Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Sam Specious, Private Eye: Case #1 Analysis…..

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Many thanks to Perky S and Mike D for their answeres to Case #1. Naturally, they were both correct…..sort of. If you haven’t read the case yet, check it out and try to come up with the answers for yourself before reading on.

Perky S picked up on Sam’s post hoc reasoning, and mentioned the possibility of selective thinking in the form of confirmation bias, but she missed the earlier examples of just that very logical fallacy in action. I’ll admit that perhaps I wasn’t clear when asking for examples of his errors in logic. I meant throughout the entire case and not just regarding whether or not Sam’s Gripe Water cured the baby’s colic. 

While I agree with Mike D that it is possible that Detective Specious and Mrs. Brown may have lept to a conclusion based on an argument from personal belief regarding the nature of the infant’s crying, I don’t think it was obvious, however, in the way that I presented this case. I could have taken it in that direction easily though, perhaps with Mrs. Brown claiming that the baby was possessed by an evil spirit or something along those lines. Mike D nailed the argument from antiquity used by Detective Specious with regard to the Gripe Water. This actually is a subset of the argument from authority, with time taking the place of the celebrity or expert endorsement. He missed a closely associated error though. Also, the reason the argument from antiquity is a logical fallacy is primarily because history has shown time and time again that just because something, the humoral theory of illness for instance, lasts for a long time doesn’t mean that it works. The Gripe Water in this case may have never cured a single case of colic. It almost certainly hasn’t in reality.

But there is actually a good bit more going on in Sam’s head that just ain’t right.

1. While his preference for shows like Medium and Ghost Hunters is not technically a fallacious argument, and doesn’t actually mean that he approaches life in a generally irrational manner, it is a red flag. Using this fact against Detective Specious would actually count as an ad hominem attack.

2. Ah yes, astrology. Sam believes that his daily horoscope predicted his brief employment by Mrs. Brown. In the future, once time has been allowed to play tricks on his memory, he may even use this example as proof to others that astrology can make accurate and specific predictions. It didn’t and it can’t. Horoscopes provide general and vague statements that fit most people and many possible situations, only becoming meaningful once retrofitted after the day is done. Most people would, if already a believer, be able to convince themselves than any exchange in money that takes place is an interesting financial transaction. Confirmation bias may cause him to remember this “hit” but forget how on most days his horoscope doesn’t appear to fit the day’s events at all.

3. An even better example of confirmation bias is Sam’s premonition of a phone call. His belief that his feelings are always right, and his evidence for such coming from keeping track of only the instances when a call does come in, might ring hollow if we knew that Sam gets a feeling fifty times a day.

4. Sam’s rhetorical question of “How could something believed in by so many people not work?” is an argument from popularity. It doesn’t matter how many people believe that a therapy works. There are treatments that are endorsed by millions of satisfied customers, as in the case of acupuncture, that have failed to pass muster once subjected to proper scientific evaluation. As humans we are generally pretty inept at figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to medical therapies in the absence of scientific methodology. That doesn’t mean that anecdotes are meaningless, just that they can never serve as reliable evidence of a causal relationship.

Keep an eye out for the next installment: Sam Specious, Private Eye: The Case of the Curious Vampire.


Written by skepticpedi

November 25, 2008 at 11:52 pm

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