Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Critique of the Argument From Ignorance

If the dark is just a thought, then the light is in your mind.
The lies we tell ourselves will ruin the world with time.

~ Bryan Steeksma, ‘Listen to Reason’

If a faithful account was rendered of Man’s ideas upon Divinity, he would be obliged to acknowledge, that for the most part the word “gods” has been used to express the concealed, remote, unknown causes of the effects he witnessed; that he applies this term when the spring of the natural, the source of known causes, ceases to be visible: as soon as he loses the thread of these causes, or as soon as his mind can no longer follow the chain, he solves the difficulty, terminates his research, by ascribing it to his gods . . . When, therefore, he ascribes to his gods the production of some phenomenon . . . does he, in fact, do any thing more than substitute for the darkness of his own mind, a sound to which he has been accustomed to listen with reverential awe?
~ Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron d’Holbach, Système de la Nature, 1770

Whenever mythology of any kind is portrayed and promoted as fact, it must necessarily be supported primarily by lies, including spin. Mythologies spun as fact often find their most advantageous support in logical fallacies which lead people down rosy paths that look superficially promising but which ultimately culminate in conclusions that are demonstrably wrong. Emotional manipulation also plays a significant role in the promotion and support of notions that have no bearing on reality. One can provide many examples of spin, that is, logical fallacies and emotional manipulation being utilized in the propagation of certain strains of the Christian mythology, especially when these strains attempt to spill over into political arenas. But for this essay, it is my intention to focus on the realm of logical fallacies, which all beliefs or viewpoints, without exception, are subject to resorting to. In particular, I am interested in illuminating the logical fallacy known as the “argument from ignorance,” seeing as it is the fallacy I most often encounter in informal debate.

Religion has long stood in need of bogus pillars for support because the majority of its claims lack proper support in the way of objective evidence and sound reasoning. Furthermore, the use of lies, logical fallacies or emotional manipulation, indicates an effective admission that falsehood is being promoted. If that which is being promoted is not fallacious, resorting to such things is wholly unnecessary. When an argument is valuable and factually verifiable in and of itself, it will not stand in need of the misleading and dishonest tactics that weak claims require.

What is the argument from ignorance, and how is it used? It is known to those versed in philosophy as the “Argument from Personal Incredulity.” The argument from ignorance, or argumentum ad ignorantiam, is an appeal to ignorance, “the fallacy that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. This error in reasoning is often expressed with influential rhetoric [1].” The argument from ignorance usually manifests itself when a person states his or her intention to cast doubt on the idea being promoted by the opponent, then proceeds to declare that, solely because doubt has been introduced, that which he or she is promoting is true, or at least more likely to be true than the alternative being debated. In most cases, no evidence is provided by the person who uses this logical fallacy. The argument from ignorance usually functions solely as a smoke screen. It can be summed up as ‘Your argument is bad, therefore mine must be good.”

There is another logical fallacy that emerges in this kind of argument, and that is the false dichotomy. Usually, there are not only two options or possibilities on the table, but many. The use of the false dichotomy erroneously assumes that all matters are black-and-white and disregards the vast grey that dominates. Casting doubt on an idea to which one is opposed does not, in and of itself, render the next item on the list the most likely or even more likely. The facts of the issue being debated could be something else entirely that neither party has thought of. Thus, the false dichotomy serves as another example of a smoke screen that places an opponent on the defensive for no valid reason.

In the several cases in which a gap in knowledge or full understanding is recognized and acknowledged to exist within an area of science, arguments from ignorance will often be invoked by people in an attempt to prematurely fill in that gap with whatever they happen to be interested in, such as a god. This is known as the “God of the Gaps” argument, an argument in which every gap in our knowledge or understanding is filled with god. If science does not currently know X, the default explanation becomes “God did it.” Theists will often introduce themselves into debates with skeptics by saying, “How do you know a God did not create the universe? You weren't there!” By posing such a question, the person is effectively claiming that the atheist or skeptic lacks specific evidence, and that their claim that God exists in a creative capacity must therefore be true. There are at least three big problems with this species of assertion. First, the theist was not present at the beginning of the universe either. That which they are quick to point out I have no access to, they do not have access to either, and thus it is a moot point. Second, the species of theist who argue in this way tend not to provide any objective evidence for their side of the fence. Rather than providing evidence for the God they posit (which is what the skeptic asks for), they tend to resort to the empty assertion that “You do not know that God doesn't exist, so therefore God must exist.”

At this point the concept of burden of proof must enter the equation. The claim that God exists is a positive claim. Therefore, the burden of proof belongs to the person making that positive claim, and not to the person who is questioning the validity of the claim. To assert and stand by a positive claim is to place upon oneself the need to provide evidence for that claim when others question it. Third, the theist who argues in this way often fails to even consider other alternative mechanisms for how the universe might have come to exist. In this case, the theist is merely inserting his or her own view of what happened, and then proceeding to portray that view as the default explanation. This hearkens back to the false dichotomy mentioned above.

The reason arguments from ignorance, arguments from personal incredulity, or “God of the Gaps” arguments are important to understand and expose at all levels is because they are debilitating to the progress achieved through scientific discovery. Such arguments inherently discourage avid curiosity and the striving toward new knowledge. To assume an unproven answer such as “God did it” not only bypasses and dismisses principles of observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable evidence, it seeks to halt science in its tracks. If scientists accepted wholesale such "God of the Gaps" assumptions, the drive to continue investigating and seeking answers would be dead, for the unproved Supernatural Being that is assumed to exist is simply inserted into every unknown ever encountered and matters are left at that.

Philosophical Ignorance

Questions surrounding the origin of the universe are not the only cases in which the “God of the Gaps” argument is given occasion to arise. There are many other cases where it can be seen in action. For example, Matthew J. Slick, a professional theistic apologist, claims that logic was created by God. His justification for this claim bypasses the burden of proof entirely; when pressed in debate, he has claimed it is so because atheists have not proven otherwise. The “God of the Gaps” argument is also seen to arise quite often in relation to the study of the mind, which Slick is also fond of pontificating upon. As the fallacious argument goes, this very complex and capable entity that we call the human mind could not possibly have come into existence without some manner of supernatural involvement [2].

Scientific Ignorance

The increasingly indistinguishable Creationism and Intelligent Design movements are both almost entirely based upon arguments from incredulity and arguments from ignorance, and thus constitute excellent case studies for illustrating and exposing this logical fallacy. Creationists have made a tradition out of railing against such things as radiometric dating due to the fact that it has consistently and conclusively indicated an age of 4.3 billion years for the earth, and not the 6,000-10,000 years that is supposedly indicated in the Bible. The intense war between creationism and evolution is currently over for the most part, because creationism has consistently lost every battle, both legally and in the scientific debates. It is becoming increasingly obsolete to even refer to the conflict as a “debate,” much less a war. There is virtually no debate surrounding the reliability of radiometric dating any longer. Yet creationists continue to seek out situations recorded in the scientific literature in which the method of radiometric dating failed for one reason or another, and then desperately latch on to these situations as supposed evidence for the failure of radiometric dating. They are simultaneously willing to completely ignore or dismiss the peer-reviewed scientific explanations for why such failures existed, such as, for instance, samples that had been contaminated. The approach of shooting holes in your opponent's argument or evidence, whether there are actually holes or not, is a very active way of arguing. For a long time now, the creationists' hope has been that casting doubt on scientific methods such as radiometric dating would lend strength to their theory of a young earth. Notice that in the history of creationist attacks against science, other possible explanations have rarely been considered or acknowledged by them, betraying the fact that they harbor a purely ideological motivation. Today, while the scientific consensus on the age of the universe is quite firmly established, there is still a lack of such consensus among Christians on the age of the universe. Some side with the scientific dating of the universe and the earth, and some (fortunately an ever-shrinking minority) still cling to an age of 6,000-10,000 years. There is also a large spectrum of religious opinion that falls in between.

To cite another example involving an interaction between scientific instrumentation and religious tradition, the radiometric dating of the Shroud of Turin is supposedly brought into question every few years with mostly contrived “evidence” that is based largely upon pseudo-science. The Shroud was radiometrically dated in 1988, and almost every year since, a new caveat or hole is allegedly punched in the results of the dating. Despite the fact that it has been quite convincingly proven that the Shroud of Turin is a 15th-century forgery [3], ardent believers in the dogma surrounding the Shroud want far too strongly to believe it has an intimate connection with the death of Jesus Christ. Their goal to this day is to keep the myth alive in the face of conflicting evidence, for such believers have failed to distinguish that which they want to be true from that which is true.

Another area in which creationists commonly attempt to cast doubt is the existence of transitional fossils. Their assertion that there are no transitional fossils is, of course, patently false. Scientists have discovered myriads of evolutionary intermediaries within the fossil record, orders of magnitude more than Darwin himself indicated he could reasonably hope for to vindicate his theory. Ample examples of each of the three different types of transitional forms (general lineage, species-to-species transition, and transitions to new higher taxa) are readily available for perusal to any interested observer willing to behold them. The reason many creationists still insist that we have not found a single transitional fossil can often be attributed to the fact that they are usually heard demanding that evolutionists present impossible absurdities. As Christian evangelist and creationist Kirk Cameron infamously stated on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, “You’ve got to be able to prove transitional forms; one animal transitioning into another. And all through the fossil record and life, we don’t find [...] a crocoduck. There’s just nothing like it [4].” Of course, anybody with an accurate understanding of biology would realize that if such a blend of two currently-existing species were discovered in the fossil record, evolution would in fact be definitively disproven! Rather, the theory of evolution as discovered and formulated by Darwin predicts that the fossil record should yield basal forms that are ancestral to both current species. And we have found dozens of them [5].

I recently read a supposedly scholarly article from the journal Creation Research Society Quarterly that provides a striking instance of the argument from ignorance in action, and which illustrates the validity of my foregoing criticisms. The article, written by Per A. Larssen, is entitled “Mutation and Natural Selection: The Central Dogma of Neo-Darwinian Evolution.” The following excerpt comes from the abstract of this article:

The central dogma of neo-Darwinism is: Mutations provide variety that is selected by natural selection. Mutations and natural selection are ultimately the only driving force of evolution, but they are effective only if one or more mutations prove beneficial to an organism in a given environment. In evolution, natural selection can do nothing without mutations. Since macromutations are virtually all near-neutral or harmful, micromutations are the only means by which new species could possibly evolve. The probability that micromutations will lead to new species is so low as to be close to zero. One reason is the net deterioration of the genome that occurs as a result of mutations, especially near-neutral mutations, which selection and medical advances cannot counteract. Furthermore, nonrandom “mutations” are controlled by in-built cellular processes and, therefore, cannot be a cause of evolution [6].
Now, take special note of the last couple of sentences:
A large number of studies clearly show that the central dogma has failed, and this devastates the credibility of neo-Darwinism. Furthermore, the increasing knowledge of the immense complexity of life at the molecular level has buttressed both the Creation and Intelligent Design movements [7].
This supposedly scholarly article on creationism is a pseudo-science article whose basic provision boils down to an argument from ignorance. To summarize this article, Larssen essentially sets out to suggest that the creationists' pet theory is true by mere virtue of the fact that he took it upon himself to cast doubt in one area. As it turns out, the evidence Larssen and the Creation Research Society provided for their theory is a major straw-man. The propagation of straw-man portrayals of the biological theory of evolution has been observed time and time again to be a staple within the Intelligent Design movement. Evidence for their claim of a divine creation has yet to be demonstrated. Yet they remain content to do nothing more than attempt to cast doubt on Darwin any way they can. One famous example of such an attempt was the Intelligent Design movement's (and specifically biochemist Michael Behe's) proposed mechanism of "irreducible complexity," which has been thoroughly discredited, most notably by evolutionary biologist (and, interestingly, devout Roman Catholic) Kenneth Miller [8].

Another hypothesis that falls into the ranks of the thoroughly discredited is one that I feel inclined to discuss at some length. The hypotheses of Robert V. Gentry and the criticisms they have received strikes me as a great example of how honest, evidence-based scientific investigation can play a crucial role in exposing arguments from ignorance for what they are and refuting “God of the Gaps” as non-explanations that serve only to hinder science. Robert V. Gentry is a young-earth creationist who has spent his professional life researching polonium haloes caused by radioactive decay in the so-called “primordial” rocks he collects. The half-life of polonium is very short. Gentry's contention since early in his career has been that he discovered halos caused by the radioactive decay of polonium on a series of “primordial” igneous rocks. Because igneous rocks are known to take a great amount of time to form, Gentry has maintained that the polonium should not be present in the rock samples, given its short half-life [9].

This situation serves to illustrate that when physicists try to do geology, the results are liable to be shoddy. Gentry is a physicist, not a geologist. The information he presents is less than acceptable. He uses samples that no third party has had an opportunity to verify through testing. Because he attempts to build his own peerless model of radiometric dating in order to make the earth appear younger than the geologic standards, Gentry has rejected the accepted geologic reporting practices in the determination of his dates. One of the most glaring problems with his particular method that does not wash is a simple matter of special pleading. In order for Gentry's hypothesis to be true, the half-life or decay rate for polonium must necessarily have remained constant since the beginning of geological history, while every other radioactive element must once have had a higher half-life and since slowed down. In order to work, Gentry's scheme is dependent on this having been the case, that there is only one element that has remained constant while the rates of decay in the rest of the elements have changed in some way, shape or form. In essence, Gentry is willing to reject and dismiss every piece of reliable geological evidence that has allowed reputable scientists to confirm the reliability of radiological dating, with the sole exception of the one piece that supports his particular hypothesis. Geologist and environmental scientist Thomas A. Baillieul has written an excellent article concerning this on TalkOrigins.com, a thorough refutation of Gentry's polonium haloes hypothesis [10].

According to Baillieul’s Summary/Conclusion:

Gentry's polonium halo hypothesis for a young Earth fails, or is inconclusive for, all tests. Gentry's entire thesis is built on a compounded set of assumptions. He is unable to demonstrate that concentric haloes in mica are caused uniquely by alpha particles resulting from the decay of polonium isotopes. His samples are not from “primordial” pieces of the Earth's original crust, but from rocks which have been extensively reworked. Finally, his hypothesis cannot accommodate the many alternative lines of evidence that demonstrate a great age for the Earth. Gentry rationalizes any evidence which contradicts his hypothesis by proposing three “singularities” – one time divine interventions – over the past 6000 years [11].
In other words, in order to render his hypothesis consistent with the known evidence that stands contrary to his models, Gentry proposes that God began everything 6,000 years ago, and then tinkered a couple of thousand years later, and then tinkered yet again some time after that. At this point, Gentry removes himself far from credibility within the realm of observable and testable scientific methods, and steps into the realm of baseless conjecture. Baillieul continues,
Of course, supernatural events and processes fall outside the realm of scientific investigations to address. As with the idea of variable radioactive decay rates, once Gentry moves beyond the realm of physical laws, his arguments fail to have any scientific usefulness. If divine action is necessary to fit the halo hypothesis into some consistent model of Earth history, why waste all that time trying to argue about the origins of the haloes based on current scientific theory? This is where most Creationist arguments break down when they try to adopt the language and trappings of science. Trying to prove a religious premise is itself an act of faith, not science.

In the end, Gentry's young Earth proposal, based on years of measuring discoloration haloes, is nothing more than a high-tech version of the Creationist “Omphalos” argument. This is the late nineteenth century proposition that while God created the Earth just 6,000 years ago according to the Genesis account, He made everything appear old. Unfortunately, because Gentry has published his original work on haloes in reputable scientific journals, a number of basic geology and mineralogy text books still state that microscopic discoloration haloes in mica are the result of polonium decay [12].

The Politicization of Ignorance

The Intelligent Design movement is a conscious propaganda campaign run largely by the Discovery Institute and funded by a large number of Christian organizations. It is worth noting other propaganda campaigns that have arisen over the years, and taking the time to recognize the similarity they have to the ID movement. In concluding this critique of poor argumentation, I turn the reader's attention to other organizations that have harbored other hidden agendas similarly concealed in misinformation supported in turn by logical fallacies. One example involves the health risks of smoking. Since 1979, tobacco companies have, on more than one occasion, attempted to hide or obfuscate the established link between smoking and various types of cancer. The tobacco industry engaged in the funding of pseudo-scientific literature that sought to challenge this link and also funded influential lobby groups whose intent was to create strategic disinformation campaigns cleverly designed to foster confusion among potential consumers.

In the political debate surrounding global warming, we see similar circumstances unraveling. Disinformation campaigns reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s propaganda projects have reared their ugly heads and are currently running their course in the American “culture wars,” the public dialogue of which is rampant with ignorance and denial of observed facts. Any small scientific controversy that is raised concerning climate change and global warming almost never fails to be erroneously promoted by the conservative, pocketbook-conscious lobby as being completely devastating to the overwhelming scientific evidence that the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is steadily increasing in the atmosphere, that the polar ice caps are melting and that temperature measurements are increasing on a global scale.

The global warming deniers’ obfuscation of the facts has fostered the all-too-common confusion between point data and global trends. I have lost count of the times I have heard somebody state a variation of, “It is quite cold outside today; global warming can't possibly be occurring.” This is a statistical misinference. What this sentiment wholly overlooks is the fact that “global warming” refers to and addresses the average temperature on the whole of the earth for, say, a full year. Given only one data point, one cannot determine anything conclusive about what it means in the context of the overall global trends.

From these examples and others, my final point can be easily demonstrated, namely that disinformation is inherently part and parcel of the argument from ignorance, and can often be the source from which various arguments from ignorance are formulated. Given a sufficient amount of power and influence, an individual or group can find the capability of creating the specific disinformation that in turn creates the atmosphere of ignorance that readily accommodates the transmission of the faulty arguments upon which the disinformation is ultimately based.

NOTES

1. Lander University, “Argumentum ad Ignorantiam,” Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic, September 24, 2004, http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/ignorance.html (accessed 12 January 2010).

2. Matthew J. Slick, “The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God,” Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, http://www.carm.org/transcendental-argument (accessed 12 January 2012). See also CarmVideos, “The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God,” YouTube October 28, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLWm_123lZU (accessed 12 January 2010).

3. Joe Nickell, Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998).

4. This interview is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5J0cSnYnFg (accessed 12 January 2010).

5. Kathleen Hunt, a zoologist with the University of Washington, has produced a list of a few hundred of the more dramatic transitional species known so far, all of which definitely fit each and every criteria required of the most restrictive definitions. See Hunt, “Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ,” The TalkOrigins Archive 1994-1997, http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-transitional.html (accessed 12 January 2010).

6. Per A. Larssen, “Mutation and Natural Selection: The Central Dogma of Neo-Darwinian Evolution,” Creation Research Society Quarterly 45.4 (Spring 2009).

7. Ibid.

8. Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999). I recommend this book to any of my friends, religious or otherwise, who may have been bamboozled by Michael Behe. See also Miller, “The Mousetrap Analogy, or Trapped by Design,” http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/DI/Mousetrap.html (accessed 12 January 2010).

9. Robert V. Gentry, Creation’s Tiny Mystery, 4th ed. (Knoxville, TN: Earth Science Association, 2003).

10. Thomas A. Baillieul, “’Polonium Haloes’ Refuted: A Review of ‘Radioactive Haloes in a Radio-Chronological and Cosmological Perspective’ by Robert V. Gentry,” The TalkOrigins Archive 22 April 2005, http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/po-halos/gentry.html (accessed 12 January 2010).

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

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