How can people make errors in argumentation?

I talked in my last post about arguments and their logic. We also took a look at some examples where argumentation can be faulty for various reasons.

In this post I’d like to show you some typical reasoning flaws. Being aware of them can help you understand faster where your interlocutor is wrong, or how mass communication is attempting to manipulate us.

Before we move on, just a few words about this post. Instead of listing some common argument fallacies, which you can find on the internet, for example here: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/fallacies_list.html, or an overview of the issue of fallacies here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy,I thought we could take one hot issue, examine some of the arguments, and see what reasoning errors are made.

So browsing for hot issues I found this:

Should creationism (the Cosmos was made by an intelligent creator) be taught in public schools, along with evolution (Darwin’s theory on the evolution of species), in the science class? The pros and cons can be found here: http://www.debate.org/opinions/should-public-schools-teach-creationism-alongside-evolution-in-science-classes.  At the moment when I’m writing, the odds are 65% No to 35% Yes. The first argument on the No side is this:

Creationism isn’t a science. The “theory” of creationism is not an actual science, therefore it should not be taught as a science. There is no evidence to support it, it’s not based on any sort of evidence, and frankly it just doesn’t make sense. Not to mention the fact that it’s a religious idea, which means it can’t be taught as fact in schools anyway.

Fallacies of omission

Oversimplification, or stacking the deck (http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/fallacies_list.html#fallacies_of_omission_anchor)

The author states that there is no evidence to support creationism, implying that there is such evidence for evolution, but makes no mention of the fact that there is significant evidence against evolution too. Indeed, there is an impressive number of scientists (!) (http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?command=download&id=660) who are sceptical of Darwin’s theory and provide scientific evidence of issues that cannot be explained by evolution, or which even simply contradict this theory. The theory of creationism is over-simplified under the term “religion”, ignoring the different approaches to the hypothesis of creation, as well as the scientific evidence that speaks for what is more neutrally called “intelligent design”.

Appeal to ignorance, or lack of evidence http://bomedia.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/36883739/04%2004%20-%20Argument%20from%20Ignorance.mp3

Since there is no ultimate proof of creationism, evolution must be right. First of all, there is no ultimate proof of evolution either, according to scientists themselves, so penalizing creationism but not evolution for this deficiency is an example of what is usually called double standards. Also, as I mentioned, scientists are puzzled by certain aspects that seem to indicate that living cells or main families of species were ‘given’ at a certain time, in one piece, instead of evolving over time. A brief overview of such findings can be found here: http://www.academia.edu/1932810/A_Brief_Scientific_Critique_of_Evolution

By the way, specialists in paleogenetics (a relatively new scientific branch studying  genes in the course of millions of years) have reached the conclusion, studying genetic patterns, that all humans on this planet originate genetically from one couple. Does this tie in with Darwin’s evolution of humans from apes? Should we ignore the implications of this finding, simply because it doesn’t fit in with the theory of our preference?

 

Fallacies of relevance

Argument from personal incredulity: since the author himself / herself finds that creationism “doesn’t make sense”, it doesn’t. This could be their opinion, but it certainly cannot serve as an argument.

Component fallacies

Circular reasoning http://bomedia.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/36892957/65%2065%20-%20Circular%20Definition.mp3

The opposition science – religion is based on the fundamental assumption that God doesn’t exist. Because God doesn’t exist, we set up science, not theology, to reveal the laws that govern our universe. So you may summarize our argument like this:

God doesn’t exist. We build an alternative model. This model does not allow for God. Therefore, God doesn’t exist (and creationism is wrong).

And all this circular reasoning  is “true” provided we grant that the premise on God’s non-existence is true. But what if God does exist after all? No one can claim they possess this ultimate truth – they can only express their belief or disbelief.

False dilemma

The argument above lies on an either-or standpoint, which is also called a false dilemma. One and only one of the theories is right, and the other must be wrong. But what if both theories can shed light on the origin of life? As a matter of fact, darwinist evolution doesn’t even attempt to explain the origin, rather the… as its name says, evolution of life, particularly of species. Scientists agree that there is no explanation right now for the mechanisms of life emerging. What if the origin of life can be explained in fact by a third, not yet, explored, theory?

 

Finally let me just mention one other fallacy that is very common, even if it has nothing to do with the argument above. It’s just that I couldn’t conclude a post on argument fallacies without pointing it out. This is the personal attack. When you put forward an idea and the interlocutor responds by making remarks on your character, your credibility, or your affiliation to a particular club, be quick to stop them short and demand an argument against your statement, not against you personally. The video here shows some examples of fallacies, with the personal attack included. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXLTQi7vVsI

 

To close the discussion of this argument, let me just propose one way to formulate an argument for creationism being taught in the science class.

The fundamental premise of the arguments against it is that creationism isn’t a science, so it doesn’t belong in the science class. Indeed, if the premise is assumed to be right, the conclusion is right too, which makes it a logical or valid argument (remember logical arguments in my previous post?) But what if the truth value of our premises is not actually infallible? After all, a) creationism is “non-scientific” because it is exclusively related to religion, and b) religion is assumed to be untrue, as God is assumed not to exist. But what if one COULD approach creationism scientifically? I hardly dare to challenge the second claim and ask but what if God did exist and this was not such an irrational hypothesis?  Speculating on God’s existence brings us nowhere, but we can turn to the hypothesis in a). Is creationism impossible to approach as a science?

My argument is as follows:

Science is not based exclusively on observation (premise 1) , and it means not so much a certain subject-matter, but an exploration method (premise 2). If science is seen this way, creationism can be approached with scientific tools and methods (premise 3). Therefore, it can and should be taught in the science class.

Reasons for Premise 1:

If science is understood as the 18th-century rationalist outlook on the universe, then creationism is clearly impossible to approach as science. According to this narrow sense of the word, science draws conclusions mainly from observation (inductive reasoning). BUT modern science has reached conclusions that cannot be observed : Einstein’s theory of relativity, his multidimensional time-space and the resulting parallel universes are some examples. Evolution is another one, as nobody has been able to see evolution at work (evolution, mind you, is different from gene mutation!). Science has also proved that there are invisible things, such as energy, anti-matter, the Higgs boson (http://www.gotquestions.org/God-particle.html) etc. In making these discoveries, science has become more deductive (conclusion 1 + conclusion 2 lead to conclusion 3).

Reasons for Premise 2:

Further, science is narrowly understood mainly as a certain subject-matter. But there are once considered “pseudo-sciences” whose kern has now been accepted in science and ratified by scientific research. Think of extra-sensorial abilities, of the mysterious capacities of our brain, of the energetic fields in our body, even about psychology (called a pseudo-science by Tom Cruise in the video above) etc.  So science is not necessarily a  what,  but a how. It’s the exploration method that counts.

Reasons for Premise 3:

Creationism as just one alternative hypothesis on the origins of life and the universe and one could approach it with both inductive and deductive reasoning, so without necessarily the expectation of seeing,  or observing un ultimate proof. One could leave out issues related to faith and simply: see what findings about our world it would explain and what not; what findings about our world would point to an original design etc. In this way, scientific investigation might well (or might not) reveal that there is a dominant form of energy or matter governing the universe, which was symbolically called God by primitive man.

Fundamentally, we cannot pick one theory (evolution), ignore its drawbacks and claim to our kids that this is the only, and the right, explanation available. This would be just the same kind of fallacy as that of the medieval Church, which claimed they possessed the monopoly over the big answers.

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About Simona Petrescu

I was born in Bucharest, Romania and studied English literature and linguistics. I taught English as a Foreign Language for over 18 years and specialised in professional communication and in Cambridge English exams. In 2011 I won the British Council / Macmillan Elton Prize for Innovative Writing with a course material pack of English for Human Resources. I have been living in Germany since 2008, where I am now dedicating most of my time to writing, both Professional English course materials and fiction. My interests lie in the area of language, communication strategies, learning psychology, but also literature, music and travel.
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