Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Must We Hate Columbo?

I received a recent comment on my wall regarding this post:

Wow! Why don't people post anything about Islam or Buddhism or any other religion besides Christianity. Curious. I don't feel the need to walk on anyone else's beliefs but I am puzzled that others walk all over mine. It's just an observation.”

Most people who know me know that I'm an equal opportunity skeptic when it comes to organized credulity and unreason in general.  I posted this mainly because Christianity is the majority religion in Western culture and to make the general point that most beliefs systems seem strange to people outside their spectrum of influence.  I thought this quote (it’s from a T-Shirt) did a wonderful job of fundamentally putting it all on the table - there is nothing here that is not a core belief of the religion.  I recently posted a movie on my Wall regarding the Ramanaya of the Hindu faith (it was called Sita Sings The Blues).  It was basically a cartoon dialogue between three worshipers of Hindu faith discussing the myth and questioning various parts while basically, playfully “roasting” it (while still respecting it). 

I don’t understand why Christians in general seem to lack a sense of humor when it comes to the questioning some of their more outrageously held beliefs. No one is walking all over the religion here.  I highly respect the teachings of Jesus (whether he actually existed or was created by the Romans to unify and control people is not the point), who clearly tells us that love can transform human life (something I honestly, wholeheartedly believe).  But I don’t believe that we need to accept the fact that he was the son of god who was born of a virgin, ascended to heaven and will one day return to earth to incorporate these truths into our lives. I understand that such systems of beliefs generally help quell existential fears and give humanity a sense of control over the ambiguity of life, but as Richard Dawkins (author of  The God Delusion) has said, “the fact that a believer might be happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”  It is often said that there is a razors edge between enlightenment and despair.

I believe that we’re all adult enough to admit that one can respect another person’s faith and still question it.  I don’t know where the meme came from that suggests that ones belief is off limits from basic Socratic questioning.  I don’t know why credulous faith in this country is supposed to be accorded intellectual and cultural accommodations to the extent that it is generally seen as “rude” to question it.  Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith) puts things in perspective when he asks, “when was the last time that someone was criticized for not “respecting” another person’s unfounded beliefs about physics or history?  I believe the same rules should apply to ethical, spiritual, and religious beliefs as well,” (especially since so much human suffering can be directly attributed to credulous faith and religion throughout the centuries).  For me, this is what makes an honest criticism of religious faith a “moral and intellectual necessity.”

With that said, I would also like to add that, contrary to popular belief, Buddhism is not a religion. There are no dogmatic rules or codes of ethics written in stone to be obeyed without question as with other faiths.  It is a spiritual path that was originally founded upon an exploration of intuitive wisdom and does not require the blind acceptance of a god hypothesis.  It is said that only through a deeper level of understanding of human suffering can one truly feel compassion for another - therefore a sense of morality is believed to naturally arise from within.  It takes a great deal of practice to reach a state of non-judgmental awareness that can support such insights - therefore meditation becomes a core practice of Buddhism. 

Buddhism is fundamentally about rebirth, not reincarnation (and there’s a big difference there).  As any belief takes different forms as it migrates from where it began, some “sects” of Buddhism have come to incorporate supernatural beliefs, but that is something that has generally been “added” to the mix.  Buddhism at it's core is fundamentally a psychology that generally does not concern itself with unjustifiable beliefs - only with what is knowable.  With that in mind, it generally rejects unsubstantiated beliefs, such as the idea of original sin (that humanity was infected by a woman and is therefore wretched and evil) because the evidence does not support it (evil is seen more as a general byproduct of human ignorance obscuring our inherent wisdom and compassion for one another).  Personally, I can’t think of a more pessimistic outlook than the sin hypothesis, but that’s just me. 

Faith in Buddhism does not concern itself with something external, invisible and unknowable – it lies with humanity itself.   The basic thought regarding god is the fundamental idea that, in the words of Lama Govinda, “when men look up into the space of heaven and invoke a power that is supposed to reside there, they’re more likely invoking forces within themselves being projected outward.”


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ganesh - The "Remover of Obstacles?"

I generally dislike trite sayings such as; "god never gives a person more than they can handle." I understand the underlying thought behind it, but such sentiments drive me crazy because I can't help but see them as subtly infantilizing our humanity.  A more scientifically representative view might be to suggest that humanity has EVOLVED the capacity to overcome a great deal of suffering (much more then we often give ourselves credit for). 

There is a common saying that Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu deity) is "the remover of obstacles." Of course I tend to read into all mythology in a Jungian sense, as simply metaphors of a societies collective unconscious, but I believe this is one of those examples Daniel Dennett (author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea) is referring to when he uses the phase "sky hook" - a metaphor, if you're not familiar with the term, Dennett uses to describe a fundamentalists typical fall back position ("god did it") when they are unable to explain something.  

As a therapist, I have asked many of my clients in my practice where they get their strength from in life.  Inevitably I'll come across someone who claims that "god gave it to me."  I believe this is what Dennett meant by a sky hook.  The point of my asking the question is simply for my client to acknowledge their inherent strengths in an attempt to break through their intrinsic illusion of being flawed or powerless.  I see pointing to god (or anything else external to them) as a major impass in this regard, and a general subjugation of ones own inherent capacity to overcome adversity. Far be it for me to challenge someone else's spirituality, but whenever I come across someone who makes such an unjustifiable claim I always like to follow up the question by asking them WHO they believe is responsible for making the conscious choice to cope with their suffering in such a manner?  It's a subtle difference, but I believe it's meaningful because it speaks more to a persons internal fortitude as their strength being intrinsic, verses it being extrinsically "given from above."

The fact that many Westerners have come to read into the mythology of Ganesh as being him being "the remover of obstacles" is not at all surprising.  It not only shows a philosophy that reeks of spiritual narcissism, but it also reveals an unconscious focus on an external locus of control - as if humanity was completely powerless over their own fate (something I adamantly reject).  These are very Western concepts, adopted slowly and progressively since the dawning of the Bronze Age.  It's a recently embraced worldview (within the last 8,000 years or so) that suggests that the earth and all it's inhabitants (including humanity) are no longer seen as inherently sacred as they had been, as a vast amount of archeological evidence has shown, during the Paleolithic (a time period which lasted well over 40,000 years, well before the advent of agriculture, food surplus, metallurgy and war).  With this "new" (adopted) understanding, humanity is predominantly viewed as wretched and utterly powerless, and can only be redeemed of it's "sins" through turning to god's love (eg: the adoption of credulity).  With such a fatalistic worldview it's no wonder why people feel powerless and unable to recognize their own inherent strength.

Personally, can't understand why people just can't accept the fact that they got through a struggle or a crisis in their lives because our species has evolved over 200,000 years to be resilient, overcome adversity, and to thrive.  It has nothing to do with some mystical sky being ignoring the large portion of the planets suffering (as populations much more deserving of [his] divine help continue to starve and/or have their basic rights violated) just so [he] can help a person with some minor crisis they happen to be struggling with (like passing an exam, getting through relationship difficulties, getting a raise, or a favorite team winning some sporting event, etc).

A more enlightened view of the Ganesh mythology, as suggested by psychotherapist Mark Epstein (author of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart), might be the idea that Ganesh (or one might say "life") actually PLACES obstacles (metaphorically speaking of course) in our path with the knowledge (wisdom) that adversity has the propensity make humanity stronger, and that we all intrinsically have the capacity to overcome such obstacles.  To me, that interpretation is much more spiritually satisfying and speaks much more to the inherent strength of our species.  I tend to find much more meaningful and powerful than simply saying some formless, abstract, exclusively male sky being was wholly responsible for all of our successes in life.

"When men look up into the space of heaven and invoke a power that is supposed to reside there, they invoke in reality forces within themselves being projected outward." - Lama Govinda


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Denying Global Climate Change

It’s a sad fact - no amount of data will change the mind of ANYONE who tries to make a scientific issue into a political one.  It is almost comical how predictably few surprises there are in the arguments most people make against the reality of global climate change.  I personally have no idea what would motivate an ordinary citizen to deny what the vast amount of solid, scientific evidence widely supports, nor do I understand why reasonable people consciously choose to promote corporate self-interests and conspiracy theories above the basic needs of future generations.  At least large corporations have a financial interest in denying what’s obvious and clear.

I truly fail to see the motivation behind the average persons denial of what 97% of scientists already agree upon, other then a deeply ingrained pattern of blind and unquestioning allegiance to an ideology that appeals to emotional decision making and submission to authority rather than an open-minded, unbiased exploration of the truth.  For the average person, such an unwavering marriage to unreason is much like voting against your own best interest.  For what?  What is the payoff for the average person?  I can honestly say that I don’t know.  Such a vast display of credulity is completely beyond me.

As far as the science behind global climate change, here’s what we know.  According to the latest, July 2011 issue of Scientific American “the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) occurred roughly 56 million years ago when the super-continent Pangaea was in the final stages of breaking up” (although if you believe that the earth is only between 6,000 – 10,000 years old, I can’t help you). Many uninformed climate change deniers often try to use the PETM example to build their case for the idea that we don't need to worry because the earth has “natural periods where it has gotten hotter.”

The main problem with the “naturally occurring cycles of the earth getting hotter” theory is that we DO need to worry - the PETM was a period of MASS EXTINCTIONS on a global scale.  The PETM, if one were to actually look past the superficial, misinformed bumper-sticker slogans, is actually a strong counter indication of ones denial for concern.  According to cited Scientific American article (titled “The Last Great Global Warming”), the PETM “was a period which saw massive shifting of global climate zones which caused mass global migrations of plants and animals and some of the deepest areas of the ocean becoming acidified and oxygen-starved, killing off many of the creatures that lived there.”  We are seeing a vast amount of evidence for this process occurring today. 

The truly frightening aspect of all this however (and a point many climate change deniers tend to miss), is that during the PETM the earth saw a 5-9 degree temperature rise over the course of 20,000 years (which was originally thought to be relatively fast on a geological time scale). Compare that to the current rate of temperature rise and it completely pales in comparison to what the earth has seen, and does so in a very dramatic way.  It’s only been a period of roughly over 200 years, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution for the same predicted spike in carbon/global temperatures.  If the trend continues (and there’s no evidence to suggest that it won’t), the current inhabitants of this planet are going to inevitably subjected to a considerable amount of suffering in terms of a general rise in food and water scarcities, increased risk of drought, fire and floods, more heat-related illness and diseases, rising seas, destabilization of weather patterns which will promote stronger storms and more damage, habitat loss, acidification of the oceans, extreme weather changes, not to mention extreme economic challenges and a general level global destabilization this world has never seen before.  Keeping in mind that the earth took roughly 200,000 years to recover from the PETM spike, one could easily see why it’s safe to say that we are quickly becoming the architects of our own demise.

Most scientists (97% of them) agree that the earth is currently hovering around 390 ppm of unsequestered carbon in the atmosphere.  Most scientists (again, 97% of them) also agree that the number 350 is what is sustainable for most inhabitants (we crossed that threshold several years ago).  This is pretty straight forward and widely accepted within the scientific community.  The only time in the history of earth that reached these levels in such a short period of time was 56 million years ago, during the previously mentioned PETM. Our current rate of increase is dramatically faster than that of the PETM.  No previous “naturally occurring cycles” in the history of this planet have ever seen such an alarming increase. The PETM is the closest we’ve ever come and that was extended over a period of 20,000 years - an increase in carbon emissions which inevitably lead to massive extinctions on a global scale.  The emissions of carbon increased during the PETM by a rate of about 1.7 petagrams a year.  Compare this to our current rate of increase, which is somewhere around 25 petagrams per year.  This is a rise in carbon emission at a astounding rate of merely a couple HUNDRED years (as opposed to the the thousands it took for the emission to built in the atmosphere during the PETM). 

This is fairly simple math and the differences are staggering.  Our current rate of carbon emissions is obviously occurring on a much quicker scale than the PETM - an increase that coincides with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the increased burning of fossil fuels.  At this current rate of increase (not even taking into considering the countries who are rapidly urbanizing), the damage is going to be much more catastrophic then it was during the PETM.  These are real life consequences that deserve reasonable discourse rather than a culture of unreason or outrageous arguments based on an array of easily digestible logical fallacies.  Emotional reasoning and conspiracy theories built upon unsubstantiated evidence serve only to distort and compound this global problem. By the current trend, it is predicted that the planet will pass 600 ppm by the end of the century, which coincides with roughly a 6 -8 degree temperature increase, depending upon what model you’re using.  This is going to be truly disastrous for the planet and the creatures that inhabit it because there will be no time for species to adapt to such massive and abrupt changes.  All this of course, is undisputed science and lies outside the arena of left or right wing political agendas.  It’s hard to argue with solid facts, no matter how you try to spin it.  

But all this compelling information, no matter how vast and logical it might appear, never seems to penetrate the ideological armor of the climate change naysayers.  The fact of the matter is, I’ve had people confidently tell me that they could easily disprove what I cited and argue that I am merely “cutting and pasting” off of left-leaning websites.  The fact is, my main current source of “felonious data” (as I had one reader call it) is not from a left-leaning website.  The information that I am citing here came straight from the pages of the latest Scientific American - a magazine that is based on scientific understanding (as the name implies), not politics (the magazine was also the 2011 winner of the Nation Magazine Award for General Excellence, but I digress).  But that’s just where I got my information TODAY.  I have many other books and published studies I could have consulted and have wound up with the same information.  That’s not the point.  The point is, you don’t have to go very far to find the supporting evidence, which again, most scientists (unless they're being paid off by corporate lobbiests) will tell you, is overwhelming.  My gathering of empirically validated evidence (in this case, from my coffee table where the magazine was sitting) is called “supporting your hypothesis”, and is generally considered to be an intrinsic part of the scientific method of understanding. 

The science behind global climate change has been found to be quite solid and widely accepted, despite the continual drone of the right-wing hype. One obviously doesn’t have to look very far to find solid evidence that supports what I’m saying – it’s all around us.  All logical fallacies aside, this is not going to change.  Outrageous claims, such as the fact that global climate change is a hoax or a conspiracy, require outrageous evidence to support it.  Just because a person will make erroneous or unsupported claims and blanket statements about “felonious data,” doesn’t automatically get them off the hook or magically make their argument any more true or valid.  Arguments from authority hold very little weight among the scientific community or within the realm of logical discourse.

With that said, global climate change is not a “house of cards” as many climate change deniers have come to call it. The 2009 leaked East Anglia emails are often widely held as definitive PROOF that there’s a conspiracy among climate scientists. Unfortunately, the only thing it definitively proves is people’s vast ignorance of the scientific method of understanding.  Besides the fact that there are lots of single sentences taken out of context to “appear” incriminating, the main focus of many is the use of the word “trick.”  This is unfortunate, because this is merely an example of a deep misunderstanding of how the word was applied by scientists.  Using a statistical “trick” in a chart (in this case, illustrating a recent, sharp warming trend) is not a trick in the sense that scientists are out there maliciously trying to “fool” the public as part of some greater, left-wing conspiracy among scientists.  It’s a basic statistical term that is obviously being misunderstood by linear, literal thinkers with a low education in the hard sciences. It’s a term scientists often used when working with statistics to refer to a “good way to solve a problem.”  It was not being used in terms of “keeping a secret” however the scientifically challenged try to read into it. It sounds like incriminating evidence only to those who are looking for incriminating evidence to share with their equally credulous, like-minded supporters of weak arguements and flawed logic.

The other 3% of scientists who reject the majority view, just in case you’re wondering - their expertise tends to fall far below that of their colleagues as indicated by publication and citation rates.  This makes them easy targets for the prestige and financial support that can be obtained by large, global corporations seeking their scientific credibility in order to promote their general goals of corporate deregulation.  An important question would encourage anyone to ask is, of the 3% of scientists who disagree with the widely accepted evidence, who exactly is responsible for the financing of the majority of their research?  I have said this before, and believe it’s a worthwhile and prudent suggestion – FOLLOW THE MONEY!!!  From FreedomWorks, to Citizens for a Sound Economy, to the Cato Institute, to Americans for Prosperity, follow the money trail and you’ll find that most of it inevitably leads right back to the Koch brothers who have historically shown to fund large scale lobbying and playing a decisive role in the denial of global climate change.  Why?  For the simple fact that deregulation is good for (their) business. Most of the 3% of scientists who are in denial have been bought off by a Koch funded, global warming denial machine, who have deep ties to the media in the form of Rupert Murdoch which promotes their views and confuses the public (as indicated by a recent NPR study that shows the American public’s acceptance of global climate changes has gone form 70% in 2007 to 50% today, coinciding with the continual deregulation of the rules in which our "professional" media are required to abide by). 

But all this is besides the fact.  I would encourage anyone who doubts the science behind global climate change to study the methods used to obtain the data and understand WHY scientists are no longer using tree ring data to track temperature fluctuations.  Only THEN can one ever hope to adequately criticize it.  Pulling out one or two interpretations of the data, getting stuck on the East Anglia emails, or on opinions of a few well-paid scientists (who are vastly outnumbered by the majority), does not change the empirical results of the widely accepted data.  Basing a belief solely on any one of these myopic points, without taking a look at the full picture, not only displays a great deal of confirmational bias, but is just poor science in general (which is why I believe it’s so important to teach our children critical thinking skills and the scientific method in school, but I digress). The evidence for global climate change is overwhelming. Take away two or three cards from the house of cards (a metaphor I borrowed from some uncited article I once read), and you have 49 or 50 cards (most of the deck) still facing you. It’s simply a matter of statistical significance.  If you still can’t see that, it’s not because there isn’t ample evidence - it’s simply because, for whatever reason, you have consciously chosen NOT to see it.

It all boils down to the fact that people who disagree with the facts of global science generally haven’t done the proper research or understood the relatively straight forwards facts, as cited by the science that supports it.  The fact of the matter is some people are just so entrenched with their beliefs for whatever reason, that any logical evidence presented to them will fail to register.  For whatever reason, these people tend to have a deep emotional, unquestioning attachment to their own unchallenged beliefs despite the ample contradictory evidence that’s staring them right in the face.  Since continuing to argue with those so strongly married to their unreasonable ideas is an absurd task more suited to the tragic Greek hero Sisyphus, I’ll just make it simple, stick to one point to make my argument, and then leave it at that:

•         97% of scientists agree that man-made global climate change is occurring.

Whatever anecdotal evidence one provides, whether it’s an email leaked out of context and grossly misunderstood, or reading into the reasons why some scientist left his position (as if that actually “proved” anything) truly pales in comparison to the overabundance of hard scientific facts that supports the phenomena.  97% is what we call in science “statistically significant.”  That’s good enough for me.

"Smart People believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non smart reasons"
- Scientific American

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kill the Buddha!

It is common among many fundamentalists to consider any organized system of belief to be a "religion" or "dogma" and a form of worship (this includes obviously both Buddhist psychology and scientific theory).  This obviously speaks more to the limitations of a fundamentalist worldview than any supporting evidence that might be discovered on a solid ground of logical discourse.  There is saying common among Buddhists, "Kill the Buddha!" which addresses this problem.  It is meant to remind of person to be mindful of their attachments, as the Buddha was never meant to be "worshipped" in any sense of the word.  To a Buddhist, faith is not a required in order to gain knowledge of this world.  What many people often fail to realize (due possibly to their own spiritual narcissism and limited world view), is that the Buddha or the teachings associated with him were not meant to be canonized the way the 10 Commandments were believed to be etched in stone - they were merely meant to be viewed as a guide to ones own inherent wisdom - merely a "finger pointing to the moon" as many Buddhists often say. Buddhists often believe very strongly about the dangers of attachment and how it relates to human suffering, even to attachments to the teachings of the Buddha.  Most Buddhists don't accept the sin hypothesis or the mythology of pure evil because it's not what they see when they examine human nature on a deeper level of understanding. What a traditional Christian would see as "evil" most Buddhists would traditionally call ignorance and influenced by dependent arising (the idea that, due to the existence of this, that arises).   

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” - The Buddha

Similarly, nothing in science is etched in stone.  Science merely reserves judgement in light of the evidence.  Science sees personal biases very similar to the way a Buddhist might view attachment, and often constructs experiments to limit researchers attachments to their own opinions or outcome desires in examining results.  But how is science different than a religion since it's based on a belief?  Science is based on hypothesis (a "belief" if you will) which is further based on observations of the natural world. It would be hard to see how one could call that a "religion."  But opposed to most fundamentalists worldviews, both Buddhists and scientists tend view a persons attachment to personal ideas very similarly - as a problem.  

If one were to examine it closely, one would see how the scientific method is the fundamental basis of Buddhist psychology.  A Buddhist examines the natural world through the utilization of non-judgmental awareness (mindfulness). Buddhism is a psychology, not a religion. If there is a deep faith in Buddhism, it would have to be in humanity itself, but again, this is not a belief separate from introspective learning - it is not a blind and credulous faith or marriage to unreason.  To a Buddhist, while humanity might be seen as having the propensity for compassion and good deeds, they are also seen as having the capacity to commit atrocities.  And these are not unjustifiable claims.  Only with understanding can one truly have compassion.  The "belief" (I use the term lightly) that people are generally good tends to be supported by evidence.  Buddhism generally does not support blind faith in the supernatural, or the god hypothesis.  This is because there is not such evidence for such a thing.  So is this a religion?  No.  Non-theism is no more a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby. Only a spiritual narcissist unable to look outside of their own inherited dogma would make such a claim.   

Religious belief = unquestioning faith in some invisible, all-knowing supernatural being whose teachings are typically written down in some holy book shared by a group of like-minded individuals. Main tenet tends to be one of unquestioning obedience.

Scientific belief = based on observable evidence from the natural world which evolves and is open to correction with new evidence, typically based upon the scientific method. Main tenet tends to be questioning and challenging established hypothesis.

I don't believe these two are the same thing and should be lumped under the umbrella of religion. Again, I don't mean to be insulting here, but I find that to be a very limited worldview. Religious belief is a very specific thing, which does not translate well to other non-theistic beliefs. There is a common saying, that trying to get an atheist to agree upon something is like trying to herd cats (and I'm not saying atheism is a religion btw, because it's not). I think the same can be said for most scientists as well. I think the way we cling to the labels we give to things in this world can severely limit our understanding of them. 

Scientific understanding is obviously not a religion.  I use scientific "belief" as an example of challenging what I see as a blanket statement - that any belief was automatically religion, which I obviously disagree with.  Science and religion are both founded upon certain beliefs.  The scientific method demands hypothesis testing which is the attempt to find evidence which will either prove or disprove a certain belief/hypothesis (which is obviously the opposite of the fundamentalist approach to truth).   One can say the same for Buddhism and atheism (which many erroneously view as religions or dogmas).  Both Buddhism and atheism support a "belief" - in the importance of challenging established belief systems in the quest for truth (which is obviously quite different from pure credulity or faith).

The sky/solar god I often talk about is the Judeo-Christian god (which includes Pentecostals - the fastest growing global Christian-based religion).  This belief is opposed to the manner of worship of a lunar/earth goddess which predates the sky/solar god(s) by roughly 40,000 years (give or take a few thousand years).  Goddess "worship" (again, I use the term lightly) was about living as an intimate part of a sacred world and a holistic circle of life which transcended the modern concept of death as final.  It was about respecting the sacred web of life and noticing the subtle connections.  Earth WAS viewed as sacred - as heaven.  The earth goddess often was (and still is) a great metaphor for gaining a deeper understanding of the sacredness of our world.  The goddess and most earlier 'religious' beliefs were often taken "symbolically" - not literally (the Gaia hypothesis is a good example of this).  It was only later, with the rise of agriculture and the inevitable popularity of sky/solar gods that the goddess worship began to be taken literally.  Such distinction can merely be seen as a general product of our inherited Bronze Age dualism however, which tends to divide the world (into "us vs. them," "heaven vs. earth," "right vs. wrong," "death vs. life," etc.) and rely on left-brained, logical functioning, or a abstract word and/or written text.  Earth goddess "worship" on the other hand (as well as modern day meditation and prayer), relied more on right-brained, holistic functioning.

Personally, it sounds to me as though people are generally talking about the same thing here.  Humanity has more that connects us than that which divides us.  The only difference sometimes, lies mostly in the semantics. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Logical Fallacies

What are logical fallacies?

Fallacies are defects that weaken arguments. By learning to look for them in your own and others' [arguments], you can strengthen your ability to evaluate the arguments you make, read, and hear. It is important to realize two things about fallacies: First, fallacious arguments are very, very common and can be quite persuasive, at least to the casual reader or listener. You can find dozens of examples of fallacious reasoning in newspapers, advertisements, and other sources. Second, it is sometimes hard to evaluate whether an argument is fallacious. An argument might be very weak, somewhat weak, somewhat strong, or very strong. An argument that has several stages or parts might have some strong sections and some weak ones. The goal of this [post], then, is not to teach you how to label arguments as fallacious or fallacy-free, but to help you look critically at your own arguments and move them away from the "weak" and toward the "strong" end of the continuum.

So what do fallacies look like?
For each fallacy listed there is a definition or explanation, an example, and a tip on how to avoid committing the fallacy in your own arguments.
Definition: Making assumptions about a whole group or range of cases based on a sample that is inadequate (usually because it is atypical or just too small). Stereotypes about people ("librarians are shy and smart," "wealthy people are snobs," etc.) are a common example of the principle underlying hasty generalization.
Example: "My roommate said her philosophy class was hard, and the one I'm in is hard, too. All philosophy classes must be hard!" Two people's experiences are, in this case, not enough on which to base a conclusion.
Tip: Ask yourself what kind of "sample" you're using: Are you relying on the opinions or experiences of just a few people, or your own experience in just a few situations? If so, consider whether you need more evidence, or perhaps a less sweeping conclusion. (Notice that in the example, the more modest conclusion "Some philosophy classes are hard for some students" would not be a hasty generalization.)

Missing the point

Definition: The premises of an argument do support a particular conclusion—but not the conclusion that the arguer actually draws.
Example: "The seriousness of a punishment should match the seriousness of the crime. Right now, the punishment for drunk driving may simply be a fine. But drunk driving is a very serious crime that can kill innocent people. So the death penalty should be the punishment for drunk driving." The argument actually supports several conclusions—"The punishment for drunk driving should be very serious," in particular—but it doesn't support the claim that the death penalty, specifically, is warranted.
Tip: Separate your premises from your conclusion. Looking at the premises, ask yourself what conclusion an objective person would reach after reading them. Looking at your conclusion, ask yourself what kind of evidence would be required to support such a conclusion, and then see if you've actually given that evidence. Missing the point often occurs when a sweeping or extreme conclusion is being drawn, so be especially careful if you know you're claiming something big.

Post hoc (also called false cause)

This fallacy gets its name from the Latin phrase "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," which translates as "after this, therefore because of this."
Definition: Assuming that because B comes after A, A caused B. Of course, sometimes one event really does cause another one that comes later—for example, if I register for a class, and my name later appears on the roll, it's true that the first event caused the one that came later. But sometimes two events that seem related in time aren't really related as cause and event. That is, correlation isn't the same thing as causation.
Examples: "President Jones raised taxes, and then the rate of violent crime went up. Jones is responsible for the rise in crime." The increase in taxes might or might not be one factor in the rising crime rates, but the argument hasn't shown us that one caused the other.
Tip: To avoid the post hoc fallacy, the arguer would need to give us some explanation of the process by which the tax increase is supposed to have produced higher crime rates. And that's what you should do to avoid committing this fallacy: If you say that A causes B, you should have something more to say about how A caused B than just that A came first and B came later!

Slippery slope

Definition: The arguer claims that a sort of chain reaction, usually ending in some dire consequence, will take place, but there's really not enough evidence for that assumption. The arguer asserts that if we take even one step onto the "slippery slope," we will end up sliding all the way to the bottom; he or she assumes we can't stop halfway down the hill.
Example: "Animal experimentation reduces our respect for life. If we don't respect life, we are likely to be more and more tolerant of violent acts like war and murder. Soon our society will become a battlefield in which everyone constantly fears for their lives. It will be the end of civilization. To prevent this terrible consequence, we should make animal experimentation illegal right now." Since animal experimentation has been legal for some time and civilization has not yet ended, it seems particularly clear that this chain of events won't necessarily take place. Even if we believe that experimenting on animals reduces respect for life, and loss of respect for life makes us more tolerant of violence, that may be the spot on the hillside at which things stop—we may not slide all the way down to the end of civilization. And so we have not yet been given sufficient reason to accept the arguer's conclusion that we must make animal experimentation illegal right now.
Like post hoc, slippery slope can be a tricky fallacy to identify, since sometimes a chain of events really can be predicted to follow from a certain action. Here's an example that doesn't seem fallacious: "If I fail English 101, I won't be able to graduate. If I don't graduate, I probably won't be able to get a good job, and I may very well end up doing temp work or flipping burgers for the next year."
Tip: Check your argument for chains of consequences, where you say "if A, then B, and if B, then C," and so forth. Make sure these chains are reasonable.

Weak analogy

Definition: Many arguments rely on an analogy between two or more objects, ideas, or situations. If the two things that are being compared aren't really alike in the relevant respects, the analogy is a weak one, and the argument that relies on it commits the fallacy of weak analogy.
Example: "Guns are like hammers—they're both tools with metal parts that could be used to kill someone. And yet it would be ridiculous to restrict the purchase of hammers—so restrictions on purchasing guns are equally ridiculous." While guns and hammers do share certain features, these features (having metal parts, being tools, and being potentially useful for violence) are not the ones at stake in deciding whether to restrict guns. Rather, we restrict guns because they can easily be used to kill large numbers of people at a distance. This is a feature hammers do not share—it'd be hard to kill a crowd with a hammer. Thus, the analogy is weak, and so is the argument based on it.
If you think about it, you can make an analogy of some kind between almost any two things in the world: "My paper is like a mud puddle because they both get bigger when it rains (I work more when I'm stuck inside) and they're both kind of murky." So the mere fact that you draw an analogy between two things doesn't prove much, by itself.
Arguments by analogy are often used in discussing abortion—arguers frequently compare fetuses with adult human beings, and then argue that treatment that would violate the rights of an adult human being also violates the rights of fetuses. Whether these arguments are good or not depends on the strength of the analogy: do adult humans and fetuses share the property that gives adult humans rights? If the property that matters is having a human genetic code or the potential for a life full of human experiences, adult humans and fetuses do share that property, so the argument and the analogy are strong; if the property is being self-aware, rational, or able to survive on one's own, adult humans and fetuses don't share it, and the analogy is weak.
Tip: Identify what properties are important to the claim you're making, and see whether the two things you're comparing both share those properties.

Appeal to authority

Definition: Often we add strength to our arguments by referring to respected sources or authorities and explaining their positions on the issues we're discussing. If, however, we try to get readers to agree with us simply by impressing them with a famous name or by appealing to a supposed authority who really isn't much of an expert, we commit the fallacy of appeal to authority.
Example: "We should abolish the death penalty. Many respected people, such as actor Guy Handsome, have publicly stated their opposition to it." While Guy Handsome may be an authority on matters having to do with acting, there's no particular reason why anyone should be moved by his political opinions—he is probably no more of an authority on the death penalty than the person writing the paper.
Tip: There are two easy ways to avoid committing appeal to authority: First, make sure that the authorities you cite are experts on the subject you're discussing. Second, rather than just saying "Dr. Authority believes x, so we should believe it, too," try to explain the reasoning or evidence that the authority used to arrive at his or her opinion. That way, your readers have more to go on than a person's reputation. It also helps to choose authorities who are perceived as fairly neutral or reasonable, rather than people who will be perceived as biased.

Ad populum

Definition: The Latin name of this fallacy means "to the people." There are several versions of the ad populum fallacy, but what they all have in common is that in them, the arguer takes advantage of the desire most people have to be liked and to fit in with others and uses that desire to try to get the audience to accept his or her argument. One of the most common versions is the bandwagon fallacy, in which the arguer tries to convince the audience to do or believe something because everyone else (supposedly) does.
Example: "Gay marriages are just immoral. 70% of Americans think so!" While the opinion of most Americans might be relevant in determining what laws we should have, it certainly doesn't determine what is moral or immoral: There was a time where a substantial number of Americans were in favor of segregation, but their opinion was not evidence that segregation was moral. The arguer is trying to get us to agree with the conclusion by appealing to our desire to fit in with other Americans.
Tip: Make sure that you aren't recommending that your audience believe your conclusion because everyone else believes it, all the cool people believe it, people will like you better if you believe it, and so forth. Keep in mind that the popular opinion is not always the right one!

Ad hominem and tu quoque

Definitions: Like the appeal to authority and ad populum fallacies, the ad hominem ("against the person") and tu quoque("you, too!") fallacies focus our attention on people rather than on arguments or evidence. In both of these arguments, the conclusion is usually "You shouldn't believe So-and-So's argument." The reason for not believing So-and-So is that So-and-So is either a bad person (ad hominem) or a hypocrite (tu quoque). In an ad hominem argument, the arguer attacks his or her opponent instead of the opponent's argument.
Examples: "Andrea Dworkin has written several books arguing that pornography harms women. But Dworkin is an ugly, bitter person, so you shouldn't listen to her." Dworkin's appearance and character, which the arguer has characterized so ungenerously, have nothing to do with the strength of her argument, so using them as evidence is fallacious.
In a tu quoque argument, the arguer points out that the opponent has actually done the thing he or she is arguing against, and so the opponent's argument shouldn't be listened to. Here's an example: Imagine that your parents have explained to you why you shouldn't smoke, and they've given a lot of good reasons—the damage to your health, the cost, and so forth. You reply, "I won't accept your argument, because you used to smoke when you were my age. You did it, too!" The fact that your parents have done the thing they are condemning has no bearing on the premises they put forward in their argument (smoking harms your health and is very expensive), so your response is fallacious.
Tip: Be sure to stay focused on your opponents' reasoning, rather than on their personal character. (The exception to this is, of course, if you are making an argument about someone's character—if your conclusion is "President Clinton is an untrustworthy person," premises about his untrustworthy acts are relevant, not fallacious.)

Appeal to pity

Definition: The appeal to pity takes place when an arguer tries to get people to accept a conclusion by making them feel sorry for someone.
Examples: "I know the exam is graded based on performance, but you should give me an A. My cat has been sick, my car broke down, and I've had a cold, so it was really hard for me to study!" The conclusion here is "You should give me an A." But the criteria for getting an A have to do with learning and applying the material from the course; the principle the arguer wants us to accept (people who have a hard week deserve A's) is clearly unacceptable. The information the arguer has given might feel relevant and might even get the audience to consider the conclusion—but the information isn't logically relevant, and so the argument is fallacious. Here's another example: "It's wrong to tax corporations—think of all the money they give to charity, and of the costs they already pay to run their businesses!"
Tip: Make sure that you aren't simply trying to get your audience to agree with you by making them feel sorry for someone.

Appeal to ignorance

Definition: In the appeal to ignorance, the arguer basically says, "Look, there's no conclusive evidence on the issue at hand. Therefore, you should accept my conclusion on this issue."
Example: "People have been trying for centuries to prove that God exists. But no one has yet been able to prove it. Therefore, God does not exist." Here's an opposing argument that commits the same fallacy: "People have been trying for years to prove that God does not exist. But no one has yet been able to prove it. Therefore, God exists." In each case, the arguer tries to use the lack of evidence as support for a positive claim about the truth of a conclusion. There is one situation in which doing this is not fallacious: If qualified researchers have used well-thought-out methods to search for something for a long time, they haven't found it, and it's the kind of thing people ought to be able to find, then the fact that they haven't found it constitutes some evidence that it doesn't exist.
Tip: Look closely at arguments where you point out a lack of evidence and then draw a conclusion from that lack of evidence.

Straw man

Definition: One way of making our own arguments stronger is to anticipate and respond in advance to the arguments that an opponent might make. In the straw man fallacy, the arguer sets up a wimpy version of the opponent's position and tries to score points by knocking it down. But just as being able to knock down a straw man, or a scarecrow, isn't very impressive, defeating a watered-down version of your opponents' argument isn't very impressive either.
Example: "Feminists want to ban all pornography and punish everyone who reads it! But such harsh measures are surely inappropriate, so the feminists are wrong: porn and its readers should be left in peace." The feminist argument is made weak by being overstated—in fact, most feminists do not propose an outright "ban" on porn or any punishment for those who merely read it; often, they propose some restrictions on things like child porn, or propose to allow people who are hurt by porn to sue publishers and producers, not readers, for damages. So the arguer hasn't really scored any points; he or she has just committed a fallacy.
Tip: Be charitable to your opponents. State their arguments as strongly, accurately, and sympathetically as possible. If you can knock down even the best version of an opponent's argument, then you've really accomplished something.

Red herring

Definition: Partway through an argument, the arguer goes off on a tangent, raising a side issue that distracts the audience from what's really at stake. Often, the arguer never returns to the original issue.
Example: "Grading this exam on a curve would be the most fair thing to do. After all, classes go more smoothly when the students and the professor are getting along well." Let's try our premise-conclusion outlining to see what's wrong with this argument:
Premise: Classes go more smoothly when the students and the professor are getting along well.
Conclusion: Grading this exam on a curve would be the most fair thing to do.
When we lay it out this way, it's pretty obvious that the arguer went off on a tangent—the fact that something helps people get along doesn't necessarily make it more fair; fairness and justice sometimes require us to do things that cause conflict. But the audience may feel like the issue of teachers and students agreeing is important and be distracted from the fact that the arguer has not given any evidence as to why a curve would be fair.
Tip: Try laying your premises and conclusion out in an outline-like form. How many issues do you see being raised in your argument? Can you explain how each premise supports the conclusion?

False dichotomy

Definition: In false dichotomy, the arguer sets up the situation so it looks like there are only two choices. The arguer then eliminates one of the choices, so it seems that we are left with only one option: the one the arguer wanted us to pick in the first place. But often there are really many different options, not just two—and if we thought about them all, we might not be so quick to pick the one the arguer recommends!
Example: "Caldwell Hall is in bad shape. Either we tear it down and put up a new building, or we continue to risk students' safety. Obviously we shouldn't risk anyone's safety, so we must tear the building down." The argument neglects to mention the possibility that we might repair the building or find some way to protect students from the risks in question—for example, if only a few rooms are in bad shape, perhaps we shouldn't hold classes in those rooms.
Tip: Examine your own arguments: If you're saying that we have to choose between just two options, is that really so? Or are there other alternatives you haven't mentioned? If there are other alternatives, don't just ignore them—explain why they, too, should be ruled out. Although there's no formal name for it, assuming that there are only three options, four options, etc. when really there are more is similar to false dichotomy and should also be avoided.

Begging the question

Definition: A complicated fallacy; it comes in several forms and can be harder to detect than many of the other fallacies we've discussed. Basically, an argument that begs the question asks the reader to simply accept the conclusion without providing real evidence; the argument either relies on a premise that says the same thing as the conclusion (which you might hear referred to as "being circular" or "circular reasoning"), or simply ignores an important (but questionable) assumption that the argument rests on. Sometimes people use the phrase "beg the question" as a sort of general criticism of arguments, to mean that an arguer hasn't given very good reasons for a conclusion, but that's not the meaning we're going to discuss here.
Examples: "Active euthanasia is morally acceptable. It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death." Let's lay this out in premise-conclusion form:
Premise: It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death.
Conclusion: Active euthanasia is morally acceptable.
If we "translate" the premise, we'll see that the arguer has really just said the same thing twice: "decent, ethical" means pretty much the same thing as "morally acceptable," and "help another human being escape suffering through death" means "active euthanasia." So the premise basically says, "active euthanasia is morally acceptable," just like the conclusion does! The arguer hasn't yet given us any real reasons why euthanasia is acceptable; instead, she has left us asking "well, really, why do you think active euthanasia is acceptable?" Her argument "begs" (that is, evades) the real question.
Here's a second example of begging the question, in which a dubious premise which is needed to make the argument valid is completely ignored: "Murder is morally wrong. So active euthanasia is morally wrong." The premise that gets left out is "active euthanasia is murder." And that is a debatable premise—again, the argument "begs" or evades the question of whether active euthanasia is murder by simply not stating the premise. The arguer is hoping we'll just focus on the uncontroversial premise, "Murder is morally wrong," and not notice what is being assumed.
Tip: One way to try to avoid begging the question is to write out your premises and conclusion in a short, outline-like form. See if you notice any gaps, any steps that are required to move from one premise to the next or from the premises to the conclusion. Write down the statements that would fill those gaps. If the statements are controversial and you've just glossed over them, you might be begging the question. Next, check to see whether any of your premises basically says the same thing as the conclusion (but in other words). If so, you're begging the question. The moral of the story: You can't just assume or use as uncontroversial evidence the very thing you're trying to prove.


Definition: Equivocation is sliding between two or more different meanings of a single word or phrase that is important to the argument.
Example: "Giving money to charity is the right thing to do. So charities have a right to our money." The equivocation here is on the word "right": "right" can mean both something that is correct or good (as in "I got the right answers on the test") and something to which someone has a claim (as in "everyone has a right to life"). Sometimes an arguer will deliberately, sneakily equivocate, often on words like "freedom," "justice," "rights," and so forth; other times, the equivocation is a mistake or misunderstanding. Either way, it's important that you use the main terms of your argument consistently.
Tip: Identify the most important words and phrases in your argument and ask yourself whether they could have more than one meaning. If they could, be sure you aren't slipping and sliding between those meanings.

* [PLEASE NOTE: the above list of logical fallacies was taken from the following link:]