Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Web of False Assumptions

It is often said that questioning things is good, but we have to be careful that we are approaching things not just with questions but with the right questions.

Students often come away from a lecture on Buddhist thought saying, "That sounded so complex and difficult."

A asserts x
B also asserts x, but adds to x (x1, x2, x3...)
C refutes x2, for example, but accepts x, x1, x3, etc.
D comes along and redefines x as y
E adds onto y (y1, y2, y3...)
And so on...

Until you get a complicated web of speculations about A's original assertion of x and its later developments. These speculations are often extremely difficult to unravel, especially when they have happened over the course of hundreds of years. Simply unraveling such a mess could take you your whole life, but the important thing to note is that all of the complication is just smoke and mirrors that is preventing you from seeing that A's first assertion may be completely unfounded.

This reminds me of creationist arguments where so much misinformation is thrown out that an honest scientist has to work so hard to clear through the mess just to make a rebuttal. This is why some scientists believe that it may be a waste of time, or even worse, detrimental, to publicly debate with a creationist.

It is also a common tactic applied by pseudoscience and bad researchers: the argument ad footnotium! (what's it called?). It goes like this: when making an argument in text, include as many cherry-picked references to papers and research in your footnotes as possible. When applicable, go into great detail in your footnotes to obscure the issue. Having lots of detail, even if it's irrelevant, makes ones argument appear more convincing.

No comments: