Friday, September 4, 2009

A Favorite Anti-Science Argument: The Strawman.

I hope readers of this blog become convinced this is the proper way to do science:
  1. Come up with a theory about nature.
  2. Work out the testable predictions of this theory. (Sometimes this takes time ...string theory...)
  3. Verify the testable predictions falsify your theory if found incorrect.
  4. Test the actual predictions.
  5. If the theory fails the tests, reject the theory. (Or the part that fails.)
  6. If the theory passes all tests, and there isn't a more sensible explanation, be willing to defend the theory as probably being correct.
Notice I emphasized the word actual in number three.  This takes me to my point.  I recently read a comment given as proof evolution isn't true:
Nowhere has the watchful eye of science observed horses give birth to a non-horse.
This "proof" against evolution is what they call a strawman argument. They set up something that looks like a real prediction, (but isn't) knock it down and say: "Ha, no evolution."

Nobody is benefited by these tactics. If people were successful in proving or disproving scientific theories based on strawman arguments science would be completely un-beneficial to mankind.  There is always someone clever enough to build a strawman that "disproves" anything: classical physics, modern physics, chemistry, biology, and you name it. Not only do such tactics have no place in science, they are dangerous.

Population thinking.  What evolution actually predicts is:  organisms do not live independently of other organisms but rather in large populations.  No large changes happen to a single organism.  Instead, small changes spread gradually throughout populations over many generations.  The actual prediction becomes: given enough time and other factors, steady gene changes cause different sectors of populations to slowly diverge until they have become different species.

This prediction is confirmed in every place you look: the fossil record, genetics, comparative anatomy, geographical distribution, etc...  These are the types of predictions evolution stands or falls on.  (As it should be since these are the real predictions.)

In short, though strawmans sound clever, the world would not be better off if we used them to prove or disprove scientific theories.  The time-tested prescription that is beneficial is the outline I made at the beginning of the post.  Stick to it, avoid strawmans, and we might actually make some progress.


  1. I'm very glad to see someone pointing out this logical fallacy. Thank you for pointing this out.

  2. I don't know Joe, I think a vague, hard to prove statement that plays upon experience disproves evolution quite nicely. I vote we switch to the very useful, predictive powers of intelligent design since nobody has ever thought of an argument against it. :)

  3. Nick, maybe you're right....

    Actually, if somebody does work out a testable prediction from intelligent design I'll blog about it. No censorship here.

  4. Humans have seen wolves give birth to non-wolves. They're called the domesticated dog. Why doesn't that count?

    It's not just a strawman, it's a--ahem--one hash argument.

  5. Jared* thanks for bringing up the wolves example because it is a good point. Also, thanks in general for bringing up the one hash argument idea as it gives me new food for thought.

  6. The book "The Age of American Unreason" has some very good examples and discussion on junk science and junk thought.


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