The Astronomical Unit


30 Flaws of Argumentation

Not astronomical as such, but pseudoscientific argument is a tactic of those who use spurious astronomy.

What follows is due to Dr Rory Coker of the University of Texas, posted by one of his students on USENET in November 1994, and used here with his kind permission. Dr Coker has also written this aid to the exposure of pseudoscience.


We have not tried to list here every type of fallacious argument, logical fallacy, and flaw of argumentation found in pseudoscience (ps) books, but have simply listed the ones most commonly encountered.

1) Error of fact: Ps books contain large amounts of factual error, pointing to carelessness or indifference rather than honest mistakes.
Examples: 'No one knows how old the Pyramids of Egypt are.' 'Is it coincidence that the area of the base of the Great Pyramid divided by twice its height gives the celebrated figure pi = 3.14159?'

2) Contradiction: Because of the carelessness and indifference to fact in most ps books, one part of the discussion often contradicts another part directly.
Example: 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes in his autobiography that he never saw a ghost.' (p. 59) 'Sir Arthur's firs encounter with a ghost came when he was 25, surgeon of a whaling ship in the Arctic...' (p. 200).

3) Deliberate creation of mystery; exaggeration; distortion; omission: This includes deliberately leaving out important details, explanations, results of investigation, later confessions; any fact that could shed light on something the author wants to make mysterious. Also very common is creation of completely fictitious details that make a rather ordinary incident extremely mysterious.
Example: A book on 'sea mysteries' or the 'Bermuda Triangle' might tell us about the yacht Connemara IV found drifting crewless Southeast of Bermuda on September 26, 1955. None of these books mention that the yacht had been directly in the path of Hurricane Iona, with 180 mph winds and 40-foot waves.

4) Irrelevant data: Ps books frequently digress to present chapters full of material that has not stated connection with the supposed topic of the book. This usually suggests the author did not have enough material for a book and has had to pad it out. This again usually suggests the author did not really research or study the topic of the book, but wrote it off the top of his head.

5) Failure to specify: Something extremely remarkable is stated as a fact, but no reference or source is given and the statement is not attributed to anyone, nor is it further discussed.
Example: 'A human skeleton 17 feet tall has been discovered at Gargayan in the Philipines.'

6) Accepting hearsay as fact, or accepting myths and legends as fact: This is equivalent to (5), since no references are given by which one could verify the incident. Hearsay and myth have no acknowledged authors, and usually cannot be checked out.

7) Wild speculation: The writer begins with hearsay and spins out a wild web of words, paragraph after paragraph, without a single substantiated fact in the entire passage. This might be called 'winging it'.

8) Irrelevant conclusion or non sequitur: Two statements are made in sequence, as if one followed from the other, or the two were directly connected; but there is no relation or connection between them, logical or otherwise.
Examples: 'Tens of thousands of Americans have seen lights in the night sky which they could not identify. The existence of life on other planets is fast becoming certainty!' 'Science can't explain everything. We have to take ghost stories very seriously.'

9) Argumentum ad hominem: This is a special kind of non sequitur in which it is concluded that a person's ideas need not be considered because of some personal characteristic which in fact is irrelevant to the ideas under discussion.
Examples: 'Von Daniken's books about ancient astronauts are worthless because he is a convicted forger and embezzler.' 'The contributions of Oscar Wilde to literature cannot be taken seriously. He was, after all, a skeptic, a cynic and a blatant homosexual.'

10) Appeal to widespread belief: The author claims as evidence for the truth of an idea the fact that many people believe in it now, or allegedly believed in it in the past.
Examples: 'Throughout all of history, until the advent of atheistic science, all men knew through their instinctive kinship with nature that the earth is flat, as it plainly is, as the evidence of all our senses so clearly tells us.' 'Dozens of people have reported seeing the Lake Austin monster; how then explain the indifference of the UT Austin Zoology department to a prompt, thorough investigation?'

11) Failure to assert: This is one of the most characteristic stylistic features of ps books. The sentences appear to be saying something, but close examination reveals that the statements are self-canceling or self-negating. The author backs out on his claim in the very act of making the claim.
Examples: 'It may be, as some suppose, that ghosts can only be seen by certain so-called sensitives, who are possibly special mutations with, perhaps, abnormally extended ranges of vision and hearing. Yet some claim we are all sensitives.' 'The story goes that when Bradford looked into the box, he found hideous, mummified human head. Could this be possible? It is interesting to ask whose head it might have been, assuming there was a head. Might this have been the infamous head of the Marquis de Sade, about which so much has been written and so many rumors seem to have spread throughout the occult community over the centuries? Who can say, at this late date?'

12) Failure to follow up: The author presents a claim that he could easily check out, but he does not do so. The author presents initial reports about an incident, but not results of later studies and investigations. The author presents inconclusive results and takes no steps on his own to improve them or redo them, nor shows any interest in the work of others who do progress in the same study. This is a standard ploy in the deliberate creation of mystery, see (3).

13) Argument by analogy: Another very common feature of ps books is the creation of an analogy which is then taken perfectly literally and perfectly exactly. (The analogy is generally incorrect.)
Example: 'The solar system reminds me of an atom, with planets orbiting the sun like electrons orbiting the nucleus. We know that electrons can jump from orbit to orbit; so we must look to ancient records for sightings of planets jumping from orbit to orbit also.'

14) Argument from spurious similarity: This is very similar to (13) above. The author argues that since two things resemble one another, no matter how superficially, they are related.
Example: 'An athlete taking steroids came to my health food store. I got him off the steroids and onto swampsnake brownbitter root, because swampsnake brownbitter root looks just like pictures I saw in some book of a steroid molecule, but it is 100% natural instead of being some disgusting artificial chemical, and will obviously have the same effects.'

15) Undue familiarity: The author seems to have information that there is no possible way for him to get, on the basis of his own statements.
Example: 'All hands were quietly asleep in their beds aboard the Sea Ranger when the sun rose on that clear, fateful October day. The first man on deck, seaman Don Smithers, yawned lazily and fingered his good luck charm, a dried seahorse. To no avail! At noon, the Sea Ranger was found drifting aimlessly, with every man of its crew missing without a trace! Not the slightest hint of what may have happened to these missing men has ever turned up, from then until the present day.'

16) Ignoring all plausible hypotheses: The author uses almost any incident, no matter how commonplace, to support his 'theory'.
Example: 'Mrs. Bertie Catchings left her car in the shopping center parking lot, and went shopping. When she came back an hour later, her car was missing. What do the flying doughnuts from Arcturus about which I have written so much here want with such battered old station wagons? In any event, we are forced to conclude they flew away with it into the depths of outer space.'

17) Argument or explanation by scenario: This is one of the most common features of ps literature, and seems to be one of the most difficult features for students in this course to recognize. It is related to (16) above, but works like this. The author tells a story that ties together unrelated assertions, and then takes the story as proof that the assertions are related! Explanations by scenario almost always blend concepts borrowed from fantasy fiction and science fiction - which have no counterpart whatsoever in the real world - with actual events, producing a long chain of non-sequiturs.
Example: 'Police departments get many reports each year of missing persons in all walks of life. What if doorways to other dimensions can open up suddenly, without warning? You step through a doorway from your bathroom to your living room, but it is actually a doorway for that one instant to another world altogether, and you can never find you way back! Doorways to elsewhere and elsewhen may be opening and shutting all around us all the time; this certainly accounts for disappearances that would otherwise be so inexplicable.'

18) Affirming the consequent: This is probably the most common of all logical fallacies, and results from confusion between the deductive logic of mathematics and the inductive logic of science.
Example: 'If the earth orbits the sun, then the nearer stars will show an apparent annual shift in position relative to more distant stars (stellar parallax). Observations show conclusively that this parallax shift does occur. This proves that the earth orbits the sun.' That the logic here is false is clear if we look at an argument of identical form: 'If the University of Oklahoma were in Texas it would be in the Southwestern Conference. The University of Oklahoma is in the Southwestern Conference. Therefore, the University of Oklahoma is in Texas.' The fallacy is to take a correct statement of the form 'if P then Q' and reverse it: 'Q therefore P'. The reversal is invalid. For instance, one could think of many hypotheses consistent with the observation of stellar parallax that do not require the earth to orbit the sun. Our choice of one particular hypothesis, that the earth does orbit the sun, is based on the fact that it alone is consistent with All that we know about astronomy and physics, from hundreds of years of study... not that it 'explains' any one particular observation. Example: 'If space creatures were kidnapping people and examining them, the space creatures would probably hypnotically erase the memories of the people they examined. These people would thus suffer from amnesia. But in fact many people do suffer from amnesia. This tends to prove they were kidnapped and examined by space creatures.' The relation of this fallacy to 16 and 17 should also be obvious.

19) False cause, or subjective validation: This is often found in ps literature and has been discussed in class extensively. It is closely related to 10 and 18.
You read that Aunt Grannie's Bitter Brickle Root cures dandruff. You try it and your dandruff goes away. You now testify that Aunt Grannie's worked for you. In fact, no evidence whatsoever exists that Aunt Grannie's preparation was the cause of the dandruff condition going away.

20) Complex question: Another favorite trick of pseudoscientists is to ask a question which, to answer, would take several thick textbooks. The pseudoscientist then finds it significant that experts cannot answer his question in one glib sentence!
Examples: 'How could a barbarian race like the ancient Egyptians have erected anything so gigantic and magnificent as the Great Pyramid?' 'How can scientists expect us to believe that anything as complex as a single living cell - much less a bunny rabbit - could have arisen as a result of random natural processes? It defies imagination.'

21) Sweeping generalization: Everybody generalizes too much. Pseudoscientists generalize to an overwhelming extent.
Examples: 'Evolutionary biology is a sinister tool of the materialistic, atheistic religion of Secular Humanism.' 'Scientists resented the fact that Velikovski, a psychiatrist [sic], dared to speculate on astronomy and archaeology... Above all, they resented the fact that his book was so well written - most scientists are miserable writers.'

22) Appeal to authority: The author claims as evidence for the truth of some statement the alleged fact that some 'famous' person believed in the idea, or that some prestigious organization allegedly takes the statement to be correct.
Example: 'Albert Einstein was extremely impressed by the ideas of Immanuel Velikovski.' [A completely false statement, by the way.] 'Parapsychology cannot be a ps because parapsychologists are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.'

23) Appeal to false authority: This blends in with 22, and involves calling on experts to testify in fields in which they are not expert.
Example: 'Famous physicist John Taylor studied Uri Geller extensively and found no evidence of trickery or fraud in his feats.' Taylor is 1) not famous, 2) not an experimental physicist, and not qualified to study phenomena in the laboratory, 3) not an expert on mentalism or slight of hand such as Geller uses. Where is the famous slight of hand expert who studied Geller and found no evidence of trickery? No such person exists. [Taylor later admitted Geller had tricked him, but never seems to have figured out how, even when shown by magicians.] Example: Captain John Alexander 'found' a 'ruined city' on the ocean floor near Bimini. We read further and discover that captain Alexander is an infantry officer, has dabbled in the occult and taken Silva Mind Control [a Scientology competitor] courses, has studied Buddhism, is an experienced diver and is an expert in underwater demolition. He is not, however, familiar with geology, oceanography or archaeology. Geologist, oceanographers and archaeologists who viewed a similar site recognized it as a fairly common natural formation, not a human artifact.

24) Appeal to sympathy, the Galileo argument: The author wants you to know he's suffering for his beliefs... suffering all the way to the bank where he'll cash his latest royalty check.
Example: 'I will be castigated and ridiculed by orthodox, narrow-minded, mentally-inflexible scientists. Some may even call me insane. But in the search for truth, many sacred cows must be sacrificed.' The Galileo argument is a non-sequitur argument that because the author is being persecuted [actually just ignored] by 'orthodox science', this proves his claims are correct. Example: 'Scientists scoffed at Copernicus and Galileo; they laughed at Edison, Tesla and Marconi; they won't give my ideas a fair hearing either. But time will be the judge. I can wait; I am patient; sooner or later science will be forced to admit that all matter is built, not of atoms, but of tiny capsules of TIME.'

25) Innuendo: This is an invitation to the reader to jump to a conclusion the author does not intend to ever get around to stating explicitly.
Example: 'Why don't scientists tell us what they really know; the incredible, secret discoveries about the human mind, our earth and the solar system? Are they afraid of public panic?' The implication is that scientists really 'know' ps is correct, but scoff at the claims for fear of the public taking such 'dangerous knowledge' seriously!

26) Setup a false assumption: This is closely related to 25. A preposterous statement is attributed to someone, or a preposterous 'fact' is asserted, so that the writer can knock it down [a.k.a. 'straw man argument' (ST)].
Example: 'We find electric batteries many thousands of years old. Archaeology accepts such mysteries as puzzles, and stops cold.' Example: 'Scientists say that the earth is billions of years old, as determined by Carbon-14. But C-14 dating is notoriously unreliable. The earth could just as easily be 10,000 years old as 10 billion.' [In fact, the half-life of C-14 is 5,730 years and it is used exclusively to date organic material from archaeological sites a few thousands of years old at most. Our knowledge of the age of the earth, or of any non-organic material, has nothing whatsoever to do with C-14. Nor is C-14 dating particularly unreliable]. Example: 'How can we continue to believe what archaeologists tell us: that the Maya were a simple agricultural people with no knowledge of technology?'

27) Gibberish: Extensive use of an invented vocabulary, or remarks that are incomprehensible... words stuck together apparently at random. By being incomprehensible, pseudoscientists apparently think they are imitating science, which they also find incomprehensible.
Example: From _No More Secondhand God_, by R. Buckminster Fuller, the king of gibberish; 'Omniscience is greater than omnipotence, and the difference is two. Omnipotence plus two equals omniscience. META = 2.'

28) Fallacy of composition: To argue that the pieces of which a thing is made must have all the properties of the thing itself.
Examples: 'Houses have windows and doors, even houses made entirely of brick. So an individual brick must have windows and doors too.' [In case you think this is too ridiculous to ever appear, even in a ps book, a man named Teilhard de Charding spends about half of a famous crackpot book on speculations based on the argument that, since human beings are made entirely of atoms and nothing else, and since human beings are conscious, atoms must also be conscious.]

29) Fallacy of Reduction: This, the reverse of 28, is to argue that it is impossible for an object to possess any properties that its pieces do not also possess. Both fallacies are frequently encountered in Creationism.
Example: 'Scientists tell us that clocks are made of lifeless metal gears. Poppycock! How could eternal, timeless metal possibly know of the passage of biological time? There can be no doubt that clocks contain an immaterial, spiritual component that is time-binding. Clocks are not merely gears and springs. There MUST be something more - the ghost in the machine, the soul that time somehow erodes.'

30) Appeal to ignorance, obscuratinism; deliberate misrepresentation: This, alas, is probably the one most common fallacy used in pseudoscience... and also the most successful. The author claims that because he doesn't understand something, and the reader probably doesn't either, it follows that NOBODY understands it. The author makes statements that are completely wrong, expecting that the reader will never spot the errors or check on the author. The author deliberately misrepresents or obscures the known facts, assuming that the reader will not be aware of them. Pseudoscientists use this ploy more frequently than they do any other. It is related to 1, 3, 10, 20 and 26.
Examples: 'Scientists say that pyramid power doesn't work, by which they mean they don't understand how it can work. Well, I don't understand how electricity works, but I can still watch television! Do scientists REALLY know what electricity is, anyway? Or do they just take it on faith, the way I take pyramid power.' 'Just before Captain Thomas Mantell's fighter plane crashed, just after he was told to intercept a flying saucer, he radioed that he was closing on an object that was 'metallic and tremendous'. He then screamed that 'a ray' was flashing out. Those were his last words... the whole case is impossible for the skeptic to explain. They say he was chasing Venus... or they say he was chasing a weather balloon. But Venus and weather balloons do not shoot down fighters!' 'Science cannot explain the almost miraculous feats of psychic D. D. Home. In front of five unimpeachable witnesses, including Viscount Adair, he levitated unsupported into the air and hung there. He then floated feet first out of a third story window, passing over the traffic of a busy street, and then feet first back into another window in the adjacent room. He violated all the laws of physics, but there is no more doubt he did perform this miracle than that the sun rose that morning.' 'All of the fossil evidence conclusively proves exactly the opposite of what scientist claim. The fossils say that evolution is a fraud, that kind does not change into other kind, that fungus doesn't evolve into human. There is not a shred of fossil evidence for evolution. What is more, the fossils unmistakably demonstrate the reality to the Biblical Great Deluge, those 40 days of upheaval when in fact most 'fossils' were created.'