2020-04-14

Logical Fallacies of Historians: “If It Fits — Be Careful!”

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by Neil Godfrey

If your theory explains the evidence does that mean it is probably correct? If “everything fits”, is your theory therefore surely right?

There’s a problem with that way of thinking and it is taken head-on by Paul Newall in a chapter titled “Logical Fallacies of Historians” in Tucker and Kane’s A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography.

if my rain dance worked then it should be raining; it is raining; therefore, my rain dance worked.

Affirming the consequent is a formal fallacy occurring when one or more potential premises are omitted from an argument. For example, “if my rain dance worked then it should be raining; it is raining; therefore, my rain dance worked.” Here other possible causes of the rainfall are left out and the argument fails. Affirming the consequent has the general form:

P1: If A then B;

P2: B;

C: Therefore, A.

(Newall, 263)

Some of you may know of a 1970 “classic” by David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Newall acknowledges the strength of Fischer’s work but in a single chapter is addressing what he sees as the most common and unfortunately enduring fallacies among historians.

So how can one guard against being overcome by this fallacy? Newall continues:

However, we can add missing premises to show the error:

P1a: If C then B;

P1b: If D then B;

. . . and so on. For an argument of this form to not be fallacious, we would need an additional premise stating that A is the only possible cause of B. (Note that affirming the antecedent (or modus ponens) is not fallacious; that is, arguing “if A then B; A; therefore, B.”)

This fallacy is of considerable importance to historiography

This fallacy is of considerable importance to historiography because it often forms the basis of models of confirmation and shows why a more sophisticated philosophical apparatus is required. A typical statement might be: “if our model/explanation of x [some event, say] is correct, we would expect to find y [some evidence, records or traces, for instance], as indeed we do.” Thus an account of some historical episode predicts that certain evidence of it will be found, and when this happens the account is confirmed or demonstrated to be correct. However, in this form the account is straightforwardly fallacious as an example of affirming the consequent.

if Einstein were an extraterrestrial of superior intelligence, he should have made incredible intellectual achievements

For example, if Einstein were an extraterrestrial of superior intelligence, he should have made incredible intellectual achievements. He did, and therefore he was an extraterrestrial. We can attempt to undercut this objection by arguing that actually the evidence only makes the account more likely, but this requires further elaboration before it becomes philosophically tenable, for example by comparing different hypotheses with different prior probabilities (see Tucker 2004, for an example of a Bayesian approach that avoids this difficulty).

Bayes? Yes, historians use Bayes.

I’ve been trying to think through some other examples. Here are a few. Two political ones to start followed by some biblical ones, including some mythicist examples.

Trump Derangement Syndrome

P1: If people have a Trump Derangement Syndrome then they will criticize Trump

P2: people criticize Trump

C: therefore those critics have TDS

CCP conspiracy

P1: If the Chinese Communist Party conspired to mislead the world on the coronavirus impact then the figures they released would contain anomalies

P2: The figures released by the CCP have contained anomalies

C: therefore the CCP has conspired to mislead the world on the coronavirus impact

Archaeology proves the Bible

P1: If the historical narratives in the Bible are basically true then we should find archaeological evidence pertaining to those events and persons;

P2: we find archaeological evidence pertaining to biblical accounts,

C: therefore the historical narratives in the Bible are basically true

Prophecy proves the Bible

P1: If bible prophecies were true, then we would see the events they predicted happened;

P2: we see the events prophesied did happen,

C: so the prophecies were true.

Historical evidence for the historical Jesus

P1: If Jesus existed then we would expect to find mention of him in ancient historians

P2: we find mentions of Jesus in works of ancient historians

C: therefore Jesus existed

Biblical evidence for the historical Jesus

P1: If a historical Jesus had a brother who held a leadership position in the early church then we would find some indication of that in the early documents

P2: we find a statement in Galatians that Paul met Jesus’ brother

C: therefore a historical Jesus had a brother.

Historical proof for the historical Jesus

P1: If Jesus were a most astonishingly extraordinary historical person who challenged Jewish traditions then we should see devotion to him even at the expense of Jewish traditions

P2: we see worship of him even at the expense of Jewish traditions

C: therefore Jesus was a most astonishingly extraordinary historical person . . . .

Criterion of embarrassment

P1: If the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus were embarrassing events but very well known and unable to be denied then they would be described in some form in the earliest records

P2: The baptism and crucifixion of Jesus are described in the earliest records

C: therefore the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus were embarrassing events but very well known and unable to be denied

A mythicist fallacy

P1: If Jesus were a myth then we would find the gospels full of myths

P2: the gospels are full of mythical tales

C: therefore Jesus is a myth

Astrotheology

P1: If Christianity originated as a form of astral worship then we would be able to discern astral allusions and motifs in the gospels

P2: we can see astral allusions and motifs in the gospels

C: therefore Christianity originated as a form of astral worship

.

Others? Feel free to add some. My brain needs a break.

.


Newall, Paul. “Logical Fallacies of Historians.” A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, edited by Aviezer Tucker and Mary Kane, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 262–73.


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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Logical Fallacies of Historians: “If It Fits — Be Careful!””

  1. Almost everyone except mythicists
    P1: If Mark got the story of the human Jesus from his disciple Peter, then we would expect to find Peter in almost every scene of the Gospel of Mark.
    P2: We find Peter in almost every scene of the Gospel of Mark.
    C: Therefore, Mark got the story of the human Jesus from his disciple Peter.

  2. Hi Neil and thanks for the insights. I think what you are referring to are the logical relations of equivalence, implication, indifference, contradiction, contrariety and subcontrariety. These form the basis of formal logic used by philosophers to debate, argue and furnish or refute proof. These fallacies can arise from biases, limitations in knowledge, mistake and fraud.
    .
    For example just because The Caesar’s Messiah theory (i.e. Joseph Atwill’s), which I consider the best explanation for some facets of the origins of Christianity, fits my world view, that does not prove it. Rather it merely adds credibility, but only to the point where you can show me actual historical errors. I find it interesting when you bring psychology into your treatment. Human nature is the cook in charge of the meal.
    .
    I remember when I was first born again, how you could have put me before a panel of the best psychiatrists and I would have sworn allegiance to my faith to the death – that God exists and I know him personally. My father once offered to do that and I said “Bring it on !”.

    1. In my undergraduate years a fellow student friend told me that he had discovered studying philosophy was a great way to become “really cluey” about how to think clearly. There are many courses I wish I had taken, philosophy is one of them.

  3. The thing with “crying wolf” is no one believes you when it turns out true.

    I’ve lost count of the things held up against the President that have turned out to be bollocks – and I’ve been saying since before he was elected folk should cut it out. If folk would’ve just stopped making shit up, taking things out of context, and deliberately misinterpreting the man there would have been a good chance he would be gone by now, or at least there would be no talk of “Four More Years” and “Keep America Great”.

    Instead the things that might be genuine get lost in the noise and he is on-course for landslide re-election. As the man likes to say; “Sad”.

    1. My experience has been that those who say Trump has been misrepresented have not looked seriously at the arguments. They have instead focused on some genuine misdirections and bad priorities of the Democrats (so many are part and parcel of the neoliberal elite set, after all) and used those as an excuse to not look at the real stuff.

      I am preparing a new post about this inability of the two sides to even talk together about a common piece of evidence.

      1. When fact-checking the President I go to C-SPAN, the official White House release, his Twitter feed. I listen to or read what HE, HIMSELF has said, tweeted, or written without anyones’ filtering. Exactly as I do with the New Testament, the same methodology. I don’t care what the argument is; I don’t care if a particular thing violates a person’s weltanschauung: if the primary source media doesn’t support the reasoning, or supports a simpler meaning without the extra contortions of the reasoning, I’m going to give that argument the finger. Whether that argument originates from “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour” or “Orange Man Bad”; I’m not interested.

          1. I’m not particularly interestesed in secondary and tertiary sources when I have primary sources to hand I can interrogate. I can read for myself that ignorant Archons killed Christ. I can read for myself that Paul’s Jesus came by his name after his ascension. If a person has a pretzel argument otherwise I’ll just have them crack open their particular rescension of scripture and read it back to me. Collapse of stout party. “I read it in the papers” or “I heard it on the news” aren’t actually arguments that can stand on their own.

            You have been banging on about historians fallacies for some weeks now (Again!), pointing out that if there are no tombs dateable to the first decades of the first century in the environs of Nazareth according to archaeology and our primary source material we can discount the Gospel tales of such. I go to the President’s actual words or written statements and say we have reason to doubt the received narrative and I’m the lowest piece of filth?

            “I suspect they knew what the President was talking about” isn’t a statement of certainty, neither is it the same or remotely similar to “therefore Trump was talking sense about X”. It is a reasonable conclusion to draw from the behaviour of another journalist at the same press briefing who went out of his way for some minutes in an attempt to twist the President’s words into something they were not. The dog didn’t bark; it is reasonable to say that dog probably won’t hunt.

            I don’t take kindly to folk making me out to be disingenuous and a liar (Anonymously as well! Such courage). Cut. It. Out.

            1. “I read it in the papers” or “I heard it on the news” aren’t actually arguments that can stand on their own.

              Obviously. I miss the relevance of this point, sorry.

              You have been banging on about historians fallacies for some weeks now (Again!),

              This is the second post on logical fallacies of historians. I am addressing a handful, one post at a time, from Newall’s chapter.

              pointing out that if there are no tombs dateable to the first decades of the first century in the environs of Nazareth according to archaeology and our primary source material we can discount the Gospel tales of such.

              This is ironic. You are talking about “reading the primary evidence” and not adding to it. Have you actually read my posts on Nazareth? I am addressing one specific criticism that I believe to have been made with malicious and dishonest intent and hopefully demonstrating the accuracy and honesty of Salm’s treatment of Kuhnen’s work. Yet here you are adding a whole different purpose and intent to what I wrote, an intent and purpose you won’t find in the “primary source” of my post itself.

              I go to the President’s actual words or written statements and say we have reason to doubt the received narrative and I’m the lowest piece of filth?

              What on earth are you talking about? “lowest piece of filth”? sorry, that’ not how I think of people. What sort of person do you take me for?

              “I suspect they knew what the President was talking about” isn’t a statement of certainty, neither is it the same or remotely similar to “therefore Trump was talking sense about X”. It is a reasonable conclusion to draw from the behaviour of another journalist at the same press briefing who went out of his way for some minutes in an attempt to twist the President’s words into something they were not. The dog didn’t bark; it is reasonable to say that dog probably won’t hunt.

              Yes, it is a reasonable conclusion. But my point is that it is not the only reasonable conclusion. Further data needs to be called in to decide between a range of reasonable conclusions. It is not valid to dogmatically state that one reasonable conclusion is “the correct” conclusion without direct evidence (not mere “inferences”).

              I don’t take kindly to folk making me out to be disingenuous and a liar (Anonymously as well! Such courage). Cut. It. Out.

              I have never called you a liar. I trust you don’t think everyone who disagrees with you is calling you a liar. Disengenuous? I don’t know where that comes from either. Anonymously? My real name is Neil Godfrey. Nothing anonymous about me at all.

              1. Here’s another one. It comes from this comment:

                Given that none of the reporters there got their knickers in a twist about it, I suspect they knew what the President was talking about

                P1: If Trump were talking sense about X then reporters would not pull him up on X
                P2: Reporters did not pull him up on X
                C: therefore Trump was talking sense about X

                Sure you are not making me out to be a liar and sure you aren’t doing it without naming me i.e. anonymously. Your point is it is not the only reasonable conclusion? That is not the drift of your OP “The Dumbing of America”; there there is one interpretation and one interpretation alone that you are running with. It is actually MY point that yours is not the only conclusion. There is ambiguity in the President’s phraseology and he speaks New York, not English, to begin with and this is why I use “thought”, “seems”, “more likely”, and other language of probability in rebutting your interpretation.

                It’s okay for you and me, but not the President? He is just a fallible human being like the both of us; a man doing his best in unforeseen circumstances. I’m referring both to the current crisis and that he was elected on the first place. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and other sources make it pretty clear that Donald Trump was as suprised/shocked as the rest of us that he was elected President. He wasn’t elected because he was another career politician who could give the APPEARANCE of Presidential; he was elected because he WAS’NT some Inside-the-Beltway apparatchik clone who would give America “Four More Years” of the same BS the electorate had rumbled quite a while ago. They don’t expect perfect; they expect someone who represents THEM. Not the MSM; not the “Woke”; not the Alphabetty Spaghetti; not the Annointed; or any other ragbag that doesn’t amount to a plurality let alone a majority.

                Is this your concern or mine? No. We don’t have a vote in US elections; but the worm seems to have turned the world over. Everywhere else you can argue you vote stayed home and use that as excuse. Not in Oz. You have a distinctly underwhelming administration re-elected largely because the opposition was too busy virtue signalling, being sanctimonious, and representing anyones opinions but the vast majority of the public’s. Would you write a piece entitled “The Dumbing of Australia”? Maybe you would, but the chances are a lot higher you’d get thumped the next time you went down the pub.

                I AGREE with your articles about historian’s and other’s fallacies, I’m not alleging any different purpose or intent. What I am trying to do is make the point that you have to be consistent. You can’t reason one way on one topic and reason the opposite way on another. Which is what you are doing in this case. These aren’t different walled gardens where different rules apply. Richard Carrier makes the point that weak arguments don’t effect priors one way or the other but humans are wired to think otherwise. You may have all-but-unassailable strong arguments for a thing, but if they are nested amongst weak arguments we will judge those weak arguments destructive of your case. Your behaviour is similarly destructive. You recognise NT/Biblical Studies consensus rests on assumptions, circularities, and just plain declamations of “facts” unexamined and don’t recognise you reliance on the same elsewhere. You poison your own well.

                I read this blog because your main topic interests me; you epitomise works I haven’t read and in a lot of, if not most, cases won’t ever have access to; and you handily synthesise material. You appear to be doing what it says on the tin. I don’t know that you actually are because I don’t have, and probably won’t have the material to hand. “The Dumbing of America” introduces doubt into that equation: the material used to craft the post comes from sources I haven’t trusted since about 2013. 9 times out of 10 if I chase down anything from them it turns out to be manipulated or flat-out lied about. I don’t read them anymore: I was spending too much time checking the spoons and it wasn’t doing my blood pressure any good. I don’t want to be doing that here.

                Is that any clearer? If not, there is not a lot I can do about it. The source material ALWAYS trumps. I can open the New Testament or I can watch C-SPAN. The Forecast says it’s raining? I can put my hand out the window and say “No it isn’t”. Yours is the better interpretation? You have to show that, you cannot just say it is so.

  4. Here’s another one. It comes from this comment:

    Given that none of the reporters there got their knickers in a twist about it, I suspect they knew what the President was talking about

    P1: If Trump were talking sense about X then reporters would not pull him up on X
    P2: Reporters did not pull him up on X
    C: therefore Trump was talking sense about X

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