Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Verifiability, Falsifiability, And Premises: Part 2

     Yes, Gentle Reader, it’s time to “settle up” on yesterday’s little exercise in protective pseudo-reasoning.

1. Render The Hastings Film’s Arguments Unfalsifiable.

     The key to any attempt to make an argument unfalsifiable is an old logical fallacy called affirming the consequent. He who strives to make his position unfalsifiable starts from the premises that:

  • It’s factually accurate and logically impeccable;
  • Therefore, any attempt to cast doubt on it must be propelled by low motives.

     So if I were Robert Hastings, and if Robert Hastings wanted to defend his film by making its claims unfalsifiable, I would say roughly the following:

     “All the documents and witness assertions in the film have been multiply confirmed by persons with no reason to lie. What’s that? You want to do your own verification? Sorry, the documents are no longer available, and the witnesses are unwilling to speak any further on the subject. Besides, only someone who wants the public to remain ignorant of the alien incursions would seek to do what you’ve proposed. Therefore I cannot in good conscience cooperate with you.”

     Note how this tactic applies to the shrieking of the “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming” doom-shouters:

     “Our data is absolutely reliable, culled from the finest instruments and remote-past methodologies known to science. We can’t show you the raw data; it was lost in a fire. Besides, you wouldn’t understand the adjustments we made to the raw data nor the reasons we made them. Neither will we allow you to inspect the instruments. You’d only try to cast doubt on them. As for our simulations, you wouldn’t understand them either, but you can be absolutely confident that they accurately model the energetic evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere under the stimuli we’ve measured. So stop trying to make us out as liars; that’s highly insulting to men of impeccable integrity such as we.”

     Neat, eh? Of course, anyone determined to armor his assertions against any possible adverse analysis can use the tactic. Good, well-meaning people have done so just as often as villains.

2. Falsify The Film’s Assertions A Priori.

     This is the inverse undertaking to the one above. The starting-point premises are similar:

  • The film’s thesis is absurd, obvious nonsense;
  • Therefore, he who asserts it must be propelled by low motives.

     The usual approach to this sort of thing is the moral disparagement a outrance of the source of the thesis:

     “Come on, everyone should already know about this Hastings guy. He’s not sincere about this stuff; he uses this topic to gain money and publicity. If you were to try to get access to the documents he claims he’s seen or the eyewitnesses to the supposed events he talks about, you’d find that none of them are available to you. More, there are no other documents about those events nor any trustworthy witnessses to them. Dismiss him and his lunacy and be about your own business.”

     Let’s apply this tactic to the current, highly contentious subject of election fraud:

     “Get serious. These vote-integrity activists are just desperate to overturn the results of a legitimately conducted election! Have you seen any instances of illegal voting, or balloting corruption, with your own eyes? I assure you, you never will. If there were a problem of the magnitude they claim, tens of thousands of American citizens would be up in arms over it. We can trust the safeguards built into our electoral system to screen out non-citizens who try to vote, so don’t trouble yourself over it any further.”

     Good, well-meaning people have done this, too.

3. The Roles Of Reason And Faith.

     Any attempt to make an argument unfalsifiable is inherently an attempt to make it an article of faith. Similarly, an attempt to dismiss an argument without addressing its evidence and reasoning is to make its negation an article of faith. Neither of these is an intellectually respectable thing to do.

     Yet people do them. The usual motive is the defense of their worldview, or of some component of it they must maintain to be comfortable. This is particularly important as regards political positions. While most persons’ politics are grounded in conscious preferences – possibly inherited from their parents – there are others who’ve elevated their politics to the level of a personal religion: a creed and associated code of conduct that’s married indissolubly to their self-regard. To allow that creed and code to be attacked on any grounds threatens them personally.

     By contrast, he whose politics proceeds from conscious preferences is capable of changing his mind non-destructively. It’s seldom easy. Indeed, it might not be possible; the attainment of his preferences might be well connected to the political positions he espouses. However, if you can show him that that’s not the case – i.e., that his political positions won’t lead toward his preferences but away from them, or alternately, that his position carries an unacceptable freight of negative unintended consequences – he might prove reachable.

     This is an important subject today. Virtually every public issue is being made into an article of faith by one side or the other. No progress is possible under those conditions. That’s a reminder that most people have a very nebulous concept of progress.

     Progress isn’t about power.
     It’s not about having “your guy” in office.
     It’s not about increasing the resources dedicated to your aim.

Progress is the improvement of the human condition:
1. By objective measures;
2. Within the agreed-upon moral constraints;
3. And hopefully with an expenditure of time, money and effort that will decline over time.

     More anon.

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