Logical Fallacy #8: Confusing Unexplained with Unexplainable

On the surface this logical fallacy seems very simple. The faulty logical proposition is to suggest that since we can’t currently explain the mechanism of an observed phenomena, it is unexplainable, thus must have a miraculous explanation. This also tends to fall on the assumption that the described phenomena and explanation is correct rather than mistaken. The proposition denies the ability to learn more about an event, denying future scientists and explorers from discovering the mechanism.

As with previous logical fallacies, always check if the basic assumptions are true. There is no point trying to find the mechanism of a phenomena if the phenomena is not what is described. For example, the mechanism for how crystals can help someone levitate is unknown… because crystals have never been demonstrated to help someone levitate. Or the mechanism for how the quartz crystal Guru Davi turned water into wine is unknown … because it wasn’t the crystal, nor was it water, nor was it wine. There is no point looking for the mechanism if the phenomena does not exist, or one that is misreported.

For those who are interested, the trick with the water into wine is to put phenolphthalein into the water first. Phenolphthalein is an indicator chemical that turns red/pink in the presence of basic solutions. Water is neutral, so it doesn’t have a colour yet. Now the quartz crystal is coated in sodium carbonate. When it is put in the water, the sodium carbonate turns the water into an alkaline (basic) solution, which turns the solution red. Don’t drink it – it isn’t wine. Trying to figure out how the water was turned into wine assumes the liquid started as pure water and ended as wine. That is a faulty assumption.

The second part of the fallacy is to assume that simply because an explanation has not been found to describe the currently observed phenomena (when that phenomena or occurrence is reported accurately) means it can never be explained, that is, that it is unexplainable – ever. Since the phenomena occurs, this must be an act of god/magic/aliens.

This gross assumption of unexplainability of an actual phenomena is foolish. Every time you learn a new skill you are able to do things you could not do before. Every time you learn a new fact, you know something that you did not know before. Some of you reading this are just now learning about this logical fallacy. If you were incapable of change, of learning, you would still be as helpless and ignorant as a new born baby. Clearly you can learn, grow and develop … so can humanity and human knowledge. The things that we know today about physics, chemistry, engineering and so on would absolutely awe an individual from a mere 100 years in the past. So to deny the ability for humanity to learn more in the future and one day be able to find the mechanism for a phenomena is very limiting.

It is not impossible that a god, or magic, or aliens have had a direct part in any particular phenomena. It just isn’t probable. Consider aliens. The logistics of travelling from one star system to here using what science we know now is a significant venture. If they did so, why would they do something odd behind for us to mull over instead of a clear statement of “we were here”. If aliens are able to travel between star systems instantly by super science means, then why aren’t we seeing more of them, instead of some vague weird phenomena? The simpler explanation is that this is a perfectly ordinary occurrence that we just haven’t figure out yet – like children watching the stage magician.

It is very appealing to look for a fantastic explanation rather than accept that at this point we are simply ignorant. Personally I prefer to accept my ignorance, because then I can learn how it was done. If it is a god, or aliens, or magic, then I probably can’t.

Logical Fallacy # 7: Mistaking Correlation with Causation

A causal relationship between two events is where the first event causes the next event to occur. A correlative relationship is not a relationship at all – it is two events coinciding in a situation that can be mistaken for causal. People frequently mistake a noted correlation of two events as a causative relationship between the two events.

Relationships between two events come in four flavours:

* No relationship at all = randomness / coincidence

– For example, my eyes are hazel and the stranger I just passed is eating a sandwich

* An apparent relationship, with no causation = correlation

– For example, a survey of contents from stomach pumps at the local justice centre found the presence of carrots in 100% of inmates.

* A complex causal relationship, causation is established, but the exact mechanism is not = contributing factor

– Levels of bowel cancer and the presence or absence of roughage in diet

– Increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and the increased temperature of the world

* A standard causal relationship, causation is not only established but the mechanism is known and understood = causal relationship

– Placing a transparent vessel containing both hydrogen and oxygen in ultraviolet light forms water and heat… explosively

– If I lose 6 litres of blood from my body, I will die

We humans like to see patterns in things. Patterns are the first part of predicting future events, which can allow us to change our behaviour now to alter the expected outcome. An accurate pattern is a useful tool. However if the pattern is false, changing our behaviour now will not have the desired outcome, so we should recognise this error and let the pattern go.

The temptation is to mistake a perceived pattern for a tool that can accurately predict the future with a deficit of evidence, or to hold onto such a mistaken tool in the face of suitable contradictory evidence.

In the example I gave regarding the presence of carrots in people incarcerated in correctional facilities, it would be a mistake to consider that carrots lead to criminal activity, or that criminal activity leads to the presence of carrots in the stomach. Another example would be to look at the statistics of belief that criminals have and criminal behaviour. In the USA, the vast majority of criminals state that they are Christian while almost no inmates state that they are Athiest. One could conclude from these two bits of data that Christianity is a contributing factor in criminal behaviour, or that being Athiest minimises the likelihood of criminal behaviour. This conclusion is clearly in error. Criminal behaviour causes criminal behaviour, your belief system, or lack of it, is irrelevant.

Another common error is to attempt to make a mechanism for a correlation to support causation. For example, you may correlate your behaviour with an observation of the fullness of the moon. You may feel odd or bizarre and noticed that this happened last time the moon was full, just like it is this time. This seems to be a pattern, correlating the two events together. To explain this pattern you create a causative link between the moon and your behaviour. To explain that causation requires a mechanism, so you suggest the ionisation of the atmosphere increases due to the reflected light of the moon, or the increase in gravity during the full moon and the new moon affects the water in your body, or some other mechanism. Perhaps one of these is correct, but probably not.

The error is *not* in speculating about the mechanism, but in ascertaining confidence in the speculation without testing, and in the correlation in the first place. In this case the ionisation of the atmosphere due to reflected light is negligible in the face of other factors such as solar storms. If you were to react to ionisation shifts, then the change in levels due to sun light would create massive mood swings in comparison to any shift from the reflection of the light from the moon. As for gravity, you get a stronger affect from being near a mountain than from the combination of the sun and moon, so your mood would shift every time you got near a mountain – yet it doesn’t. Also, step back a bit – is there correlation of your mood and the moon real? Take down a chart of your mood for a year. Then compare it to the calendar and see if there is a definite correlation with the phase of the moon. The odds are against such a correlation existing. If it doesn’t, then your observed pattern is false. If it does, then perhaps there is a pattern to test.

Of course another consideration is that perhaps your mood causes the full moon… yet your mood changes frequently while the timing of the full moon does not. And let us not get stuck in the various definitions of what constitutes a “full moon”.

The Logical Fallacy of mistaking correlation with causation is using a correlation or random coincidence to substantiate a conclusion in the mistaken belief that there is a causal relationship between the first event and the second.

What if this is as good as it gets?

I recently spent some time in hospital. It was a defensive move in case my combination of symptoms amounted to something scary. It didn’t and I’m fine.

While I was in there, I pondered life and death. While I felt terrible, I still felt so alive. I have felt less alive due to somnolence or depression, yet I had no fear then of death. During this visit, I did not seriously consider death, even though potentially preventing that was the purpose of my stay in hospital. It seemed to me that I was alive and it was hard to conceive of that suddenly stopping.

Yet in hospital that happens all of the time. The truth of that was something quite interesting to contemplate. I look at people in other cars as I drive down the roads, or wait at lights and I wonder – are there lives as real and full as mine? What happens to this feeling, wonder, curiosity, understanding, emotions, memories and on when they pass away? Are there lives as real as mine? Is mine as real as theirs? What happens to my universe when the day comes that I die? What happens to this universe when I am no longer a part of it?

Perhaps there is another place my conscience goes to once I have left this life. I doubt it for a number of reasons. They go a little like this:
* Some people really don’t like themselves – why would they wish to preserve that in another life?
* If the next life is just like this life, then what is the point of leaving this one? If the next life is different to this one, then it would have to be significantly different to make living it worth while, in which case this life is insignificant in preparation for that one – in which case, to what point?
* I entered this life with no pre-knowledge beyond genetics, will I enter the next with the same – and if that is the case, it will seem like a fresh start just like this life did, in which case this life will have the same meaning in the next as the last life had in this.

Either way, my contemplation did not seriously consider a next life. It considered this life. Was I proud of who I had become? Was I content with what I would leave behind? If I’m not ready to leave now, would I ever be ready?

So dear reader. What thoughts have you thought in similar situations?

Logical Fallacy #6: Begging the Question

“Begging the Question”, as a logical fallacy, describes polluting the question with a built in partial answer or a repeat of the initial statement. It comes from the Latin: petitio principii – literally “assuming the initial point“. This assumption of the initial point bypasses error checking that particular point. This results in possible answers to the question being as false as the assumption built into the question.

There are two main types of Begging the Question. The first has a conclusion which depends on a faulty assumption. The classic question used to highlight this logical fallacy is “When did you stop beating your wife?” The implication of this question is that wife beating has occurred, reinforced by the question “when did it stop?”. Assuming the initial point – wife beating – any answer to this question relies on the assumption being write. If it is wrong, then the answer will encompass an error about when such occurrences will stop, as they never started. If the assumptions is correct, then the answer might be correct.

I’ll use a bit of logical math at this point. A + Q = C. ‘A’ is an assumption, ‘Q’ is the question, ‘C’ is the conclusion created based on the assumption ‘A’. If ‘A’ is faulty, then ‘C’ is faulty.

The second version of Begging the Question can be far more subtle. This is where the statement includes a redefinition of itself. “Sleep medicines are all those which induce a soporific effect.” Soporific is another word for “sleep”. So “Sleep medicines are defined as medicines which cause sleep.” No kidding.

Going back to math, D = D, therefore D, where ‘D’ is a definition. This doesn’t actually tell us anything new beyond ‘D’, which we already knew. Yet it can often be used to imply a grater level of knowledge that quite frankly does not exist in the statement.

These fallacies are frequently used in arguments to imply that the defendant is in a minority. Examples of these minorities are that the defendant is holding out, or in the recognised wrong. For example, Dr Steven Novella was asked by Dr Oz “what are alternative medicine sceptics (termed ‘holdouts’) afraid of?” This effectively suggests that people sceptical of alternate medicine are holding out on the truth of alternate medicines, implying great success with them and that the sceptics are holding out on this great truth. The assumption ‘A’ in this case is that Alternate Medicines work despite the minority view held by professionals. This belies the complete lack of any actual evidence of efficacy of the alternate medicine – that is, all double blind trials show no greater effect than chance or placebo.

By “holding out” and being “afraid”, the question begs an inadequacy of those asking for evidence of these medicines having any measurable effect. Certainly if I were to pay money for a product I would want to know it would work, or at least know the range of its effectiveness. For example, if I purchase a car I would like to know that it turns on, moves forward, is in good mechanical repair, how fast it goes, how many people it can carry, how much fuel it uses and so on. I could ask a car salesman what this information is and they would give me the same answer as the salesman in the next car yard for the same model – because it is known. If I were in doubt, they could show me the manual, specifications and so forth.

In the case of alternate medicines, two different ‘professionals’ will likely give you two different answers, because there is no data on these aspects. Even if they gave you the same answer, you couldn’t check where they got it from, because other than the un-tested claims of the manufacturer, there is no data on effectiveness.

A pharmaceutical medication, that is medication prescribed by a doctor, will have certification, testing and trials indicating the effect, side effects, effectiveness and so forth of the medication. Without these trials, the medication cannot be prescribed. Even if the trials are faked, and sometimes they are, follow up trials or lack of efficacy in the field prompting re-trials, quickly get these medications taken off the shelves. This allows you to have a high degree of confidence that the medication prescribed will work as expected, and if you are an exception to the rule, the prescribing doctor will note the lack of effectiveness of the medication and put you on another drug. None of these steps generally happen in the ‘alternate’ medicine industry.

All of this gives you an idea of why Dr Oz’s question, assuming alternative medications to be effective, and thus Dr Novella being ‘afraid’ or a ‘holdout’, gives completely the wrong impression.

Logical Fallacy #5: Argument from Personal Incredulity

This logical fallacy is based on the arguers ignorance or limitations leading to an amazing solution or solutions. The phrase “I cannot conceive” or “I can’t imagine how” leads to a conclusion of “therefore [non-evidence based solution] must be it”. This can also include a denial of the given evidence supported explanation because the concept does not fit within the acceptable paradigm of the arguer primarily due to their inability to understand the logic behind the standard scientific explanation.

Generally the people using this form of logical fallacy display significant arrogance in thinking that any solution beyond their grasp must mean it is beyond any single humans or group of humans grasp, and thus must have an amazing solution such as magic, aliens or mystical beings. A example of a common argument is that there is no simple explanation for how humans came to be on this planet, that evolution is too complicated and doesn’t seem right, and therefore we were seeded by aliens, gods or just created by some all powerful force. There are many scientists and lay people who do understand evolution and the mountains of evidence found supporting this Theory. The individual arguers inability to understand this well known phenomena does not preclude others abilities. Yet somehow that incredulity supports their own belief in a simple solution with zero evidence to support it.

There are many concepts that I have troubles grasping. Lately I’m working through the difference between my high school understanding of “matter” – having “mass” and “volume” and some kind of “solid boundary” between the inside of the particle and the rest of the universe – and what seems to be the reality of subatomic particles – where “mass” is merely a means of interaction, “volume” is a proximity of interactions of various forces and there is no “inside”, so no “boundary”. I have the option of denying the work of thousands of physicists and their mountains of evidence simply because I can’t understand this and going back to my immature high school beliefs, or I can accept that I don’t understand this, but someone does.

The logical fallacy version of this would be to state that simply because I can’t understand it, no one can, and those who claim they do are wrong because my simpler answer without evidence trumps it.

As I said earlier, arrogance,