June 6: Friday Fallacy!
Posted on: June 6, 2014
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.
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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