This article is part two of a four part series on bad arguments to avoid
If you haven’t read part one: 15 bad arguments to avoid
In this article:
- Shifting the burden of proof
- Denial of commitment
- Motivated reasoning
- Mental gymnastics
- Moving the goalposts
- Ad hoc rescue fallacy
- Kettle logic
- Argument from silence
Shifting the burden of proof
“Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies”
If there is an argument between two people:
- God exists/God doesn’t exist
- Elvis is still alive/Elvis is not alive
- OJ is guilty/not-guilty
Which side has to provide evidence to support their claim?
The one who makes the positive claim?
The one who doubts or denies the claim?
The burden of proof is always on the one making the positive claim – not on the doubter or skeptic.
For example: If I claim to be able to fly, levitate, predict the future etc. it’s not up to you to prove that I can’t – it’s up to me to prove that I can.
I’m the one making the claim – therefore it’s up to me to prove it.
It’s just like in a court of law. You’re “innocent until proven guilty”, not “guilty until proven innocent”. If someone is making the claim that you are guilty of a crime, they must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt – it’s not up to you to prove your innocence.
Sometimes however, those who make extraordinary claims (often of a spiritual or supernatural nature), will try to reverse or shift the burden of proof to the doubter or skeptic, or they’ll imply that the claim has to be debunked or disproven before it can be rejected. This is absurd.
“You can’t prove God doesn’t exist!”
“You can’t prove Jesus didn’t walk on water!”
“You can’t prove Muhammad didn’t fly to heaven on a winged horse!”
(Insert smug “gotcha” grin as if that was a valid argument)
I agree with Carl Sagan:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – Carl Sagan
And Christopher Hitchens:
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” – Hitchen’s razor
We can’t assume that every claim is true and is to be believed by default until proven otherwise. This is absurd.
“A theist can’t empirically prove that God exists but he believes in God because no one can allegedly disprove God’s existence. By his logic, you must believe in anything you can’t disprove. That means all things are real until disproved–including the tooth fairy, the Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.” ―
Bottom line: If you’re the one making a claim, then it’s up to you to provide evidence for it, not the other way around.
Denial of commitment
Sometimes people will quote someone in an argument, or they’ll share a quote or meme on social media, and then as soon as it gets criticized or debunked, they’ll try to avoid taking responsibility for it.
Mike: “Flat earthers are either stupid or trolling”
Matt: “Kyrie thinks the Earth is flat, he says there’s lots of evidence for it, and he seems pretty smart”
Mike: “What evidence is there for a flat earth? What about the mountains of evidence that proves the earth is round/spheroid?”
Matt: “I’m just telling you what Kyrie said”
This is disingenuous. If someone quotes someone to make a point in an argument, or shares a quote or meme, it’s clear that they agree with it on some level.
In an argument take responsibility for your words and actions, what you say and what you share, instead of pointing the finger at other people.
“Motivated reasoning: Trying to make some ideas win and others lose.” – Julia Galef
Motivated reasoning is when you argue or reason in a biased way towards a preferred conclusion. It happens when you’re emotionally attached to a belief or outcome.
Lawyer vs Scientist reasoning
Motivated reasoning is closely related to confirmation bias, because instead of being interested in all of the facts and evidence (like a scientist), you’re only interested in the facts and evidence that supports your argument, and is likely to lead you towards your preferred conclusion (like a lawyer)
Most people are motivated reasoners, and that’s why they’re so quick to dismiss good arguments and evidence against their beliefs, whilst simultaneously seeking out, and being receptive to, arguments and evidence in favor of them.
“People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” – Blaise Pascal
What do you want to believe?
What would you like to be true?
That’s what you’re most likely to use motivated reasoning to conclude.
Signs of Motivated Reasoning
- Arguing or reasoning in a biased way towards a preferred conclusion, with an obvious attachment to one particular belief or outcome
- A tendency to only seek out information and evidence that leads to your preferred conclusion e.g. Googling “Why the Bible/Quran is true” (You’re likely to deceive yourself with this approach, because you can use Google to find evidence to support any belief you want to believe, including Bigfoot and the Lochness monster)
- A tendency to be dismissive of any evidence or information that goes against your beliefs or your argument
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” – Leon Festinger
- An unwillingness to follow the evidence where it leads – unless it leads towards your preferred conclusion
- Double standards for evidence
- One extremely low standard for the things you want to believe
- One extremely high standard for the things you don’t want to believe
- A tendency towards mental gymnastics (unjustified leaps of logic) when presented with powerful counterarguments and disconfirming evidence against your beliefs
- A tendency to interpret information in a biased way that supports your beliefs
- Supporting evidence is considered “proof” and is perceived as stronger than it is
- Disconfirming evidence is dismissed and is perceived as weaker than it is
- Neutral evidence is also perceived as being supportive of your argument
The bottom line: If you’re arguing or reasoning in a biased way towards a preferred conclusion, with an obvious attachment to one particular belief or outcome, then you’re motivated reasoning.
“Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.” – The Atlantic
Mental gymnastics are unjustified leaps of logic, often in the form of ridiculous far-fetched explanations and scenarios, that often occur when someone is emotionally attached to a belief or outcome, but has been presented with powerful counterarguments and/or disconfirming evidence against it.
Instead of using logic to go from A-B, someone using mental gymnastics is using unjustified leaps of logic to go from A-G, or even A-Z, so they can reach their preferred conclusion no matter what.
Mental gymnastics are the opposite of abductive reasoning or Occam’s razor (the simplest explanation is probably the correct one).
Mental gymnastics example #1
Young earth creationist: “The earth is only 6, 000 years old, the Bible says so”
Evolutionist: “But radiometric dating of the earth’s crust, the moon, and meteorite material, shows that the earth is approximately 4.6 Billion years old”
Young earth creationist: “Maybe God created the earth with the appearance of age”
Mental gymnastics example #2
Atheist: “How can any Muslim think it’s morally right for Muhammad to marry a six year old girl when he was 50?”
Muslim: “It was a different time then. People grew up earlier. Also, they didn’t have sex until she was nine years old. And he had a dream about marrying her (maybe prophetic). Aisha was also very smart for her age so she would be capable of transmitting reports of what he did and said (she narrated more than 2000 hadiths which are the sayings/teachings of the Prophet). Finally, none of Muhammad’s critics of the day had a problem with it, so get your mind out of the gutter.”
Mental gymnastics example #3
How could a loving God send people who didn’t believe in him, who had never even heard of him, or had followed the wrong religion, to burn in hell for eternity?
According to Catholic Priest Mike Schmitz in his video Hell is for real
“Hell has to exist, for God to be good”
“If there is no hell, God is a monster”
“Hell, is the only thing, the only true reality, that keeps God from being a monster”
“Hell has to exist, for God to be a good dad”
That my friends, is mental gymnastics. Using bizarre, unjustified leaps of logic, to try to justify the unjustifiable.
Mental gymnastics example #4
“If it’s anal or oral it doesn’t count as sex”
“It’s not cheating if they don’t find out”
Moving the goalposts (aka raising the bar)
Moving the goalposts in an argument, is when you demand one standard of evidence to accept a claim, but then when you’re presented with that evidence, instead of changing your mind, you then demand an even higher standard of evidence.
The structure of the argument is like this:
Tom: “What would it take to convince you of X?”
Tim: “Evidence for X”
Tom: Provides evidence X
Tim: “What about Y and Z?”
Tom: Provides evidence for Y and Z
Tim: “Well what about A, B & C?! I bet you can’t answer that!”
Tim claimed that evidence for X would change his mind, but then when evidence for X was provided, instead of changing his mind, he immediately moved the goalposts and demanded evidence for Y and Z, and even when that evidence was presented, he moved the goalposts again and demanded evidence for A, B & C.
This can go on forever:
“But what about…” (Gets answered)
“But what about…” (Gets answered)
“But what about…” (Gets answered)
“But what about… (Unable to answer)
Moving the goalposts is common when someone is attached to a belief or outcome, and has no real intention of changing their mind about it, no matter what evidence is presented against it.
Moving the goalposts example #1
Employer: “I’ll give you a pay rise and a promotion if you achieve X, Y & Z.”
Employee: (achieves X, Y & Z) “Can I get that pay rise now please?”
Employer: “Not yet… first I’m going to need you to do A, B & C”
Moving the goalposts example #2
Jon Jones fan: “Jon Jones is the greatest UFC fighter of all time”
Anderson Silva fan: “Greatest UFC fighter of all time? Don’t make me laugh. He isn’t even the greatest light-heavyweight of all time. I want to see him clean out the division first, at least tie Chuck Liddell’s record”
Fast forward ten years…
Jon Jones fan: “Well he’s cleaned out the division, he’s undefeated after ten years, he’s beaten the best of the best including Daniel Cormier twice, do you now concede that he’s the GOAT?”
Anderson Silva fan: “Let’s first see how he does at heavyweight…”
Moving the goalposts example #3
God of the gaps
The God of the gaps argument is one of the most famous examples of moving the goalposts.
God of the gaps in a nutshell:
“Science can’t explain X therefore God did it”
However, just because science can’t (yet) explain X, that doesn’t mean that God did it, or that God is the only possible explanation.
God of the gaps thinking was common in the ancient world (and is still today) when man had no idea how everything worked. Everything was attributed to God/s: earthquakes, lightning, thunder etc. (God was angry), similarly demons and witches were seen as the cause of disease instead of germs.
However as we learnt more about how the world worked, we realized the true causes for these things, and “God” as an explanation continued to move into an ever receding area that science can’t (yet) explain.
God is credited for the origin of life (the current gap in our understanding) by theists, however if science does discover the cause of the origin of life and it’s not “God”, then the goalposts will be moved again, and God will move into a new gap in our understanding with theists boldly claiming,“bet you can’t explain that!”
“No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.” ―
“People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don’t have any idea what causes epilepsy. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it’s divine. And so it is with everything in the universe.” ―
Dealing with someone who keeps moving the goalposts
If you think you may be dealing with someone who is likely to move the goalposts in an argument, ask them what it would take to change their mind, and then double-confirm it.
“So if I provided evidence of X you would change your mind?”
However, if the person says they’re unsure what would change their mind, “I’m not sure”, “I don’t know”, “I have no idea” etc. you’re probably wasting your time.
Maybe they’ll even say that nothing will convince them, because they already “know” they’re right, or that the only evidence they’d accept would be impossible to satisfy. If that’s the case, save your breath.
See also: Definitional retreat
Demanding impossible evidence
Sometimes people are determined not to change their mind no matter what (e.g. religious believers who are emotionally attached to their beliefs and/or are afraid of hell) and will demand impossible evidence.
“I’ll stop believing in Christianity when God and Jesus comes down here and tells me to stop believing in it.” – actual quote from a friends girlfriend
If this is the case, if someone is demanding impossible evidence, or if they’re continually moving the goalposts, don’t waste your breath.
Ad hoc rescue fallacy
Ad hoc means “created or done for a particular purpose as necessary”, and in an argument it’s when you come up with excuses and rationalizations in the moment as to why your belief could still be true, despite a lack of evidence/evidence to the contrary.
Ad hoc arguments aren’t used repeatedly. They’re not a default go-to argument that people use to defend or support their beliefs. Rather they’re used as a once-off defense mechanism, to prevent an argument from being destroyed or falsified in the moment.
Ad hoc rescue fallacy example #1
Christian: “There are no contradictions or errors in the Bible”
Atheist: Shows 100+ contradictions and errors
Christian: “Those parts aren’t to be taken literally, they’re symbolic, metaphorical, you have to understand them in context”
Ad hoc rescue fallacy example #2
Alternative healer: “I can heal people with Reiki”
You: “Okay, please heal me”
Alternative healer: (Tries to heal you but fails)
You: “It didn’t work”
Alternative healer: “That’s because you didn’t have enough faith”
Ad hoc rescue fallacy example #3
Pastor: “God answers prayers… If you pray to God with faith, you’ll get what you ask for”
Person: Prays with faith… “God didn’t answer my prayer… I didn’t get what I asked for”
Pastor: “You didn’t have enough faith” or “It wasn’t part of God’s plan” or “God’s delays aren’t God’s denials”
Kettle logic is more likely to be used by children than adults, but since it’s funny I’ll include it here.
Kettle logic is when you use multiple arguments to defend a point, each one maybe convincing or valid on it’s own, but the arguments are inconsistent and contradict each other.
Sigmund Freud gives an example of Kettle logic in his book The Interpretation of Dreams of a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle in a damaged condition.
The three arguments he offers to defend himself:
- That he had returned the kettle undamaged
- That it was already damaged when he borrowed it
- That he had never borrowed it in the first place
The three arguments contradict each other, and Freud notes that it would have been better if he had only used one.
Argument from silence
“Silence does not always mark wisdom.” ―
The argument from silence is a fallacy that occurs when someone draws a conclusion or inference based on the silence of the opponent. It treats the absence of evidence as evidence itself.
However, silence isn’t an argument.
If someone is silent and isn’t saying anything, you can’t infer too much from it except that they’re silent. It doesn’t mean that they agree or disagree, know or don’t know, are guilty or not guilty.
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Sorry Lao Tzu but you’re wrong. Whether someone is silent or talking, quiet or loud, has no bearing whatsoever on whether they know something or not.
This concludes part two of a four part series on bad arguments to avoid.
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