Monday, January 16, 2012

Now With 20% More Fallacies!

In the wake of this turning 2012, there's sure to be a surge of interest in the various codes and such, especially as we get closer to the fateful day of December 22-25th, 2012, after which will occur December 23-26th, 2012. With that in mind, it's time to launch a preemptive push back.

One of the funnest aspect of looking at these "prophecies" and these "codes," and by larger extensions, the so-called psychics like Edgar Casey and others, is how many logical fallacies they hit on their way down to the bottom. Because they nail quite a few. Men like Casey and other prophecy "scholars" are very good at taking vague descriptions and blowing them way out of proportion, stretching the meaning of words like the Biblical Literalists ignore the majority of the Bible on the Political Right.

It can be fun to sometimes live in a world where there are such things. Those familiar with the Dark Matter setting, which was originally published by TSR under their flagship Sci-Fi label Alternity, and later re-appropriated by WotC for their d20 modern setting, know. Those familiar with a little show from the 1990s named The X-Files know. A world with conspiracies can a fun place. It's very exciting to think that you have secret knowledge that nobody else has; that you've been able to put together these pieces and look at the evidence in a different way, disregarding everything else along the way.  To pretend that there are these dark forces at work in the world and that you can see them - it gives an otherwise random world shape. That everything in the world happens because there are mysterious Illuminati that are pulling the strings behind the world curtain, or that the Bilderburgs and the CDC are working together to plant the next population-controlling virus in the population. However, this is fantasy, and most people recognize it as fantasy. It's not real. The Bilderburgs have a lot of power, but they don't set the tone for the entire world. A Freemason lounge can barely decide on what time of sandwiches they want for lunch most of the time, much less control a vast global conspiracy with other lounges. If it's always two Jewish people and three opinions, how does anything get done in the vast global conspiracies that seem them controlling the markets? It can fun to live in a world where there are these conspiracies, but it's also fun to live in a world with dragons and fairies and elves. The thing they have in common is that neither set of devices exists in the real world - not conspiracies, not dragons.

I understand the draw of conspiracies. There is something appealing to believing that you've thought of something and that you're hiding information that could implicate a vast global conspiracy, and that the government is out to get you. Real life is boring most of the time. Who doesn't want to have access to these top level files that implicate the existence of aliens at Area 51? Humans are natural story tellers and our minds are not geared towards critical thinking - critical thinking is something we have to train ourselves how to do. Nobody is born a critical thinker. We see patterns in nature and we ascribe meaning to those patterns - if you think about it, that's all language is. It's patterns on a sheet of paper that we ascribe meaning too. We you look up at the clouds and you see a face, or an airplane, or a cow or flower or whatever - it's the same thing. Conspiracies are the same; we look around us and we find these patterns and we ascribe meanings to them, and we connect the dots, and we come to conclusions. They're the wrong conclusions, but they're conclusions never the less. More importantly, they're interesting conclusions; ones that hold the attention, and that reach out and grab you.

But that doesn't change the fact that they're wrong. And it doesn't change the fact that, when spread as facts, we have a problem.

There's a couple of major fallacies that conspiracy theorists and prophecy believers make, and I'm going to take a look at those first.

The big one that we see time and again in the prophecy movements and with psychics in general is a variant on the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.
From Fallacy Files:

The Texas sharpshooter is a fabled marksman who fires his gun randomly at the side of a barn, then paints a bullseye around the spot where the most bullet holes cluster. The story of this Lone Star state shooter has given its name to a fallacy apparently first described in the field of epidemiology, which studies how cases of disease cluster in a population.
An example of this is the Bible Code. When you go looking for patterns in something, you'll find them. It is that simple. But what you see is vague, one or two word statements that can be taken either way. For instance, an ELS (Equidistant Letter Sequence) published reads as such: "Destruction I will call you; cursed is Bin Laden and revenge is to the Messiah."

Gasp. It said "Bin Laden". As in, Osama bin Laden, right? Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden? Or maybe Salem bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, his half-brother and cousin. Or Tarek bin Mohammed bin 'Awad bin Laden, his half brother. Or we can cut right to the chase with Sheikh Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, his father. Or any of Sheikh Mohammed bin Laden's 54 children, all of whom share his family name (save, likely, his daughters).

Oh, sure, there's only one way to read that now, but that's because we live in a post-9/11 world where "bin Laden" is synonymous with only one man. This was written in the prior to that, and there's no first name. How do we know this isn't talking about Tarek, or Salem (obviously not Salem - he's dead). The shot was fired first - 9/11 - followed by painting the bull's-eye - this prophecy.

Take a look at the ambiguity of the phrase - "Destruction I will call you; cursed is bin Laden and revenge is to the Messiah." Proponents of the Bible/Torah code often claim that God is speaking through it because God supposedly wrote it. Apparently he wrote it in the first person. There's only one way we can conceivably interpret this now, but that's because we live in a world where Osama Bin Laden financed a plan that brought down the WTC. However, before that, say, in 1908, this could easily refer to a destroyed attempt by Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden to start up his business - after all, Mohammed bin Laden was a porter - and  a poor one at that - from Yemen before he moved to Saudi Arabia. He was married some 20 times, most of them ending in divorce, and he died in a plane crash in the early 1960s. Maybe the prophecy is referring to his destroyed marriages, and the fact that he eventually was killed in the plane crash; his pilot misjudged the landing.

Or, most likely, we're taking something with no intrinsic meaning at all and ascribing meaning to it, based on our own presumptions. We have the "proof"  - now we have to find something to apply it too. This is the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. We already hit the target, now it's time to draw the bull's-eye.

There is no greater victim of this, perhaps, than Nostradamus. What Nostradamus was is unknown. We know he was a doctor. We know he was a bit ahead of his time as far as medicine was concerned, but this continually gets overshadows by the fact that he turned out "quatrains" which supposedly predicted the future. To complicate matters, a lot of people get their things from the Internet, which can make things really difficult to understand. Let's take a look at one:
In the year 1999 and seven months [July]
The great King of Terror will come from the sky
He will resurrect Ghengis Khan
Before and after war rules happily.
The Comic Sans is original. In the future, I'll have to remember that Blogger embeds fonts, so I can use Comic Sans myself when I quote Republicans and Creationists. Anyway, Nostradamus "scholars" interpret this as meaning "in the year 1999 (13 years ago, natch), World War III will start, with additional wars happening after that.

You can say "seriously? Really?" now. I shouldn't have to highlight how ambiguous that statement is. You can take anything away from that; this is from 10 Century, Quatrain 71(2).

Except, y'know, for the fact that it's not.

I assume this is the real text for 10 Century, Quatrain 71-2, from
The number of astrologers will grow so great, that they will be driven out, banned and their books censored. In the year 1607 by sacred assemblies so that none will be safe from the holy ones.
Oh what a huge defeat on the Perugian battlefield and the conflict very close to Ravenna. A holy passage when they will celebrate the feast, the conquerer banished to eat horse meat.
Not that this is any better. In fact, this is only crystal clear if the crystal we're talking about is gallium. The number of astrologers will grow until they're driven out and banned. Their books are censored, and in the year 1607 by sacred assemblies so that none will be safe from the holy ones. This sounds familiar. I wonder why.

Nostradamus, if he did indeed write this, was forecasting some future trends. He died in 1566. Alternatively, he was criticizing the Inquisition without, you know, openly criticizing them. Because that'd be a stupid thing to do. Which would, in a sense, make this little different from Orwell's 1984; written to take place some time in the future (he wrote it in 1948), while criticizing modern trends.

I left nothing out. The beginning of that second paragraph is Quatrain 72.

Perugia (pronounced close to "Perooja" for non-Italian speakers) is the capital of Umbria region in Central Italy. In 1859 it rebelled against the Pope and attempted to establish it's own regional government, but the battle was swift and brutal and eventually it became part of the Italian Kingdom, in the lead up to World War I. Before that, in the 1400s, the city was basically a pawn between the powerbrokers during the Italian Wars; it passed between three separate entities during that century, and was the scene of a few battles.

Ravenna is famous because it was home to the Pope, but during most of Nostradamus' life, it was either a colony of the Venetians or being sacked by the French. Perugia and Ravenna are close to each other - in the same way that Miami and Tampa are close to each other: by virtue of existing on the same peninsula. The distance from one city core to the other is roughly 90 miles/145km. To be fair to him, he's suggesting that these are two separate things happening in close succession; but then, from there, we dive right into the strange. Rich and poor, and holy passage, and horse meat.

I think that he was a social critic of his day, laying into the Inquisition without the ability to rip into the Inquisition because, y'know, they were the Inquisition. He was likely hoping that they would be defeated, and then drove off to eat horse meat. That, sadly, would never happen. After all, the Inquisition wasn't formally disbanded until around 1870, after they took a young Jewish boy away from his family. The father sought help internationally, anti-Catholic sentiment spiked, and Rome was eventually captured and the entire peninsula of Italy was reunited. So maybe he was right?

Or maybe he wasn't and once again we're taking the arrow, sticking it in the target, and painting the bull's-eye around that. If he had said something precise, like "in the year of 1870, a young Jewish boy will be taken from his home, and this action will prompt the capture of Rome, and the reunification of Italy" then we might have something. As is, it's so vague you can ascribe any meaning to it. Especially knowing that hindsight is 20/20.

The other fallacies that surround the prophecy crew are more vanilla, run-of-the-mill logical fallacies: Appeal to Ignorance is a big one - "we don't know that's what he meant, so clearly he could've meant this, which means that we're still right/have the chance to be right." Well, yeah, you do have the chance to be right. You'll just need more proof than this. This by no means or measure predicts the future anymore than it tells us about the past. You'll need another tool to prove that he was a fortune teller/prophecy expert. And unfortunately, we don't have one, so we're left with what we have - his writings. And because is writings are the only evidence we have, and we can see how easily misconstrued they are, we can us Occam's Razor and just slice the whole thing off. They don't tell us either way, and because you can divine anything you want from those writings, it's proof of exactly nothing.

You'll see the Fallacy of Division sometimes, too; that is, if one part is true, then all of it must be true - otherwise, why would that one part be true? For instance, people who think that the government is hiding aliens at Area 51. They go poking around Area 51 - a top secret government facility if there ever was one - and when they get a visit from G-Men, conclude that they're hiding something. And you're absolutely right in assuming that. But assuming that they're hiding aliens, because that's what your research was on, is absolutely wrong. Part of this argument is true. The conclusion, however (that the government is hiding aliens) is absolutely not. There's no evidence to suggest either way beyond scattered anecdotal evidence and claims from people who may or may not be able to give legal consent before standing trial for a missed parking ticket.

Argument from Silence is another one; "Yeah, you're a skeptic. We get it. Why don't you have a more open mind, huh? You're so close-minded that you'll never believe it anyway." Well, no, that's not the case. In addition to be a perfect picture of projection, this claim is an attempt to dismiss criticisms of beliefs based on faulty reasoning out of hand and silence the opponent (That is, the skeptic who's rightfully pointing you what you believe has the collective consistency of alpha particles in a vacuum).

Cherry Picking is the last one. This is only used by hardcore conspiracy theorists, and seems more wide use by Creationists and others. You basically read what you want to from a topic or a writing and then use that as evidence, even if the rest of the writing blatantly contradicts what you're claiming it says. Starsinger has another way of putting this, in relevance to contemporary American Christian theology and interpretations of the New Testament: "Do you see all this red text? Okay, good. Now ignore it."

There's a great many of these fallacies at play among conspiracy theorists. I've seen all of them and more. This is piss-poor critical thinking if there ever was an example of it, but at the end of the day, you can empathize with people who do hold these beliefs. After all, it's fun to believe. Just... don't take it too seriously. Remember, Dark Matter is only a table top RPG/series of novels. X-Files is only a television show/movie/series of novels. They're fiction. Just like most, if not all, of the claims that conspiracy theorists will make*.

*But aha! you say, there are times when conspiracy theorists have been proven right. It is true that some have been proven right - but those weren't ones that flew in the face of scientific understanding, or took what might be veiled criticism of a very powerful organization in it's day and deemed it proof of looking into the future. Next time someone is talking about a conspiracy theory, dig a little deeper. See what you can find. Analyze all the evidence, listen to all the arguments. Some of these theories are more grounded in reality than others, but the vast majority - especially theories that surround prophecies - tend not to be. And it tends to make itself very clear with just the slightest of digging, too.

1 comment:

  1. All this, and the fact that there's no clear indication of exactly WHAT these conspirators would do with the world if they were secretly running everything.

    Though Rupert Murdoch (in the form of the Sun/News of the World) WAS spying on celebrities, and needs to be a lot less powerful than he is.

    The rest of it? Buggered if I know, but I doubt much, if anything will happen come the day. Like that Rapture bloke. Full of it, the lot of 'em.