Listener Feedback: Me and My Terrible Arguments
Skeptoid responds to another round of listener feedback.
by Brian Dunning
January 22, 2013
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Once again we open the mailbag to plow through some listener feedback. There's a bit of a theme today, loosely followed though it may be: bad arguments made by me. And maybe those of a few other people too. We all make them; much better to recognize them, fix them, and move on, rather than deny them or spin them. Let's get started.
Paul from Walnut Creek, CA was a bit annoyed by a bit from my episode on Orang Pendek, a mythical ape that some believe lives in Sumatra. A pair of cryptozoologists collected some hairs and examined them under a microscope. They concluded they were from an unknown primate, and so they paid for the DNA testing. The result showed that the hairs were human. I said in the episode, "So much for objective microscope analysis performed by cryptozoologist proponents."
Let's recap: They found hairs. They look at hairs under a microscope and determine they're from an unidentified primate. Then a better test is performed that identifies the primate: humans. How exactly is this bad or dishonest of the cryptozoologists? Science often works this way, with further analysis providing results that may disappoint. Finding non-confirming evidence doesn't mean the test is a failure and neither does it prove the hypothesis is wrong (it's just not confirmed). Dismissing them as you do isn't skeptical; it's just lazy and smug.
I think Paul and I miscommunicated here. Paul is absolutely right, based on the obvious interpretation of what I said, that the hairs were from an unknown primate. That can mean a primate; specific type unknown. Could be a human, could be a gorilla, we don't know which. But in fact, that is not the conclusion that the cryptozoologists reached based on their microscope analysis. They decided it was a primate, but they excluded all known primates as candidates, and identified the hair as belonging to a new, unknown primate. That's different. It's not a conclusion that would have been reached by a qualified zoological expert, who could have easily recognized human hair; it's a conclusion that only a motivated Orang Pendek believer would have come to. It was this lack of objectivity that my remark addressed.
I don't know where Paul is getting the idea that I said the decision to get the DNA test was bad or dishonest; I think he was probably listening through a disagreement filter. But I do think the cryptozoologists could have saved considerable money by having a proper microscope analysis done by a qualified expert before going straight to the expensive DNA test. The ambiguous meaning of "unknown primate" was the culprit here; if I'd been more clear then Paul and I might not have had a disagreement.
Jennifer from Kingston, ON took issue with my episode on crop circles:
I notice that in this article, the author makes use of what are called "leading statements," presumably to bolster belief in his stance. He starts with,
"Crop circles are ... commonly known to be man made"
and continues with...
"One good thing about the crop circle phenomenon is that there are very few people left who believe that they have some cause other than pranksters"
These are examples of a kind of error in critical thinking - a logical fallacy known as "argumentum ad populum," (also known as "the bandwagon effect"), which suggests that "because many people think X is true, X must be true." Poor critical reasoning aside, this style of arguing is distasteful because it's derogatory to anyone who holds a different opinion. More obvious examples include "arguments" that start with, "Anyone with half-a-brain knows that..." or "Surely even a half-wit can see that..." To be fair, the author does go further to explore his theory (and yes, his assertion that crop circles are man-made IS a theory). Yet he never gives evidence for his opening statement - that "crop circles are ... commonly known to be man made." Where is the evidence for that? What are the statistics? Let me be very clear here - my comment is NOT about what I believe about crop circles. It's about a trend towards questionable argument practices that, in my opinion, undermine the author's credibility. Thanks for considering this.
I would agree with Jennifer completely except for one thing: I didn't make those statements as arguments, but as descriptions of the current state of the crop circle phenomenon. Something that I have to deal with on a show about the science behind urban legends is that a lot of the legends are dumb and few educated people believe them. In spite of the fact that there is still always something great to learn about the genesis of the legend, the superficial lameness of some topics causes some listeners to turn away. Crop circles are one such topic, so in these cases I often start by acknowledging and establishing their credibility in pop culture.
By no means did I argue that you should disbelieve the alien explanation of crop circles because a lot of people believe they're man made. Jennifer is spot on that that is a ludicrous argument on top of being terrible logic.
Jennifer also pointed out that I failed to cite research showing that most people know crop circles are man made. Fair enough. If this was the point of the episode, I would have; but it wasn't, and it would be neither desirable nor practical to have a citation for every single observation made in every episode. However, I do maintain that the list of references for that episode — available on the web transcript for every Skeptoid episode — was adequate and appropriate to support the conclusions I made.
Rob from Taipei brought up a common argument against the scientific method:
Actually I don't love skeptoid.I have a deep loathing of anyone that thinks the world is flat.I have read a number of your articles and really would like to know what your understanding of science is.Seems it is a regurgitation of established dogma.IF you want to save the world from charlatans,maybe you should not be one yourself.Many of the prespectives you critisize work for different situations and circumstances.1500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.-quotes from Men in Black.Answer-not much if we listen to you.IF you really want to state your opinions as fact, do some science to back them up.
Boiling away some of the noise in his comment, we're essentially left with the idea that scientific fundamentals have been proven wrong in the past; therefore we should assume that our current fundamentals will be proven wrong in the future. This sounds compelling, but it's not true.
Science as a formalized process has not really existed all that long. Most of the examples of ancient knowledge later proven wrong — such as geocentrism, astrology, or various creation myths — were never scientific. They were religious dogma. Science later helped us correct our understanding of such things.
Of course science is always improving and self-correcting, but very rarely do we find that our most basic observations about the universe are fundamentally backwards. The suggestion that tomorrow everything we think we know now will be wrong grossly misstates the history of science. We will have figured out some new stuff; but most likely, gravity will still be gravity, carbon will still be carbon, and two plus two will still equal four.
In general, I've been pleased to see that there's been more public skepticism of the organic food fad over the past few years. There's been increasing mainstream publication of the findings that organic food is neither healthier nor is there any plausible science-based reason to expect that it might. But organic farmer Tyler from Athens, OH repeats some of the same old arguments that are progressively beginning to reveal that it's really about ideology, not science. I'm going to break up Tyler's email into chunks:
In your article you made several very broad claims that are not true at all. You have absolutely no knowledge of the methods of bio-intensive food production, health or the psychology behind one that chooses to eat organic.
Note that he opened with the acknowledgment that choosing organic is at least partly about psychology, not science.
Claiming that organic foods are less healthy is the most obvious farce in your article as well as your blind belief that pesticides and herbicides are healthy and biodegradable.
All of these statements are ridiculous. I have never said any such thing; Tyler heard what he wanted to disagree with, not what I said. If you want to argue any point effectively, start with a solid understanding of the opposing argument, don't make one up.
They might biodegrade, but not within a million years. If you are a "skeptic" then why would you believe monsanto funded studies.
Bam. There's the Argumentum ad Monsantium logical fallacy, the mention of the scare-word Monsanto to lend emotional credibility to your point. But in doing so, Tyler has revealed that he has a profound lack of understanding of agricultural science, which is pretty scary for someone who makes a living as a farmer. For example, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's flagship herbicide Roundup, biodegrades quite quickly into inorganic phosphate/phosphoric acid. These compounds should be A-B-C for any professional soil manager.
I can't even begin to debunk your article because it is backed up with not legitimate facts or resources other than the lies that have been crammed down your throat. I suppose the accumulation of neurotoxins that are found in many conventional foods could be affecting you so it's not really right of me to blame you.
Even if any of this, or all of this, were true, it says nothing about organic food. "X is bad" does not mean "Y is better".
It is actually really offensive to me to see you try to "debunk" organic food. It is a tradition that spans thousands of years.
False. Today's organic definition can be fairly described as a freezing of agricultural technology at about 1950. Rejection of innovation has absolutely not been the tradition for thousands of years; it's only a few decades old. For nearly all of the thousands of years of agriculture throughout history, farmers have used the best techniques and technologies available to them. The attempt to legitimize organic practices by associating them with ancient tradition is a major factual fail.
Here's another common piece of feedback that's an appropriate closer for today. And seriously, yes, this is common feedback. This particular iteration comes from Gabe:
You are a false prophet! Bottom line is this: You are a Masonic hypocrite (the "all-seeing eye" is a dead giveaway) who tries to spread lies under the guise of "science." Sadly, most people in this world are too stupid to understand,even when presented with evidence, so you will be successful. Keep up the "good" work!
So yes, a large number of listeners who are not approving fans honestly interpret the Skeptoid logo as the Masonic all-seeing eye of God. Many times I've heard that it "outs" me as a member of the worldwide Illuminati conspiracy, or Freemasons or Zionists or Big Evil or whatever shadow conspiracy you prefer. In case you didn't know, we Illuminati are all obligated to sign our Internet postings with the secret eyeball symbol. We also embroider it onto our underwear and have it tattooed under our hair.
In fact the "skeptical eye", as I call it, is simply a logo that I thought was quite clever when I started the show. The idea is that, each week, we point the skeptical eye at a subject for critical examination. I've always used this phrase, even though technically you don't point your eye, you turn your eye. And that's another piece of feedback I've had many times. But I've decided that "point the skeptical eye" sounds better, so I've stuck with it. Plus it lets me keep my embroidered underwear.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Me and My Terrible Arguments." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
22 Jan 2013. Web.
23 Mar 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4346>
References & Further Reading
Clark, J., Clark, T. Humbug! The skeptic's field guide to spotting fallacies in thinking. Brisbane: Nifty Books, 2005.
Damer, T. Edward. Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company; 3rd edition, 1995. 224.
Hughner, R.S., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Schultz II, C.J., Stanton, J. "Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food." Journal of Consumer Behavior. 21 May 2007, Volume 6 Issue 2-3: 94-110.
Hyman, F. "Using Glyphosate." Horticulture Magazine. F+W Media, Inc., 7 Jun. 2011. Web. 19 Jan. 2013. <http://www.hortmag.com/weekly-tips/tools-materials/using-glyphosate>
Irving, R., Lundberg, J. The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making. London: Strange Attractor Press, 2006.
MacKerron D.K.L. et al. "Organic farming: science and belief." Individual articles from the 1998/99 Report. Scottish Crop Research Institute, 1 Dec. 1999. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://www.scri.ac.uk/scri/file/individualreports/1999/06ORGFAR.PDF>
Ridley, Matt. "Crop Circle Confession." Scientific American. 1 Aug. 2002, Volume 287, Number 2: 25.
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