Being Skeptical About Emotional Issues

When an issue strikes close to home it is difficult to be skeptical about it.

A few days ago my oldest son suggested that homosexuality is a genetic disorder. As a bisexual woman, my hackles automatically raised and I became highly offended. When I calmed down, I realized that because this is something that affects me personally, I was letting emotion get in the way of being a good skeptic. The post I wrote in response to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s comment that atheists “aren’t fully human” is a good example of that.

Now that I have calmed down, I have looked into it and here whataregd is the definition of a genetic disorder: A genetic disorder is a disease that is caused by an abnormality in an individual’s DNA. Abnormalities can range from a small mutation in a single gene to the addition or subtraction of an entire chromosome or set of chromosomes.

A disease has three definitions:

  1. A pathological condition of a part, organ, or system of an organism resulting from various causes, such as infection, genetic defect, or environmental stress, and characterized by an identifiable group of signs or symptoms.
  2. A condition or tendency, as of society, regarded as abnormal and harmful.
  3. Obsolete. Lack of ease; trouble.

So by definition # 2 from Answers.com, some people can define homosexuality/bisexuality as a genetic disorder because they regard it as “abnormal or harmful”. BUT, by definition one, he’s wrong.

His argument is that, within the parameters of mating, compared to almost every other species that mate to reproduce, that genetically it could be a disorder. Though he agrees that ‘aberration’ might be a better word. It was too funny. Hubby witnessed this yelling match that eventually degraded into “I’m more right than you are!”, followed by laughter.

I can see his point that, purely from a mammalian mating standpoint, homosexuality could be a harmful aberration. If homosexuality was the norm in non-human animal species, the population would drop significantly and many species would simply become extinct.

His entire point to the argument he posed was that, from an outside perspective, the genetic disorder idea is one possible theory. As skeptics we should be able to look at all points of view even when it hits close to home.

He’s right.

Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor “Atheists Not Fully Human”

Many previously thought that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was a little off his rocker. Earlier this week in an interview he stated that “atheists are not fully human” because we do not “search for transcendent meaning”. In other words, because atheists do not seek the answers to larger questions such as “why are we here?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Is this all that there is?”, atheists have not fully developed their humanity.

This is, from my perspective, a huge presumption on the Cardinal’s part. As an atheist, asking the bigger questions is one of the major reasons many people become atheists. Rather than reaching the conclusion that there is a higher power or grand designer involved, we choose to listen to science and let logic and fact answer those bigger questions. Skeptics weigh the information at hand, weed out the fact from the fiction and use the scientific method to evaluate the facts.

When Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor says things like this, he is speaking out of ignorance. I say ignorance and not stupidity because ignorance can be educated. He seems to be a cognizant man capable of clear thought. He is simply misinformed.

Yes, I understand that what I just said sounds like I’m delusional and living in a candy-coated world. I would just prefer to give the Cardinal the benefit if the doubt. Because if I don’t and he really did know what he was saying, that implies a number of horrifying thoughts.

If atheists and other non-believers are not fully human, or less than human then we can be treated the same way African-Americans were. They were once thought of as less than human and summarily treated like animals. Dictators through the ages have used that “logic” to commit genocide. If the Cardinal truly believes that we are less than human, to what lengths will he go to assure our “humanity”? Are we in for a  modern Inquisition? The ramifications of the Cardinal’s comments are horrifying.

The insult is secondary. I am fairly certain if he was sincere in his statement that it was meant to insult the atheist community as a whole. Perhaps he feels it is justified. After all, high profile individuals in the atheist and skeptical community have said some unkind things about the Catholic Church. Apparently it’s okay to stoop to petty vengeance. Again, that is IF he understands the ramifications of what he said.

I may want to live in a candy-coated world but I’m not naive. I believe that the Cardinal knew full well what he was saying and what it implied. And to that I reply, “Fuck you, you sonofabitch”.

Sorry, dear readers. Sometimes I just can’t be a good skeptic.

***Unfortunately YouTube removed the video of the interview for violations. Please google “Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor “Atheists Not Fully Human” for other perspectives on this interview.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

Today’s Logical Fallacy is called Bandwagon, also known as Peer Pressure. In this fallacy, the threat of rejection by a peer group (peer pressure) is used in place of fact or evidence.

This type of “reasoning” had the following format. Normally I would replace the big, scary X with something small, cute and fuzzy. But there’s only one in today’s format. So let’s take a deep breath, approach it slowly and talk quietly to it.

See? It’s a nice little x.

1) Person P is pressured by his/her peers or threatened with rejection.

2) Therefore person P’s claim X is false/true.

A real life adult example would be keeping up with the Joneses.

Jill: “Sweetheart, I heard that John is getting Marsha a new Porsche Cayenne for Christmas. No one drives mini vans in our neighborhood anymore. Let’s go get a new Cadillac Escalade. We HAVE to keep up appearances, after all.”.

Here Jill, Person (P) is feeling pressured to maintain an appearance of affluence in order to avoid possible or perceived rejection by her neighbors or community.

A simplified example would be:

Bob: Now Rob I know you believe that the earth is round but here in this community we don’t put up with that kind of nonsense

Rob: Don’t be silly! I never believed that.

This is a logical fallacy because a threat of rejection does not qualify as evidence.

Please note that the drive to “belong” can be a powerful incentive to overspend as in the first example or capitulate a firmly held belief as in the second example.

Newer Is Better 2

Sara was kind enough to point out to me that my example of Titanium Pony wasn’t a very accurate illustration of the logical fallacy Appeal To Novelty. In my example Titanium Pony doesn’t eat, doesn’t poop and is always ready. These are, as Sara kindly pointed out in her followup comment, improvements.

A better example might be “Buy the new WinMac 5.0! It’s new!!” This is implying that the product is better just because it’s new. Thus it falls into the Appeal To Novelty logical fallacy that I talked about previously here: http://fledgelingskeptic.com/2010/01/21/newer-is-better/

Thanks again to Sara for helping me out.

Newer Is Better

Today’s Logical Fallacy, at the request of our friend Sara is, the Appeal to Novelty or, Newer is Better.

Where yesterday’s Appeal To Tradition tried to use the idea that older is better as factual evidence, the Appeal To Novelty tries to pose the idea that because something is new it is automatically better.  This is a fallacy because it assumes that because something is new it is automatically better.

This fallacy has the following form with X’s being played by a pony today

1) Pony is New.

2) Therefor Pony is correct or better

Western culture seems to be prone to this fallacy especially when it comes to technology. The media and advertising have continually bombarded the US with the notion that newer is better.  The idea of progress and modernization (that has somehow become entangled with evolution) creating a “great big beautiful tomorrow”, to quote Walt Disney and the Carousel of Progress, also contributes to this fallacy.

An example of this fallacy might look like this: There are many people who love their ebook readers (Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Sony PRS-700, etc). They’re a big technological craze and although it has slowed a bit, there are still those that claim that eventually ebooks will replace their analog cousins.

Another example might be: (Using an invented product)

1) Introducing the brand new Titanium Pony! It doesn’t require feeding, Titanium Pony is always ready to play and best of all it doesn’t leave road apples! Get YOUR Titanium Pony today!

2) The Titanium Pony is better because it’s new.

In some cases this is NOT a fallacy though. Fresh fruit is better than rotted fruit. This is not because it is new or novel. So there ARE times when new is better and it is not a fallacy.


Appeal To Tradition

Today’s Logical Fallacy: Appeal To Tradition

This is borrowed from http://www.nikzor.org

Appeal to Tradition is a fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that something is better or correct simply because it is older, traditional, or “always has been done.” This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

  1. X is old or traditional
  2. Therefore X is correct or better.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the age of something does not automatically make it correct or better than something newer. This is made quite obvious by the following example: The theory that witches and demons cause disease is far older than the theory that microrganisms cause diseases. Therefore, the theory about witches and demons must be true.

This sort of “reasoning” is appealing for a variety of reasons. First, people often prefer to stick with what is older or traditional. This is a fairly common psychological characteristic of people which may stem from the fact that people feel more comfortable about what has been around longer. Second, sticking with things that are older or traditional is often easier than testing new things. Hence, people often prefer older and traditional things out of laziness. Hence, Appeal to Tradition is a somewhat common fallacy.

It should not be assumed that new things must be better than old things (see the fallacy Appeal to Novelty) any more than it should be assumed that old things are better than new things. The age of something does not, in general, have any bearing on its quality or correctness (in this context). In the case of tradition, assuming that something is correct just because it is considered a tradition is poor reasoning. For example, if the belief that 1+1 = 56 were a tradition of a group of people it would hardly follow that it is true.

Obviously, age does have a bearing in some contexts. For example, if a person concluded that aged wine would be better than brand new wine, he would not be committing an Appeal to Tradition. This is because, in such cases the age of the thing is relevant to its quality. Thus, the fallacy is committed only when the age is not, in and of itself, relevant to the claim.

One final issue that must be considered is the “test of time.” In some cases people might be assuming that because something has lasted as a tradition or has been around a long time that it is true because it has “passed the test of time.” If a person assumes that something must be correct or true simply because it has persisted a long time, then he has committed an Appeal to Tradition. After all, as history has shown people can persist in accepting false claims for centuries.

However, if a person argues that the claim or thing in question has successfully stood up to challenges and tests for a long period of time then they would not be committing a fallacy. In such cases the claim would be backed by evidence. As an example, the theory that matter is made of subatomic particles has survived numerous tests and challenges over the years so there is a weight of evidence in its favor. The claim is reasonable to accept because of the weight of this evidence and not because the claim is old. Thus, a claim’s surviving legitimate challenges and passing valid tests for a long period of time can justify the acceptance of a claim. But mere age or persistance does not warrant accepting a claim.

Examples of Appeal to Tradition

  1. Sure I believe in God. People have believed in God for thousands of years so it seems clear that God must exist. After all, why else would the belief last so long?
  2. Gunthar is the father of Connan. They live on a small island and in their culture women are treated as property to be exchanged at will by men.Connan: “You know father, when I was going to school in the United States I saw that American women are not treated as property. In fact, I read a book by this person named Mill in which he argued for women’s rights.”
    Gunthar: “So, what is your point son?”
    Connan: “Well, I think that it might be wrong to trade my sisters for cattle. They are human beings and should have a right to be masters of their own fate.”
    Gunthar: “What a strange and new-fangled notion you picked up in America. That country must be even more barbaric then I imagined. Now think about this son. We have been trading women for cattle for as long as ourpeople have lived on this island. It is a tradition that goes back into the mists of time. ”
    Connan: “But I still think there is something wrong with it.”
    Gunthar: “Nonsense my boy. A tradition this old must be endorsed by the gods and must be right.”
  3. Of course this mode of government is the best. We have had this government for over 200 years and no one has talked about changing it in all that time. So, it has got to be good.
  4. A reporter is interviewing the head of a family that has been involved with a feud with another family.Reporter: “Mr. Hatfield, why are you still fighting it out with the Mcoys?”
    Hatfield: “Well you see young man, my father feuded with the Mcoys and his father feuded with them and so did my great grandfather.”
    Reporter: “But why? What started all this?”
    Hatfield: “I don’t rightly know. I’m sure it was the Mcoys who started it all, though.”
    Reporter: “If you don’t know why you’re fighting, why don’t you just stop?”
    Hatfield: “Stop? What are you crazy? This feud has been going on for generations so I’m sure there is a darn good reason why it started. So I aim to keep it going. It has got to be the right thing to do. Hand me my shooting iron boy, I see one of those Mcoy skunks sneaking in the cornfield.”

Just For Spite

Today’s Logical Fallacy is called The Appeal to Spite. This is another emotion-based fallacy wherein spite is used in place of actual evidence.

Since some of you are still skittish about X’s, today’s X will be portrayed by Tribbles. Yes, I’m a Star Trek geek but they ARE cute, fuzzy and non-threatening. Unless you’re a Romulan. If you ARE Romulan then you have my sincere apologies for the offense.

Appeal to Spite has the following format:

1) Claim Tribbles (x) is presented with the goal of generating spite

2) Therefor Claim C is true (or false dependent on the desired result of Tribbles)

Again, an emotion is not evidence. Evidence must be testable and the same result must be shown within the statistical  limits of the experiment. This is generally plus or minus a fraction of one percent if I am remembering correctly from my psychological statistics course.

A real world example would look something like this:

Boss: “Dave has been doing an excellent job lately. We’re talking about promoting him”.

Person Who Wants The Promotion (Presenting Claim Tribbles): Wow. A promotion? After Dave flubbed that presentation a few months back and cost you a multi-million dollar contract?”

Boss: Well, I guess we shouldn’t promote Dave after all.

In this example The Claimant Presenting Tribbles (x) is inspiring spite in order to undermine Dave’s promotion so he can have it for himself. Dave may or may not have flubbed a presentation and the client may or may not have declined the contract because of it There is no definitive evidence to support Claim Tribbles. The Claimant is simply throwing something out to undermine Dave.

Pat Robertson Persists

This morning Pat Robertson continued to insist that the reason for Haiti’s troubles is the supposed pact with the Devil that we discussed yesterday. He claims here http://bit.ly/5XeL7L that since the Dominican Republic is prosperous that this supposed “pact” MUST be the reason that Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the world.

Obviously Mr. Robertson’s research team failed to mention to him that, although there are resorts, the Dominican Republic is still a third world country. There is also a difference ing governmental styles. Haiti is a socialist nation run by a dictator. The Dominican Republic stopped being a dictatorship in 1961.

Because of the governmental style, Reagan levied heavy import tariffs against Haiti. That also contributed to the impoverished state of the country. Add to that the weather-related issues and the drug issues and it’s no wonder Haiti has problems.

And yet, Robertson continues to attribute these troubles to a being that no one has been able to prove even exists. Anecdotal evidence is not evidence because a story cannot be tested repeatedly to get the same results. An anecdote is the result of human observation. Personal biases color those observations. When someone like Pat Robertson observes the world, he sees demons and the Devil as the reason for worldly woes. A scientific, skeptical approach shows us that weather and politics are largely contributing factors.

Not the Boogeyman.

Pat Robertsons on Haiti

This morning on the Christian Broadcast Network Pat Robertson made a claim about the reason Haiti has had so many troubles. He states it is because they made a deal with the Devil in the 19th century for their freedom from France.

It’s times like this when it is very hard not to be a cynic. A cynic would have followed that claim up with something like “WTF Pat? Are you stupid?? What kind of crack are you smokin’??”

Haiti should be very proud of its history. In 1791, their ancestors started the only successful slave revolt in human history. It was the first black-run country. They have a rich heritage that deserves to be celebrated. Their revolution is considered a defining moment in African history in the New World.

Pat Robertson isn’t necessarily full of crap though. At least not from certain perspectives. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Haitian revolution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Revolution), “Historians traditionally identify the catalyst to revolution as a particular Vodou ceremony in August 1791 performed at Bois Caïman by Dutty Boukman, a priest.”.”

At one point in my life I was a Fundamentalist Christian so I understand the “logic” behind Pat Robertson’s claim. From his perspective Vodou is devil worship. The priest, Dutty Boukman, called on demons and the Devil, by fundamentalist reasoning, to free his country. When an entire country is given over into the hands of the Devil, no good can ever come of it.

This is, of course, no longer my perspective. This is an observation and explanation on Robertson’s reasoning. It in no way is meant to support his argument by Appeal To Widespread Belief.

This logical fallacy states that because something is widely believed, that makes it factual evidence. This reasoning is fallacious. We used to believe the world was flat. We know better now because evidence has shown otherwise. A belief is not necessarily factual. In this case, there is no scientific, testable evidence of a Devil. There is no scientific, testable evidence that Vodou has been effective.

Haiti has simply had to deal with unfortunate circumstances.  The recent earthquake is one more instance in a string of natural occurrences. There is nothing paranormal about it. This country has simply been victim to a host of natural disasters ranging from flooding and hurricanes to disease and drug trafficking. These, along with a public that lacks education, are the things that keep Haiti impoverished.

I would urge you to go to redcross.com and contribute to the Haitian relief effort if you haven’t already.

Pity Party

Today’s Logical Fallacy is called Appeal to Pity or Ad Misericordiam

There’s no Scary X in this formula so we don’t have puppies or duckies guest starring today. It’s a pretty straightforward fallacy whose structure looks like this:

1) P is presented with the intention of evoking pity

2) Therefore claim C is true

The use of pity as “evidence” is a fallacy because emotion cannot be substituted for real evidence. Evidence is testable while emotion is far to erratic to be used as evidence.

Please note that there are times when an claim that serves as evidence can also evoke pity. For instance:

Claimant P calls in to work: Boss I can’t come in today.

Boss: You know this is your second time this month calling in.

Claimant P: I know but I got hit on the way home last night. I’m in the hospital with a broken shoulder that needs to be repaired surgically and my car is wrecked

See? Instant pity. But there is also evidence to support the claim:A broken shoulder and a totalled car. So while this IS a logical fallacy, it is sometimes a fact.

An example of the actual logical fallacy would look something like this:

Claimant P:  I really need this job

Interviewer: You’re underqualified according to your resume

Claimant P: I’m a single Mom. I have three children and my ex won’t pay child support. Our electricity is going to get shut off if I don’t get this job and it’s the middle of winter.

Interviewer: I suppose we can make an exception in your case.

Again, instant pity. But the fallacy comes in at the point where she’ll get the job because the interviewer feels bad for her. She isn’t qualified and the evidence, her resume, shows that she isn’t. BUT because of her situation, the interviewer feels pity and capitulates on the company policy of not hiring the under qualified.

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