Alternative Facts. Pseudoscience. Hocus Pocus. Mumbo Jumbo.
These are wonderful little phrases that are regularly employed by those claiming to represent ‘Science’, ‘Rationality’ and ‘The Truth’.
In actual fact, they are the linguistic equivalent of an ad hominem argument. In case you didn’t know, that is when you say that something someone says is wrong because of who or what they are.
For example, someone might say, “Donald Trump is wrong about x,y, and z because he is a nincompoop.”. Now, the truth of the matter is that, while Trump may be a nincompoop, that is a completely separate issue to whether what he is saying about x,y and z is correct, or not.
Admittedly, we all have to make ad hominem judgements in our day to day lives, and the danger of becoming too reliant on our preconceptions is warned against by our ever-reliable folk memory.
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. We all know that. Although we have to make judgement calls, often with limited information.
Yes, sometimes the book looks crap and sure it enough it is crap, but we should always keep in mind that we may be wrong about someone or something, and that we cannot always discount what someone says just because they are a “insert pejorative”. The pejorative judgement (Trump is a nincompoop), can only ever be a subjective judgement. There is no scientific test for nincompomposity, and even if there was, we do not have any scientific test that is 100% accurate and never will. Science doesn’t work that way.
So, in the lofty but essential realm of logical argument, there is no pejorative term that is not totally unscientific, irrational and philosophically indefensible, although we might like to joke that there is. Not only can we not test for nincompomposity, we cannot test exactly how that might affect someone’s ability to state or know ‘The Truth’.
The same applies when using the above terms, which masquerade as philosophically defensible words only because they are so regularly spouted by those who claim to know the actual truth, those who pretend that their qualifications or experience have somehow rendered them infallible on certain subjects.
You will often hear the self-proclaimed Sceptic humbly say, “Well, I’m not an ‘x’, but I am a qualified ‘y’, on this-that-or-the-other, with so much experience that I really do know this etc”, as if admitting that they don’t know some things somehow gives them infallibility on other things. It doesn’t, btw.
With terms like, ‘pseudoscience’, or ‘mumbo jumbo’ the ‘Sceptic’ infers that the only reason that they are not explaining the matter further is because you wouldn’t understand, or perhaps more importantly, you wouldn’t have a convenient little buzzword to pass along to your little ignorant friends so that they too will know the incredible truth that the ‘Sceptic’ has discovered but cannot be arsed to actually prove or explain.
‘Alternative facts’ and ‘Fake News’ are the latest in a line of pejorative terms which refer not to the person who is making the argument, but to the argument itself. With both sides now bandying these terms in abundance we find ourselves is something of a quandary. How are we supposed to know anything?
I think maybe humanity is moving towards a great revelation. Have you seen the movie Labyrinth? Of course you have. David Bowie’s in it. Has the great man left us a clue to help solve our current woes in this movie? Perhaps.
At one point in the film, our heroine is attempting to gain access to a certain door in the mystical realm of the Goblin King, wherein she hopes to find her baby brother whom she has promised to the Goblin King but changed her mind about.
Two outlandish guards are blocking her way through two doors. They assure her that one of the doors will lead her to the castle at the centre of the Labyrinth, and the other will lead to certain death. However, she can only ask one of them one question about which door is which. This beautiful little riddle is much older than the film, goodness knows how old. It reminds me of electrical circuits and logic gates.
The only way to get these guys to give you an answer you can be sure of is to employ them in series. Asking a question that involves both parties will employ both logic gates. So our heroine says “What would the other guy say if I asked him which was the door to the castle?”. Whichever door he answers, you must use the other one.
If you happen to ask the truth teller, he will tell you, truthfully, the lie that the other one would gleefully tell you. If you ask the liar, he will gleefully lie about the truthful answer the other one would’ve given you. The net result is the same. The question employs both parties. What you must remember, though, is that inevitably the answer you get must then be reversed in order to render it true again. She asks which is the door to the castle, and goes through the other door.
If you asked what the other guy would say if asked which was the door to certain death, the truthful one would ruefully pass on the lie the other one would’ve said. You know the answer will be wrong, so you go through whichever door they tell you leads to doom, you know that together they will always give you the lie.
How you use this information presented here is up to you. I would tentatively hypothesise that there may be some merit in utilising this process to evaluate anything that has been labelled with one of these pejorative terms, like “Fake News”, “Alternative Facts” and “Pseudoscience”. One of my favourite examples is Himalayan lamps. There are a multitude of benefits to have these in your house and yet these benefits are dismissed as pseudoscience. But incidentally, if you want to find out more about these lamps I suggest you check out Himalayan Salt Lamp Boutique where you can buy salt lamps.
We have an advantage over the girl in the Labyrinth, we get to ask as many questions as we like, but the key point here is to involve both parties, those presenting either side of the argument. What do they say about each other? How do they claim the other would behave?
Remember there is no impartiality here, although any number of people may claim it. Everyone has an agenda. Beware most of all those pretending to have no agenda, particularly news sources. The money to fund ‘news’ organisations does not grow on trees.
The people presenting the ‘news’ may not realise that they are pushing a certain line, that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that whoever is funding the organisation most likely does have a certain agenda. The first and most important being ‘getting you to consume/buy/engage with whatever they are putting out’.
It is perhaps time to realise that there is no other kind of news but ‘fake news‘. No one has the whole picture, or the ability to present it. Mistakes are made in good faith, and lies are told faithlessly. It can be a little frightening to realise how much we truly do not know, but in the present climate of fear and scaremongering, I think it can be quite liberating to realise that no one really knows anything.
Of course, you may find yourself having to make your own judgement calls, or coming up with your own ‘best guess’, but hey, that’s life kiddo. Just remember that you are guessing and you’ll be just fine. So is everyone else. 🙂
NB: I have just looked it up, and I think we have a combination of the ‘fallacy fallacy’ here, and ‘ambiguity’, according to www.yourlogicalfallacyis.com.