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Pseudoscience, science and false dichotomy

Last updated on August 24th, 2019 at 11:42 am

It’s always interesting to observe how people make arguments to defend their points-of-view or to debunk the opposing point.  In general, arguments will employ various logical fallacies to confuse the other side or even to convince the audience that the other side is wrong.  In the science vs. pseudoscience world, we mostly find that those arguing for a pseudoscience (creationism, anti-vaccination, global warming denialism, homeopathy, and many many others) use logical fallacies to discredit the science. Of course, we can find many instances of science itself using the same fallacies to dispute alternative scientific ideas or theories.

In general, we can observe that these fallacies are used when the evidence supporting their point of view is lacking.  Commonly, almost every logical fallacy that is available is used by the pseudoscience supporter, but their favorite is probably the false dichotomy.  Without logical fallacies or supporting evidence, the pseudoscience would probably disappear, which is why they need to have access to fallacies.

If you watch anything from political debates to religious discussions to scientific controversy (real controversy between scientists, not the politically centered ones about evolution or global warming), the false dichotomy is utilized frequently.  The fallacy works, because it often pushes the other side into an extreme position.  In the ongoing atheism vs. religion arguments, the religious types will use all kinds of false dichotomies.  For example, one will hear “without religion there is no morality, so atheism is immoral.”  Of course, that precludes the whole range of possibilities like morality is an evolved trait, or that morality is taught by parents, or that morality may be worse with religion.  A real openminded person might also consider the possibility that morality might actually require religion.  But the religious side has an “either/or” argument.  “Either you’re with us or you’re evil and immoral.”  On the other side, they ask “show us evidence of a god, we can then discuss all the other parameters of religion.”

Another use of the false dichotomy is when someone, arguing for a pseudoscientific hypothesis, states that “because you don’t agree with our evidence, you’re close minded.”  Actually, open-mindedness means that one is able to review evidence in an unbiased manner; if the evidence is strong, then maybe accept the hypothesis.  If the evidence is weak (or more often, completely lacking), then reject the hypothesis.  

Open-mindedness does not presume that you must accept all evidence and all ideas uncritically.  Close-mindedness is, in fact, the inability to critique all positions; it is accepting a belief without truly examining the evidence that supports a position.  The whole system of falsifiability in science, which is developing a logical possibility that a hypothesis or theory can be false, is also a cornerstone of open-mindedness.  And falsifiability does not presume the hypothesis (or even theory) is false but only that there is some experiment that could show it is false.  Creationism is based on close-mindedness and an inability to falsify the proposition.  Creationism cannot be falsified because the supporter will find a way to place a supreme being to explain each gap in knowledge.  Of course, there isn’t one piece of scientific evidence supporting creationism, so it’s not even a science.

Using another example, we can imagine hundreds of experimental observations that could show evolution is wrong.  At the simplest level, a fossil of a human in a rock layer well below sedimentary layers that we think that would have human fossils.  Since Homo sapiens arose about 200,000 years ago, there should be no human fossils below that layer.  Such a finding would put evolution in turmoil, as long as we reject all other possibilities (fraud, mistaken identification of fossil, bad dating of the rock layer, and others).  In fact, some would say that finding a human fossil 60 million years ago might indicate, rather than a falsification of evolution, the possibility that some future man travelled back in time (which would be way cooler).

The false dichotomy does not allow for alternate explanations or even a range of explanations.  Or even that the assertion is partially right (but also mostly wrong).  Going back to the original example of morality, if there were sound, undeniable, testable evidence for the existence of a god, that does not immediately mean morality requires religion, it could still mean morality is an evolved phenotype.  

Even scientists employ false dichotomies to make emotional arguments about their point of view.  As shown previously, a few individuals think that the either you believe in the impact hypothesis of the death of North American megafauna (such as mastodons or some species of bear), while ignoring all other possibilities, or you’re a “prick.”  Of course, that’s a false dichotomy with a personal attack, but the point is made.  It is exactly the same logical discussion that is used by most creationists, homeopaths, and other pseudoscientists–make a special pleading, appeal to authority, then use a false dichotomy.  It is rather silly, and it’s quite enjoyable to watch them squirm when there’s some pushback.

Real science is open-minded to all possibilities.  In fact, even with evolution, which is accepted as a fact by almost every single academic level biologist in the world, most real scientists would state that they could be wrong.  Scientists would say that if there’s evidence that indicates that we’ve got it all wrong with evolution, we would need to go back to the drawing board.  Thus, the greatest point made about a scientific theory (which is a fact) is that it is built from mountains of evidence, and it is highly predictive.  We understand, given a set of genes and environmental condition, how natural selection may force the evolution of an organism, because we can make reasonable predictions on how it will proceed.  

Don’t fall for the false dichotomy in your own arguments or what others might use in arguing with you.  Rarely does science boil down to “you’re with us or you’re against us.”  There is usually a wide range of possibilities that explain an observed phenomenon.  Forty years ago, we did not know what killed off the dinosaurs.  Thirty years ago, it was proposed that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs.  Today, we think that dinosaurs were dying off, before the asteroid, from a changing atmosphere and massive volcanic activity–the huge asteroid pushed them over the edge.  But maybe next year we’ll find those human fossils in Cretaceous rock layers because time travelers from 100 years in the future went back in time and caused a massive environmental disaster, killing off the dinosaurs.  

Michael Simpson

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