I had a conversation with the Danimal the other day that reminded me of a few rather outrageous claims I’d run into of late. It got me thinking about why these claims persist despite their obvious factual shortcomings. After all, everyone claims that the “numbers are on our side.”
It reminds me of this awesome West Wing clip. In some sense, I agree: people certainly say they’re tired of hearing about scandals, but that’s either a vocal minority or they say it while staring open-mouthed at the nearest TV. But in some other sense, I disagree. Statistics in its purest form makes no assertions or policy suggestions one way or another; it’s the interpretation of the numbers that politicizes the issue.
These are some of the more egregious fallacies I’ve had the displeasure of personally encountering of late.
Evolution and climate change are conspiracies or don’t exist
Even though it was an utterly different context, Hillary Clinton said something recently that I think applies very well to this particular category:
“There are some people in politics and in the press who can’t be confused by the facts. They just will not live in an evidence-based world. And that’s regrettable.
It’s clear from the backlash against these two scientific endeavors that the vast majority of the criticism is decidedly non-scientific. Phil Plait always has fantastic commentary on this subject and many others, so I won’t even attempt to approach his level of rhetoric or elegance in reiterating the arguments. Especially since I’ve already mentioned things along these lines before. And a guest on a recent episode of Skeptics’ Guide also discussed his fight against proponents of creationism in Arizona.
Except for two things:
1: When did it become acceptable for non-experts to weigh in with more authority than experts? No, seriously. Is it “bias”? Do people really think that by devoting oneself to studying a particular phenomenon, it will somehow bias them in a way that Average Joe Shmoe will, by virtue of his utter ignorance, be able to see past?
It’s literally like expecting said Joe Shmoe to succeed in discovering the quantum gravity-quantum physics grand unification theory, where all previous attempts by brilliant particle physicists and the LHC have failed. In the interview from Skeptics’ Guide, the student describes how a member of Arizona’s legislature was “tired of hearing things from people with letters after their names.”
2: Yes, let’s spend 4-5 years working 60-80 hours/week, making right about minimum wage, work another 4-5 years achieving tenure making around $50-60k/year, and only after successfully receiving tenure in our mid-40s, sit back in our armchairs and decide how we’re going to rip off the American public. I think if scientists wanted to engage in a conspiracy to siphon US government research dollars for their own dubious ends, they would have chosen a slightly more lucrative field of study. Say, not academia. Industry pays a butt-ton more at almost any level of the infrastructure (yes, “butt-ton” is a technical term).
Does anyone else see how egregiously asinine this point is? If you’re looking to plot a conspiracy to rip off the American public of some almost meaningless percentage of GDP (it’s way less than 1% between the NIH and NSF…so we’re talking not even close to a penny per dollar out of any one person’s pocket), I can think of countless better and more efficient ways to do it off the top of my head.
Bottom line: there’s a quote from a particle physicist I really liked. He gets a ton of email from pseudo-scientific people and outlets claiming to have “discovered” the grand unification theory of the universe. His response goes something like:
“I’d be more than happy to read over the work they’ve done. All I ask is that they read over my work first.”
It’s true. Folks who get a two-sentence summary of evolution from their creationist news outlet are of course going to think they know everything they need to know about evolution, why it’s wrong, and what the correct answer is. Without exposure to different perspectives, they miss that, for example, evolution literally explains everything we see and know about biology and life in general.
Violent video games cause violent behavior
Like most things in life, this meme follows a cyclical nature. Sometimes it dies out just long enough for us to start asking if it’s “finally gone”, and just like that it rears its ugly head again. Le sigh.
There are several logical fallacies at work here, not the least of which are the classic straw man with some correlation is not causation (formally “post hoc ergo propter hoc“) thrown in. I can absolutely understand the desire to find a cause for gun violence; a decrease in gun violence is always a good thing. But throwing your weight behind a ban on violent video games is an easy way out of a very complicated situation, nevermind the fact that it simply won’t work.
Just about every study on the causative effects of playing violent video games either come out inconclusive or show no connection. There’s also the little factoid that rates of violent crimes have fallen in the last decade, as video games have only been getting more realistic. I certainly think there’s a level of maturity required to play certain games, but banning them outright is as misguided as it is ineffectual. Plus it completely ignores the millions of fun-loving and amicable gamers who slaughter digital players by the millions but would never dream of taking a life. It also overlooks the benefits of video games.
But don’t let cold hard logic slow you down! Let’s pick a scapegoat and run with it! After all, the violent video games that you say cause violent behavior are a way bigger problem than the weapons used when engaging in violent behavior.
Jesus was a Capitalist
This one, in my honest opinion, takes the cake. I truly don’t know how to respond to this assertion except with this fantastic meme:
It goes against absolutely everything I understand from the Bible. In fact, to truly put my feet to the coals, Jesus was pretty much a communist. The last shall be first? Give away all your earthly possessions? Give, with no expectations for recompense? Whatever economic affiliation you’d like to pin on Jesus, he was anything but a capitalist. To suggest otherwise is to invite the scorn and derision of those who have enough brain cells to think about it for two seconds.
Jesus was a champion of the Golden Rule, of leaving behind all selfishness and devoting oneself exclusively to the well-being of others. Capitalism’s basic premise is to somehow reward society as a whole for intrinsic human selfishness and desire to accumulate material wealth. I’m pretty that makes them diametric opposites!
Oh wait, am I going against your beliefs? Do you consciously avoid looking at the evidence to help formulate your beliefs, and instead start with ingrained tenets (picked up from parents, or friends, or talking heads)? Do you then bend and twist history to support them, forcefully eliminating contradicting points of view? Don’t let pesky things like “truth” stand in your way!
I don’t know why I post about these things; they’ll never fully go away. The “debate” around evolution embodies this effect: when creationism didn’t work, they turned to “intelligent design.” When that didn’t work, they turned to “teaching the controversy.” When that didn’t work, they turned to “freedom from governmental indoctrination of our children.” When the controversy is inevitably exposed for the political power play that it is, it will simply take another form and try again.
I think it was Thomas Jefferson who once said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I think that’s pretty relevant.