Socrates is still mortal, but fallacies aren’t fallacious

Updated repost of The Fallacy Fork and the Limits of Logic, at 3 Quarks Daily

No quiet moment; Theresa May calls snap UK election (BBC)

I had been waiting for a quiet moment to write about this, but there isn’t going to be a quiet moment, so now will have to do. [Update: these words went up on 3 Quarks Daily last Monday. On the Tuesday, Theresa May called a snap UK General election]

Debaters regularly accuse their opponents of using fallacies. These can be formal fallacies, such as simple errors of logic, or informal fallacies, such as appeal to authority, ad hominem and strawman arguments, among others. If a piece of reasoning depends on any of these fallacies, so it is claimed, the conclusion does not really follow from the premises, and while it might still be true we have not been given any good reason to believe it.1 And so books that discuss logic, and science-promoting blogs (including one I follow), regularly include descriptions of informal fallacies, with stern instructions to avoid committing them.

Sagan warns us against fallacies. But is exposing fallacies enough to shield us from the demons?

In an article entitled The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life, Maarten Boudry, Fabio Paglieri and Massimo Pigliucci (henceforth BPP) challenge this view. BPP is written for the perusal of trained philosophers, which I am not, but I use it here as a jumping off point, while mixing in further content of my own.

BPP apply what they call the fallacy fork test to accusations of informal fallacy; either the reasoning is obviously erroneous, in which case no one would really use it, or else it is not obviously erroneous in context, and we still have all the work to do. In the first case, formal analysis is redundant; in the second, the facts of the matter need further consideration. Read the rest of this entry

Science matters because it works (but it’s not quite that simple)

Reblogged from The Logic of Science, but with this comment: No one would disagree with these claims on behalf of science, and and that’s the problem.

The climate change denialists, like the smoking science denialists before them, pretend that the science is unsettled. The creationists prattle of “creation science” and “flood geology”. The extremely able and intelligent US Vice President, pandering to his creationist base, did not claim to be anti-science. On the contrary, he used the very fact of a major scientific discovery (Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said) to blur the distinction between the established core and the fast-changing frontiers. And if we are to effectively defend science, we need to understand the emotional appeal of the ideology that leads to the rejection of vaccination, medicines, and GMOs, and to the prejudging of complex arguments in such cases as fracking and nuclear power.*

We need to think very carefully about tactics. If we seem to be saying anything like “Science is a good thing, therefore you should trust the scientists”, we are playing into the hands of our enemies. We are right to demonstrate and protest when science is denied, or ignored,  or muzzled.  And yet people (that’s all of us) believe what they want to believe.  The task  then is, how to persuade people to want to believe  in the evidence?

*This last comment cuts both ways, of course

The Logic of Science

Why should you support science? Because it works! It’s crazy to me that I even have to say that, but this is where we are as a society. Various forms and degrees of science denial are running rampant throughout our culture, and attacks on science are being disseminated from the highest levels. Indeed, it has gotten to the point that hundreds of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts like myself feel compelled to take to the streets to march for science and remind everyone of the fundamental fact that science works and is unparalleled in its ability to inform us about reality and improve our world.

Image via the CDC

Just look around you. Everything that you see was brought to you by science. The batteries that power your electronic devices are a result of scientific advances in chemistry, as are the plastics that make up seemingly everything in our…

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The Woman Who Studied the Sun

File:Cecilia Helena Payne Gaposchkin (1900-1979) (3).jpg

Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin at work; Smithsonian Institute Archives via Wikipedia

I just came across this piece by John Gribbin, interesting for many reasons.
Glasgow University started awarding degrees to women in 1892; contrast Cambridge University’s 1948.
Auguste Comte, 1835: “We will never be able to determine the chemical composition of the stars”.
1802, Wollaston observes Fraunhofer lines
1814, Fraunhofer independently observes Fraunhofer lines. Perhaps a reader can tell me why they are named after Fraunhofer, not Wollaston
1859, Kirchhoff (of circuit laws fame) and, independently, Bunsen (of Bunsen burner fame) match Fraunhofer lines to atomic spectra, infer chemical composition of stars
1868, Lockyer correctly identifies third solar Fraunhofer line in “sodium yellow” region as due to a new element, names it “helium”
1892, Glasgow University starts awarding degrees to women
~1923 (see below), Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposhkin) completes studies at Cambridge, but cannot formally graduate because she is a woman
1925, Cecilia Payne gains Ph.D. from Radcliffe; unravels highly complex (see below) Fraunhofer lines of stars; shows that, contrary to all then current expectation, stellar composition is dominated by hydrogen and helium
1948, Cambridge University starts awarding degrees to women


Posting this in response to a question I was asked.  It is essentially an extract from my book 13.8

Cecilia Payne won a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge (the only way she could have afforded a university education) in 1919. She studied botany, physics and chemistry, but also attended a talk by Arthur Eddington about the eclipse expedition on which he had famously “proved Einstein right” by measuring the way light from distant stars was bent by the Sun. This fired her interest in astronomy, and she visited the university’s observatory on an open night, plying the staff with so many questions that Eddington took an interest, and offered her the run of the observatory library, where she read about the latest developments in the astronomical journals.

After completing her studies (as a woman, she was allowed to complete a degree course, but could not be awarded a degree; Cambridge…

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Express science reporter: “proof dinosaurs lived with HUMANS?”

“Is this proof dinosaurs lived with HUMANS? Creationist claims REAL truth COVERED UP”

The Express, an ostensibly serious right wing UK newspaper, reports under “SCIENCE”.


Express caption” “Did dinosaurs co-exist with humans?”

The evidence? A display at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. Ham is quoted as saying that the standard scientific evidence is a coverup, as his own dinosaur fossils show, for some unstated but presumably non-standard reason:

“Ken Ham, founder of Creation Museum in Kentucky, United States, has put the supposed evidence on display at his centre. Standard scientific evidence shows dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago … and the anatomically modern man did not emerge until around 200,000 years ago. But Mr Ham believes this is a cover-up … the dinosaur fossils were found in Colorado about a decade ago and seem to represent a tyrannosaurus rex [sic].”

jurassic park

Express caption: Scenes might have been similar to Jurassic Park

(Fuller quotations supplied by the Sensuous Curmudgeon, here)

Ham complains that evolutionists “use dinosaurs … to promote their worldview”. How dare they! But do not accuse the Express of bias. It does refer to what it calls “the  standard scientific evidence”, and they do quote two sentences from Bill Nye, before showing the image on the right:

And compared with the image below, the paper’s front page in the runup to the Brexit referendum, the dinosaur story is factually balanced reporting reporting; fake news is not the invention of the Trump campaign.

@hendopolis: SUNDAY EXPRESS: 12m Turks say they’ll come to UK #tomorrowspaperstoday #bbcpapers

The Express group is wholly-owned by Richard Desmond, a UK billionaire and former publisher of such informative periodicals as Penthouse and Asian Babes. circulation is close to 400,000, in addition to online readership. In 2002, Desmond made a £100,000 donation to Blair’s Labour Party, but in 2004 switched allegiance to the Conservatives.

The lead story of this post would seem to be based on the February 4 2014 debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, which did so much to restore the former’s finances. Why it should have resurfaced now in the Express, I have no idea. But it does concern me. Desmond does not make a habit of backing longterm losers.

Glasgow Council elections; my questions to the parties, and addresses


City Chambers, from George Square, c. 1900

Here are my questions. I will post the answers in due course.

All parties: I would like Glasgow City ***’s views on the following questions:

The teaching of evolution and creationism in schools

The presence on education committees of Church nominees not answerable to the electorate

Inclusive sex education including realistic education regarding contraception

Your attitude toward suggestions that Free Schools be set up in Scotland, as they have been in England

All parties except Conservative:

Whether you would under any conditions go into coalition with the Tories

Labour only: Your leaflet in my ward refers to “SNP Bus Pass cuts”. What is your evidence that any such cuts are contemplated?

SNP only: My ward’s Labour leaflet refers to “SNP Bus Pass cuts”. Are any such cuts contemplated?

Comment (all parties): I will be sharing your answers  (or your failure to provide an answer) with my social network and blog readership.

Addresses, alphabetically by party: Conservative, [Scottish] Greens “Contact us”, [Scottish] Labour,   LibDem, SNP

Notes on questions: My position on most of these questions is well-known. There is talk of setting up Free Schools on the English model. This in my opinion would be disastrous, since it would be used to promote denominational schools where demographics would not otherwise justify them, and, worse, to shield those schools from adequate Local Authority control. Given the importance of this issue, among others, I would regard the presence of Conservatives on a coalition as potentially a matter for grave concern. See here:


Removing Church appointees from Education Committees; more good news

Things continue to go better than we could have hoped.

The story so far: For historical reasons, dating back to 1872 and beyond, all Local Authority Education Committees in Scotland must by law include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Our petition, PE01623, asks for their removal, on grounds of democracy and equality, especially in view of the fact that most parents now describe themselves as having no religion. Spencer Fildes and I gave evidence before the Public Petitions Committee last November, and the Committee, having sought additional written submissions, met again in February.  At that meeting, the Convener, the redoubtable Johann Lamont, laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, and quoted the comment from the Jewish community that “none of these issues have been addressed.” The Committee agreed to write again to the Scottish Government, asking about the timescale of the current review of educational governance, and its response to the matters raised.


Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman give evidence to the Public Petitions Committee, November 2016

Now read on: Last month, the Scottish Government responded, and we in our turn have replied to that response. We see a steady softening in the Government’s position, from asserting in 2014, when faced with a similar petition, that the presence of the Church appointees “provides support to the authority in discharging its duties”, to a 2016 letter saying that it “was viewed” in the 1973 legislation as providing such assistance,  to its present position, which after a review of the legal background goes on to state: Read the rest of this entry

Clay tablet casts new light on origins of Genesis are puzzled by the significance of a cuneiform tablet dating to around 1400 BCE, recently discovered during excavations in Sumeria. A tentative translation, still controversial, is as follows:

“From Moses, General Secretary of the Brickmakers Union, Land of Goshen, greetings.

Moses Michaelangelo September 2015-1.jpg

Moses, contemporary scupture, holding what is thought to be this tablet

From my measurements of the sedimentology of the Nile Delta, I estimate that the river has been depositing sediment there for many tens of thousands of years. Concerning the origin of mankind, I am now convinced that we, the jabbering creatures of West Africa, and the knuckle-walking giants who live beyond Numidia are different species of the same family.

However, You-Know-Who has told me to come up with a simplified version of the story, which my members will be more capable of understanding.

Nile Delta in ancient times (Wikipedia)

I wonder if there is anything suitable among your own traditional mythologies. In particular, since the Internet has not yet been invented, can you send me by camel post a preprint of Enuma Elish. And if possible, an advance copy of your pending publication, The Flood of Gilgamesh. Read the rest of this entry

My “Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution” has appeared in Muslim Heritage.

I am published in Muslim Heritage.

Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution (full article here).

Gloriously illustrated by the Muslim Heritage editorial team; so much for the common impression that Islam forbids representational art.

Images assembled by Muslim Heritage editorial team

I briefly describe present-day evolution science, and why the evidence for this is considered overwhelming, having earned endorsements from national academies worldwide, including the academies of several predominantly Muslim countries.

I show how Muslim thinkers (especially Al Biruni and Ibn Sina) went beyond Aristotle’s mere assertion that the Earth is old (for Aristotle, infinitely old), by observing and discussing fossils and sediments in an unmistakably scientific manner. I also discuss widespread claims that Islamic scholars had anticipated modern evolutionary thought, and come to the sad conclusion that these are not warranted. What is being described, by sources as diverse as the poet Rumi, the Ikhwan al-SafaI (Brethren of Purity, 8 – 10 C CE), and the pioneer social scientist Ibn Khaldun in 1377 CE, is the Great Chain of Being, derived from Aristotelian thought, and represents stages of development, but does not imply common descent, or change over time. I also look at the claims made on behalf of al Tusi, but fear that these will not stand examination.

The one clear example that I do find of anticipation of the central ideas of mutability of species and common descent comes from al Jahiz’s delightful Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Living Things, 9 C CE), where among much other interesting material (though the story of birds cleaning crocodiles’ teeth is, alas, suspect) he correctly suggests common ancestry for wolves, dogs, and foxes.

The Crocodile from The Book of Animals by Al-Jahiz Credit: © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy/Bridgeman Images, via PhotoEditor61

I would be delighted to hear of other examples, provided these are accompanied by links to reliable translations (I regret that I cannot read Arabic or Persian) of the original material. I am of course aware of a great deal of twentieth and twentyfirst century literature that makes such claims, but on examination I have so far found these to be simply back-projection. We must also remember that earlier thinkers must be judge in the context of their own times, that they were unaware of the significance that observations would require at a later stage, and that to judge them according to how well they happen to agree with us, with our vastly expanded knowledge base, is unhistorical and, indeed, patronising.

On the relationship between evolution and Islam, I have this to say:

It is not my place to discuss this. I will merely point out that debate between those who accept and those who reject evolution can be found within all the Abrahamic religions, with discussion hingeing on the ways in which the ancient sacred text should be interpreted by a modern reader (Marwa Elshakry, of Columbia University History Department gives a scholarly account1). There are those who protect traditional interpretations by rejecting evolution, but such rejection carries a high cost since it creates a conflict between faith and worldly knowledge. And there are those who attempt to evade this conflict by denying the plain scientific facts; here the cost is even higher. There was a recent vigorous discussion of these topics organized by the Deen Institute,2 and the scientific academies of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey and Uzbekistan have joined others worldwide in affirming evolution.3

On the Muslim Heritage Facebook page, my article has received over 2000 “likes”. I am grateful to the editorial staff of Muslim Heritage for inviting me to contribute this article, and to Ehab Abouheif, Jim Al-Khalili, Glenn Branch, J. E. Montgomery, Cem Nizamoglu, Rebecca Stott, and Douglas Theobald for helpful discussions.

I will be posting a fuller summary of my rather lengthy article in due course.

1] Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

2] “Muslim leaders urge Islamic community to rethink evolution theory” by Omar Shahid

3] IAP on the Teaching of Evolution


The Little Puddlian Philosophical Society and the Fine Tuning Argument

Puddle theory, according to Wikipedia, is “a term coined by Douglas Adams to satirize arguments that the universe is made for man. As stated in Adams’s book The Salmon of Doubt:

“imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

I yield to no one in my admiration for Douglas Adams, and admire here in particular his reminder that our place in the Universe may really be rather precarious. However, on this occasion he had been anticipated. Read the rest of this entry

Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed and much more dangerous.

L: Pence being sworn in as a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee (CNN)

After reminding us that he was trained in law and history, he mangles the historical facts and legal significance of a key court case (the Scopes trial).

By quotemining a secondary source,* which he treats as if primary, he twists the then-recent discovery of Sahelanthropus into an argument against the underlying science. It is changeable, he argues, therefore it is uncertain.

He justifies this manoeuvre by harping on the ambiguous word “theory”, and making a falsely rigid distinction between theory and fact.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis SmithsonianR: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, photo from Smithsonian Human Origins website

And worst of all, he asks his colleagues to “demand [emphasis added] that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory”. The proponent, when it suits him, of small Government wants Washington to tell teachers how to teach.

Pence has been accused of stupidity because of the factual and logical errors contained in his speech. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry

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