Category Archives: Appeal to Ignorance

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.”  Right on!  Oh, but there’s a catch.

First, the setup.

A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.

Again, this seems right.  And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on.  And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that.  At least since classical Athens.  OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.

And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . .   Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.

Give me a break.  Seriously.  (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)

The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere.  And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.

The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance.  Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s.  In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them.  Perhaps if one were to, say, go look.  Ask google.  Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”

And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualism.  Michael Lynch.  Jennifer Lackey.  Lee McIntyre.  Alvin Goldman.  Philip Kitcher.  And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson.   And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too.  I mean, geez, just look around for a second.  (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)

The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation.  That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly.  And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers.  It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge.  I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge.  Why?  Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters.  And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry.  And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?”  the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”

Maximum danger

When I sit down to make up examples of fallacies for quizzes and tests, I try to make them fairly obvious.  Since the course I teach fallacies in is an introductory one, the idea is for the students to recognize a systematic argument problem, even if they may not run into one so obvious.  But then again, I'm often wrong about that.  Peggy Noonan, of Bush = Superman fame ("For a moment I though of earnest Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt and reveal the big "S" on his chest."), forgets who was president on 11 September 2001.  She writes:

Back to the Christmas gathering. There was no grousing about John McCain, and considerable grousing about the Bush administration, but it was almost always followed by one sentence, and this is more or less what it was: "But he kept us safe." In the seven years since 9/11, there were no further attacks on American soil. This is an argument that's been around for a while but is newly re-emerging as the final argument for Mr. Bush: the one big thing he had to do after 9/11, the single thing he absolutely had to do, was keep it from happening again. And so far he has. It is unknown, and perhaps can't be known, whether this was fully due to the government's efforts, or the luck of the draw, or a combination of luck and effort. And it not only can't be fully known by the public, it can hardly be fully known by the players at all levels of government. They can't know, for instance, of a potential terrorist cell that didn't come together because of their efforts.

But the meme will likely linger. There's a rough justice with the American people. If a president presides over prosperity, whether he had anything to do with it or not, he gets the credit. If he has a recession, he gets the blame. The same with war, and terrorist attacks. We have not been attacked since 9/11. Someone—someones—did something right.

Someone may point out that the second paragraph is in the voice of the American people.  But that's just a pundit's trick; put the claim in the minds of the American people, and it's no longer really you talking, it's the American people.  That tactic, I think, ought to be illegal.  Besides, in Noonan's formulation, it's just contradictory.  George W. Bush was President on 9/11.  Shouldn't the American people blame him for that?  Rough justice.  Doesn't the Wall Street Journal employ editors?

Back to the point.  Noonan makes the not-too-controversial assertion that no one can really know whether or not our efforts in the war on terror have been successful.  To that I would add two things, by the way.  First, she should mention that it might be the case that nothing was planned in the United States, and that our reaction–the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–was the objective.  Second, we have been attacked everywhere but here.  So it's false that we haven't been attacked.  We have, just not here.  Alright, now back to the point. 

With the standard set up of the argument from ignorance–no one knows one way or the other–she then, in the voice of the American people, a fallacy loving people apparently, draws the conclusion that the Bush administration has done something right, something to protect us.  If a really rich woman at a Christmas party full of Republicans is going to speak for the American people as a whole, can she please not make them sound so dumb?

Evidence of absence

The other week George Will repeated his frequent claim that the simple correlation of crime rates and jail rates tells you something–that harsh jail sentences reduces crime.  One would have to be a fool, he alleges, to wonder whether that were the case.  With that in mind, it's interesting to read Cass Sunstein and Justin Wolfers (actual law professors) on the deterrent effect of the death penalty.  Their conclusion (after what appears to be actual research): dunno.  Here's a selection:

One might like to conclude that these latter studies demonstrate that the death penalty does not deter. But this is asking too much of the data. The number of homicides is so large, and varies so much year to year, that it is impossible to disentangle the effects of execution policy from other changes affecting murder rates. Moreover, execution policy doesn't change often or much. Just as a laboratory scientist with too few experimental subjects cannot draw strong conclusions, the best we can say is that homicide rates are not closely associated with capital punishment. On the basis of existing evidence, it is especially hard to justify claims about causality.

Justice Stevens argues, "In the absence of such evidence, deterrence cannot serve as a sufficient penological justification for this uniquely severe and irrevocable punishment." Perhaps. But the absence of evidence of deterrence should not be confused with evidence of absence.

Justice Scalia relies on the suggestion by Sunstein and Vermeule that some evidence suggests a possible deterrent effect. But that suggestion actually catalyzed Donohue and Wolfers's study of available empirical evidence. Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings, a problem exacerbated by researchers' tendency to report only those results supporting their conclusions. This led Sunstein and Vermeule to acknowledge: "We do not know whether deterrence has been shown. . . . Nor do we conclude that the evidence of deterrence has reached some threshold of reliability that permits or requires government action."

In short, the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty.

It seems to be obvious that Stevens believes the burden of proof lies with those who assert the causal connection.  In the absence of such evidence for their claim, they can't make the assertion.  Showing that it's not the case might be akin to making the accused prove that he's innocent.  For, after all, there's always the possibility that there is a correlation we haven't discovered yet (and the claims of astrology might also turn ought to be true).  Disproving such a connection would be very difficult and it's silly that Sunstein and Wolfers would suggest this a reasonable request–especially in an op-ed about causal connections for which they claim no positive evidence exists.

The absence of such a correlation, of course, might be seen as a separate question from whether the death penalty is justified (but they don't argue this).  If one's justification for capital punishment relies on deterrence, then the answer is obviously no.  They write:

Why is the Supreme Court debating deterrence? A prominent line of reasoning, endorsed by several justices, holds that if capital punishment fails to deter crime, it serves no useful purpose and hence is cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment. This reasoning tracks public debate as well. While some favor the death penalty on retributive grounds, many others (including President Bush) argue that the only sound reason for capital punishment is to deter murder.

We concur with Scalia that if a strong deterrent effect could be demonstrated, a plausible argument could be made on behalf of executions. But what if the evidence is inconclusive?

We are not sure how to answer that question. But as executions resume, the debates over the death penalty should not be distorted by a misunderstanding of what the evidence actually shows.

This is baffling.  While the authors deny positive evidence for deterrence, they fail to make the point that there might be some independent justification for capital punishment, like punishment.  Instead they retreat into an absurd hypothetical–if it does deter crime, then yes.  But there's no evidence that it does, so the reasonable conclusion would be that it's not justified on that basis, would it not?

When did you stop beating your wife?

Michael Gerson provides some examples of the elusive complex question fallacy.  After a column devoted to examining whether Obama is really a "centrist" (by looking at the exclusive evidence of whether he has voted against his party on any issue–not his stated policies), Gerson writes:

These are welcome gestures, but they are not policies. Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal. Perhaps he has carefully avoided offending Democratic constituencies. Whatever the reason, his lack of a strong, centrist ideological identity raises a concern about his governing approach. Obama has no moderate policy agenda that might tame or modify the extremes of his own party in power. Will every Cabinet department simply be handed over to the most extreme Democratic interest groups? Will Obama provide any centrist check on liberal congressional overreach? 

In other words Gerson hasn't done nearly enough (even on the relaxed standards of Charity one would expect from him) to show that Obama is some kind of "extremist."  He takes it that the absence of one kind of evidence against that view is sufficient to establish it.  So what results is a kind of argumentum ad ignorantiam which sets up two complex questions.  Nice form.


The President of the Czech Republic has helped Charles Krauthammer find the true enemy of freedom.  It's knowledge about the natural world.  This knowledge is especially dangerous if Krauthammer doesn't have the patience, time, or expertise to understand it.  He writes:

Predictions of catastrophe depend on models. Models depend on assumptions about complex planetary systems — from ocean currents to cloud formation — that no one fully understands. Which is why the models are inherently flawed and forever changing. The doomsday scenarios posit a cascade of events, each with a certain probability. The multiple improbability of their simultaneous occurrence renders all such predictions entirely speculative.

Yet on the basis of this speculation, environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation. "The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity," warns Czech President Vaclav Klaus, "is no longer socialism. It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism."

If you doubt the arrogance, you haven't seen that Newsweek cover story that declared the global warming debate over. Consider: If Newton's laws of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming — infinitely more untested, complex and speculative — is a closed issue.

But declaring it closed has its rewards. It not only dismisses skeptics as the running dogs of reaction, i.e., of Exxon, Cheney and now Klaus. By fiat, it also hugely re-empowers the intellectual left.

For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class — social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies — arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).

Two decades ago, however, socialism and communism died rudely, then were buried forever by the empirical demonstration of the superiority of market capitalism everywhere from Thatcher's England to Deng's China, where just the partial abolition of socialism lifted more people out of poverty more rapidly than ever in human history.

Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but — even better — in the name of Earth itself.

Such a combination of straw men (the weakest versions of global warming arguments–not to Newsweeks's idea of "debate" about global warming), red herrings (communism, socialism, etc.), ad hominem (arrogant scientists are just trying to rule the world), ad ignorantiam (since we don't know much about the effects of carbon, let's do nothing. . . ), and just plain non sequiturs (Newton's law of motion was "overthrown" so distrust everything short of that) has not been seen for, um, weeks on this page.

Simply saying

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee shows the world that the WMD fiasco can remain a never-ending source of hilarity.  He first alleged that the weapons were spirited out to Jordan (our ally), when asked (by Fox News of all organizations) whether he has any evidence of that, he replies:

I don’t have any evidence. [Saddam] was the one who announced openly he had weapons of mass destruction. He’s the one who had used similar weapons in the past. Let’s remember that both Democrats and Republicans and our intelligence agencies believed that he had them.

My point was that, no, we didn’t find them. Did they get into Syria? Did they get into some remote area of Jordan? Did they go some other place? We don’t know. They may not have existed. But simply saying — we didn’t find them so therefore they didn’t exist — is a bit of an overreach.

Not quite.  It's not a matter of simply saying, but rather simply scouring the country, then re-examining the evidence for simply saying they had WMD,then, and only then finally simply saying, gee, oops, I suppose we were wrong about that.  Boy is our face red.

May only

As I have nothing to say, I’m going to borrow wholesale from Sadly, No! an entertaining blog.

First, some set up. Glenn Reynolds, a kind of conservative law professor and well known blogger, cites with approval the following passage:

>LEE HARRIS ON UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: “It is simply a myth to believe that only interventionism yields unintended consequence, since doing nothing at all may produce the same unexpected results. If American foreign policy had followed a course of strict non-interventionism, the world would certainly be different from what it is today; but there is no obvious reason to think that it would have been better.” posted at 02:21 PM by Glenn Reynolds.

This remark produces the following hilarious retort from Gavin M. of Sadly, No!:

>Well, that’s certainly one way to look at things.

>For that matter, if I hadn’t accidentally flushed my wallet down the toilet, who’s to say that some maniac wouldn’t have come along and flushed it down a toilet anyway? It would almost certainly have been a different toilet, but there is no obvious reason to think that the result would have been better.

>It is simply a myth to believe that only self-wallet-flushing yields unintended consequences, for doing nothing at all may produce the same unexpected results. Say, can I see your wallet for a second?

I suppose the unfunny thing I would have said was that this is what you call the argumentum ad ignorantiam–i.e., when one turns the lack of evidence for a belief into evidence for it. If that sounds too dumb to be true, just reread Reynolds’ original post.

“Caution-to-the-wind Principles”

Adding to earlier diagnosis of the ad infantem fallacy: The argument the author over at the WaPo is making seems to me to be that the worry
over climate change is disproportionate to the danger or the likelihood
of the threatened harm. It is an increasingly common reaction to
climate change warnings as the straight-up deniers seem to be
retreating to their Hummers. It rests on a reasonable premise:

  1. Concern should be proportional to risk, where risk is proportional to magnitude of harm and likelihood of occurence.

Then you attack Al Gore for hyping the risk, while presenting a
posture of cool headed calm in opposition to Gore’s climate hysteria
(and benefiting the children as well!). It generally depends on making one of two claims:

  1. the harm will be less severe than Gore predicts.
  2. the harm is less likely than Gore claims .

Arguing these claims would require scientific argument/evidence.
This editorial flails around in the proximity of these claims but
settles on the related claim:

3. we don’t know what the likelihood or severity of the harm is.

The author supports this claim with

  1. an argument about the inability of climatologists to predict the
    weather in August. Therefore it is unlikely that they can predict the
    weather in 2100.
  2. an argument about the “controversies” surrounding whether storms
    are exacerbated by climate change or not. (Committing what we might
    call the fallacy of appeal to a single uncontextualized scientific
    study. Well, to be fair she doesn’t really commit this “fallacy” since
    all she wants to do is suggest that we don’t know.). On this see the
    debate over here or the related discussion here. We can also add that this is not exactly the most significant part of the harms imagined in the IPCC’s 4th report. (In fact it’s barely mentioned). Finally, as pointing out in the first link, contrast her use of this study with the WaPo’s own reportage.

These very weak arguments for 3, then allow the author to suggest
that we shouldn’t be too alarmist about climate change and certainly
not scare the children! Al Gore should be ashamed! Until you are
certain, don’t scare the children.

This sort of editorial probably takes about 5 minutes to write.
Really all that’s going on is

  1.   find some disagreement in the
    scientific literature
  2.   therefore we shouldn’t worry too much.

Somewhere in there is something akin to the appeal to ignorance. It
isn’t quite an appeal to igorance because the conclusion isn’t simply
the negative conclusion:

a) climate change isn’t a risk

but rather, something like:

b) we don’t know whether it is a risk, so we should treat it as though it isn’t a (big) risk.

There’s much more to be said about this latter step, as clearly sometimes it is a perfectly good inference. In environmental ethics we discuss something called the "precautionary principle." Roughly this is a principle that shifts the "burden of proof" to those who advocate a policy that is potentially very dangerous. For example, the advocates of a policy might have to demonstrate that the risk is minimal, or manageable, etc.

The sort of argument that we are analyzing here seem to rest on a "caution to the wind principle" which seems to suggest that in the absence of conclusive demonstration of certain and determinate harms, we shouldn’t worry too much, and we definitely shouldn’t upset the children.

Binge and surge

**Update below**

I was going to make a post about the fallacy of amphiboly, but then I read Robert Kagan’s “The Surge is Succeeding” in today’s Washington Post. Kagan’s article is instructive in its subtle and misleading use of evidence. In the end he doesn’t so much as argue that the surge is working so much as claim the press ought not to be saying that it’s not working, because it’s too early to tell, so it’s working. That’s a pretty straightforward argument from ignorance. And we’ve seen this sort of thing before from Kagan–given the absence of attacks on the US in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the invasion has stopped terrorism. Well, the acute will notice that the latter is a causal fallacy.

But back to the question of evidence. Kagan’s central evidence for the success of the surge:

>Four months later, the once insurmountable political opposition has been surmounted. The nonexistent troops are flowing into Iraq. And though it is still early and horrible acts of violence continue, there is substantial evidence that the new counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the infusion of new forces, is having a significant effect.

>Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that “early signs are encouraging.”

There is a puzzling circularity to Kagan’s reasoning here. His evidence for the success is the sentence that follows that reports evidence of the success–not the other way around. For most normal evidentialists, the Press–for which Kagan has no regard (more in a second)–reports things they claim to be happening, and we either believe them or disbelieve them. Not t’other way round. So Kagan ought to write: some observers have noticed a shift, and after considering their authority against that of, say, the White House, and the rest of the world media, I believe them. After all, they’re bloggers known for “straight talk.”

In addition to his strange selection of authorities and the weird and apparent circularity of his argument, Kagan finds time to dig at the press:

>A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn’t work. I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.

Zing! Take that fact-reporting newspaper! The Post–for however wrong it has been about this entire Iraq fiasco–does not need a military back-up plan in case the surge works. It’s a newspaper. We hope that it will report when the surge is working. But apparently, it keeps reporting otherwise. Since those are facts friendly to the enemy, the Post must be working for the enemy. Sheesh.

And yet, Kagan writes for the Post.


Glenn Greenwald says what commenter Phil has been saying lately:

>No rational person would believe a word Robert Kagan says about anything. He has been spewing out one falsehood after the next for the last four years in order to blind Americans about the real state of affairs concerning the invasion which he and his comrade and writing partner, Bill Kristol, did as much as anyone else to sell to the American public.


Weird Science

Yesterday in my seminar on the philosophy of religion we had a discussion about burden of proof. Burden questions seem to be a tricky mix of psychology, politics, and epistemology–to name a few things. And this goes back to the second feature of critical thinking–at least the second one we came up with here (yesterday)–i.e., know where you stand. This doesn’t mean of course that you should know and defend where you stand, and be aware of the status of the questions before you (the first step–maybe). So, where do you stand relative to the burden of proof on any given topic? On some topics determining where the burden falls is hard, on others, it’s easy. Just ask the people who know better. Say, I don’t know, scientists on scientific questions.

So if your knee-jerk reaction to a scientific question is to question it, then you ought to know that you have a high burden of proof to overcome. Someone please tell George Will:

>Climate Cassandras say the facts are clear and the case is closed. (Sen. Barbara Boxer: “We’re not going to take a lot of time debating this anymore.”) The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets: 1. Global warming is happening. 2. It is our (humanity’s, but especially America’s) fault. 3. It will continue unless we mend our ways. 4. If it continues we are in grave danger. 5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming. 6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.

>Only the first tenet is clearly true, and only in the sense that the Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. We do not know the extent to which human activity caused this. The activity is economic growth, the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-being—better nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet’s climate?

Hard to know what George Will, famous climate skeptic (see also here), could mean by “clearly true” in this instance. But I think it’s something like “not even I–who read Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel about global warming hysteria–can doubt that one any more.” I know that’s a little mean. But Will doesn’t bother even trying to support his claim–clearly at odds with current qualified scientific consensus–with any evidence (at all–not even bad evidence). Instead he changes the subject:

>We do not know how much we must change our economic activity to produce a particular reduction of warming. And we do not know whether warming is necessarily dangerous. Over the millennia, the planet has warmed and cooled for reasons that are unclear but clearly were unrelated to SUVs. Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there? Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?

That’s an argument from ignorance! Who knows–maybe global warming will be good for us. We could farm in Greenland. Since we can’t tell either way, let’s do nothing.