Trying to be good skeptic, I’ve been learning Logical Fallacies. What is a Logical Fallacy? From Wikipedia:
A fallacy is incorrect argumentation in logic and rhetoric resulting in a lack of validity, or more generally, a lack of soundness.
In laypersons terms: you know when you hear an argument and it doesn’t sound quite right? There is something in the argument that you can’t put your finger on but sounds wrong? Well, there are names for all those sorts of arguments.
There are loads of free resources out there: PDFs, eBooks, etc. I highly recommend the free Hunting Humbug eBook.
As well as being a skeptic, I’m also a keen “pretend physicist” – basically, I’m studying all the astrophysics related course I can find at the Open University. I regularly contribute to the excellent crowd-sourced Pod Delusion podcast – a podcast about interesting things. I normally send in physics and astronomy related reports and interviews. My personal highlight was interviewing the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, Brian Schmidt, for episode 107.
So, when I heard a report on episode 117 that argued that high energy particle physics did not make economic sense, I bristled. And I also spotted several logical fallacies both in the audio report and then further in the online comments about the report.
So, I thought I’d try to use my new found logical fallacy skills and apply them to the report and the comments. I’ll split the report and comments into various sections and discuss what I think the logical fallacy is. I’ve never done this before so feel free to correct my mistakes!
An Economic False Dilemma
The audio report states things like:
- “High-energy particle physics is incredibly expensive”
- “Ludicrously expensive facilities exist around the world”
- “For me it comes down to simple economics.”
This is then followed up with statements like:
- We should be “sorting out malaria/polio/cancer/whatever”.
- Regardless of if there are any practical uses for particle physics discoveries, these discoveries are not going to stop a sub-Saharan African girl dying before her 3rd birthday.
The Pod Delusion report goes like this:
- Either we can fund particle physics, or we can fund other, useful stuff.
- We must fund the other, useful stuff
- So, we can’t fund the particle physics.
This presents what is known as a “False Dilemma” logical fallacy.
Combined with the list of diseases and the hypothetical African girl, the basic implication is that the money and/or brain power spent on particle physics could be diverted to the alleviation of disease/poverty/etc.
However, it does not follow that this is what would happen to the money if particle physics funding was stopped.
Also, this example could be used against any research or funding that is not going to save this hypothetical girl. Microprocessor research for example. Or making bigger TVs. Or funding an art museum. Or a library. Or a local youth club.
Basically, the examples given are not specific to particle physics research and funding.
To give the author the benefit of the doubt, I think the report wanted to say:
- We should only spend money on things that make economic sense, or have an important practical application.
- Particle physics research doesn’t make economic sense or have an important practical application.
- So, we shouldn’t spend money on particle physics.
This isn’t a false dilemma. I would argue that premise (2) fails on factual grounds and it has not been proven that particle physics does make economic sense (more on this later).
Whilst looking for a link to False Dilemma I found this brilliant piece: “A super False Dilemma with the LHC“. It covers this exact argument and is well worth a read.
EDIT: Adam has now responded to this particular point.
“I hate to think what the carbon footprint of the LHC looks like”
This was a throw away comment during the audio report. I responded with a comment on the website:
CERN gets it’s electricity from French nuclear power, so you could argue it’s quite green.
The argument about being powered by nuclear and therefore being green doesn’t really stack up, because if CERN wasn’t using the energy from the nuclear plants, something else that’s currently using fossil fuels could use it instead.
In my comment I was specifically responding to the carbon footprint statement. I simply pointed out that it has a small carbon footprint. But the response, I believe, is an example of the “Moving the Goal Posts” logical fallacy.
The goal posts were moved to: “Something else that’s currently using fossil fuels could use that energy instead”. Perhaps that something else is pointless and could be switched off?
Side note, but sort of an important point: about 80% of electricity in France comes from Nuclear Power.
The audio report included this line:
Maybe physicists could work on getting computers to work. Hands up if your computer crashed this week.
I think this might be a WTF Logical Fallacy! I may have just made that one up.
This sentence genuinely left me stunned. Is the suggestion that we should make all particle physicists pack in and go and work on Windows or MacOS? OK, before I get any grief, just Windows.
I can’t think of any use for this stuff so what is the point of studying it?
This sentence, I believe, summarises both the reports and the comments. I feel it captures the overall argument.
This is an “Argument From Incredulity” (or the “Lack of Imagination” logical fallacy).
I hate to say it, but this is a common fallacy made by Creationists when arguing against Evolution.
They didn’t say that!
The report includes the phrase:
Advocates justify things on the basis that all research is useful at some time in the future
This was an easy fallacy to spot. It is a “Straw Man” logical fallacy. To “attack a straw man”, you refute something that is superficially similar but not exactly what is being argued.
It is a straw man as advocates don’t say that all research will be useful at some time. History shows us that a lot of research will be useless. But we don’t know which will be useless and which research will useful.
“We’ve known about quarks, neutrinos, etc for about 50 years now and as far as I’m aware there are no practical uses of any of them yet.”
Something bugged me about this sentence from the online comment discussion. I thought there was a logical fallacy in there, but couldn’t put my finger on it. The assertion is that there is only a point in doing the research if we can find a use for, say, a quark.
I think it redirects the argument towards only looking at the end point (the production and study of quarks and neutrinos). The statement completely ignores the economic benefits of the technology that has been invented during the pursuit of fundamental particles.
Say particle physics costs £1x per year and produces (unuseable) quarks, neutrinos, etc. Perhaps the technologies developed to produce and detect these quarks brings in £10x per year as spin-offs? I don’t know the figures, but this possibility has not been discussed/dismissed in the report.
I asked Peter Silk (#ff!), who studied philosophy and knows a thing or two about logical fallacies, to take a look at this. Here is what he came back with. It’s very clever:
I don’t think it’s a straw man. It would be a straw man fallacy if the implication is that scientists are supposed to be doing this in order to find particles to put to practical use, which nobody is claiming, but I’m not sure the report suggests that is what people are claiming. Instead it is saying that unless people can put the particles to use, the research isn’t worthwhile or cost effective. It could be a sneakily hidden false dichotomy fallacy, without stating the dilemma explicitly but by implying it: either the particles can be used or the research is not cost effective. But there’s a third/fourth/fifth/etc scenario where the particles can’t be used, but the research is still cost effective.
It could possibly simply be an ‘irrelevant thesis’ or ignoratio elenchi, where the point itself might well be conceded (let’s say that nobody ever finds a use for a neutrino) but that has nothing to do with the question of whether the process of conducting the research is useful/profitable. All it does is make it harder to justify to the people funding the research, who are using less sophisticated versions of the same fallacies we’re seeing here.
Side note: the number of spin-offs from particle physics is astounding. You would be amazed at the wide ranging applications that have appeared in the last 50 years as direct result of particle hunting. Applications that you really wouldn’t associate with particle physics. And I’m not just referring to the World Wide Web.
I don’t normally get involved in SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET confrontations. I’m a non-confrontational sort of guy. And I particularly do not want to get into confrontations with fellow Pod Delusion contributors. But this report really bugged me. The LHC is this generation’s Apollo Moon Landing. It’s that important. And as far as I know, getting to the Moon didn’t directly achieve anything. It was the technology invented to achieve the goal that made it worth the effort.
Many thanks to Peter Silk for helping me with this post.