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[This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Australian Skeptics 2016 National Convention]
Smart people have recently talked about the uselessness of philosophy with regard to science. Yes, science grew out of philosophy, but the claims now are that science has outgrown philosophy completely and it has no relevance at all. An example is a recent video made by Bill Nye in which he responded to a student asking him "Is philosophy meaningless?".
The problem with his comments was not that they were just wrong about philosophy, they were fractally wrong. They were wrong at almost any level of examination. The problem was that Bill didn't know what he was talking about. His concept of philosophy was extremely naïve.
I really want to talk about the error that people like Bill Nye have made when criticising philosophy. It is an error which we constantly accuse our opponents of doing. It's going into debate or battle without knowing what it is you are really arguing against.
I think the worst logical fallacy is the use of strawman arguments. There is no way to recover from attacking something that your opponent has either never said or doesn't believe or which totally misrepresents their position.
Much of the criticism levelled at Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion was that he got theology wrong and set up many strawmen to argue against. Several well written, cogent responses to the book from people who knew a lot more about theology than Dawkins did showed that many of the targets he had set up he had invented himself.
We know that strawmen are regularly used by creationists, by medical quacks, by inventors of perpetual motion machines, and by all sorts of supporters or believers in pseudoscience and paranormality. But it is something they do, not something that we should do.
The reason that a strawman argument fails is that your opponent only has to say "That is not our position" and point to evidence in their own body of literature. That's what the theologians did to Dawkins – they were able to refer to a large body of evidence showing that he didn't know what he was talking about.
The strawman argument is usually used from ignorance, not from malice or deliberate lying, although in debates I've had, particularly with creationists and medical quacks, I have often felt that they know the truth but hope that is too hard to find to reveal their deception.
As I said, this is the sort of thing that the side known as "them" does. It is not something that should be done by us. But we do it. All the time. Because we can't be experts on everything but we feel the need to jump in when we are exposed to obvious nonsense.
Here is an example I saw recently where normally sensible people mocked something for being wrong without knowing that what they were mocking wasn't actually the situation. It has to do with astrology. Before I go any further I have to say that astrology is a load of nonsense, has no relationship to reality, and can't predict anything about the future or about personality. The mocking was on the basis that the pattern of stars in the sky has changed over the last few millennia and the constellations no longer match the standard date ranges for star signs. The strawman part is that the position of constellations has nothing to do with the sections of an astrological chart. The star signs are names for sectors of the circle, anchored on the solstices and equinoxes.
My birthday is on the equinox at the cusp of Libra and Virgo. Officially according my astrological chart I am a Virgo. When people tell me that Virgo is now really the range of dates between September 17 and October 31, I have to wonder whether the equinox which starts Virgo has also moved to September 17. It hasn't. One of the reasons for the invention of astrology was to predict the seasons, predictions which were necessary to know the correct times of the year for planting, harvesting and breeding. It was relatively easy to determine the solstices and equinoxes, so these were used to divide the year. The fact that the sun still shines through the same hole in Stonehenge on the solstice shows that these things haven't changed much in a very long time.
Astrological signs are just names for things. Their origins don't really matter any more, just as it doesn't matter that the name of the month in which my birthday occurs suggests that it is the seventh month of the year rather than the ninth. There are many good reasons to criticise astrology but quibbling about the names of things allows people on the other side of the argument to simply say "You're wrong".
There was a recent Internet meme sequence which listed several good things that a character like Bill did, ending with the statement "Be like Bill". In the case of strawman arguments, "Don't be like Bill".
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the January/February 2017 edition of Australasian Science
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