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Logical Fallacies: Special Pleading and the Man Made of Straw

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[Originally published as Pluto, Special Pleading and Popular Opinion and Straw Man Fallacy]

Special Pleading

The fallacy of “Special Pleading” is a form of “Moving the Goalposts” by ignoring important information, changing criteria to bolster one’s position, appealing to emotions, and similar tactics.

Christians and creationists have to deal with this quite a bit. F’rinstance, when I said that Bill Nye used bad science and logical fallacies when debating Ken Ham, I produced abundant supporting evidence. A critic cried, “…I have NOT studied it in detail. However, I note that it FAILS to quote anything Nye actually said at the debate with Ken Ham VERBATIM…”

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This is a clear example of moving the goalposts and special pleading (as well as the brilliant logical procedure of arguing from something not studied). Owlhoots like this tend to defend their logical fallacies with more fallacies, such as appeal to motive.

So, how about Pluto, the ninth planet of the solar system? Oh, wait. It was disqualified, and with apparently good reasons.

People don’t like it. We want Pluto to be a planet!

When does popular opinion decide scientific classifications?

An article in Time said, “The People Have Voted: Pluto is a Planet!” Isn’t that misleading? Who cares how the people voted?

The people’s vote did not change the minds of astronomers. A worse title is, “Pluto Is a Planet Again, According to Harvard Astronomers”, which is completely untrue.

Secular science, especially the pro-evolution press, pulls this kind of stunt frequently. They did a bait-n-switch to get people to read the article, and then clarified with,

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“At least, that is, according to the audience at a debate at Harvard. Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists (HSCFA) debated the topic “What is a planet?”

Mayhaps the definition of “planet” will change, but will that be based on moving the goalposts?

Straw Man Arguments

The straw man fallacy—everybody does it, it seems. Especially when getting caught up in the emotion of a heated exchange of words. However, it is my belief that many people choose to use this fallacy for the sake of provoking emotion in their opponent. If the opponent falls for the trick, then the antagonist can provoke further and “win” the argument on emotion, not facts.

In simplest terms, the straw man argument is when someone will take your statement, argument, beliefs, or position and build a false version of it to tear down; the straw man they built is a misrepresentation of your actual position.

It is often inadvertent, based on misunderstanding your position (which you may not have stated very well). Other times, it is an advertent attack. It almost always involves putting words in your mouth, presuming that you said something that you did not say.

In an exchange with atheists on Twitter, we were subjected to some rather amazing examples of bad reasoning. Here are some examples of the straw man fallacy:

  • Creationist homeschoolers, you can only shield your kids from reality for so long.”
    This is a horrible misrepresentation of the position of the homeschoolers. First, it implies dishonesty on the part of the homeschoolers because they are lying to their children about “reality.” Second, it implies that “reality” is on the side of the accuser, not the homeschooler.
  • I think you should stop trying to learn science from fundie propaganda sites.”
    Assuming that I do not know about science because I oppose evolutionism. Also note the pejorative words.
  • No atheist believes everything came from nothing. You should read about the big bang before you assume what we believe.” Interesting. This one does not seem to know some of the details in the position he holds. Plus, he assumed that I did not know anything about atheist beliefs. (Hey, isn’t “atheist beliefs” an oxymoron?) He was not interested in the support of my claim that atheists believe everything came from nothing.

Remember, I am putting these logic lessons out for a few reasons, not the least of which is the hope that people will avoid them so we can communicate better. Christians should be able to present the gospel (1 Peter 3.15), and avoiding simple mistakes in reasoning will help. The examples are from my own recent readings and experiences. Let’s be on guard against spurious “reasoning” during the upcoming election season.

Understand all this and you’ll be much less likely to be fooled, you savvy?

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Written by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

Although raised in a United Methodist family where my father was a pastor, I was challenged in my high school years to examine why we believe the Bible and hold to our doctrines. Years later, I drifted from the faith but never fully abandoned it. After I recommitted my life to Jesus in 2010, I was led to establish Weblogs to discuss matters of doctrine, apologetics, and especially biblical creation science. This grew into the Piltdown Superman site. My primary goal is to help equip the church in defending the faith, especially the foundations in Genesis.

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