New Age Book Offers “Raw Logic” to Dismiss Skeptics
January 23, 2009
In his 1748 essay “Of Miracles,” philosopher David Hume advised, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” That is, how certain we are about something we’re told should be directly correlated with how good the evidence is for that claim.
That is not only a basic premise of skepticism, but is also common sense. Yet when this self-evident principle is applied to paranormal topics, some people dismiss it out of hand. For example, in a new New Age book called "Amazing Grace: The Nine Principles of Living in Natural Magic," by David Wolfe and Nick Goode, the authors try to dismiss skepticism with the following argument: “The mere idea that every single ghost experience, Bigfoot sighting, UFO encounter, alien abduction, psychic occurrence of any kind, Loch Ness monster viewing, conspiracy theory, etc., is the product of a neurosis or hallucination is patently and completely ridiculous. The burden of proof is clearly on the doubter. The doubter must prove that every single paranormal experience out of thousands or even millions of such encounters in each category is a phony. That is impossible….If even one ghost story is true, then ghosts exist. If even one person can see into the future, then seeing into the future is possible. This is ‘Raw Logic’ and it instantly deconstructs and eliminates any fog of confusion surrounding paranormal phenomenon” (page 8-9).
There’s a lot fuzzy thinking and bad logic packed into this paragraph. First, the authors use a logical fallacy called the “straw man argument” when they suggest that skeptics (“doubters”) claim that every single paranormal experience “is the product of a neurosis or hallucination.” Of course such a suggestion is patently ridiculous; I don’t know of a single skeptic who claims that all such experiences are neuroses or hallucinations.
They also commit another logical error, a false-choice fallacy, when they claim that either 1) all reports of the paranormal are the products of neuroses or hallucinations; or 2) the phenomenon is “true” and actually occurred as claimed. In fact, there’s a third choice that Wolfe and Goode ignore, and it’s the correct one: most “unexplained phenomena” are the product of simple misunderstandings, misperceptions, or errors in memory.
The authors then claim that the burden of proof is on the doubter, as if it’s the skeptic’s job to somehow disprove a given paranormal claim. This is a common defense among those who are asked for evidence of their extraordinary claims, but that’s not how science works. That’s not how courts of law work (the burden of proof is not on the defendant to prove he is innocent, it is up to the court—the entity making the claim of guilt—to prove he is guilty). According to Wolfe and Goode, if a friend tells you that she has a tiny, fire-breathing dragon living in her purse, you should assume that whatever you’re being told is absolutely true, and the burden of proof is on you to disprove it!
That’s not “Raw Logic,” that’s Ill Logic. The authors are correct that if even one lake monster or ghost sighting is true (i.e., the person actually saw something unexplainable), then lake monsters and ghosts exist. But this is an obvious truism, circular logic offered up as profound insight that somehow dismisses or “deconstructs” any skeptical arguments. It does nothing of the sort, and if there is a “fog of confusion” surrounding paranormal phenomena, it is caused by fuzzy thinking, bad logic, and a lack of critical thinking. Sadly, it’s all too common.
#1 Jeff P (Guest) on Friday January 23, 2009 at 1:24pm
This is one good article. Thanks for making some excellent points.
This same “raw logic” seems to be prevalent within the members of the Texas Board of Education. But I think they take it one step further: “Lying for Jesus.”
#2 Kevin (Guest) on Friday January 23, 2009 at 1:54pm
I wouldn’t say that’s an actual strawman. I’m more given to thinking the authors just have a very, very deep misunderstanding of the skeptical position. You see the same thing among fundamentalist Christians when dealing with atheists or unfamiliar minority religions. I’d be willing to bet that if the authors of that book read this discussion, they’d say something like, “See, he says he doesn’t believe that all paranormal experiences are neuroses and hallucinations, but then he says, ‘most “unexplained phenomena” are the product of simple misunderstandings, misperceptions, or errors in memory’! He admits it!” I mean, it doesn’t really improve their position to say this about them. It just makes them more ignorant than illogical (or, more accurately, a bit of both).
It’s interesting to think about how far off course someone has veered when they invoke an argument like this. These people are expressing the same sort of indignance a biologist might have upon confronting someone who refuses to accept evolutionary theory. To them, we’re all ignoring a “mountain of evidence”; but of what sort? For these people, the ‘evidence’ is merely the numerous reports, regardless of the explanations, the claims made, and the state of the claimant. The reasoning originates in the thought, “Well, if *all these people* are saying this, then there *must* be something to it.”
With Christianity, one can at least remind the misguided person that millions of Hindus, religious Jews, Muslims, etc. might use that same reasoning and come to the same conclusion with respect to their religion. It doesn’t necessarily mean the Christian is wrong, but it casts serious doubt on how persuasive that reasoning ought to be. When this reasoning is applied to something as broad as supernaturalism itself, however, something altogether more murky and disorienting happens. Now, this argument no longer holds, and we have to try other methods to convince them. Can you discredit their evidence? Probably not to their satisfaction (which is arbitrarily steep). Occam’s Razor? All True Believers reject the principle, whether they admit it or not (at least with respect to their True Beliefs). What, then, are we to do?
#3 Vadjong on Saturday January 24, 2009 at 6:41am
This is sooo typical of my strawman supernaturalists:
First decry your illconceived version of the scientific method and then use the very same faulty reasoning in your own arguments.
Projectile apeshytt happens every time.
#4 NMTony on Tuesday January 27, 2009 at 4:17pm
A great book that deals with this sort of thing is Thomas Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think. This notion that anecdotes equal evidence is quite a common theme among the paranormalists. Unfortunately with many of this ilk, their minds have been made and we skeptics are the close-minded ignoramuses. We are part of the conspiracy to hide the “truth.” So to these fellows their arguments, I’m sure, appear logical and logical fallacies are a mere annoyances to be swatted at and ignored. I’ve had the greatest success with those who are on the fence waiting to titter one way or the other. It seems that once sound logical evidence and critical thinking skills have been planted in the fence-sitting mind, it is difficult to uproot and the individual often becomes firmly established on our side of the fence. Of course, that just my anecdotal experience.