Monday, November 7, 2011

Another Logical Fallacy: Special Pleading (IDHEF Preview)

   One important fallacy I missed in my original post is special pleading. Most often, special pleading involves holding a double standard, where different standards are being applied to similar situations. This should be an easy concept to grasp, but sometimes the differences in standards are difficult to recognize as the person guilty of special pleading may also provide an explanation of why they feel the situation is actually deserving of a double standard. In which case it becomes a matter of whether or not the audience accepts the explanation. At other times, the standard may not be known by the observer, in which case it will be hard to recognize the pleading.

   I recently watched Bill Maher's "Religulous" and one of the people interviewed was Francis Collins. Francis Collins is a scientist — and is said to be a really good scientist at that — but he is also religious. He provides a few examples of special pleading in just a few minutes in this video. (The copyright holder has disabled embedding, so you have to go to YouTube directly.)

   The first case of special pleading can be seen around 35 seconds in. There Collins says "They were close to [eyewitnesses]" after Maher called Collins out on his original claim that they were eyewitnesses. This is special pleading in that Collins wants to be able to call the authors of the gospels "eyewitnesses" even though such people who are writing from second-hand information would most likely never be called eyewitnesses in any other circumstance. (Not that eyewitness testimony is even reliable, but that is a separate issue.)

   The second case of special pleading is shortly thereafter around 48 seconds. Here, Collins is pleading that he should not be expected to follow a rigorous standard for evidence in the case of his religious beliefs. This is one of those that may be less obvious. First, this is one of those cases where the audience my not be familiar with the scientific standard for evidence. Then, Collins twists things to make it appear that it is Maher who is pleading by saying (emphasis mine), "You are setting up a standard..." An ignorant audience will likely fall for Collins' twist. But there was a reason Maher brought up the idea of a lab experiment. As stated, Collins is a scientist. Collins thus follows a rigorous standard when it comes to his career work. Additionally, there is a concept in skepticism — and science applies skepticism to its methods — popularized by Carl Sagan, that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

   There will also be examples of this in IDHEF, (the shorthand for) the book I will be discussing in the near future of my blog. Those cases will be addressed as they come up.

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