Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why Bulverism is a fallacy

Saying that Bulverism is a fallacy is simply to say that you can't refute someone's position by pointing out an ulterior motive they might have for believing in it.

Here's the way the whole thing works. Once an argument is given, the focus goes away from the person to the argument they use. 

If someone gives an argument for the claim that smoking really doesn't cause cancer, then it isn't a refutation of their argument to point out that the person is paid by the cigarette companies. They might, for all that, have a good argument. Now if they are saying "I'm an expert, trust me, smoking really doesn't cause cancer," then the fact that they are paid by the cigarette companies is a problem. But if you can evaluate the argument, you should do that, as opposed to just considering the source.

If you don't like Lewis's term Bulverism, (since it comes from a Christian) just substitute ad hominem circumstantial. 

23 comments:

cautiouslycurious said...

"If someone gives an argument for the claim that smoking really doesn't cause cancer, then it isn't a refutation of their argument to point out that the person is paid by the cigarette companies. They might, for all that, have a good argument."

If a spokesperson from Marlboro came up to me and said that studies X, Y, and Z show that smoking is not bad for your health and I looked at the methodology and found it was valid, I still wouldn't believe without doing my own research. Why? Simply because their interests indicate a bias that I need to account for.

When you know about statistics, you know that some studies will show a correlation and some won't. Now, you have a person who is going to cherry-pick the studies that suit their own interests. That is extremely relevant when evaluating the studies. There is a huge difference whether X, Y, and Z are the only studies that were done than if they are the only ones to show no correlation out of 200 studies. You don't know which situation you are facing because the way you found the studies was from a biased process.

Since their motive indicates a possible sampling bias, I throw out the sample, which is the basis for their argument. Now, this doesn't fit the description for bulverism as linked to, but I don't doubt it would be called that here if I applied it to, say, testimonies about miracles.

Mark Frank said...

cautiouslycurious makes a good point. For most arguments there is room for intentional or self deception whether it be choice of studies, retelling of anecdotes, definitions of terms of whatever. It is relevant to know the motivation and background of the person making the argument to know whether to allow for this.

Bulverism might be a fallacy in the case of strictly mathematical or logical argument where there is no scope for deception but for 99% of real arguments it is highly relevant, if not an outright refutation, to know the arguers motives.

Heuristics said...

The motivation of the person making the argument would still not be relevant since it is not the motive that makes the matter suspicious, it is the argument itself.

"Here are some studies that show x, therefore probably x".

The problem here is that the conclusion does not follow from the argument, some evidence showing x does not mean that x is most likely to be true since there could be more evidence that exists that the person is not showing and that evidence could show the opposite.

If the argument was:

"Here are some studies that show x, and they are the only relevant pieces of evidence that exists, therefore probably x".

Then it no longer is an obviously incorrect argument. So you do not need to bring in someones motivation into the issue, all you need to do is ask if that is all the available evidence (if they had not mentioned it).

cautiouslycurious said...

Heuristics,
“The problem here is that the conclusion does not follow from the argument, some evidence showing x does not mean that x is most likely to be true since there could be more evidence that exists that the person is not showing and that evidence could show the opposite.”

I’m aware that’s its inductive, as most evidence is, but the point is that what is considered evidence depends on the motives of the person behind making the claim. If the NIH stated the same claim using the same evidence, it would have an entirely different impact, precisely because I have more trust that they would not cherry pick the data and hence the press release would more likely to be a an accurate representation of the current research.

“all you need to do is ask if that is all the available evidence”

Let’s say it’s a press release and I’m not able to talk to the person. Should the same press release from Marlboro have the same impact on my beliefs as if it came from the NIH?

Heuristics said...

cautiouslycurious:

If the argument presented is faulty then don't believe it. if the person making the argument is unavailable for correction of the argument then you should offcourse still not believe it. Nobody here is trying to convince you that you should believe in false arguments. But it is the argument that is faulty, the motives play no part.

I would advice you instead to try and figure out why you think it is in any way a good idea to believe in an obviously faulty argument just because you trust the motives of the source. Personally I shoot down all kinds of empirical arguments from my family about my health even though I have perfect faith in their motives..

cautiouslycurious said...

Heuristics,

"If the argument presented is faulty then don't believe it."

Who said anything about a faulty argument? I said that the same argument, the same set of words, citing the same studies, coming from a different source would have a different impact because the motivations behind the person would influence their methodological process when gathering the studies. This motivational influence taints that process, undermining the impact of the studies that were presented. It's the same argument whether it was presented by Marlboro or the NIH (the same set of words, simply spoken by a different organization), but one is warranted and the other is not. According to bulverism, the motivations are irrelevant, but that's simply incorrect.

Heuristics said...

"Who said anything about a faulty argument?"

I did, I am saying that the argument you are putting in their mouth is incorrect. You should not believe the argument due to it being incorrect, not because of their motivation since the motivation is irrlevant

oozzielionel said...

Bulverism is a fallacy when debates are disciplined and inquiry is honest. However in today's partisan climate, when words are crafted to deceive, conceal, and manipulate; when studies are commissioned to defend the indefensible; when burden of proof is shifted to duck the issue;... At the end of every post, it just dissolves into name calling. Bulverism is the argument of the day.

Joshua said...

People who resort to Bulverism are implicitly signaling that they no longer believe the matter can be settled through reasoned argument. It's a last resort, when they feel that they have exhausted all other approaches.

The usual suspects openly admit that this is their motivation for employing Bulverism, but it underscores the point that Bulverism is not an argument.

Joshua said...

@cautiouslycurious - The fact that bias can lead people to cherry-pick statistics is not evidence that Bulverism is a valid argument. Pointing out cherry-picking *is* a valid argument, however.

Bias often leads people to use all sorts of invalid argument tactics, including cherry-picking and Bulverism.

cautiouslycurious said...

Heuristics,
“I did, I am saying that the argument you are putting in their mouth is incorrect. You should not believe the argument due to it being incorrect, not because of their motivation since the motivation is irrelevant”

It works just as well with your phrasing of the argument. The same words from different organizations would have different impacts on my beliefs because of their differing conflicts of interest. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that this is a fairly common practice when historians evaluate the claims made in historical documents (e.g. a biography by a neutral third party is going to be evaluated differently than a biography of a third party with a conflict of interest and that is going to be evaluated differently than an autobiography). This is precisely because the motivations involved impact the likelihood that someone is going to insert their biases into their work. It’s not like you can immediately point out it’s an incorrect argument, since it appears exactly the same as if it were correct. This is why conflicts of interest policies are enforced when there is only the appearance of a conflict of interest (i.e. even if there is no bias) since the consumers/public/end users/etc. can’t evaluate the methodology and hence can’t tell if the conclusion is sound when they otherwise could.

Joshua,
@cautiouslycurious - The fact that bias can lead people to cherry-pick statistics is not evidence that Bulverism is a valid argument. Pointing out cherry-picking *is* a valid argument, however.

I think you’re missing some nuance. I’m not saying that bias means that their claims are false. I’m saying that in many cases bias is relevant and it means that we have to discount their claims. This is why I said “this doesn't fit the description for bulverism as linked to, but I don't doubt it would be called that here.”

Heuristics said...

cautiouslycurious: A claim is not an argument. Bulverism applies to arguments, not claims.

Also, I suggest that you construct an argument for your case, from what I can tell you are simply __claming__ this to be the case and naming examples that you think fits.

cautiouslycurious said...

Heuristics,
“A claim is not an argument. Bulverism applies to arguments, not claims.”

You do realize that premises are often claims, right? I’m saying that motives are often relevant when evaluating claims/premises, which would impact the soundness of the argument (so the persons circumstances could be cause to dismiss their argument); so to act like this is not related to arguments is absurd. And like I pointed out to Joshua, I originally stated that my position was not to defend Bulverism, but to defend the position that motives are often relevant when evaluating arguments.

“Also, I suggest that you construct an argument for your case, from what I can tell you are simply __claming__ this to be the case and naming examples that you think fits.”

I’m not sure what the best way would be to explain this to you is. Could you give me a hint of which parts you are skeptical of?
Perhaps the perusing the Wiki entry will be of some help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

Papalinton said...

cautiouslycurious makes an excellent point, as does Mark Frank.

I am a-thiest. I have come to this position on the basis of reasoned and logical argument following 30 years of Christian participation. Apart from theology and theo-philosophy, no other area of human enterprise bears the smell of anything that hints of the existence of gods or the supernatural. I make no pretense of my atheism. I make no pretense at masking literature and comments that do not support in some way my atheistic leaning. WYSIWYG. I have no problem with others knowing that my sources are indeed supportive of secular/atheistic/humanist ideals.

I do have a real problem with faithiests recommending or soliciting literature and comments that clearly embody bias, just as mine do, and then cry foul when I note it. Theists must learn that at bottom all Christian arguments, be they quasi-scientific, philosophical, theological, apologetical etc are all about setting a stage in which virgin births, resurrection from graves, physical bodily levitation, walking on water and a million other dreamt-up things which we are led to believe, did apparently factually occur, as set down in scripture. If theists do not have the courage of their convictions and declare that this is the very bottom line for their 'reasoning', it seems a pointless exercise engaging in endless philosophizing, attempted theorizing, and casual sophistry if they are not about substantiating these claims, claims that are clearly against every natural criterion we know and understand of the world, just as we know about the beliefs of other religions.

Punting to miracles, as Bob does, is not an answer. As I comment elsewhere in this site, to construe miracles as 'events' is misleading and tendentious. It is by strict definition an outcome. People falling to earth in a broken plane will all experience this same event. In nearly every similar circumstance we know people will die, by reason of gravity, and altitude and orientation of the plane. One, or a few may survive. The miracle of the one is the tragic reality for the rest. Unless of course, their deaths are construed as miracles because their god has decided to call in their chips well before they are due. But that aspect of the tragedy hardly records a ripple in religious circles. Miracles by definition is the scoring of the positive to the total and perverse exclusion of all the correlative negatives. Miracles are the substitute for explanations within the primitive mindset.

B. Prokop said...

"claims that are clearly against every natural criterion we know and understand of the world"

Papalinton wearisomely fails to grasp the simplest concepts, and stubbornly repeats his misunderstandings in the apparent hope that if he says something enough times, it somehow becomes so.

He says I "punt" to miracles by defining what a miracle is. Huh??? Sorry, but that doesn't even make sense.

But Papalinton is compelled to resort to incoherence because he realizes that the alternative is to admit he has never made any compelling case against the possibility of the miraculous actually occurring. He is forced into making what is essentially a declaration of blind faith in their impossibility.

Papalinton must (excuse me here for engaging in irony) "punt" to defining them out of existence.

Papalinton said...

"He says I "punt" to miracles by defining what a miracle is. Huh??? Sorry, but that doesn't even make sense. "

Bob says: "The miraculous are by definition non-repeatable events." [First comment under a previous OP: "Ehrman's nonrepeatability argument against the resurrection"] What is the total summation of Bob's evidentiary claim for the revivification of a three-day old putrescent corpse? "Surprise! A miracle!"

You are soooo right. The actual revivification of a three-day old putrescent corpse simply does not make sense.


Heuristics said...

cautiouslycurious said...
"You do realize that premises are often claims, right?"

I do. If all you are saying is that the believability of an argument depends on the believability of the premises then offcourse this would not be controversial. But since you are also being very vague about what the general principle you are saying here is and you are stating that it would be something that when used against miracles would cause people here to call it bulverism it appears that you are not referring to something so simple. So therefore I simply ask you what your argument is?

Steven Carr said...

'Saying that Bulverism is a fallacy is simply to say that you can't refute someone's position by pointing out an ulterior motive they might have for believing in it.'

So you can't refute somebody's claim that you should be frightened of dogs by pointing out that they base that on their personal experience of being frightened by a dog?

'He thinks that dog dangerous because it is black and ever since he was bitten by a black dog in childhood he has always been afraid of black dogs.‟

Is this a classic case of somebody Bulverising rather than thinking?

B. Prokop said...

Read Papalinton's latest posting carefully. He once again verifies with his own words that everything I wrote in my last comment was fair and accurate. For a moment I considered rebutting him, but then realized that he had done so himself. Done and dusted - nothing further required.

"By your own words, you shall be condemned." (Matthew 12:37)

cautiouslycurious said...

Heuristics,
“If all you are saying is that the believability of an argument depends on the believability of the premises then of course this would not be controversial.”

I’m also saying that the believability of the premises can be influenced by conflicts of interests/motivations/etc. Do you dispute this?

"But since you are also being very vague about what the general principle you are saying here is"

Perhaps this is where the confusion is, I'm not saying that there is a one-size fits all rule of thumb to follow. I'm simply disputing the claim that once and argument is presented, the focus goes away from the person with the exception being arguments of authority where they are citing their own authority. This is especially true when we can't directly assess the accuracy of the collection process. This applies to how one collects studies to support their argument, to the data collection of those studies, etc.

Victor Reppert said...

Here's what I think I would need to say here. If an argument is given, if it is within your competence to evaluate the argument, then that is what you should do. However, to some extent, however, we do rely on the authority of others, and when we do, what we know about them affects their authority.

However, Bulverism, as Lewis pointed out long ago, sets up a mutual assured destruction scenario. If religious believers can be impugned because they have religious motives, unbelievers can be similarly impugned for antireligious motives, and there can be no progress on these issues.

Heuristics said...

cautiouslycurious:

I see it like this, do you see it differently?

--------------------------
There are a two different scenarios here.

1. An argument is presented that depends on premisses that are believed by all.

2. An argument is presented that depends on premisses that are controversial or have an unknown truth value.

With '1' and '2' it would be a logical fallacy to dismiss the _Argument_ as false by naming a motivation that the presenter would have for presenting the argument (note here that it is the argument and not the input data to the argument that cannot be dismissed in that way).

It could however be a valid counter for '2' to argue that the person presenting the data/premisses for the argument has some sinister motive in for example hiding part of the experimental data presented.

-----------------------

The issue here appears to me not primarily to be about the motivations of the person presenting the data but about the trustworthiness of that person and one way that that person can lose trustworthiness is by being suspected of having sinister motives. The reason for it not being primarily about motives is the person could very well be known to have perfect motives but be suspected of having a really poor grasp of the available data/premisses, so then you do not have faith in the competency of the person. But this would still only reach the level of throwing doubt on the premisses, it would not show the argument to be false and it would not show the premisses to be false.

cautiouslycurious said...

Heuristics,
“It could however be a valid counter for '2' to argue that the person presenting the data/premises for the argument has some sinister motive in for example hiding part of the experimental data presented.”

This is what I’m saying. In this scenario, you are dismissing the argument simply because of the circumstances of the presenter. If on the other hand, the same set of information was presented by a third party, you would be more inclined to believe it. This also applies when there is no sinister motive, but whenever there is a bias that is present (such as priming to see religious significance in things).

“But this would still only reach the level of throwing doubt on the premises, it would not show the argument to be false and it would not show the premises to be false.”

Which is why I said “Now, this doesn't fit the description for bulverism as linked to, but I don't doubt it would be called that here if I applied it to, say, testimonies about miracles.” However, merely casting doubt on the premises has been called Bulverism on this site such as when Victor claimed that Loftus was guilty of Bulverism in his book even when Loftus supposedly didn’t claim that Christianity was false based on that information. Or how about this comment by Victor about an essay he linked to: “He also responds to a piece of classic Bulverism: If you criticize scientistic nonsense, you only do that because you are motivated by religion.” Saying that a source of criticism is only found from a certain position is not even close to Bulverism as cited above as it’s not saying anything about the falsity of such a criticism, but more importantly, it doesn’t even mention whether the circumstances were used to make that conclusion. I don’t ever recall anyone being guilty of Bulverism, but I have seen the charge several times, which prompted my point.