s a good job he’s not afraid of ridicule (I disapprove of abuse), because he’s going to be getting it.

Having studied an Indian astrological system and the way it is used by the Indian government (yes, really), he is convinced it works. He says:

“There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

I’ll agree there’s no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record, but astrology’s track record is dismal for everything, never mind health care, however much he and others might believe in it.

It’s bad enough that homeopathy has a small foothold in our health service, but Tredinnick and others like him are pushing hard to have centuries of scientific achievements thrown to one side. There is even a group of Christian doctors pushing to have demon possession recognised and exorcism as an effective treatment for mental disorders. If you don’t believe me, check this article on the website of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

And it just gets worse: Lord Saatchi is pushing a new law which, if enacted, could allow all kinds of quackery to flourish; if he gets his way, then any kind of quack nostrum could be applied by medical practitioners without fear of legal consequences. Indeed, this might be one way that astrology could be shoehorned into medicine.

What happened to the Enlightenment? It took thousands of years of patient research by very clever people to find ways to prevent or cure illnesses that never would respond to what was itself never anything more than magical thinking. Yet it could all be undone very quickly by scientific illiterates who happen to be in positions of influence and power.

Tredinnick, however, has not revealed what his star chart predicts about whether or when his proposals will become law. Maybe he isn’t mad; he might just be possessed. And if exorcism fails to cure him, then maybe one of Saatchi’s end-of-life futile gestures will do the trick. Then again, maybe, just maybe, reason will prevail and all this assorted nonsense can be disposed of sensibly. I think it will be a fight to retain science in the face of superstition, but it’s a fight that obviously has to be fought.

This is not a political blog, but I would suggest to the people of Bosworth that if, in the event of an illness or accident, they would want their doctor to consult their X-ray results rather than their horoscope; check their pulse rather than check which constellation the Sun is in; or whether Mystic Meg is going to be the surgeon who might be hacking away at their giblets,  they could do worse than thinking very carefully before they cast their vote in next year’s general election.

Talk about Bad Thinking!

Not Evidence For Design

I’ve just had my regular visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And of course they left the latest copies of their propaganda magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!

I always read them before they go into the recycling bin, just to see if there is anything that makes sense to a thinking person, although their main value is to give an insight into the irrationality of the believing brain. These magazines are just apologetics, mostly, and seem to be aimed at believers rather than anyone else. For those who already believe, and who like to have reinforcement of those beliefs, they serve a purpose. They might also be aimed at impressing potential converts, of course.

Something jumped out at me in this month’s Awake!, however. It’s an interview with an actual physicist who converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2005. He says he used to believe in evolution, but later concluded that life was created. I’ll not embarrass the fellow by naming names, but if you come across the July 2014 edition, you can read the interview on pages 12 and 13.

Incredibly, an actual physicist – who says that his job is to understand nature – shows the most profound misunderstanding of nature itself and the most basic laws of physics. He says:

As a physicist, my job is to understand nature. So I decided to give the facts some careful thought.

So what facts did he consider?

First, I knew that a closed system cannot become more organized unless acted upon by an external agent. That is the second law of thermodynamics. Since the universe and life on earth are highly ordered, I concluded that they must be products of an external agent, a Creator.

The second fact was that the universe and the earth seem to be specifically designed to support life. [Emphasis added]

In fact, the second law of thermodynamics says nothing about an external “agent” as such, and certainly not in the form of a creator, (or god). There are different ways that the second law can be stated but essentially it means that the total energy in a closed system will equalise over time until it is no longer able to do any useful work. It’s the same reason why perpetual motion machines are nothing more than wishful thinking: even the most efficient machines must eventually lose their energy into the rest of the system until they come to a halt.

It almost beggars belief that an actual Experimental Physicist can mangle one of the most basic physical laws. I checked around on the internet and found out that he is not just a physicist but a Senior Research Fellow in a British university, so it looks like the article isn’t a hoax – although I was wondering.

The second law is regularly trotted out by creationists as some sort of proof (they think) that evolution can’t be true. But it’s sad that their physicist has missed one extremely important point: the Earth is not a closed system. There is a constant input of energy from the Sun, so life on this planet is not falling foul of any physical laws, least of all the second law. As long as the Sun keeps shining, there is no danger at all of the orderliness of our system decaying.

The second point he makes is just another fallacy that creationists promote, the idea that “the universe and the earth seem specifically designed to support life.”

It’s another example of bad thinking. Look at it this way: if there is life elsewhere in the galaxy, it is unlikely to be anything like life on this planet. The environment that supports us could well be lethal to alien beings. And the environment on their planet might be lethal to us. There might be thousands of planets out there that are home to intelligent civilisations, none of which could survive for a minute on any of the other inhabited planets.

The point is this: the laws of physics apply all over the observable universe, so the emergence of life is probably inevitable. But those same laws don’t mean that there is only one type of environment that can support life. In the same way that life on Earth is extremely diverse, life across the universe is going to come in different forms too. If life can emerge and develop, it will evolve to fit into the environment it is in – not the other way round. The tendency is for believers to assume that the environment is there for the needs of the life within it, but the reality is that life adapts (evolves) to a changing environment, or it dies out. Nature has no feelings on the matter.

Our physicist then goes on to contradict himself, although it’s subtle and it will go unnoticed by the scientifically illiterate faithful, of course. He was “intrigued” by the Bible’s creation account and its reference to light:

“God said: ‘Let there be light.’ Then there was light.”

He then goes on to state the obvious: plants need light to produce food and we need light to see. And he goes on to say that ultraviolet light is good in small amounts, but dangerous if we get too much.

Yes, that’s true enough, but he acknowledges here that there is a constant stream of energy reaching the Earth from the Sun – the very thing that ensures that the second law is not going to spell our doom (for a few billion years anyway, at least until the Sun runs out of fuel and dies).

Sometimes I despair, especially when a qualified scientist (a physicist, of all people) who knows better, is willing to overlook the science he is trained in, in favour of faith (a belief that is held without evidence).

One thing I think I can be sure about is that this physicist will not be teaching his students the Jehovah’s Witnesses version of physics in an actual university lecture theatre. He will be obliged to teach physics, not religion.

Then again, it would be interesting to see what his peers would think of his research in this kind of scenario:creationism-cartoon-a-miracle-occurs

(Credit: Sidney Harris Science Cartoons)

The advantage of an article featuring a scientist for any religious organisation is that it gives a false impression that science itself somehow confirms the religious beliefs of that organisation. Unfortunately, this scientist is not using science in this instance; he has allowed his beliefs to override his logic, and he just gives a superficial and false sense of authority to his church’s doctrine.

Religion and science just do not mix.

This Is Getting Tedious

untitledThis post is fairly important to me, because I am allowing Mike Hallowell, who has, in the past, had comments I have made elsewhere about his paranormal and supernatural claims on the internet removed under the threat of legal action, the space to speak his own mind, uncensored, on my own blog. I believe in free speech, and I think that the way to counter a bad argument is with a better argument, not legal thuggery or any kind of threat or intimidation.

My last post detailed an actual weird experience I had that many other people would have assumed to be an actual encounter with a UFO (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy, for the dyslexic). But it turned out to be something more mundane; not the sort of thing a UFO “expert” wants to hear, of course, because rational explanations for extraordinary events are taboo for the woo fraternity. For them, the comforting belief in their fantasy is preferable to the objective reality that is actually out there, and if some of them can make some money from writing cobblers they truly and honestly believe, then that is the way it just happens to be.

I admit I included an “in-joke,” not intended for the casual reader of this blog, but with meaning to only a very small audience of sceptics who are “in on it,” although Mike Hallowell, self-proclaimed expert in matters paranormal (who has never proven any of his paranormal claims to the standards required by science or ordinary rationality), noticed it. And it seems to have hit a nerve.

Mike is rather sensitive when his various claims are exposed to scrutiny. It’s not just me who criticises him, of course, it must be almost a full time occupation for him chasing his critics around the internet, but in the process failing to recall the old maxim, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” (This is a good place to start if you want a flavour of what I mean.)

And so it is here. Mike submitted a comment to that last post, but I did  not publish his comment on that particular thread because it was, first of all, completely off-topic and did not address the subject of the post at all. It’s standard practice on blogs for the host to reject comments that do not contribute anything to the subject at hand. I think that’s fair enough, but I think it’s also fair to let him have his say while I demonstrate to him where he is going wrong with his petty outburst. Hence this new post.

Also, the comment he submitted included some of the false allegations that he has made numerous times in the past and seems to be prepared to continue indefinitely into the future. I think the best thing to do here is to nail those allegations once and for all, and maybe, if necessary, create a new section on the Bad Thinking blog to do that. For me, it will be much easier to have a specific area where my refutations of Mike’s comments can be dealt with for readers by clicking on a ready-made link, rather than me composing a new reply to old tropes every time Mike decides to go ballistic.

Here is Mike’s comment in full, with my responses, with my answers in red Times New Roman.

Mike Hallowell commented on My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather …

“Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow?”

It doesn’t really matter, for in my experience you’ll have fibbers claiming you did this anyway even if you didn’t. I had an experience like this once, where a local” sceptic” made a similar claim about me. In fact, the accusation was drawn from an article written by another journalist entirely! You couldn’t make it up. The chap concerned claimed that I’d made such claims “many times” in one of my own columns. I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction. I still read through our lengthy correspondence on the matter with fondness every now and then when my faith in the ability of our species to think creatively starts to wane.

Obviously, I am the “local sceptic” Mike is referring to. But he is being disingenuous here, and did not include a link to the article he means, nor did he quote me accurately. I have said elsewhere that Mike claims to send evidence away for analysis, and which returns startling results. That was sarcasm with a bit of hyperbole that went over his head. I have not claimed that he has made that claim “in one of his columns,” but he certainly has claimed to have sent evidence “away for analysis” and he has claimed to have received “startling results.” But his claims are empty anyway because he consistently refuses to release any of these alleged results for public scrutiny.

The article by “another journalist entirely” can be found here: Is This The Face Of The Salon Ghost?. That article appeared on 6th March, 2009 – more than five years ago. It is clear that the reporter interviewed Mike, whom she describes as a “Gazette columnist and ghost buster,” and there are several quotes by him. She also says, “Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.” [Emphasis added] It appears to be a follow up article to this one about the same “haunted” salon published on 17th February 2009 (two prominent pieces of free publicity for a local business – not bad).

It is obvious that Mike must have said that to the reporter, even though it is not presented as a verbatim quote, and in any case it is standard journalistic practice to sometimes describe what someone has said without the need to put every single utterance into quotation marks. If Mike said to the reporter something like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve sent those snaps away to be analysed,” then reporting that he has said so is acceptable. At the end of the article, though, there is a direct quote from Mike: “Until they have been analysed further we can’t make any definite pronouncements…” Any reasonable interpretation of this article suggests that Mike Hallowell did indeed claim to have sent his snapshots away for analysis by some unnamed third party. (He did not say, “Until I have analysed…”)

Now here’s the problem: 1) Is Mike denying that he told the reporter that he has sent those pictures off for analysis? I have suggested to him in the past that if the reporter has misquoted him, or (even worse) just made it up (a serious ethical breach), then he should make a formal complaint to the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction and an apology. He could even threaten to sue them if they refuse to do so (he regularly threatens legal action against his critics, so this should be no different). If he is willing to let the article stand, then he is, by implication, accepting that it is a fair account of what he actually said. Assuming that The Shields Gazette and Mike Hallowell (freelance Gazette columnist paid money by that newspaper) are honest and dispassionate seekers and reporters of the truth, then there is no danger that The Gazette will refuse his request to retract or amend that article, nor will they drop his column if he wants to threaten them with such legal action to ensure that his personal integrity is maintained.

Then again, I’m a sceptic; I shouldn’t make assumptions, but you can if you want to.

Another problem: 2) I’m not aware of anyone – myself included – accusing Mike of writing that article. Where did that come from? There is no dispute that it was written by someone else. And so what? It is completely irrelevant. Also, I have not been able to find a follow-up article by the same reporter to tell us the results of the analysis of those photos that Mike told her he was sending away for that purpose, and I am also unable to find anything about them published by Mike himself. As I have also said in the past, when Mike says he has sent stuff away for analysis, no one, in my opinion, should be expecting to hear anything about them again. But you never know; after all this time the results of that analysis might be in now, so perhaps Mike will publicise it. (It is five years later, though, so personally I don’t really expect to hear anything about it again.)

And has Mike ever claimed to have had “startling results” returned from evidence that he has actually claimed to have sent away for analysis? Yes, indeed, although it’s not at all clear to me why this is such an important point to him – and it clearly is, because every time I refute it, he comes back with the same old trope as if it were the first time it had ever been brought up.

But here’s something sneaky: Mike challenged me some time ago on someone else’s blog to prove that he had ever made such a claim. I was happy to oblige, and I provided a link to his own website where it was stated that some audio recordings from one of his poltergeist investigations had been subject to analysis, and had returned, he claimed, startling results He says (above), “I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction.” That is a false claim.by Mike. He challenged me to prove claims I made, even offering to pay £30.00 to charity if I did so. I did, but he decided that I did not and he therefore did not pay up. (The blog I am referring to is owned by my sceptical friend Brian, who has allowed me to identify him as the blogger who removed my comments under legal threat against him, rather than Mike Hallowell defeating me through logical argument. Although Brian focuses mostly on local political issues that might not be of much interest to people outside of South Shields, he is also a sceptic with an often  (Occam’s) razor-sharp insight into the world of woo. He and I discussed Mike Hallowell’s legal threat before he removed my comments, which he did with my agreement. But those comments of mine have been merely “unmodified.” They are still there in cyberspace and might be reinstated in light of the new Defamation Act introduced on 1st January this year. (The link I have given, if anyone is hardy enough to try to wade through it all, will not make an awful lot of sense in some places. With some of my comments removed at this time it seems a bit disjointed. When I contributed my comments, it was before I started my own blog, and I used to comment in various places under my old handle, “the skeptic.” After comments I made on the Shields Gazette website about the same article in the above link were removed, comments on Brian’s blog were removed under legal threat. That was the reason I started my own blog – my comments were taken down from Mike Hallowell’s newspaper column comments section for no good reason, and then other comments of mine were removed from someone else’s private domain through bogus legal threats. I decided to start my own blog where Mike Hallowell himself will not be censored (although he does that to others with threats of legal action in lieu of evidence to support his anti-scientific claims), and I will not be bullied into removing fair criticism of the unsubstantiated claims of uneducated people who claim expertise in subjects for which they have neither accredited training nor qualifications.) And before Mike Hallowell starts whining (again) that he had nothing to do with the removal of my comments from the Gazette website, I never did accuse him of doing so; it is just as likely that the Gazette removed them because they realised that my comments showed up their columnist as an ignoramus. Perhaps one might even consider the possibility that the technologically-savvy South Shields Poltergeist did it. Can anyone disprove a claim like that? No? It must be true, then, by Mike Hallowell’s own “logic” – the argument to ignorance – see below)

But did any of that resolve the issue? No, it didn’t, because after I posted the link, the words he complained about were changed on his website from “startling results” to “extremely interesting results.” Some people might think that that change is relatively minor and doesn’t make a great difference to the overall meaning, but it was obviously important to Mike, who has never let it drop. But the point is, when I rose to his challenge to show where he had ever said that evidence he had had analysed returned startling results, he changed the very words that would confirm what I had said.

Here are the before and after screenshots from his own website:

1_Before

1_After

Even in his magnum opus (The widely panned The South Shields Poltergeist) he says clearly (and get this if you want a laugh) that he sent  a copy of the alleged poltergeist’s handwriting away to a graphologist for, yes, analysis. (There is no copy of the graphologist’s analysis published, either. Startling results? Extremely interesting results? Mike has said before that he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, so don’t expect too much.) And it’s pretty much the same with two “well qualified nurses” in the book who supposedly confirmed that the alleged injuries caused to one of the central characters in the same book must have been paranormal in origin. You might not be surprised to learn that these unnamed nurses, who did not give written testimony in the book as other witnesses did, have now transformed into the more vague, but still anonymous, “medical personnel.”

Hallowell snip 02

“The footage was reviewed by medical personnel experienced in treating such wounds and they stated categorically that it would have been absolutely impossible for such wounds to disappear in such a short space of time.”

Anyone who has seen this footage will know that it is poorly lit and of very poor quality; whatever is happening is indistinct at best, but “experienced nurses” or “medical personnel” had no problem with it. The footage that was on the internet shows, maybe, with a bit of imagination, some slight marks on the person’s back, but the “medical personnel”  presumably must have been able to discern the victim’s back being “slashed to ribbons,” as Mike puts it in the book. There’s not much chance of ever viewing it again, though, if you want to form an opinion of your own. After much criticism and laughter, Mike had it removed from the internet to save his blushes to protect his copyright.

Mike will probably want to come back on these points about his alleged book, but I hope he gives his underling colleague and co-author, Darren Ritson, permission to join in.

On a different note, I’d like to raise a couple of points about the following comment you made:

“The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.”

You claim (in opposition to many astronauts, pilots, police officers, astronomers, military personnel, scientists and others) that, “The evidence for UFOs…is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.” All those people who claim to have seen the hard evidence must be lying, I suppose. [Mike can suppose that if he wants to, but that is not my position on the matter. In any case, calling upon the status of those alleged witnesses is a fallacy called the appeal to authority.]

People like Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Major Gordon Cooper and others have reached their conclusion that UFOs exist because they have seen the hard evidence. [No, those astronauts have claimed to have seen the hard evidence. They have not produced it.] You have reached your conclusion that they do not exist based on a perceived absence of evidence when you are in no position to know. [I know that hard evidence of UFOs is not in the public domain. It would be pretty big news if it was.] I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say that their position is far more logical than yours. [No, it is illogical for people to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than hearsay – whoever it might be who makes those extraordinary claims.]

Are all the expert witnesses lying, deluded or insane? [Perhaps some of them are; others are enjoying a lucrative income from the lecture circuit, writing Aliensabsurd books and articles and taking part in stupid TV programmes about UFOs, “ancient aliens,” and other assorted nonsense, also without producing a shred of testable evidence. They have motivation to be less than critical about the claims they make, even if they are sincere about it. Mike could have offered another possibility – are they, like many other people, merely susceptible to misinterpreting what they have experienced?] Many have said that they are prepared to testify before Congress regarding what they know at great risk to their careers. [I’d like to see it happen. They would be required to produce evidence to support their claims, but I think it’s unlikely that the American Congress wants to appear to the world to be giving a platform to a bunch of cranks.] The world awaits your judgement on the matter, although I think we already have a good idea what it might be. You once argued that witnesses like Dr. Mitchell could have been fed some rather dodgy info supporting the existence of UFOs to cover up a secret government project. [No, I didn’t “argue” that the US government was feeding “dodgy info” to anyone, I suggested that the US government might just not discourage people from thinking they have seen UFOs if they have actually witnessed top secret testing of new military projects. The military might even encourage people to maintain their false beliefs, although I think it is going a bit too far to assume they are actively “feeding” anyone “dodgy” information.] Not impossible in essence, but certainly impossible when one takes the evidence provided by Dr. Mitchell in its entirety; something you signally failed to do, if you recall, when you last tried to pour cold water on his testimony. [Mitchell’s testimony “in its entirety” is anecdotal, and not proof of anything: all talk, no substance.]

When Major Cooper testified before the UN to the existence of UFOs and their extraterrestrial occupants, was he fibbing too? [I don’t know. Did they believe him and then issue any kind of document, judgement or directive to confirm what he was claiming? Are his claims now official UN policy adopted and implemented by member countries? I didn’t see it if they did, and it is certainly the kind of thing the UFO people would publicise. I haven’t seen that, either.] Just what do you say to a veteran astronaut who states, “For many years I have lived with a secret…a secrecy imposed on all specialists in astronautics. I can now reveal that every day, in the USA, our radar instruments capture objects of form and composition unknown to us. And there are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public. Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password still is: We have to avoid panic by all means”? [I think I would say something like, “Wow! That’s incredible! Show me all that evidence! (that you haven’t shown to anyone else).” And I might also say something like, “You, like all other military personnel of your rank, are entrusted with state secrets that you now want to blab about? Where I come from, that would be called treason. You are prepared to betray your military and your country? OK, then, give me all the documentation and I will pass it on to The Guardian newspaper while you make your escape to Russia and join your fellow countryman Edward Snowden, who also gave the game away (with incontrovertible evidence of his claims about the American government’s surveillance of not only its own citizens, but the citizens of countries all over the world.). Become a fugitive in the name of openness and truth and I will support you on my own blog. Oh, and pick up a million dollars from James Randi before you leave – it might come in handy.”]

Was Major Cooper lying when he said that a condition of secrecy had been imposed upon specialists in the field of astronautics? [Hardly; the Americans (and every other government) usually don’t want foreign powers to know what they are up to, so secrets “in the field of” just about anything is pretty normal. Non-governmental organisations (businesses for example) also require secrecy from some of their staff.] And why would such secrecy be imposed if these thousands of sightings were simply misattributions? [It might be because if the US government exposed the stuff that is nonsense, then what is left is (dare I say it) the truth – the very thing they don’t want people to know about, things like new military technology that has nothing to do with alleged aliens.] Why would US Navy witnesses with extremely high security clearance levels claim that huge a UFO had emerged from the sea in front of USN vessels before flying off at incredible speed? [It depends what is in it for them. Decades in jail, maybe, for giving away state secrets, or making money on the UFO circuit talking nonsense to a gullible audience, knowing that they are not in danger of prosecution because they are not giving anything away at all.]  Are they lying too? [I didn’t suggest that anyone was lying; they might be shrewd. Mike Hallowell has, in the past, said that he thinks it is the interpretation of evidence that makes a difference. Those shrewd navy witnesses might have an interpretation that just happens to have a superficial plausibility, acceptable to the believers even if their interpretation of the alleged evidence contradicts common sense, science, logic and reality in general.]

The only argument you have to fall back on is the old canard that we can’t rely solely on eyewitness testimony without “hard evidence”. [Eye witness testimony is often wrong; that is why it needs to be backed up with “hard evidence.” Mike once used a courtroom analogy with regard to personal testimony, but if he were falsely accused of, say, committing a murder, would he think it fair if he were convicted on the say-so of a couple of high-ranking, but mistaken, military personnel? He wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong; in that case I think he might suddenly want to rethink his strongly held belief in capital punishment.] The problem is that hundreds of professional people are now openly claiming to have seen just such evidence, which forces you into the uncomfortable position of having to argue that although you may not have seen the evidence yourself, they are either all making it up or are mistaken. [Here are two logical fallacies in one sentence: the first is the fallacy called the appeal to popularity, and the other is called a false dichotomy.  The truth value of a claim is not determined by how many people believe it, and Mike offers only two possible alternatives regarding why the claims have been made, but there are other possibilities.] How can you “mistakenly” see a UFO in a USAF hangar? [If it is Unidentified, how can you know what it is? Could it actually be a new and very secret military project? What does an actual alien space ship look like? (Hint: it probably doesn’t look like a blurred smudge (BS) – the typical “evidence” produced on photographs and film/video that the UFO buffs seem to have orgasms over.) But go ahead and show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” be associated with secret governmental projects, as was Dr. Mitchell, in which the hard evidence is examined and evaluated? [He says he was; show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” film a UFO hovering over a military base and then have it confiscated by the security services the next day? [It’s easy to make a claim. Show the evidence.] Were they all dreaming? You can deny the eyewitness testimony all you want, but to pit yourself against such a large array of respected experts in so many different fields is bordering on the bizarre. [No, believing big claims with no evidence is what is bizarre (and in this case is still the fallacious appeal to popularity and the appeal to authority). In fact, it is irrational.] Your very own Dr. Carl Sagan once said, quite rightly, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Your stance flies in the face of this maxim, but with you it’s worse; you don’t even have any evidence that the evidence is absent! [Carl Sagan, one of the most influential scientists and sceptics of the 20th century, is described in this article by Mike Hallowell as being “not very rational.” So it’s interesting that Mike quotes him here to try to support his case. But the fact is the burden of proof is on the person making a claim. Absence of evidence is still absence of evidence. The only people who can provide the evidence are those who claim to have it. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, “Assert something without evidence, and I can dismiss it without evidence.”] Here are two hours of testimony from those who have indeed seen the evidence. Perhaps you’d like to tell us whether these are all lying or deluded too: [Yes, testimony. I’m not going to waste two hours watching talking heads unless they are presenting testable evidence. I’ve done that many times in the past; if this is just “personal testimony,” it is not of much value.]

http://www.youtube.com/watchfeature=player_detailpage&v=7vyVe-6YdUk#t=549

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that you don’t have to believe in the ET hypothesis. But what you really need to do is at least take a stance of detachment and withhold judgement considering the quality of the witness testimony arraigned against you. [There is no “quality” witness testimony arraigned against me. Just witness testimony for which there is no testable or confirmable evidence to support it. Testimony is not the same as proof. The woo brigade would like nothing better than for sceptics to “withhold judgement,” in other words, “shut up.”]

I really do find your stance quite intriguing, and would like to ask you on what evidence you make this assumption. I mean, unless you personally visit every building on the face of the planet large enough to house such an object you really wouldn’t know, would you? [The same argument applies to Mike, unless he has personally visited every possible location where an ASFAG (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy) might be hidden. I don’t, however, claim to “know,” I claim to doubt.] It doesn’t seem very scientific to me to deny the existence of something just because you haven’t personally seen the proof. [Mike Hallowell is a science denier anyway, but has Mike personally seen the proof? If so, then like his heroes, he has not presented it. To be fair, Mike does not claim to have had the same access to secret information as he thinks some astronauts have had, he just believes what they say, and that’s good enough for him. His readers should just believe him, in the same way he just believes what some astronauts say, and what other writers on the subject say they say. I do not believe that this planet is being visited by space aliens. However, I hold that opinion tentatively and if anyone can prove their claims then I will accept it. In the meantime, the probability that aliens are here is vanishingly small, given the fact that we still have only claims but no tangible evidence.] Wouldn’t a truly objective person withhold judgement on the matter rather than take a sceptical standpoint based on nothing more than a personal opinion? [What – as opposed to someone believing extraordinary claims based on nothing more than their own personal opinion formed from hearsay with no confirmable evidence to support it?]

Please explain to the world just how you KNOW that there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs other than anecdotal accounts. [I don’t claim to KNOW there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs (if that means extraterrestrial vehicles) but I know that the only evidence I have ever come across is anecdotal, not testable or confirmable. The burden of proof is still on the person making the claim.] It’s no good arguing that no one has seen such evidence, for that would just be yet another wild assumption on your part too, wouldn’t it? [I’m not arguing that no one has seen it, but if they’ve seen it, they should show it. Making claims about evidence for UFOs is rather like making claims about evidence for poltergeists: those who make the claims but refuse to prove their claims come in for justifiable criticism. Refusal to show the evidence or just making excuses for not doing so makes the claimant look rather foolish – except to the believers, who keep them in business.] Again, how could you possibly know? You are essentially arguing that because you haven’t seen something then it can’t possibly exist. [This is a straw man fallacy. (I’ll do a new post on the subject.) I am not “essentially” arguing that something I have not seen cannot possibly exist. I’ve explained the straw man fallacy to Mike some time ago.] Is this how true sceptics condition themselves to think? [Sceptics try to think logically, not Mike’s distorted version of what he thinks they think.] I’d be delighted to see a step-by-step explanation in your blog as to how you reach a position of disbelief when you could not possibly have determined whether such evidence exists or not. [This logical fallacy is called the argument to ignorance. Mike’s implication is that if one can’t disprove a claim, then it should be accepted. In fact, if a claim cannot be disproved, that is no basis for assuming its veracity.] You chide bad thinking, so please enlighten us as to how you reached your conclusion by utilising good thinking. [What conclusion is Mike referring to? He posted his comment on a post where my “conclusion” was that an apparent UFO I saw turned out, after investigation, to be nothing more than an optical illusion. I explained it in detail in that post.]

Mike is a regular critic of sceptics, science and the scientific method, so he will no doubt be able to tell me where I went wrong when I perceived what initially seemed to be an alien spaceship taking off from out at sea but then investigated it further to find out what it actually was.

Maybe I should have sent my account to him for possible publication in his Wraithcrap column, and seen it published with this kind of analysis:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/wraithscape/a-close-encounter-of-the-ufo-kind-1-6338120

Long story short: a fellow wakes up at 3.30 am and looks out of the window to see a saucer-shaped object; he gets his friend, who comes into the room and also sees it; it then shoots away at high speed. The fellow contacts Mike Hallowell thirty-odd years later, while it is still fresh in his memory, to tell him about it. Mike’s conclusion is:

“It was a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.”

An “expert” like Mike doesn’t, apparently, need to wonder how accurate a person’s memory of an event is more than thirty years later, nor how reliable that memory is from a person woken up in the middle of the night and still partially asleep. As Mike says:

“The question I would pose to skeptics is: On what basis should we disbelieve him – or for that matter, any of the other thousands of experients who have had similar encounters?”

It turns out you don’t even have to be a former astronaut to come out with a story that Mike will swallow believe, support and verify – at least to his own satisfaction. I could pose a question to Mike: how does he know that some of the tales he gets from his readers aren’t just made-up stories sent in to see if he would fall for it? (I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference to him anyway; he writes up the drivel his fans send him and then trousers the cash for regurgitating it in the Shields Gazette and presumably other publications. You can probably read a version of that bilge in the next issue of UFO Wankfest Quarterly, or whatever).

For me, however, when I had a “UFO experience,” I decided to investigate it and found an answer that was consistently repeatable. What I found was an optical illusion, and in the light of that, there is no rational reason to believe that what I experienced was a UFO taking off from its secret underwater base.

I spent several weeks replicating what I found, also spending many hours doing so. But that’s a bit too sciencey for some people. I guess I could have saved my time and sent my initial observation off to Mike, just to see if he would publish it in the Shields Gazette. At first glance it certainly did look like “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control,” but in reality it was nothing of the sort. I don’t think Mike, in this instance at least, is going to contradict me, even if he can quite willingly publish outlandish claims from anyone else who sends him an uncorroborated claim that he, himself, did not witness, but which he can confidently validate as “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s better to try to confirm or disprove things rather than take someone’s word for it. You look silly otherwise.

I’m bored now.

 

True Or Not – A False Dilemma

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.
— Albert Camus.

People are not naturally gifted with logical thought (look at how many “true” religions there are). But they sure are naturally good at illogical thought and the ability to bluff their way through arguments that seem superficially sound but are, in fact, pure rhetoric – whether their sophistry is by design or just ignorance driven by desperation.

BalanceIt is also true that people are generally unwilling to change their stance on a subject once they have committed themselves to a particular point of view. Once someone makes a claim about the paranormal, for example, if they are faced with an argument that renders their claim invalid, then they become even more entrenched in their position. That phenomenon is called the backfire effect, because although they have had their claim invalidated, they now feel the need to fight back harder and find even more reasons to support their original claim. A sceptical observer might decisively refute a paranormal claim (or at least prove that the claim is not true in the form it has been presented), but that will not change the opinion of the paranormal claimant. In other words, proving a claim to be invalid merely reinforces that belief in the mind of the claimant.

It leads to some interesting exchanges between believers and sceptics, but as a sceptic myself, I already know that a believer will not be converted into a rational thinker through rational argument. This blog is aimed at those who are agnostic about the paranormal and the other things I deal with here, as well as people who have found themselves becoming sceptical about wild claims and would like to know more about  how to deal with the paranormal, supernatural, quackery and other claims made by dyed-in-the-wool woomeisters.

One rhetorical technique that comes naturally to everyone without a second thought is a technique that, if successful, forces the opponent in a debate or argument to make a choice between two opposite propositions, neither of which might even be relevant to the discussion.

The False Dichotomy

I had this piece of sophistry thrown at me by a self-professed expert in matters paranormal in a previous post (and I promised him I would do another post about the subject: this is it). The commenter stated that many military personnel have evidence of alien visitation, and I was challenged to say whether those people were either telling the truth or lying.

Notice that the paranormal “expert” is offering only two options for me to choose between. The exact quote is:

“So, do you believe these astronauts, military personnel and others are telling the truth, and that extraterrestrial visitations are therefore likely to have taken place, or do you believe they are all lying?”

Stating it that way can be awkward because there is a certain emotive content attached to it. It attempts to force the person on the other side of the argument into a difficult situation – after all, would you want to say that you think those astronauts, etc., are telling the truth when you believe they are actually wrong? More importantly, would you want to be seen to be accusing someone of being a liar without being able to prove it? There could also be be legal implications for you if you did so. Keep in mind a very important point about this: someone might say something they genuinely believe to be true but which might, in fact, be false. In a situation like that, they are not telling lies, they just happen to be wrong. (Think of any TV quiz game: when a contestant who is trying to win the star prize worth thousands of p0unds misses out by giving a wrong answer, was he just telling lies? No, he believed he was right but got it wrong — and probably kicked the cat when he got home.)

In this particular case, my commenter is trying to force me to make a choice between two propositions when in fact there are other possibilities that he is no doubt aware of, but he is hoping that I will be drawn into making a choice between propositions of his choosing. It is a tactic that can often work in an informal face to face debate where the conversation is sometimes fast paced and there is not much time to think about it. But if you’re aware of the fallacy, it is less likely that you will be caught out.

In the example above, I am challenged to accept that the people making claims of UFOs are either being truthful, or telling deliberate lies. It can be summarised this way:

1) Are they telling the truth? Or:

2) Are they telling lies?

But there are other options:

3) They might be honest in their beliefs but have been fed with misinformation by a government that finds it useful to cover up secret aeroplane testing by encouraging people to falsely believe they are seeing UFOs rather than secret military hardware. (That doesn’t mean that a government must be promoting a belief in UFOs, just that they don’t necessarily discourage the belief if it distracts people from suspecting they are observing secret military tests.)

4, etc.) There are numerous other possibilities one could think of, each with its own level of plausibility or lack thereof.

Presenting two options to support an argument when in fact there are more is the logical fallacy called the false dichotomy, sometimes called a false dilemma. In more formal terms, it is known as the fallacy of the excluded middle (not to be confused with Aristotle’s law of excluded middle, i.e., the principle of non-contradiction – another post, later).

This example is in the same vein as the old “have you stopped beating your wife” question. A “yes” implies you used to do it; a “no” implies that you do it – even though you might never have raised a finger to your wife. (A yes or no answer also implies that the person being questioned actually has a wife.)

In this example, the false dichotomy is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy by your opponent to try to put you into a position where you are forced to make a choice between two propositions, neither of which you or he can necessarily prove or disprove, thereby deflecting attention away from the fact that there are other options, and the fact that there is no evidence to support the claims being made in the first place.

Whenever someone you are debating offers you a simple choice between two opposing options, you should be wary immediately. Just ask yourself, “Are there any other possibilities?”

The false dichotomy is not the same as a genuine choice between two mutually exclusive propositions. Are alien spaceships hidden away in a military facility at Area 51? They either are or they aren’t, and there is no in-between. It’s an objective claim that must be true or false.

If I were to say to any self-professed UFO “expert” something like, “Are you a clueless gobshite, or a cynical exploiter of gullible people?” I would be committing the same fallacy. There are other possibilities, including the possibility that he or she is suffering from a mental disorder; or that his or her belief is genuine, but there is an inability on their part to separate fact from fantasy (delusion); they might have no training in science and are therefore unable to understand why their claims of extraterrestrial visitation are highly implausible; they might have invested so much time and energy publicising their beliefs that it would be too humiliating for them to admit that they cannot prove any of their claims. There are more options, not too difficult to think of, but you probably get the idea. (One other option is that the UFO claimant is correct in his or her assertion that aliens are here, but that’s where their claims go askew: ultimately, they cannot produce confirmable evidence, but they can always think of reasons why they can’t produce it – conspiracy theories and anything else that will get them off the hook. “Apologetics” might be a good word for it.)

In a debate about the paranormal (or anything else), it comes down to one simple thing: can the claimant produce evidence to support their claims, or can they not? It’s a simple dichotomy, but not a false dichotomy. If someone says that aliens are here, they are or they are not. Similarly, the claimant has the evidence to support their claim or they do not.

If they insist that they do have the evidence to prove whatever paranormal claim they are making, then the onus is on them to prove it. The more excuses they make for not showing it publicly, the louder they deserve to be laughed at.

One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
— H L Mencken, in The American Mercury, January, 1924

UFO Cover-Ups. No, Not Really.

Thought, without the data on which to structure that thought, leads nowhere.
— Victor J Stenger.

It gets a bit tedious to hear self-professed UFO experts going on and on about military personnel claiming that this planet is a regular destination for aliens from outer space.

A real space craftOne name regularly trotted out is that of Edgar Mitchell, one of only twelve astronauts to have actually walked on the Moon. He is, as most people know, one of the most prominent promoters of the idea that the US government knows about alien visitation but that they are leading a cover-up to prevent the public from knowing about it. What he has not done, of course, is to prove any of his claims.

The believers, of course, tout him as being someone who must know “the truth.” That, in itself, is a logical fallacy – the appeal to authority: the fact that he is a famous astronaut is supposed to somehow increase his credibility. But that is a false assumption. An extraordinary claim like alien visitation has no special validity because of who makes the claim – however prominent he or she might be, or however highly experienced or qualified they are.

There is an interview with Edgar Mitchell here. He is saying that there is a cover-up, but he offers no evidence other than the fact that some people told him that they had alien encounters. Or, to be more specific, he says:

“After my space flight, I was contacted by descendants of the original Roswell observers, including the person who delivered the child-sized coffins to the Air Force to contain alien bodies. Another was one of the children of the deputy sheriff who was patrolling traffic around the site.”

Now hang on a minute. Mitchell’s information comes from the descendants of the alleged original witnesses? And the children of the deputy sheriff? How accurate are their memories decades later? And how can their stories be corroborated?

He also says:

There was also a military officer who was a friend of the families not involved in that particular operation, but who did share office space there. They all seemed credible with their stories that the bodies found were alien.

Oh, right. An unnamed military officer, a friend of the families not involved…” But he did share office space. And they seemed credible.

You might see a slight problem developing here if I link to this article about UFOs, written by amateur paranormal researcher Mike Hallowell. The problem is this: he quotes, among many names he presents in his article, Edgar Mitchell as an authority. What he does not make clear is the fact that Mitchell, in turn, quotes descendants of alleged original witnesses, who, in their turn were told the stories from the original witnesses, supposedly. Mitchell also relies on the say-so of someone he says “shared office space” with someone else (unidentified, of course, just like the unidentified military officer).

So do we have, at long last, proof of extraterrestrial visitation? Mike Hallowell thinks so, because Edgar Mitchell (among others) says so.

Edgar Mitchell thinks so, because descendants of the original alleged witnesses said so.

The descendants of the original alleged witnesses believed it because they were told it.

And don’t forget the mystery military officer who supposedly shared an office with someone.

What more proof do we need?

Another interesting point: Mitchell was also asked in the above article:

Have you ever seen a UFO yourself?

His reply is illuminating, for someone who is convinced of the existence of UFOs:

I consider myself fairly well informed, although I have not seen one personally. I’m not out there looking — I’m pretty busy. [Emphasis added.]

So Mitchell has not seen a UFO, he relies on second and third hand information, he has no evidence to offer other than hearsay, and some commentators offer what he says as evidence?

I can see why I’m sceptical.

(Additional note: Although UFO stands for unidentified flying object, it is the term used by believers to mean Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy. If they mean that, then they really should use the term ASFAG. At least it is unambiguous, and does not allow leeway for them to wriggle out of their big claim later when a “UFO” turns out to be just a Chinese lantern or something else just as banal.)

Extraordinary Claims Are Objective Claims

There are two types of claims – objective claims and subjective claims. Objective claims must be true or false for everyone, but subjective claims can be true for some and false for others.

facepalm The problem comes in when some people try to support objective claims with subjective reasoning. I see this on pro paranormal blogs and websites where proponents of woo will sometimes actually say that the paranormal is subjective and therefore needs subjective evidence to support it; but at the same time they claim it is real (in fact, they are making objective claims – that the paranormal is real –  and also saying the claims are subjective. That’s contradictory and doesn’t even make any sense.)

In fact, although paranormal claims are extraordinary claims because they contradict what science knows about the universe, they are also objective claims, and as such should be open to objective testing.

The Subjectivist Fallacy

An objective claim is a claim whose truth value is the same for everyone. “The Great Pyramid of Cheops is a sphere” is an objective claim. But it can’t be a sphere for me, a cube for you, a pyramid for someone else, etc. The claim is an objective claim that must be true or false.

A subjective claim, however, can have different truth values for different people. “A person can hold his breath for two minutes” is a subjective claim that is true for some people and false for others. In fact, most people can hold their breath for only a minute or less, some others can do it for two minutes and a few others can do it for several minutes. The truth value of a subjective claim varies from person to person. (Subjective claims also include matters of personal taste – the best book; the best music; the most moving piece of poetry, and so on.)

In a logical argument, the premises should support the conclusion, but when someone denies the conclusion of an argument, saying that the conclusion is subjective, rather than demonstrating that the premises are wrong, then the subjectivist fallacy is committed. It’s often stated in an indirect form, e.g., “That’s just your opinion,” or “It’s just your point of view,” or similar phrasing.

Objective Claims Require Objective Evidence

I decided to do this post because my previous post was about  an objection to Carl Sagan’s famous saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” My commenter’s gripe was that “what is extraordinary to some people is just mundane reality for others,” and therefore extraordinary evidence for mundane claims is unnecessary (according to him).

My commenter’s complaint could have been stated like this:

(1) You say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

(2) What counts as extraordinary is subjective.

Therefore,

(3) Your argument fails.

That would be OK if the premises were true, but where (2) is false, the subjectivist fallacy is committed.

It might be clearer if I give this as an example:

(1) You say that the Great Pyramid of Cheops is a sphere.

(2) What counts as a sphere is subjective.

Therefore:

(3) Your argument fails.

This is an example of the subjectivist fallacy, because the Great Pyramid cannot be different shapes for different people. The claimed shape of the pyramid is an objective claim, and subjective evidence just won’t do. If I really did claim, in all seriousness, that the Great Pyramid of Cheops is a sphere, then I would, of course, be wrong, but if my opponent claimed that my claim is subjective rather than objective, then he would be even more wrong: I can make an objective claim that is wrong, but to claim that the resolution of an objective claim depends on a subjective interpretation of the claim or the evidence is irrational (and remember that the mission statement of the Bad Thinking Blog is to poke a pointy stick in the eye of irrationality).

Does the US government have extraterrestrial vehicles in a hangar at Area 51? If you make that claim, then it is an objective claim that must be either true or false. It can’t be true for some people and false for others (which is not the same as saying that some people believe it and others don’t).

It is also an extraordinary claim because the known laws of nature prohibit faster than light travel, for a start off – which would be necessary for interstellar travel in anything like a realistic time frame. And it’s no use if the UFO proponents start claiming things like inter-dimensional travel, wormholes, space warps or anything of the kind without any evidence to support those claims, either. They are also objective claims and they are either true or false.

The mistake many believers make is to confuse what is an objective claim with what is a subjective claim, and assume that a subjective claim has equal status with an objective claim. It doesn’t.

If I were to quibble about the famous saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, it would be on the basis that although it feels instinctively right – common sense, even – it doesn’t specifically quantify its own meaning. It is a general guideline, not itself a definition of what makes a claim extraordinary.

However, the claim that what counts as extraordinary is subjective is a red herring, and very beguiling for some people. The subjectivist fallacy can sometimes be hard to pin down, and it’s not always clear; rather, it’s hidden in the detail, as it were. Beliefs themselves are subjective, and may seem mundane to fellow believers, but it is the belief that is commonplace, mundane and ordinary, not the truth value of a claim itself.

As a matter of fact, Carl Sagan’s famous quote isn’t very new; it’s been around in various forms since the time of the early Greek philosophers and modified by later thinkers, but the essence of it is the same.

There might be a way to clarify the whole thing in a way that will remove any misunderstanding (and have the added benefit of forcing the believers into a position where they have to provide objective evidence, or concede that they can’t). As I said at the beginning of this post, there are two types of claim: objective claims and subjective claims. When someone makes a paranormal claim, they must be claiming that the claim is true; if so, then they are making an objective claim. I therefore propose that the saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” should be replaced with, “Objective claims require objective evidence.”

In response to, say, a claim that aliens are holed up in a secret military facility, one only needs to inform the claimant that his claim is an objective claim: it is either true or false. If he says his claims are subjective, then he can be dismissed without further ado. If he says his claims are objective, then he can be asked to supply objective evidence without having to argue over what would count as extraordinary evidence. The evidence just has to be commensurate with the claims made.

Given that an objective claim must be true or false, only a dedicated believer could claim that there is anything subjective about it.

Was Carl Sagan Not Rational?

The problem with the Sagan Standard is the reasoning behind it; that extraordinary evidence should be produced to support extraordinary claims.

With all respect to Carl Sagan, this is not a very rational approach, for the term “extraordinary” is a highly subjective one.

If a person claims to have witnessed something truly extraordinary, should they really be required to produce “extraordinary” evidence before we take their claims seriously? I don’t think so. – Mike Hallowell, author of “WRAITHSCAPE: the UK’s stupidest spookiest newspaper column.”

carl-sagan So that’s Carl Sagan put in his place (Yes, THE Carl Sagan, BA, BSc, MSc, PhD; author of more than 600 scientific papers; author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books including best-sellers The Demon Haunted World, Cosmos (which also became an acclaimed TV documentary series), the novel Contact (made into a film); writer and presenter of the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; winner of numerous awards, including the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences – The Public Welfare Medal, the NASA Public Service Medal, and many others; plus there are awards named in his honour: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science; and the list goes on and on.

The above quote, by the way, is from last week’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette.

Anyway, do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or not? For Mike Hallowell, “extraordinary” is just a subjective term. He poses a scenario where if he were accused of a crime, then a solid alibi that he was elsewhere at the  time can be used to prove his innocence. And he adds that he shouldn’t have to provide extraordinary evidence, but “…just enough to establish that I could not have committed the crime.”

That, actually, is absolutely correct, but he is missing a very important fact: crime is real; some people commit crimes; sometimes people are falsely accused of crimes; sometimes innocent people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. No sane person could deny any of that; crime and everything associated with it are established facts, and there is nothing extraordinary about any of it.

So what is extraordinary? The word can be defined in different ways depending on context, but in the way that Carl Sagan meant it, he was talking about claims that contradict what science knows about the world and the universe. Science is not a closed book, of course, and new things are being found out all the time; but if someone wants to make a claim that contradicts science then they are making an extraordinary claim that really does require extraordinary evidence.

Try Mike Hallowell’s scenario again, but this time imagine that his alibi is that he could not have committed the crime because he had been abducted by aliens and was being anally probed aboard the aliens’ mother ship when the crime was committed.

Now keep in mind the fact that Mike is a proponent of alien visitation, and has even featured people who claim to be abductees in his weekly column. See here, for example, where he actually says, “Whether their captors are alien or not, something truly extraordinary is happening to them.” (Emphasis added) He regularly quotes former astronauts and military personnel who claim to have had contact with aliens and their space ships, and overall he is convinced of the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial interplanetary vehicles. For him, anecdotal accounts and personal testimony are sufficient.

But whichever way you look at it, claiming abduction by aliens would be the most extraordinary claim anyone could make in their defence against a criminal charge. In the real world, a person’s alibi would have to be tested: in other words, witnesses for an alibi would have to appear in court and confirm that alibi. Better still, maybe CCTV footage could be brought in to show the defendant somewhere else at the time of the crime. And there are other ways that an alibi can be tested. How could the claim of alien abduction be tested?

It seems to me that claiming abduction by aliens is an extraordinary claim that really does need extraordinary evidence. And in Mike’s example, that extraordinary evidence could be provided if the aliens were to park their shuttle craft in the court’s car park and the aliens themselves gave evidence in court (presumably through their universal translator gadget thingy).

In the case of an accusation of criminality, if a person had several witnesses that he was shopping in the local supermarket at the time of a crime, then that is entirely plausible because supermarkets are real. If the witnesses said they saw the defendant being beamed aboard a UFO, that is not plausible because there is no confirmable evidence whatsoever that UFOs, i.e., alien space ships, exist. It would need a lot more evidence than that – indeed, it would need extraordinary evidence.

I think it’s worth looking at the word “extraordinary.” Extraordinary means “outside of the ordinary,” in the same way that extraterrestrial means “outside of the Earth.” In that sense, or context, “extraordinary” is not a subjective term at all. Mike Hallowell’s argument, in his article, is: “What is extraordinary to one person, then, maybe quite mundane to another.” In other words, if you happen to believe in something, then for you it is ordinary, and therefore real. Nothing is extraordinary if you believe in it.

Does that argument work? For some people in certain parts of Africa, for instance, witchcraft is a mundane reality. So mundane and real, for them, that some unfortunate people find themselves being burned alive because of an allegation of sorcery. It’s so ordinary, in fact, that extraordinary evidence to prove such an allegation is simply not necessary. The poor bastards are just thrown on a bonfire to satisfy others’ superstitious beliefs (and sometimes just to settle old scores).

Believing extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence is dangerous – deadly, even.

Mike Hallowell also trots out the old chestnut about sceptics constantly “raising the bar” in terms of evidence they will accept for various claims. As he puts it: “However, if one makes a claim that the sceptics in their wisdom find absurd, they’ll raise the bar to new and giddy heights so that those making the claims are faced with a monumental task when it comes to satisfying those who choose not to believe.”

But “raising the bar” is how science works. People who make extraordinary claims are not being asked to provide levels of evidence any higher than science demands for itself. How far would a scientist get if he produced a hypothesis that he could not prove? (For the pedantic, I’ll be more specific: a scientist actually tries to prove the null hypothesis.) It might be hard for the believers to accept this simple fact, but scientists are more ruthless with their demands on each other than they are even with the woo brigade (who can’t prove their claims anyway, and no one really expects them to be able to). Science is a process that starts with research that might show promising results, but a successful experiment is not definitive, it is just the start of what can be a long and arduous task. As research progresses, the hurdles that have to be overcome become, as Mike puts it, “monumental.” Scientists have to do it, so too should the paranormal claimants.

Even when a scientific hypothesis reaches the highest pinnacle, that is, it attains the status of a theory, it is not immune from criticism. Even a scientific theory is held provisionally: despite the best evidence, it might turn out to be wrong (or more likely incomplete, in which case it might need to be modified). There are no sacred cows in science, but if an established theory does turn out to be wrong, that would be extraordinary in itself and would require commensurate evidence. If you can prove that E=MC2 is wrong, you are in for a Nobel Prize and worldwide adulation. But you’re not going to get it if you think, like Mike seems to think, that extraordinary evidence is not required to overturn one of the most extraordinary findings that ever came out of scientific research.

If the pro paranormal people continue to think that low level evidence is sufficient to prove high level claims, I don’t think they’ll ever understand why they are not taken seriously by mainstream science. And if they really think that requiring evidence commensurate with a claim is “not a very rational approach,” then that is just extraordinary, as well as being bad thinking.

Carl Sagan