Posts Tagged “appeal to authority”

A UFO - It sort looks like an old style ceiling light fixtureAs though a divided, contentious Congress in a divided, contentious Washington has nothing better to do with its time than satisfy wingnuts, cranks and freaks, a University professor in Missouri thinks Congress should hold hearings looking into UFOs. AOL News reports on this demand (WebCite cached article):

Do you think the House or Senate will have any extra time to discuss UFOs? While it sometimes might seem as though our lawmakers are from outer space, this hasn’t stopped one college professor from urging Congress to take a serious look at unidentified flying objects.

Citing findings from a 12-year-old groundbreaking French UFO study, University of Missouri-Columbia psychologist and adjunct professor of peace studies Bill Wickersham has issued a call for congressional leaders to boldly go where their predecessors wouldn’t.

The report Wickersham cited is called COMETA, and it was released in 1999. Since then it’s proven a favorite “proof” of a US-government cover-up of extraterrestrial visits in the ufology community. Pretty much everyone else has ignored it as much-less-than-compelling “proof” of anything.

Ufonauts love to trot out that the committee that produced COMETA was made up of fairly eminent French engineers and former high-ranking military officers. While this sounds impressive, it unfortunately does not grant them any veracity; to assume it does, is to stumble on the fallacy of the appeal to authority. That COMETA could not explain some 5% of UFO reports collected by the French government, does not mean that they can only be explained by extraterrestrials. That in itself is another fallacy, the argument from incredulity, aka “the divine fallacy” (since the agent called upon to explain any given mystery is often God). In addition, the assumption that there must be one — and only one! — explanation for those mysterious 5% of UFO reports, is itself invalid. In fact, we have no way to know how many explanations there may be for them! It’s possible there are 2 different explanations for them, or 20, or even that each and every one has its own, unique explanation. That the folks who drafted COMETA could not think of any, is — quite frankly — unimpressive. And it hardly proves anything.

Photo credit: dimland.

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Smallpox vaccineStrangely, after the antivax movement has been demonstrated to be pseudomedicine, and after a number of outlets have formally retracted their prior involvement in it, CBS News has decided to weigh in on the putative link between childhood vaccinations and autism, and has gone over to the side of the quacks, cranks, pseudoscientists and sanctimonious mommies (WebCite cached article):

For all those who’ve declared the autism-vaccine debate over – a new scientific review begs to differ. It considers a host of peer-reviewed, published theories that show possible connections between vaccines and autism.

The article in the Journal of Immunotoxicology is entitled “Theoretical aspects of autism: Causes–A review.”

CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson, this article’s author, uses a fallacious appeal to authority in order to grant this study greater weight and credibility:

The author is Helen Ratajczak, surprisingly herself a former senior scientist at a pharmaceutical firm.

Here, Atkisson implies that, since the author worked for a pharma company — thus, one would she’d support the use of vaccines — then if she’s decided otherwise, why, the evidence must be incredibly compelling, no? Unfortunately that’s not how these things work.

Attkisson further implies that no one has been scientifically reviewing the supposed link between vaccines and autism (“Ratajczak did what nobody else apparently has bothered to do …”) but that is absolutely not true. Of course other people have reviewed the matter! Atkisson also mischaracterizes the study as Ratajczak’s own original work, but it’s not … it’s merely her review of other people’s studies. (That, of course, does not in itself invalidate what she says, but it does mean that Atkisson is making the study seem to be something other than it truly is.)

Another way Atkisson tried to grant greater authority to this study, is by implying that the CDC … which has consistently said there is no connection between vaccines and autism … was stunned speechless by it:

We wanted to see if the CDC wished to challenge Ratajczak’s review, since many government officials and scientists have implied that theories linking vaccines to autism have been disproven, and Ratajczak states that research shows otherwise. CDC officials told us that “comprehensive review by CDC…would take quite a bit of time.”

All in all, I must give CBS News and Sharyl Attkisson credit. They certainly crafted a marvelous piece of yellow journalism. They must be so proud!

Hat tip: Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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It’s December 1, and already I’m up to 4 postings in the 2009 edition of the annual “war on Christmas” theme. This time, what’s in question is a “Merry Christmas” sign on a firehouse in North Andover, MA. WHDH-7 News out of Boston, tells the story:

Town officials in North Andover have put an end to some long-time holiday traditions causing some controversy among many local groups.

Some say it is sign of the times, but others are accusing the town of acting like Scrooge.

There used to be a Merry Christmas sign hanging on the North Andover Fire Department, but town officials told the firefighters to take it down ending the decades-long holiday custom.

The story of how this decades-long tradition came to an end, is a familiar one which has played out elsewhere, and usually with the same irrational results:

The controversy started when town selectmen told a local rabbi place he could not put a menorah on North Andover Town Common for all eight days of Hanukkah.

The town’s policy only allows displays to stay on the common for one day.

I say this is “irrational” because — well — it is! The town could easily have modified its “policy,” put the menorah up for the holiday and left the “Merry Christmas” in place … but no, that never occurred to them. Instead they chose to stir up the hornets’ nest of the annual “Christmas wars” by putting the kibosh on all such displays.

That said, I note that the only defense for this sign on the firehouse, is “tradition”:

“It’s just a part of the tradition,” said Chief William Martineau, of the North Andover Fire Department. “We have put that up there for many, many years. It has to be close to 40, 50 years.”

Sorry, but that something is “traditional” or has been done for “many, many years,” does not make it right. It was, for example, “traditional” — for thousands of years! — to believe the earth was at the center of the universe. Despite literally ages of “tradition” that told humanity this, we have found out that it’s not true. Appeals to tradition are fallacious.

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This morning I happened to hear a local radio show (on WTIC 1080) by a guy named Jim Vicevich. He’s Hartford’s local version of Glenn Beck … a sanctimonious windbag full of self-righteous bellicosity. Like Beck, his act is a cross between Howard Beale (of Network fame) and a street preacher. Only he leans a little more in the direction of street preacher, because he has a lot of overtly-religious guests (e.g. folks who work for anti-abortion religious ministries, who as one would expect frequently sprinkle their on-air speeches with “praise Gods”), and he discusses the religious aspects of issues like abortion, more than most other Rightist pundits. He also actively solicits on behalf of religious groups, for instance in one of his blog postings.

At any rate, today he pontificated on how an apparent Planned Parenthood defector somehow “proves” that abortion is bad. Unfortunately, in doing so, Vicevich falls into the old rhetorical trap of an irrelevant appeal to authority (which is a fallacy in every sense of the word). Here’s his blog entry on the matter:

This is why we need this ultrasound so badly here in Connecticut.

Planned Parenthood has been a part of Abby Johnson’s life for the past eight years; that is until last month, when Abby resigned. Johnson said she realized she wanted to leave, after watching an ultrasound of an abortion procedure [emphasis in this quotation by Vicevich, is his own].

For Vicevich, looking at ultrasounds “proves” something. Unfortunately this is an illogical assumption. What looking at ultrasounds does, is not to “prove” anything in an objective way. Rather, it simply confirms — in a merely-emotional way — his own personal preconceptions.

One may wonder why having been a Planned Parenthood worker is “irrelevant” to the matter of abortion … because it certainly would appear that it’s relevant. But that’s all it is — an appearance only. What makes this an “irrelevant” appeal to authority, is that that having worked at Planned Parenthood does not grant Ms Johnson, or any other former Planned Parenthood worker, any real authority on whether abortion is right or wrong. Moral and ethical questions such as that are metaphysical in nature, and there is no such thing as a credential to decide metaphysics, because there is no final authority on the subject; no objective certification in that field; and no way to verify anything metaphysical. One may believe that a person carries such authority — for instance, Roman Catholics believe the Pope has the authority to make theological and doctrinal decisions (which are, by their very nature, all metaphysical) — but in the end, there are no objective credentials to back up these beliefs. (If there were, there would not — for example — be so many Christian denominations that refuse papal authority.)

Really, Ms Johnson’s belief that abortion is “bad,” is no more valid or relevant an authority on the subject than anyone else’s. Her belief, in the end, is nothing more than a subjective value judgement that she has made for herself. That’s all.

I’m sure Mr Vicevich, who once had a stellar career as a local TV business reporter before he turned into a raging Religious Rightist … is educated enough to know his claims are fallacious. That’s what makes him such a sad case, and an example of why (as the United Negro College Fund has often said), “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

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