Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Gradualist Fallacy

A random thought for today

Over the years of debating creationists, I've come to expect a level of intellectual dishonesty. As the saying goes, you can't reason someone out of a position they weren't reasoned into. So any discussion is going to involve a healthy dose of logical fallacies, especially straw man arguments and false dichotomies.

One particular line of thinking I see crop up time and time again which is really a few fallacies in one, but it might be best to put in the context of a single fallacy which I shall call The Gradualist Fallacy:
When analysing a process over time that acts in a complex system, the gradualist fallacy is the expectation that there should be strict uniformity over the entire sequence to the point where the non-linear progression causes the underlying mechanism to be dismissed.
If it is meant to rain 1000mm a year, the expectation is that each day there should be 3mm, otherwise it cannot be said it rains at all.

The most obvious example I can think of this in action is by those who advocate flood geology - the notion that there was a global flood some 4400 years ago. Now this is utter nonsense and completely contradicted by the fossil record. But what some advocates do is make the dichotomy between it all happening gradually in a uniform matter or by one big event. So they look for anomalies in the geological record, events that are caused by floods (localised that is) as evidence that a gradual process is inadequate to explain and therefore Noah!

Another example would be the misuse of punctuated equilibrium. Because evolution isn't uniformly gradual in the fossil record (anyone who understands evolution would know why it would be absurd to see it as uniform), it's taken as evidence against evolution. Living fossils pose no problem to the theory, but young earth creationists such as Harun Yahya see it as proof that evolution didn't happen.

The point of creating this fallacy is to highlight what is a straw man tactic that seems to be quite common among apologists. The fallacy itself is specialised, characterised by trying to explain data in a complex system by just one of the mechanisms involved without taking into account that the data doesn't exist in isolation. There's no reasoning people out of a position they weren't reasoned into, but it's a good exercise in logic to identify just how the human mind can fail when trying to rationalise beliefs that one came to for non-smart reasons.

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