Breakup! Addendum 5: Five Dumb Arguments
A version of this first appeared as a post on StatisticsBlog.com in 2010. I edited that website for about seven years. It’s presented here as a guide to spotting the epistemological rot that seems endemic to our Dim Age, especially among those who scream the loudest about trusting “the science.”
When smart people make dumb arguments, they tend to fall into one of a few categories. I’ve documented five of the most common bad arguments I see on websites where otherwise intelligent geeks, math nerds, and skeptics hang out and discuss things. Chances are you’ve encountered at least one of these arguments; maybe you’ve even used one of them yourself.
#1: Occam’s razor
In simple terms, the idea of Occam’s razor is that, whenever possible, simple models are to be preferred. Note that Occam’s razor tells you absolutely nothing about whether a model or a theory is good or bad, useful or worthless. It’s a rule of thumb. And while not necessarily a bad one, in practice it tends to act like intellect retardant to put out active minds who question existing (often simplistic) beliefs and scientific constructs.
Let me make this very clear: Occam’s razor doesn’t prove anything. In particular, and despite how it is commonly used, it doesn’t show that the more likely, or “simple,” explanation is the correct one. Unlikely, complicated things happen all the time. If you don’t believe this, go flip a coin a thousand times. I guarantee you that the exact result you get will only happen once in a gazillion tries. In terms of (absolute) likelihood, explaining what you just observed with probability theory and stochastic processes is way more complicated than the assertion “That’s what God wanted,” a theory that, if true, explains your effectively impossible result with 100 percent likelihood. I’m guessing that’s not the can of worms you hoped to open up with Occam’s razor?
#2: You’re a hypocrite
Yes, and so are you. So what? Do I really need to explain why this argumentum ad hypocrisum (note: made-up Latin) is so bad? Given that accusations of hypocrisy are almost as popular as kittens in the blogosphere, I suspect I do. So here goes: showing that your opponent is a hypocrite proves nothing except that they are human. It doesn’t make their arguments wrong, and only weakens them under very limited circumstances, like when you catch a sworn Bretharian sneaking a pint of Häagen-Dazs to keep from starving to death. Beyond that, calling your opponent a hypocrite has less nutritional value than a peep.
#3: That’s just an anecdote
Repeat after me: Anecdotes are evidence. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less. In the context of a common event followed by another common event (I got a headache after stopping at three red lights in a row), anecdotal evidence is nearly useless. In terms of more rare events (I got kuru after eating my sister), anecdotal evidence can be extraordinarily powerful. Taken to its extreme, discounting anecdotal evidence led (presumably intelligent) academics to hold firm to fallacies like the idea that fireflies can’t flash all in unison, long after anecdotal evidence had come in from reliable observers.
#4: No known mechanism
There are lots of intelligent ways to argue that homeopathy doesn’t work. You can cite studies (although you may find that not all of them confirm your beliefs), or you can say that believers are the random subset of the people who have tried it and then afterward felt an improvement. I’m not going to weigh in on the subject except to note that one argument I see used fairly often is that homeopathy doesn’t work because it can’t work, and it can’t work because we don’t understand how it possibly could.
To see how bad this argument is, you need to look at the assumptions behind it and view it in historical context. What people are really saying with this argument is: Our current scientific model is comprehensive and infallible. It accounts for all observations, and it has no holes or leaks. I’m going to assume that you are able to see the problem with this mindset yourself. I’ll just note that one particularly unfortunate use of this argument led doctors to reject handwashing before performing operations or delivering babies. After all, evidence that fastidious midwives had lower infection rates was purely anecdotal (see above), and there was no reason to believe cleanliness could make a difference in the pre-germ era. There was no known mechanism.
#5: Three guys with boards
I’m calling this the “three guys with boards” argument in honor of those skeptics who, whenever someone mentions crop circles, declare “It’s a hoax. Three guys with boards admitted they did it.” In fact, some guys with boards did indeed admit to creating a crop circle, and they showed us how they did it. So what’s wrong with this argument?
The problem is that you can’t discount all anomalous observations as fakes just because some are known to be fakes, nor does the possibility of faking an event mean that all such events must have been faked. Obviously, scientists don’t like playing games of intellectual whack-a-mole. If you research enough supposedly unexplained mysteries and come away convinced each time that the mystery is bogus, the tendency to dismiss other, similar claims outright is understandable. That said, “three guys with boards” is still a dumb argument, especially when you are going against claims of specific evidence that can’t be easily explained away as a hoax. For example, we have large, complicated, precisely implemented crop circles done in a short span of time and exhibiting strangely bent stalks. This evidence may fall far short of irrefutable proof of alien intervention, but it does require much more than dismissively stating that we know they are all fakes. We don’t.
More broadly, any attempt to automatically sort new observations into known categories (often categories that make us comfortable) is a bad idea. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts when it comes to evaluating data or evidence. It has to be done the hard way, one piece at a time.