2020-05-01

Logical Fallacies of Historians — Appeal to “Just Knowing”

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m sidestepping Fischer and Newall for a moment to focus on one instance of a fallacy that both of them seem to have overlooked. It as one type of an “appeal to authority”.

[M]ost people do not have a sufficient background in the subject to properly evaluate the evidence. Anti-Stratfordians [those questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays] tend to be amateurs who have not read enough on Elizabethan theatre to see just how wildly implausible their ideas are. Let me give you an analogy. I can recognise the difference between a Yorkshire and Lancashire accent without very much trouble because I am English. I would never mistake an Irishman for a Scotsman. On the other hand, when I was living in New Jersey, I was frequently assumed to be Irish and had no idea that Californians sound different to Texans. Distinguishing accents isn’t something you tend to be taught. Rather you learn it by experience and by being immersed in a particular culture. It’s the same with history. If you have been studying a period for long enough, ideas like the anti-Stratfordians’ are as obviously incongruous as a baseball bat on a cricket pitch. (Hannam, xii)

The Latin label of that fallacy of appealing to authority is argumentum ad verecundiam. Verecundiam means shame or modesty; the idea being that an appeal to authority is an acknowledgement that the one making the argument lacks the expertise but modestly defers to another who is an expert. There is nothing modest about the above appeal, however. Yet it does demand modesty on the part of anyone who disagrees.

I found the following online explanation the most apt description where it is called Appeal to Confidence:

The arguer supports a position by appealing to himself as knowledgeable or trustworthy on the given subject, while at the same time declining to explain the actual reasons for a position. . . . 

The argument appeals to confidence-building phrases, such as “trust me,” or “take it from me,” or makes an explicit claim to authority, such as “I know what I’m talking about.” 

The historian who wrote that passage claiming that a historian “just knows” by being immersed in the field what is a valid argument and what is not is James Hannam (also author of God’s Philosophers). The difference between a valid and invalid idea cannot always be taught? That’s what he is saying there and it is perhaps relevant that he is not speaking of those who question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays but whether Jesus existed or not. The passage is from James Patrick Holding’s Shattering the Christ Myth. Hannam is the only professional historian contributing to that volume.

Hannam speaks of “experience” and “immersion in a particular culture”. That is indeed the critical factor. It is that sort of background that makes unquestioned assumptions so hard to identify and pull out for serious examination.

As for “cultural immersion” being a solid basis for identifying an anomalous argument, Hannam is clearly unaware of a growing number of biblical scholars (still a minority, of course) who do not consider the Jesus myth idea so “incongruous” as he suggests.


“Appeal to Confidence.” 2019. Bruce Thompson’s Fallacy Page. September 2019. https://www2.palomar.edu/users/bthompson/Appeal%20to%20Confidence.html.

Hannam, James. 2008. “A Historical Introduction to the Myth That Jesus Never Existed.” In Shattering the Christ Myth, edited by James Patrick Holding, xi–xvii. Xulon Press.



2020-04-26

Logical Fallacies of Historians: After A, therefore Because of A

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by Neil Godfrey

A related informal fallacy is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) which holds that if one event follows another then the former must have caused the latter. (Similarly, cum hoc, ergo propter hoc involves the assertion “with this, therefore because of it.”) That Chamberlain’s government pursued a form of appeasement and then war followed does not imply that one necessitated the other. As before, the error lies in assuming that no other causes were operating.

(Newall, 265)

One form of the fallacy is the “follow the money trail” or the “who benefits” (que bono) principle in forming a historical argument.

From Who Are Russia’s Sanctioned Oligarchs uploaded by WSJ.

Several historians of post Soviet Russia have fallen into this error. Their argument is that market reforms following the collapse of the Communist government have benefitted a handful of elite oligarchs and that by a form of post hoc

It is tempting to argue post hoc ergo propter hoc: that those who benefitted from the market reforms were not only its main defenders, but even its principal instigators. So, market reform is seen to be the result of a deliberate policy by far-sighted communist bureaucrats to convert their collective political authority into private negotiable assets, an interpretation favored by both the Left (Kotz andWeir, 1997) and the Right (Satter, 2004; Hedlund, 2000).

But a more careful exploration of the actual evidence does not support that tempting theory:

Many of them were young and far removed from the core decision-making process in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their political influence came after they became wealthy, not before.

(Rutland, 339)

We have seen several comments on this blog making the same type of argument in relation to Christian origins. The example I list is not a dig at any person but simply an attempt to draw attention to what I see as a flaw in the argument that has been proposed here. Take this post as an invitation to strengthen the argument by removing their weaknesses:

  • Christianity is a fraud that mostly benefited lying priests; therefore fraudsters, charlatans, must have created it. Compare the fallacy of the historians of modern Russia above.

Another one posted in the comments here argues for a 9/11 conspiracy the same way:

  • US power has benefited from the 9/11 attacks; therefore US power by some conspiratorial process must have been behind the attacks.

Again, that’s another instance of the same fallacious reasoning.

It is a favourite of politicians:

  • After X was elected the economy grew, therefore the economy grew because I was elected.
From Forbes
Wikimedia Commons

Another example:

  • The Spanish Armada was thoroughly defeated by the English fleet and storms in 1588; from that time on we see the gradual demise of the Spanish empire: the loss of the Spanish Armada is said to be a major factor in the turning point in the fortunes of Spain’s power.

In fact, Spain’s empire continued without any losses for decades afterwards. It has also been shown that the loss of the Armada was followed by a serious development of the Spanish navy. There is little evidence that Spain and her place in the world suffered any long term damage as a result of the failure of 1588.

Fischer gives us another instance:

An example is provided by a female passenger on board the Italian liner Andrea Doria. On the fatal night of Doria‘s collision with the Swedish ship Gripsholm, off Nantucket in 1956, the lady retired to her cabin and flicked a light switch. Suddenly there was a great crash, and grinding metal, and passengers and crew ran screaming through the passageways. The lady burst from her cabin and explained to the first person in sight that she must have set the ship’s emergency brake!

(Fischer, 166)

https://56packardman.com/2016/08/21/steamship-sunday-the-collision-of-the-andrea-doria-and-stockholm/

To establish a hypothesis that event B was the result of the preceding event A the historical inquirer needs to point to evidence of a causal link. Simply declaring that “it is obvious” because one followed the other is not sufficient.

One frequently comes across this particular fallacy. Feel free to add more.

 


Fischer, David Hackett. 1970. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper.

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

Rutland, Peter. 2013. “Neoliberalism and the Russian Transition.” Review of International Political Economy 20 (2): 332–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2012.727844.



2020-04-18

Logical Fallacies of Historians: the False Dilemma (Dichotomy)

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by Neil Godfrey

A false dilemma is seen whenever only two possible options are given when there exist others. (This fallacy is also known as a false dichotomy). For example, a person might insist, “you’re either with me or against me” and hence force the listener to join forces or else be taken as an enemy. In general, we have the following:

P1: Either A or B;

P2: Not A;

C: Therefore, B.

The argument seems valid but a premise is missing; namely, something like “P3: No other options other than A and B exist.” It is often used for rhetorical effect; after all, if only two choices are available and one is unpalatable then we are forced to choose the other, even if we might otherwise have reservations.

(Newall, 264)

UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain greeted by Adolf Hitler (Wikimedia)

Some historians have fallen into this fallacious reasoning when addressing Neville Chamberlain’s responses to Hitler. Essentially the argument has been:

P1: Chamberlain had the option to either [A] stand up to Hitler and prevent war or [B] appease him and lead to further demands and world war.

P2: Chamberlain did not [A] stand up to Hitler and prevent war.

C: Therefore, [B] Chamberlain is to be blamed for making the cowardly choices that led to war.

What is missing are other “dilemmas” facing Chamberlain:

or C: Chamberlain believed Russia was a serious threat and believed Hitler would invade east, not west.

or D: Chamberlain feared Japan and Italy would take advantage of Britain being tied down with Germany to overrun British interests in Asia and the Mediterranean.

or E: Chamberlain knew Britain would not tolerate another war given their fresh memories of the horrors of the last one.

As summed up by Paul Newall: Continue reading “Logical Fallacies of Historians: the False Dilemma (Dichotomy)”


2020-04-17

Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question

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by Neil Godfrey

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. . . . [I]t is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship. (Fischer, 49)

(Note that this expression is different from its misuse elsewhere to mean “this raises [or suggests] the question . . .”; here it has a specific, philosophical import.) — Newall, 264

Begging the question (or petitio principii) occurs when the conclusion of an argument is used to demonstrate it, thereby achieving a circular proof. (Newall, 264)

Fischer offers a silly example to illustrate.

A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?

Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.


(Tacit Assumption) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.


Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Here are some other examples I’ve considered. Let me know if I have made mistakes or if you have others to add.

Inquiry: Has Trump been a good manager of the US economy?

Research: The GDP has increased under Trump’s presidency.

(Tacit Assumptions): Trump’s policies have been responsible for its growth and there are no negatives in the economy that outweigh the positive figures.

Conclusion: Therefore, Trump has been a good manager of the US economy.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Should Trump encourage people to try hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19?

Research: Trump and others say they have heard that many people have tried it and been cured of COVID-19.

(Tacit Assumption): The stories one has heard are all genuine and hydroxychloroquine was responsible for the cures and there have been no negative experiences with hydroxychloroquine.

Conclusion: Therefore, Trump should encourage people to try hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Is the lockdown response an overreaction to the COVID-19 threat?

Research: I and other people I know are sensible and will keep social distancing advice without a lockdown.

(Tacit Assumption): the lockdown is an overreaction because everyone is like me and we can contain the COVID-19 spread without a lockdown

Conclusion: Therefore, the lockdown is an overreaction.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Is it a historical fact that Judas betrayed Jesus?

Research: It is unthinkable that the early church would make up a story of one of the inner Twelve betraying Jesus.

(Tacit Assumption): There was a historical Jesus with a historical Twelve disciples whom he trusted and the early church was dedicated to recording the historical facts.

Conclusion: Therefore it is a historically reliable tradition that Judas betrayed Jesus.

– – – o – – –

Inquiry: Did Jesus exist?

Research: No Jew would have made up a story about a crucified itinerant preacher being the Davidic messiah.

(Tacit Assumption): Jesus was historically an itinerant preacher who was crucified yet still believed by his followers to be the Davidic messiah.

Conclusion: Jesus existed. Continue reading “Logical Fallacies of Historians: Begging the Question”


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


2018-11-17

Can one prove a negative?

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by Neil Godfrey

R.G. Price argues that you can: Is it really impossible to “prove a negative”?

I think you can, too. Anyone who is innocent of a crime they are standing trial for sure as hell wants a negative proved, too.