June 6: Friday Fallacy!

It’s Friday and you know what that means: Time for your Friday Fallacy!

Following our new format for these posts, we will first give an example of the fallacy, then reveal the name of the fallacy and explain the error in reasoning at the end to give you a chance to quiz yourself identifying it.

An example of this week’s fallacy:

There are two basic approaches to answering the question of how life on Earth as we see it today got to be the way it is now. One of those two approaches is the scientific approach, that energy from the sun combined with lightning and other natural forces acted on chemicals in the Earth’s crust and oceans to form the first traces of microscopic life on this planet billions of years ago. Over time, changing conditions and random mutations led to adaptation, natural selection, and extinctions and speciation, resulting in the variety of life now alive on this planet.

The other basic approach is that some kind of intelligent entity actively created life using magic, rather than life originating by natural processes. In the United States, the unspoken understanding is that when we speak of “intelligent design,” we’re of course referring to a creator understood to be the Iron Age god of the ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms of Israel and Judah, rather than any of the other thousands of creator gods of other world religions, although those who advocate intelligent design will rarely admit to this.

Many school boards, thinly veiled evangelical think tanks, and school districts have suggested or even actively advocated for “teaching the controversy” in biology and other science classes as a reasonable and fair solution.

“Teaching the controversy,” allegedly, gives students information about both approaches and letting them decide for themselves, as a compromise between what the law says is required, and what secular parents and those who support separation of religion & government want teachers to teach in science classrooms, and what well-meaning conciliators and evangelical religious parents want teachers to teach. Generally speaking, “teaching the controversy” also includes the implicit, or sometimes explicit, statement that scientists, rather than just the American public generally, are divided on the two approaches.

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This fallacy goes by many names. Some of them are argument to moderation, argumentum ad temperantiam, the middle ground fallacy, the false compromise fallacy, the grey or grey-area fallacy, and the golden mean fallacy. They all boil down to a single error in reasoning: that when presented with two opposite positions, the truth can be found as a compromise between them.

In the example above, it’s obvious why a compromise is not a good solution: Evolution is a fact; there is no controversy between qualified scientists whatsoever, and implying otherwise robs students of their understanding of basic concepts like the correct definition of “theory” and critical-thinking necessities like understanding that non-expert, religiously biased opinions are not properly on par with research from experts.

Daniel Okrent, the first Public Editor of The New York Times, is famous for a statement about the journalistic practice of giving column inches to “both sides” of a story, even when only one side has any real validity. “Orkent’s Law” states, “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes, something is true.” This is often a problem for science-beat journalists who must appear neutral and so refrain from editorializing, yet at the same time feel pressured to be “thorough” and interview those who deny science and in so doing unintentionally give opposing views a sense of credibility or legitimacy.. Articles about climate change, vaccine research, and—of course—evolution often have the potential to cause damage to the public perception that these matters are settled, even if the goal of reporting on the issue is to increase the public’s understanding of it.

At American Atheists, this sometimes serves to our advantage, because this goes both directions: Religious (and thinly veiled faux news) show producers regularly invite our representatives to appear on their programs to give the appearance of objectivity. We always accept, because this gives us a chance to help viewers understand that, despite what their pastors tell them, there’s more to the story than “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”

Have a great afternoon and a great weekend.


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  • Tyler Burdette

    To say there is no evidence for a creator is like saying the thousands of paintings in an art museum couldn’t have been painted because there are no artists visible in the gallery.

    • Exnihil

      Agreed. If the first Apollo astronauts found a pair of simple iron scissors on the moon, NO scientist would believe that they were randomly formed by the collision of a ferrous meterorite. Yet we are asked to believe that something MUCH more complex (a living, single-cell organsm) was spontaneously generated by lightning striking a pool of chemicals.

      I have two graduate degrees in science and firmly believe in the process of evolution, but claiming life just “occured” is more far-fetched than the idea that it was created by some superior intelligence.

      • Tyler Burdette

        So life spontaneously arose from nothing, for no reason or purpose, guided by the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection?

        • ExNihil

          Uhm, no, I’m arguing that life was created by an intelligent designer and that evolution is the (possibly guided, possibly not) means by which human being came into being. I find the idea that life arose from some random combination of chemicals to be impossibly unlikely.

          • Shogun Roboninja

            What are you guys doing on an Athiest website? LOL Anyways, science doesn’t have all the answers… that’s why their haven’t stopped looking. If you do indeed have the answers, then by all means write up that peer-reviewed paper outlining and start dreaming of that Nobel Prize money.
            However, If you insist on the “Magical Sky Daddy” hypothesis, it begs the question: Why not several magical daddies, or mommies, or hermaphroditic aliens? Since the most plentiful animal in the known universe is bacteria, why not give them credit? Perhaps all of creation is just so they can live in the comfortable guts of obese New Yorkers.
            If you don’t have iron clad evidence that invalidates any of these alternate theories, then perhaps you may be talking out of your rectum and we’ll just have wait until science finds some more answers for you to ignore.
            In the meantime, let’s hear from actual scientists: http://www.talkorigins.org.

          • @Shogun Roboninja – Regarding “begs the question”

            “Begging the question” is a form of logical fallacy
            in which a statement or claim is assumed to be true without evidence other than the statement or claim itself. When one begs the question, the initial assumption of a statement is treated as already proven without any logic to show why the statement is true in the first place.

            A simple example would be “I think he is unattractive because he is ugly.” The adjective “ugly” does not explain why the subject is “unattractive” — they virtually amount to the same subjective meaning, and the proof is merely a restatement of the premise. The sentence has begged the question.

            To beg the question does not mean “to raise the question.” (e.g. “It begs the question, why is he so dumb?”) This is a common error of usage made by those who mistake the word “question” in the phrase to refer to a literal question. Sadly, the error has grown more and more common with time, such that even journalists, advertisers, and major mass media entities have fallen prey to “BTQ Abuse.”

            While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous “modern” usage.

            Source: http://begthequestion.info/

          • sandkiwi

            Why? There’s quite possibly billions of combinations and cirucmstances. Your saying that out of all that there is still no chance that life could have started?

        • Philip Rivers

          Natural selection is not blind. It moves in the direction of survival. Creationists have an easy argument: God did it, and He is all powerful and has always existed. You have no proof for your assertions; so, you attack science’s positions out of ignorance. Just because I can’t answer all your ridiculous and erroneous accusations doesn’t mean that Creationism is correct.

      • A concerned atheist

        Dear Sir, Madam, or any variation on the above genders. You are troublingly unaware on the actual mechanics on evolution. While I was most definitely not around to see it, I highly sought life was created spontaneously from a lightning strike (if this was a metaphor I am sorry I have taken it so literally). Exnihil, have you ever heard the saying “If you leave an infinite amount of monkeys with an infinite amount of typewriters, eventually they will produce the complete works of William Shakespeare”? The same theory applies for evolution. The process began when the Earth was extremely young, say, oh I don’t know, a couple of million years old. Chemicals created over the course of millennia after the big bang began to react to one another. These chemicals, over the length of millions of more years, created organic compounds such as protein, amino acids, and lipids. At some point or another, this somehow managed to form something not quite like a life form, but close enough. In fact, certain proteins have been observed to “evolve” under the right conditions, albeit not into life. Millions more years passed, and eventually, this “pseudo life” reached the next step and became our current definition of an organism. These first organisms are the ancestors of our modern algae. Now, because evolution is not entirely linear, some of these plant-like organisms evolved into the first animals, or at least, animal-like organisms. These creatures breathed the oxygen produced by the proto-algae, and developed over millions of more years into worms, which in turn developed into even more animals, like jawless fish, trilobites, and eventually; amphibians, the first life capable of survival on land, which over more millions of years became dinosaurs and other animals (including us, given enough time). Meanwhile, the plants evolved into the trees, grass, water-lilys and other species. I hope this (rather long) lecture has informed you more on the nature of evolution.

        Cheers,

        A concerned atheist

        • ExNihil

          You’re obviously neither a biologist nor a chemist, and your vague (and patronizing) attempt to explain the origins of life show that you have no understanding of science either.

          Go to college, get a degree in biochemistry or molecular biology, create life from non-organic materials in your lab, and then come back and post your results.

          • Tyler Burdette

            Evolution only explains what happened after we got life It cannot explain where the mechanism of the replicating mutator came from.

          • ExNihil

            Yes, agreed. You do realize that I am supporting your position, right?

          • A concerned atheist

            Lets assume for a moment you are right, and a creator did cause life. Where did this creator come from? Another creator? Then where did that one come from? Eventually, you have to have billions upon billions of creators. At some point, every religious person has to fall back on “He/She/It came first”. However, their main argument for why there is a creator is that there has to be an original being to make something in the first place. And although you are right that I am neither a biologist nor chemist, and that you probably know quite a bit more science then me (honestly, give yourself a pat on the back) your argument does not make sense on a fundamental level. Also, was it a literal or metaphorical lightning strike. No hard feelings, and I am genuinely sorry I offended you. (:

          • Yooper

            Go to your church, get on your knees and close your eyes, think real hard about an invisible man in the sky, and create some ramification of god. Belief in something for which there is absolutely know evidence is silly at best, childish literally, and extremely dangerous throughout human history.

          • Philip Rivers

            Even if science can’t yet explain how life began, doesn’t prove your contention that an eternal, invisible, unfalsifiable, all-powerful, non-being, who loves us and will send us to hell forever for not acknowledging him, created everything by using his words alone.

        • Kay Bultema

          😉 why are there so many uptight theists on this article??? Why are they here mouthing off when they should be on their knees praying for the big bad atheists to go away???

        • Cannibal

          That definitely is the process of evolution. Now tell me… explode a junk yard every second for 4 billion years. Would one of those explosions yield a fully functional automobile? I think not. I also think that the thought experiment of the typing monkeys would yield a whole lot of wasted ink and paper and a bunch of poop on the walls.

    • sandkiwi

      Not really. We know that those painters existed.

  • Guest

    Evolution only explains what happened once you have life; it can not explain where the mechanism of the replicating mutator came from.

  • cannibal

    There is no gray fallacy in this example at all. The teachers only said to teach the controversy. If Atheists are so sure that they are correct, what’s the big deal?

    • Philip Rivers

      The big deal is this: To be fair, if teachers taught the Christian myth of creation, they’d have to also teach the Hindu myth of creation, the Norse myth of creation, and the Native American myth of creation. But wait! This is science class, not comparative religion. In science class we teach scientific theories, not religion impersonating religion.

      • David K.

        @cannibal:
        The evidence does favor evolution rather strongly, but it’s rather unlikely that children would be able to tell based on the five-paragraph blurb each viewpoint would realistically be limited to.
        @Phillip Rivers:
        Actually, that’s not the point at all. The point is that Behe et al. haven’t done any real scientific work at all, and their little “model” is simply not worth mentioning in a textbook. None of these proposed pieces of ID legislation (that is specifically ID and not YEC) make any reference to a particular creation story.

  • Landon Horsch

    If there is no creator, then how did sponge-bob come into existence?

    • Eric Mansouri -site admin-

      My God… It’s actually making sense now… Spongebob, Squidward, SANDY! It’s the Holy Trinity! There is a creator and we’ve not seen it!

      • Landon Horsch

        NOW GO SPREAD THE WORD AND SAVE THE WORLD

        • Eric Mansouri -site admin-

          GOD IS GOOD!

          • Landon Horsch

            ALL THE TIME!

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