This is an article about a debate on Logical Fallacies.
On the other side is an anonymous blogger hiding behind the name “Skeptico” who disputes my Analysis and ends up resorting to name-calling and falsely accusing me of lying. (and No, I don’t suspect Eisen and “Skeptico” are the same person.)
Important Update Jan 2020: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are now liked to Cancer! Click here to see Scientific American’s article on two new studies. Of course no one sane expects any apology from either the arrogantly brash Michael Eisen or the serial wrongster Skeptico.
No matter which elements of this debate you end up agreeing with, when you complete this article you should come away with a better understanding of several important, deep and sometimes subtle or confusing logical fallacies. So here we go.
Update 2021: I just learned that Skeptico’s tactic is a Distraction Fallacy called a “Gish Gallop.” “The Gish gallop is a term for an eristic technique in which a debater attempts to overwhelm an opponent by excessive number of arguments, without regard for the accuracy or strength of those arguments.”
To start, I wrote an introductory article called “New World Record? Six Logical Fallacies with a Single Sentence promoting Genetically Modified Food” to outline an Analysis of the two dozen Logical Fallacies made by Michael Eisen defending Genetically Modified food.
“Skeptico” disputes five of the fallacies I identified. He uses arguments about logical fallacies that superficially appear as though he knows what he is talking about. However, under calm analysis, while he commendably understands some fallacies correctly, Skeptico’s logic is often exposed as mistaken, myopic, tortured, rushed, and sometimes directly self-contradictory.
Skeptico claims expertise at logical fallacies, so its a mystery why he employs them so often in his rebuttal and subsequent writings. Those fallacies he commits include Contradiction, Straw man, Distraction, Guilt by Association, and Appeal to Hypocrisy / You Too / Tu Quoque. I wonder if he even realizes he does this ? Or . . .
Further damaging his arguments (and credibility), he unreasonably implies that I (as a reader of Eisen’s article) am responsible for defining words used by Eisen; the original author ! Skeptico enigmatically fights for obscuring language / against agreeing on the meaning of key terms, and he refuses to answer respectful clarifying questions.
This doesn’t mean all of his arguments are fallacious, conflicting or wrong. Some of his arguments are worthwhile, two made me curious to do further enjoyable research to discern if I had made an error, and some of his errors might be forgivable because they involve subtle or complex analysis.
The problem is Skeptico’s opinions about, and understanding of, logical fallacies are so erratic and superficial they are wholly unreliable. I suspect his errors impair others trying to understand logic. However, his work does show a much better familiarity with fallacies than an earlier critique, which couldn’t even demonstrate a starting ability to understand, diagnose or apply logical fallacies.
Skeptico’s refusal to read the primary document he disputes (my Analysis), much of what I’ve written directly responding to his comments, or to answer respectful clarifying questions is why I have decided to write this article instead of responding to his fallacy-filled Blog replies awash with incorrect and misleading claims.
Responsible Discourse vs Plain Arguing
When he has responded to something I’ve written, Skeptico has demonstrated he doesn’t often even try to understand how my points could be valid. That’s not responsible discourse trying to reach a rational or reasonable conclusion, that’s just arguing.
Its also contrary to the Principle of Charity, which means roughly – giving your opponent’s work the full chance to be understood as valid. (Note: abusing this principle is not a logical fallacy. Following it is just responsible discourse.)
1. Contradiction Fallacy
Here’s an example of a Skeptico logical fallacy – while refusing to answer a directly relevant clarifying question.
Skeptico claims all meaning in Eisen’s GMO article is “crystal clear” (January 2) —
Yet later he writes (January 8) —
Unfortunately for all of us, those two Skeptico claims directly conflict.
How can anyone claim all meaning in an article is “crystal clear” (including the terms “Safe” and “Science”) – yet deny understanding “what [author Eisen] means by those terms ‘Safe’ and ‘Science.’”
That’s probably the most elementary formal logical fallacy called Conflicting Conditions or Self-Contradiction. Skeptico disagrees, making the stunning claim that there is no such thing as a contradiction fallacy.
Skeptico: “Contradiction is not a fallacy, otherwise you’d never be able to disagree with anyone…”
(I accept part of the blame for that, as the reference fallacy link I provided for further reading on logic was, while a good start, somewhat less than comprehensive and adequate. I’ve provided much better links at the bottom of this article.)
I’m Willing to Correct Errors – Are they (Eisen and Skeptico)?
I value rationality based on experiment derived evidence and helping others understand how to do so. I’m not (very) emotionally attached to being right as evidenced by my willingness to acknowledge I make errors and to correct them.
I wish Eisen and Skeptico could claim that. But both seem more interested in arguing than in reaching rational conclusions. Of the two (except for his contradictions) Skeptico generally commits slightly fewer and less severe logical fallacies.
Using a Distraction logical fallacy called Appeal to Hypocrisy (or Tu Quoque), Skeptico claims that just like the article I analyze I don’t always define “science” when I use it. He’s technically correct.
However, the difference between me and Eisen and Skeptico is that I am always happy to correct my errors; to help define and explain any terms I use that are unclear. (My use of the ambiguous term “science” is now available here.) By contrast, the anonymous Skeptico flat out refused to clarify or define two key terms he is asked about. Eisen was even less responsible. He just ignored it.
Lets examine Skeptico’s overarching errors, one of which is a Burden of Proof Reversal Logical Fallacy and why this misunderstanding invalidates his argument about Ambiguity.
“usually(1) one who makes an assertion must assume the responsibility of defending it. If this responsibility or burden of proof is shifted to a critic, the fallacy of appealing to ignorance is committed.”
Sometimes it is difficult to correctly decide which side the burden of proof rests on. Let me explain this burden of proof dispute so you can make up your own mind.
The two disputes involves four claims:
1) Eisen’s original claim that Genetically Modified food is “safe,” and
2) My subsequent claim that “safe” as he uses it is ambiguous.
3) Eisen’s original claim that there is a “War on science,” and
4) My subsequent claim that “War on science” as he uses it is ambiguous.
This means the original argument is meaningless until both sides fully understand and agree what the dispute is.
Because Eisen’s use of the terms “safe” or “war on science” have so many possible widely differing and even contradictory meanings, I cannot clearly understand which one Eisen intends. This means Eisen keeps the burden of proof until he clarifies or “disambiguates” the terms he used.
Eisen makes the original claims of existence of a “war on science” and “safe” Genetically Modified Food. Even though it is not my responsibility, I point out multiple conflicting and confusing meanings for Eisen’s use of the terms “safe” and “science” which, as we will soon see, is all that is needed to establish an Ambiguity Assertion Fallacy.
Skeptico wholly ignores how Eisen made the original claims, and then (without acknowledging the original claims) claims that Eisen made his terms clear enough. However, Eisen agreeing with Skeptico is not a mutual agreement; other readers need to agree as well.
With that Skeptico tries to reverse the Burden of Proof to a questioner, me, …
Me – “How can anyone ‘demonstrate that Eisen wants you to accept [a] definition’ when he doesn’t explain which definition he is using ?”
… when the responsibility for clarity remains with the original author (Eisen), until he explains what he means by those terms.
After Eisen has defined his terms adequately and presented evidence of some kind, then and only then is the burden correctly put on questioners and skeptics.
3. Applying Burden of Proof
Skeptico strongly implies the readers (you and me) are responsible for defining the terms the author (Eisen) uses because Skeptico refuses to make the author responsible for the definitions. Eisen’s wording is good enough for him: “completely unambiguous and crystal clear.”
Implying that it is the readers responsibility to define ambiguous terms that the author (Eisen) uses is laughable in its absurdity. No possible rational analysis can make that reasonable.
Skeptico is simply wrong to prematurely reverse the Burden of Proof because Eisen made the first claims “there is a war on science” and that Genetically Modified food is “safe.”
Next, we’ll see how I first identified Eisen’s key terms as ambiguous, and then correctly concluded they are logical fallacies because their use is ambiguous.
4. Ambiguous Assertion Fallacy Distinguished from Equivocation
An important fallacy identified at least four times in my Analysis of Eisen’s article is called an Ambiguous Assertion Fallacy.
All that is necessary to trigger this fallacy is the use of one term that can give a sentence multiple meanings. It is more obvious when a core term is ambiguous, and stronger yet when you can show intent. However, neither intent or core-term ambiguity is strictly required. All that is required is potentially different meanings for the sentence.
Though words are frequently ambiguous, few words invoke this fallacy because ambiguous words do not often result in potentially different meanings of a sentence.
All that is necessary to identify this fallacy is to show how “safe” or “science” has multiple meanings in the sentence as it is used. That’s easily done with this embedded quote from Monsanto.
“Monsanto once advertised its pesticide Roundup was ‘safer than table salt.'”
Of course we could also illustrate how “safe” means “not harmful to Monsanto’s profits.”
This illustrates how the term “safe,” as Eisen used it, not only has multiple meanings, it has multiple, related and conflicting meanings. But Skeptico even refused to acknowledge that the word “safe” as used by Eisen can give a sentence multiple meanings.
Skeptico goes on to claim that for Ambiguity to be a fallacy – it must provide a “debating advantage” but provides no evidence, quote, citation or reference to that novel claim. He pretends / imagines I meant Equivocation, which has a different set of rules, rather than Ambiguity which I was using, and which takes many forms that he fails to recognize.
Skeptico’s definition is far narrower than Aristotle’s(2) and is amusingly close to an ad hoc fallacy. The ancient sage wrote that if a sentence can be understood in two ways because of a homonym it is a logical fallacy.
(Skeptico’s error is confusing an Ambiguity Assertion Fallacy with Equivocation, so he insists on using criteria for equivocation, while he ignores or rejects the correct and easier to meet criteria for Ambiguity Assertion fallacy. Substituting an easily refutable idea for difficult one is called a Straw-man Fallacy.)
5. Intent Not Required for Ambiguity Fallacy: Skeptico claimed to have accepted my evidence and rationale that Intent is not required for a logical fallacy.
“The logical nature of a fallacy is independent of the intention of the party using it.”, Peter Coffey, “The science of logic”
Sophistry is the intent to deceive with logical fallacies, while Paralogism is a logical fallacy that deceives un-intentionally.
But then in his very next paragraph Skeptico resumes insisting intent is required to establish an “Equivocation” fallacy (it is required, but that’s irrelevant because Equivocation is a different fallacy), and then incorrectly insists any Ambiguity fallacy must meet the same criteria.
Skeptico: “Maybe you’re correct in that they don’t have to be intentionally using fallacious logic. However, for it to be equivocation, the arguer has to intend you to agree with a false version of the argument (ie using one definition of the word), while in reality you only agree with the correct version of the argument (ie another definition of the word). You haven’t demonstrated this.”
Don’t his two contrary assertions about intent make another Inconsistency fallacy by Skeptico?
And how about wrongly equating Equivocation with Ambiguity Assertion?
6. Responsible Debate Refused
What makes Skeptico’s credibility fall to pieces is his refusal to help clarify what Eisen meant – especially since he claimed to know completely “unambiguously and crystal” clearly what Eisen meant.
7. Principle of Charity
The Principle of Charity means roughly – giving your opponent’s evidence and rationale a full chance to be understood as valid. (I try to take my own responsibility for this a bit further and try to explain their arguments in my own words.)
“The principle of charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation.” – Wikipedia
Skeptico doesn’t even try to use the Principle of Charity to try to understand how my points could be valid.
While I read Eisen’s article (many times) and all of Skeptico’s arguments, Skeptico admits not reading my Analysis !
He didn’t even read the original article by Eisen.
Skeptico chose to first shoot at my logic while admitting ignorance of explanations and evidence, and now hangs on to his mistaken first impression in spite of overwhelming evidence of his errors.
He claimed to be interested in reading about “Six Logical Fallacies with a Single Sentence” but Skeptico never read the actual Analysis of the sentence before criticizing my logic.
This is even though the blog article he did skim had at least four (4) direct links to the Analysis, and explained in the first sentence that the Blog article was only “an article about an Analysis” and even had the full award winning sentence in the notes at the end of the article.
8. Steps to Considering a Logical Fallacy
Here is my step-by-step method to determining a logical fallacy. For an example, lets use the first part of the infamous award winning sentence which claims a lie was committed.
“For the backers of the initiative to claim [ Genetically Modified food might be harmful ] as a finding of fact is an outright lie…”
I identified Eisen’s claim of a “lie” as a logical fallacy. Here’s how I evaluated the claim.
1) If the “lie” claim is true, it means that Food Safety people have falsely and publicly asserted the Genetically Modified food is harmful when they know it is safe.
That’s a serious claim, but lets take it just as seriously that someone has asserted false information. If it is true, how do we check?
2) It must meet the minimum for all the criteria to establish a lie. So what are the rational criteria for a lie? (The claim must meet the minimum for all the criteria without any missing links.)
A. A Lie has four criteria: Asserting something that is (a)provably (b)false, and the alleged liar (c)knew it was false (d)when asserted.
“To lie is to deliver a false statement to another person which the speaking person knows is not the whole truth, intentionally.” – Wikipedia
This means unless all four criteria are met, no lie is committed. Here’s an analysis of those criteria.
3) a. Is there any evidence that Genetically Modified food is “safe?”
(There must be some evidence, not just a bald assertion. The evidence should be potentially provably true.)
A. Even though all Eisen’s claims about this can be refuted, I need to ignore all counter arguments for now.
The only question is – is there any evidence at all, no matter how faint or contra-logical? Even though the rationale and evidence collapse under deeper review (and simple logic), by ignoring all refuting arguments and defining “safety” the way Monsanto wants, Eisen has argued enough to meet the bare minimum that there is potentially some evidence of “safety.”
3) b. Is there any evidence that Food Safety people said Genetically Modified food is not harmful?
A. Yes, there is enough evidence to start. Eisen’s article does provide some evidence of some Food Safety people asserting that Genetically Modified food is harmful (and contrary to Eisen’s beliefs), in the reference to a public Initiative that potentially could be reviewed.
5) Does the claim fit the third criteria for a lie – known falsity?
A: No. There is no evidence, reference, quote or even mention of Food Safety people knowing that Genetically Modified food is safe. We can stop here, because of this failure to meet one of the required criteria.
Conclusion: This makes the claim of a lie unproven.
6) Is an unproven claim of a lie a logical fallacy?
A. Yes, Eisen committed a standard Proof by Assertion fallacy: “Proof by Assertion is an argument that states something as true without offering supporting evidence or attempting to construct a valid argument.”
B. It can also be described as Begging the Question (Petitio Principii ): “where premises that are passed on as being valid without supporting evidence.”
C. Abusive ad Hominem: a direct attack on a person’s character rather than focusing on his or her arguments. Is falsely calling an argument a “lie” a character attack ? It might seem like that, but no. If he had called them “liars” that would have been a character attack. By confining his (unproven) attack to their actions he did not invoke this type of fallacy.
In this case, Skeptico grudgingly agreed that this might be a fallacy. While I correctly identified the false claim of a lie as a logical fallacy, I erred in identifying it as a Non-Sequitur, when it is really a Proof by Assertion fallacy.
For the three logical fallacies we’ve revisited so far of which Skeptico disputed two – all three identifications of Eisen’s fallacies solidly withstood scrutiny. One was mis-categorized, but it was still correctly identified as a similar logical fallacy.
In failing to overturn any of those fallacies Skeptico committed a bit more than three logical fallacies of his own. Neglecting to read anything but the “book cover,” ignoring reasonable rationale and evidence, making incorrect snap judgments while committing numerous fallacies might reasonably be described as “Hit and Run” arguments.
End Part 1
I hope you have benefited from and enjoyed this analysis. I’m always happy to discuss or debate logical fallacies with responsible discourse when the mutual goal is to respectfully reach a rational, reasonable conclusion.
Please stay tuned for Part II
1. “In some cases a reversed burden of proof may be appropriate: for example, when an empirical relationship has been observed but the underlying mechanism is unknown, it may be reasonable to infer from the lack of conflicting evidence that the empirically observed relationship is most likely causal. However, according to the scientific method the relationship is not formally proven in this instance.”
2. In his Sophistical Refutations (the earliest known formal study of logic), in chapter 17, Aristotle has this to say about fallacies of homonymy (thanks to Susanne Bobzien):
“If nobody ever made two questions into one question, the fallacy based on homonymy and ambiguity would not have come about, but. Steps to Considering a Logical Fallacy either a refutation or no refutation. For how does asking whether Callias and Themiscodes are musical differ from if bemoth, though being different people, shared a single name? For if the name signified more than one thing, had asked more than one question. Now, is there any evidence that it is not right to ask to be given without qualification one answer to two questions, it is clear that it is not proper no answer without qualification any homonymous.