Friday, March 21, 2008

Fallacy Friday: Sharpshooter Fallacy

On this Fallacy “Good” Friday, we’ll take a look at a logical error that I pointed out in a recent post. It’s formally called ‘non causa pro causa’; I call it the Sharpshooter Fallacy.

The Texas Sharpshooter is a fabled marksman who fires his gun randomly at the side of a barn, then paints a bull’s-eye around the bullet holes – to obviously make it look like he is an amazing shot. The fallacy is applied to the field of logic to describe a false effect after-the-fact. Information that has no relationship is interpreted or manipulated until it appears to have meaning.

Seeing a Face in the Clouds
This fallacy is similar to one of our earlier fallacies, post hoc ergo propter hoc. The fallacy is to assert that because two events occur together, they must be causally related. It's a fallacy because it ignores other factors that may be the cause(s) of the events.

What appears to be statistically significant (not due to chance) is actually expected by the laws of chance. This is probably best shown in the act of reading tea leaves or casting bones, as we’ve read about in old tales. The positioning of the leaves or bones isn’t significant or special; it’s just an artifact of randomness. The fallacy occurs when people try to place unreasoned meaning upon these artifacts.

What a Coinkydink!
When someone jumps to the conclusion that a cluster in some data must be the result of a cause--usually one that it is clustered around--they’ve fallen for the sharpshooter’s trick. When looking at data, there is a danger of jumping to a conclusion that a random cluster is a causal pattern.

What makes this fallacy dangerous is that, to the untrained eye, it can look a lot like what real scientists really do when they look at data and draw conclusions. There are other tests you can run to find the probability of a certain thing, but this is often overlooked by those who *want* there to be meaning where there is none (i.e., the self-made prophecy).

This problem is at the heart of the fine-tuning argument as scientific evidence for a god. There’s no reason to think that the universe is fine-tuned for life – actually, evolution shows that life is fine-tuned for the universe! The ‘fine-tuned’ argument is just like throwing six, six-sided dice. They come up, say ‘3, 6, 3, 2, 1, 1’. The odds of that happening are 1 in 1,679,616 chance!!! The fallacy is (obviously) that you’re counting it up after-the-fact. It’d be like saying “what are the odds that we’d draw the letter A the way we do?” like it’s got some sort of significant meaning. Without further testing, such a conclusion is seldom justified.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Day In The Life: Coincidences

So I’m at work, and I overhear my boss telling the new hire, “How is it that on the exact same day that [newly fired worker] pisses me off and we let him go, that you’re able to start and get the job done that has a deadline today?”

What Are The Odds?
The subject of his mind-numbing conversation was, of course, God. My coworker’s response was something like, “Well, Einstein said ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe’, but I don’t know.”

Not wanting to get into that conversation, I changed the subject and asked my boss about a meeting the next day, and made sure the subject had shifted to something more reasonable.

The conclusion to this chatter is of course: there are no coincidences. O RLY?!

This matter-of-fact phrase is ripe with a logical error known as the sharpshooter fallacy (look for it in our next Fallacy Friday). Simply put, how many times did you notice when the coincidence didn’t happen?

Count The Hits, Forget The Misses
How often do we hear that an airplane landed safely at its destination? How much good news do you see in the paper, or on the 6 o’clock broadcast? The reason you do is that the good news would fill volumes. The ratio of landed planes to crashed ones is extremely high, yet all one can think about is the crashes.

Penn Jillette had a wonderful example in a recent video. He had a blemish on his nose, and noted that even though the blemish covers a very small portion of his enormous body, it is all you can look at and think about.

We forget the common and focus on the differences. That focusing is often so misconstrued as to be proclaimed an impossibility, or at least a highly unlikely chance occurrence.

Shit Happens
We experience coincidences all the time. It’s mostly a matter of perception; you have to think about things in a wider context. Think about how often the thing occurs as opposed to how many times it doesn’t.

And stop attributing your own ignorance to an invisible entity.

Watch this: What are the odds that you, reading this right now, have a brother named Bill and are wearing a blue shirt?

What a coincidence!


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

But How Do You Know?

Day after day, I talk with people who think they understand specific concepts based on the natural way in which the language surrounding those concepts is used. The biggest example of this is the laymen use of "theory". Being one who accepts evolution, I'm often confronted by evangelicals who claim that evolution is "just a theory". Their use of this phrase demonstrates their lack of understanding in what makes a "theory" (and their general misunderstanding of science on the whole).

I think that the majority of problems people have regarding religion, matters of faith, and scientific understanding is a matter of language. It is in the realm of colloquial, idiomatic speech that the confused person is trapped. Some people just don’t know how we know things.

How Do You Know?
There are ways we humans have of understanding fact from fiction. We realize that we can create practically anything in our imaginations, and we know that our senses can be fooled. So we need a way to distinguish reality from pretend. We have these reliable methods (we know they're reliable because we can show them to be so).

Logical reasoning is the primary foundation upon which we build our understanding of reality. We can prove the rules of logic are true, and we therefore make them rules.

Science makes use of logical reasoning, in conjunction with:
  • independent verification, to avoid group-think
  • repeated testing, for consistency
  • falsification, to demonstrate that a hypothesis is reliable and is not producing an incidental result
  • and, most importantly, peer review, because we are all fallible. Your work is reviewed by other experts to make sure that your test methodologies are correct, that you properly falsified your hypothesis, and that your tests and results are replicable.
Using these steps, a hypothesis, or guess about something, graduates to the highest level of attainability in science: a theory. When something is called a theory in scientific terms, it means that the idea has been gone through the rigors of the scientific method and shows to be reliable and useful, accurate predictions can be made using the theory. The theories of gravity, sexual reproduction, psychology, music, microbiology, and gene manipulation are among several proven scientific theories.
The problem is that the average person uses the word "theory" to mean a guess or a hunch. While I fail at times, (or I'm forced by language, i.e. "conspiracy theory",) I've resolved to use the term "theory" in scientific terms only, and when I mean "guess", I'll say "guess", or "hypothesis". But the average person will use the term loosely, and those who don’t understand the difference in terminology will get confused when they hear something like “the theory of evolution”.

What Do You Know?
Another general mistake is in the use of the term, "agnostic". When I ask someone whether they believe in god or not, some will say "I'm agnostic". Those who understand the term will realize that the answer given doesn't fit the question; it answers something else entirely. I've demonstrated the differences several times, so I won't go into it further.

The main focus here is that many people get tripped up in what it means to know something, and knowledge--or lack thereof--informs belief. The two aren't the same, but they are tied together.

So, what does it mean to know something? Or, more to the point, how can you truly be an Agnostic?

Well, it depends on what you mean by "knowledge". I’ve show above how we can know reality. If it can be demonstrated that, for example, a thing exists or occurs, and that this can be demonstrated to an incredibly high degree of predictability, then we can comfortably say we “know” it.

When it comes to believing in that thing, you still have options even if the thing can be known or not. Theism and Atheism address what you believe, Gnosticism and Agnosticism address what you know, or claim to know. If you want to define knowledge as "absolute certainty", then I’m an Agnostic Atheist; I don’t know that a god does not exist to an absolute certainty.

I don’t like "absolute certainty"; I think it’s a red herring. We can’t know anything to an absolute certainty. But if you want to define knowledge in practical terms--the way we use it in everyday language where we talk about something to some degree of certainty--if it’s okay to say "I know there’s no such thing as leprechauns", if that qualifies as "knowledge", then an I’m a Gnostic Atheist. In the same sense that I know there’s no leprechauns, I know there’s no god.

Belief vs. Knowledge, Redux
So why all this talk over belief? I mean, isn't what someone believes their own business?

Yes it is. I don't care what anyone believes, though I'd rather they base their beliefs on demonstrable reality. As I said above, knowledge informs belief. But your actions are affected by your beliefs, and that’s what matters. You can belief whatever you want until you start to infringe on others' beliefs/health/etc. That’s the point where your beliefs won’t be tolerated.

I think it’s beneficial to a society if its beliefs and subsequent actions have a basis in what can be shown to be true, and I hope that Earth’s population reaches this level ASAP.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Fallacy Friday: Slippery Slope

Time for another Fallacy Friday. This week's fallacy is often heard by the children of overprotective parents.

Slippery When High
"If we legalize marijuana, then people will join gangs and start taking crack and killing and raping each other! It'll be total anarchy!"

This is a clear example of the reductio ad absurdum, or slippery slope fallacy. The fallacy assumes that if one were to carry the position out to its logical end, that end would be inevitable and possibility harmful. There is no proof made that the harmful end (total anarchy) is caused by the original position (legalizing pot). This is not a way to prove a point, and though it lacks any real reason, the fallacy can be surprisingly tricky--especially in situations where there is a significant number of steps between one event and another.

But the slippery slope isn't always a fallacy. There are a variety of ways to make a slippery slope argument valid, or at least plausible. All you need to do is provide some
reason why the adoption of one position will lead to the adoption of another, ie, show your work!

Watch Your Step
The fallacy is often used in emotional situations where careful thought is replaced by an irrational need for illogical proof and justification. We nonbelievers hear this all the time. If you don't believe in God, what's to stop you from killing anyone you want?

The above absurd extrapolation is wrong because it assumes that you need God to be good. Hopefully you, dear reader, will not slide down this hill too.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What Did You Make on Your "Jesus Loves Who" Exam?

I've been driving myself crazy arguing with the delusional masses online...

But of course it isn't just an internet phenomenon. I recently read an article that made my skin crawl. In a neighboring town, a high school teacher is wanting the bible taught in school. The style of the newspaper article betrayed the writer's opinion, a point in and of itself. But the larger issues are A) teaching it in school, and B) that "kids these days need the bible", to paraphrase said teacher's comments.

This Is A Rant
I've made several posts regarding the Unholy Word and the supposed "morals" that it upholds. I won't spend time on it here, but just to claim that the reason kids misbehave is because they aren't being taught the bible is patently absurd.

The major issue I have with this bullshit is that it's quite clear that the teacher isn't proposing a comparative religions course, or even biblical history studies. It seems to me that she wants it taught *as* history. This is simply another attempt at religion trying to interfere where it doesn't belong. Can anyone say ID?

I mean, really, what's your point? If you can get to teach that the Israelites escaped slavery by the Egyptians (a claim that is not historically accurate) then maybe your students won't join gangs or smoke dope?

I'm honestly too tired and angry to try to make this sound less rant-ish. It just makes me sick to see this kind of stupid shit at all levels of the government.