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Three common examples of Straw Man arguments
widely used by skeptics
- W.Beaty 1997

I've read many books with a Skeptical slant, and I keep encountering three particular arguments made by their authors which I think should be addressed. These arguments are fallacies. They involve the ridicule and intellectual suppression of famous historical scientific discoveries.

The three arguments:

  1. These crackpots think they're right because they're ridiculed.
  2. Crackpots' complaints of intellectual suppression are really just conspiracy theories.
  3. Crackpots are just saying that progress doesn't exist.
The three arguments are part of an attack on "science crackpots." Unfortunately in this case the crackpots are right and the skeptics are wrong.

1. These crackpots think they're right because they're ridiculed!

A fairly clear version of the first error is illustrated below. I'm not picking on Dr. Bohren in particular, this same statement is also made by many other skeptical authors. ( And Bohren's book is excellent, anyone interested either in physics or science misconceptions should pick up a copy. )

Excerpt from CLOUDS IN A GLASS OF BEER, by Craig F.Bohren (c)1987, J. Wiley & Sons, Inc.

"The story of Arrhenius could be cast in such a way that he was a hero and his foot-dragging detractors were villains. I must say, however, that I am not opposed to scientific conservatism. Indeed, it is necessary (although when faced with it myself I chafe and writhe and say bad words.) We forget that many cockeyed ideas that were resisted by the savants of the day - the Establishment is the pejorative term used - are often shown to have been - cockeyed. Every now and then a rare genius turns out to have had a good idea despite initial resistance to it. And subsequently, hordes of crackpots try to make capital out of this: Arrhenius was ridiculed, he was right; I am ridiculed, therefore, I, too, am right. A manifestly faulty syllogism, but one widely appealed to nevertheless."
Do crackpots really say that they're correct BECAUSE they are persecuted? Skeptics insist that they do. The skeptics are wrong. I'm a long-time crackpot myself, so I know better.


Since I've encountered the above error more than once, I begin to wonder whether the skeptical authors can even hear the crackpot complaints. Can they not even hear the various cautions against overly-scornful behavior issued by "the woo woos?" I certainly hope the skeptics aren't being consciously dishonest; that they aren't intentionally using False Attribution or Straw Man in order to steer attention away from any valid points their opponents may have. "Straw man" is a very common debating strategy used in politics to spread confusion and sway audiences. But occasionally I see scientific debaters use it by accident.

So, why do I think the 'skeptic' authors are fallacious? Let's look at the details. Their argument with the crackpots starts when, over and over again, particular skeptical researchers dismiss extraordinary claims without first inspecting the evidence. Sometimes they justify their refusal in various ways. Here are a few, some I've seen made as arguments, others as unspoken assumptions:

  • If a new theory or observation is obviously crazy or impossible, we should distrust the evidence which supports it. Evidence which contradicts well known theory is almost certainly wrong, and only VERY STRONG evidence should be accepted. After all, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
  • Hundreds of scientists hurl ridicule at this theory, and history shows that the conscensus opinion of a large group of scientists is invariably trustworthy.
  • Science only grows, it does not backtrack. Therefore if a new evidence suggests that modern science has made an extremely major and unnoticed mistake, and that massive backtracking is required, then that evidence is mistaken.
  • Modern science is nearly complete, there are no more gigantic scientific revolutions possible, so if a major new discovery was real, scientists would already know about it.
  • Inspecting the details of a crazy claim is distasteful, and it's a big waste of time. Crazy claims are always just what they seem, therefore in this case we can safely judge a book by its cover, with no need to read one bit of it.
Their targets respond vehemently to such arguments/assumptions, pointing out that history is full of important discoveries which caught science unawares. Numerous revolutionary discoveries forced scientists to reappraise well-explored fields, or even to found entirely new scientific fields. Nine steps forward, one step back. Yet these discoveries were often ridiculed by the experts at the time. For this reason, the "crackpots" reject the above four arguments and others like them. They insist that the scorn of large numbers of experts is not a trustworthy guide. They insist that their evidence be examined and not just rejected out of hand. They end up saying "After all, the experts laughed at the Wright Brothers too!" In response, the skeptics then quote Carl Sagan and assure everyone that, while They laughed at Galileo, They also laughed at Bozo the clown.

But wait a minute. In these sorts of crackpot-vs-skeptic discussions, I myself have said "but they laughed at Arrhenius..." yet my statement had nothing at all to do with Dr. Bohren's quote above. I was not saying that I'm right because I'm ridiculed! The skeptics are misinterpreting the response of the offbeat researchers. They hear this: "I am ridiculed, therefore I am correct!" But this interpretation is wrong. This was mis-heard. It is not what the unorthodox researchers are trying to say.

The Crackpots' mention of the Wrights, Arrhenius, Galileo, etc., was meant to address an entirely different point. Here it is:

Although the crazy ideas usually prove to be just that, every so often they do prove to be correct. They even occasionally prove to have immense value. They trigger scientific revolutions. Therefore "crazy" ideas must never be automatically dismissed out of hand without first inspecting their supporting evidence. And a sneering atttitude of belittlement is poison to any unbiased appraisal. If we ridicule crazy ideas without first giving them a fair hearing, we may exclude tons of dreck, but sooner or later we'll also ridicule the next Galileo.
It's a bad practice to use sneering and ridicule to crush dissenting ideas. It's a very bad idea to erect some near-insurmountable barriers against all seemingly irrational ideas, because doing so will discard the occasional Galileos and Arrheniuses along with the large hoards of crackpots. Or in other words, never ridicule things which you've never even bothered to investigate.

Some Skeptics would prefer that the apparent crackpots invariably prove to be just that: crackpots. But the reality is not so simple. If we fight too hard to eliminate the "weird" stuff, then we run the risk of suppressing the next Copernicus. I usually say it this way: There are diamonds hidden in the sewage. Those who make it their job to keep Science entirely and totally "clean" and uncontaminated by craziness will also become the newest generation of scoffing debunkers who fight to prevent the newest generation of disruptive, revolutionary advances.

The history of new ideas proves all this by example. Any inspection of science history will reveal a long list of genuine discoveries which were treated with extensive hostile prejudice. If skeptical people ignore such powerful examples presented by "the crackpots," and if they instead distort the historical examples and proclaim them to instead be a simple logical error, then it is the skeptics who make the logical error, not the crackpots. When a crackpot drags out the old "They Laughed at the Wright Brothers" argument, that person is not stating that ongoing ridicule proves crackpot ideas must be correct. Instead that person is simply saying this:

"You who make a policy of automatically rejecting 'crazy' ideas without first giving them a fair hearing, you would have joined the experts in 1905 who refused to view the Wright Flyer in action, and whose continuing public ridicule eventually forced the Wrights to abandon the USA and move to France."
And to the great shame of scientists everywhere, the charge often has merit.

"Theories have four stages of acceptance:
     i) this is worthless nonsense;
     ii) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
     iii) this is true but quite unimportant.
     iv) I always said so."
                  - J.B.S. Haldane, 1963

"All great truths began as blasphemies" - George Bernard Shaw

2. Crackpots' complaints of intellectual suppression are really just conspiracy theories!

I've encountered another common misinterpretation of 'They Laughed At The Wright Brothers.' This is from sci.physics FAQ. The "laughing" in this case is at Galileo...

sci.physics FAQ, section 1.7 (7/97)
People putting forward extraordinary claims often refer to Galileo as an example of a great genius being persecuted by the establishment for heretical theories. They claim that the scientific establishment is afraid of being proved wrong, and hence is trying to suppress the truth. This is a classic conspiracy theory. The Conspirators are all those scientists who have bothered to point out flaws in the claims put forward by the researchers.
Again, the Skeptics are making a large (and perhaps too convenient) misinterpretation. As before, things start out when "crackpots" claim to have made discoveries. Rather than carefully inspecting the evidence, instead the skeptics dismiss the unorthodox research out of hand. The crackpots object fiercely to such treatment. Then the skeptics ignore the complaints because they change them into invalid complaints called "conspiracy theories."

Yet suppression of dissenting opinion does not require any conspiracy.

Skeptics should do their opponents the courtesy of actually listening to their objections. When a crackpot complains that the entire scientific peer group is attempting to suppress his/her work, we should carefully examine the complaint. Does the researcher actually claim to be the target of an organized conspiracy? If not, then to state otherwise is indulging in a "straw man" argument. After all, dissenters in any group are often suppressed by majority opinion, and this sort of "intellectual suppression" has nothing to do with organized conspiracies.

Think about it. It makes sense that if a significant portion of individual scientists really are afraid of being proved massively wrong in a public spotlight, and if most scientists really do have emotional investment in a contemporary worldview... then a certain portion of the "scientific establishment" really will tend to indulge in irrational suppressive acts. We're only human. The history of science reveals that this has happened time and again (recall Galileo, Wright Bros., Plate Tectonics, Chandrasekar's black holes in 1930, jumping genes, Krebs cycle, etc.) Anyone who thinks these suppression events don't happen is simply ignorant of science history. See:

Ridiculed Geniuses

Suppression of dissenting voices doesn't imply the existence of secret conspiracies. Just as no conspiracy is needed to explain racist or sexist intolerance, no conspiracy is needed to explain intellectual suppression. All we require is that a collection of individual attackers have a common motivation. If the victims of genuine suppressive acts make complaints, then it would be a great injustice to dismiss their complaints as delusional paranoia. Analogy: if women complain about receiving lower salaries then men, should we dismiss them as delusional Conspiracy Theorists? And insist that low wages and workplace sexism requires a Grand Conspiracy?!!! Obviously not. As the old saying goes, you aren't paranoid if a group of people really is out to get you. And a group can be out to get you even when the group doesn't organize or conspire. In other words:


In addition, those who claim that suppression doesn't exist (by claiming it's really just conspiracy theories) have demonstrated their ignorance of the workings of science. After all, one main role of peer review is to suppress science! It's supposed to suppress the bad, incompetent, misguided science. Block it out. Prevent publication. Remove its funding. Intellectual suppression is built into modern science as a corrective feedback mechanism. It's hardly a "conspiracy." And peer review isn't the only way that misguided research is suppressed. It's also being suppressed whenever the scientific community simply ignores it, or when a few zealous scientists attack it actively. This sort of "suppression" is common and perfectly normal, and has nothing to do with conspiracy theories. Suppression becomes a very serious problem when the suppression itself proves misguided; when genuine revolutionary discoveries are rejected for publication and when the research grants are denied.

I see the above sci.physics FAQ entry as being dangerous. It promotes a view where anyone who complains of scientific suppression is nothing but a delusional paranoid. It's wrongly implying that intellectual bigotry cannot occur. It implies that all complaints of mistreatment are invalid by definition. It justifies the following common ploy of many skeptics: "ridicule first, and no need to ask questions later, since those who complain about our ridicule can be easily defeated via our accusations of delusional conspiracy-theorizing.

While it's true that large numbers of crackpots do exist, with many of these genuinely suffering from delusions of persecution, it's also true that suppression of minority opinions exists in science. In my opinion, Kuhnian revolutions or "paradigm shifts" are probably caused by this suppression. After all, scientists are human, and if we did not find older "paradigms" so useful, and cling to them so fiercely, then science might progress more smoothly and never require any periodic revolutions. Paradigm shifts are a "stick-and-slip" oscillation, and the "stick" part of the process involves suppression of minority opinion.

Also, sometimes scientific discoveries really do threaten powerful interests (e.g. when popular pesticides are shown to be harmful, etc.) In those cases, attempted suppression by money interests is very real.

There is also a less honorable example...

When human beings encounter ideas which threaten their fundamental worldviews, the typical response is to thoughtlessly and instantly crush the new ideas; to eliminate them. The searing discomfort engendered by encounters with new ideas is called "Cognitive Dissonance." The feeling is almost painful, and it's even more painful for scientists whose salaries or sometimes their very careers depend on correct mental models. When we feel this type of pain, the layman will take immediate steps to stop it. Researchers are not immune to this, although the historical evidence is so shameful that it is not widely acknowledged outside the fields of Science History/Sociology. Professional scientists who pursue unpopular research tend to encounter not only the expected passive disbelief and dismissal. They also suffer active suppression: ridicule, loss of funding (even loss of funding for their conventional work,) attempts to revoke honors, and myriad subtle attacks by colleagues, with the attacks often performed behind the scenes. In fact, one common attack is exactly the one above. It goes like this:

"Scientists never attack each other, so if you think colleagues are secretly trying to hurt your career, you must have mental problems and therefore need professional help."

And so, when someone complains about scientific suppression, we must never automatically dismiss them as conspiracy-theorists. Instead we should take an unbiased view of the evidence. Yes, in many cases we will find that the hated "suppressors" are simply the thoughtful skeptics who are debunking some pseudoscience beliefs. But in a few rare cases we'll find that the "suppressors" are scientists whose entire world would be turned upside-down by any evidence which supports the strange new ideas. These scientists are individually taking action to silence anyone who brings forth that evidence.

So, when someone says "They laughed at Galileo", we must take care not to automatically assume paranoia on their part. We should instead hear it as a plea to examine their evidence, just as Galileo pleaded with his contemporaries. Remember, it was not the religious authorities who ignored Galileo's evidence. Instead it was his fellow scientists who refused to actually come and look through that darned telescope!

3. Crackpots are really just saying that progress doesn't exist

Some skeptics often use a third straw-man argument to justify their refusal to inspect evidence. When a maverick researcher objects to being ridiculed, the skeptics respond with this 1989 quote from Isaac Asimov:
"When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
In other words, anyone who says "They Laughed at the Wright Brothers" couldn't possibly be pointing out the errors of skepticism. Instead they're really just saying that science is a disconnected series of upheavals, but with no real progress. After all, today's scientists are different than scientists of old. Today they're far too advanced to make such enormous blunders.

Oh, really?

It's very convenient that skeptics chose the roundness of the earth to illustrate how today's scientists are too advanced to make mistakes. Better they should learn the history of biology, where the examples are quite different. Transposable genes were ridiculed for decades before the fairly recent acceptance. Also the experts were blind to the symbiotic nature of mitochondria and chloroplasts until even more recently.

Yes, our knowledge of Earth's roundness is close to 100% complete. But is this really a good model for science as a whole? History contains other examples. The most famous even involves the surface of the Earth. If we understand the surface of Earth so well, why was Plate Tectonics ridiculed as crackpotism for thirty years until geologists finally started taking it seriously in the 1960s? The example of our understanding of Earth should tell us to take care before hurling ridicule, since the supposed experts might know far less about the world than they imagine.

Asimov's quote is possibly dangerous to the more creative of mainstream scientists. It subtly suggests that they must abandon revolutionary discoveries on the grounds that science is complete and has no room for such things anymore. It implies that the most important workings of the world are all discovered, so everyone should stop looking for enormous breakthroughs. But this is just plain nuts. Major discoveries in cosmology even today are forcing scientists to reexamine everything they thought they understood. Suppose something similar could occur with a fringe research topic, e.g. human minds and PSI phenomena. If "psychic powers" are ever proved valid, then such an event will be a stunning and unexpected breakthrough ...but it won't be unique. It will simply join the long list of other disruptive revolutions which deflate scientists' hubris and push their understanding of the world ahead far too suddenly for their own comfort.

One final note. Yes, they "laughed" at Galileo, but they DIDN'T laugh at Bozo the Clown, not really. Examine that quote most carefully, since it contains a subtle, dishonest twist. By "laughed" in the first instance, we mean "they used mockery to suppress a dissenting voice." By "laughed" in the second, we mean "they found Bozo funny." Changing definitions of words mid-stream? That's a trick right out of the political arena.

So it seems that even Asimov's quote about Bozo the Clown is yet another straw man argument: it attempts to hide the fact that the main topic of the quote is about defeating weird ideas with scornful guffaws and amused contempt. The second half of the quote makes no sense when compared to the first: there was no scorn or contempt directed at Bozo. The quote is dishonest. It is not about healthy laughter at all.


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