The truth is crucial to skeptical thinking, and one must always be careful to choose those facts that bear it out reliably. Even in a post-truth political world, to skeptics, facts matter. Here, I address False Premises, important components of unreliable reasoning.
False premises are statements, claims, out-of-context factoids, or assertions which are simply not true, making any argument using them unsound.
They can range from simple myths, misconceptions held out of ignorance, motivated reasoning, dishonesty, or delusion. This is a common rhetorical tactic by pseudoscientists, anti-scientists, politicians, and ideological apologists of all stripes. Here are a couple of examples:
Quantum Mechanics supports the idea that reality does not exist unless it is being looked at by a conscious observer.
Quantum Mechanics explains telepathy as a result of the shared Entanglement of particles in separate brains.
The first is false because quantum observation has nothing to do with consciousness or even the possession of any other sort of function commonly associated with a living mind at all, it simply involves the the traces left by a quantum object through the physical interaction of measurement.
It is also demonstrably false because Quantum Mechanics, as a widely-accepted and well-supported scientific theory absolutely depends on the existence of an underlying reality to be a correct understanding of the same on the micro-level, no matter who is running the experiment, when, or where.
The second is false because firstly, it’s pointless to explain something before it’s even convincingly shown to exist to begin with.
It’s also false because secondly, there is no evidence of any quantum-level effects, especially entanglement, in the thus-far detectable neurological activity of the human brain. Human brain cells are too big, too complex, and interact with too much both within and outside of themselves to operate as quantum objects. Decoherence works.
Below are three common variants of this error.
The Big Lie:
This is a false statement so extremely and obviously wrong that it is difficult for many people to think that it would be told if it were not true, especially when told with seeming sincerity, as part of intentional deception, uninformed misinformation, or even a delusion.
Three examples follow:
This starship is constructed out of corbomite. If you fire upon us, the explosion will destroy both our vessels.
I wouldn’t do that if I were you. As a man with an alien weapon in my brain, I can kill you just by looking at you crosseyed.
The scientific evidence for Psi is compelling, just Google “evidence for psi” to see for yourself.
That last example, slightly paraphrased, has been used by a commentator on this blog at least once, and, though false and baldly stated, is probably quite commonly used by trolls on blogs and websites critical of Psi research.
The Multiple Untruth:
This is also known as the Gish Gallop, after its frequent use in debates by the late creationist Duane Gish.
This is the spitting out of so many misconceptions at once that they are almost impossible to keep in mind. Though the opponent of the one using this tactic may have the time to refute a few of them, those skilled in debate must judiciously choose which claims to refute and which to ignore. Not all arguments in a debate are of equal rhetorical worth.
This is often effective because against inexperienced debaters, it creates an impression of victory to the user’s audience. What choices you make in refutation matter.
The Noble Lie:
Plato is often credited with inventing this one, and he may indeed have. At any rate, he wrote about it in his dialogue the Republic. It’s a common debating tactic, a falsehood told not only for its rhetorical effect, but also for the intended result of believing the premise.
It operates on the assumption that those it is told to cannot handle the truth or are so stupid that they cannot possibly see through it.
Those treated like fools by being told the lie, once they know the truth, often have an emotional reaction to it, dismissing out of hand anything said by that source from then on.
Plato’s writing on this describes what he thought the ideal society, in which complicity to the social order was maintained by the Noble Lie, that the citizens were placed there by the gods with status set by their essence being of a particular metal, and that because of this essence, all should keep their place and avoid presumptuous human overreach by attempting to rise in status.
If your aim is to engage in intellectually honest, truly constructive discussions, it’s a good idea not to commit this, not only by avoiding intentional falsehoods, but avoiding unintentional misconceptions by making an effort to know what you’re talking about. Nobody can be right about everything.