Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Demon Haunted World


I'm finally wrapping up the reading of about a half dozen books that I've been in the middle of for months now. Over the next week or so, I'm going to provide my thoughts on each as I finish them. I have a really bad habit of getting myself in the middle of a bunch of books and then I get interested in something else. This has to end and I can't start anything new till I finish all of them. They include Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, I am America by Stephen Colbert, The Assault on Reason by Al Gore, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris and From Lucy to Language by Donald Johanson. The first that I'm going to quote a few highlight passages from is Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. This is a very good book and analyzes the psychological and societal elements that force or allow people to believe in superstition, whether it be UFO's, new age religion, hallucinations, dreams or Christianity. Having been written a few years ago and not in the current relatively welcoming era of atheist tomes by Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, Carl Sagan doesn't take on Christianity directly but it's obvious that he would have liked to. If there is a weakness to the book, it is that it spends entirely too much time on the psychology of UFO enthusiasts and not enough on that of Christians.

The following is from an essay on the "fine art of baloney detection". He listed some things to look for in politicians, religious people, media, or anybody that is trying to sell you something. Plus the list is useful for analyzing our own arguments:

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among these fallacies are:

ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument ...

argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out);

argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous -- perhaps even ungovernable.* Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives) ...

appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa ... This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will.... God moves in mysterious ways.

begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors -- but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of "adjustment" and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?);

observational selection, ... as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses ...

statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese ...

misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);

inconsistency (e.g.,Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism ...

non sequitur -- Latin for "It doesn't follow" (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was "Gott mit uns"). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;

post hoc, ergo propter hoc -- Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by"

meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa);

excluded middle, or false dichotomy -- considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., "Either you love your country or you hate it." Or: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem");

short-term vs. long-term -- a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can't afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);

slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);

confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay ...

straw man -- caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance -- a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn't. Or -- this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy -- environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people);

suppressed evidence, or half-truths

weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- "police actions," "armed incursions," "protective reaction strikes," "pacification," "safeguarding American interests," and a wide variety of "operations," such as "Operation Just Cause." Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public").

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world -- not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

It's kinda scary that you can witness pretty much all of these on a daily basis by watching a news conference by Dana Perino or the President.

5 comments:

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: I have a really bad habit of getting myself in the middle of a bunch of books and then I get interested in something else. This has to end and I can't start anything new till I finish all of them.

I know *exactly* what you mean [laughs]. I did have 11-12 books by the side of my bed (all of which have been partially read) now I have something like 25 [rotflmao]. I really *must* finish some before I start any more - but there's a new philosophy book that I'm just *itching* to read (or at least start) soon.... [grin]

Laura said...

HOW can you read that many books at once??!?!?! Seriously, that would drive me insane.

dbackdad said...

CK - You know you have a problem when you have to have a full-size bookcase next to your bed. lol.

Laura - It's not bad with non-fiction because you don't really have to maintain a plot in your head. I can't really read multiple fiction books at once without getting lost.

CyberKitten said...

Laura asked: HOW can you read that many books at once??!?!?! Seriously, that would drive me insane.

I've just counted my bedtime books and there are 29. Maybe I should round it off to 30? [laughs]. I don't read them all at once though! I tend to concentrate on 2 or 3 usually reading one book for a few days and then switching to another one. How long I give a book depends on how good they are - and if they can keep me awake!

dbackdad said: CK - You know you have a problem when you have to have a full-size bookcase next to your bed.

I have a full sized book case on the farside of my bed & a half sized one next to me. The smaller one is overflowing with books (fiction) that I haven't read yet. The full sized one is full of previously read books.

dbackdad said: It's not bad with non-fiction because you don't really have to maintain a plot in your head.

...and I get weird link-ups between them too. It might explain my ability to see patterns that other people can't.

dbackdad said: I can't really read multiple fiction books at once without getting lost.

Oh, definitely. Only one fiction at a time - unless they're both books of short stories [laughs]

wunelle said...

I remember reading "The Demon-Haunted World" years ago and feeling that it should be required reading for anyone holding a Humanity Card.

I look forward to further reviews; it's an excellent list of goodies!