Animal Rights

Fallacious Reasoning

| by Dr Ray Greek

Science and the scientific method are the best way we have of understanding the material world. Nothing else ever discovered by humans even comes close! Most people, including unfortunately many in the scientific community leave it at that. What is left out of this worldview is the very foundation of science itself: critical thought. From FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed :

What is the definition of critical thought?

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At its most basic, critical thought is learning how to think, not what to think. Consider the prospect of deciding one day to sit down at the piano and, without any musical training, play a Mozart symphony. Unless you were the rare individual who was born a prodigy, that would be impossible. By the same token, no one plays Mozart for years and then decides to learn the musical scale. You must first learn how to play; then you can choose what to play. Critical thinking teaches us how to evaluate arguments and claims so we can then form opinions, separate fact from fiction, and make better decisions.

Critical thought includes defining words very precisely, evaluating sentences and paragraphs to find out what the authors are and are not actually saying, and judging whether fallacious reasoning is used to prop up the argument.

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In essence, critical thinking is a system that allows us to obtain the correct answer and evaluate claims and other people’s opinions. It also includes accepting unwelcome revelations about one’s own positions. As MN Plano noted: “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Don’t assign to stupidity what might be due to ignorance. And try not to assume your opponent is the ignorant one—until you can show it isn’t you.”

I think I’m a pretty reasonable person. Am I critical thinker?

According to the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

You are a critical thinker if you use all available tools to separate fact from fiction, such as experience, observation, reasoning, and other resources. You are a critical thinker if you insist on fairness and honesty when evaluating the positions of others. You are a critical thinker if you are skeptical but fair.

It sounds like critical thought relates not just to science but in decision making as a whole.

That’s absolutely right. Using critical thought on a daily basis and making oneself familiar with the world around us is immensely important. Unless one makes a habit of thinking clearly and critically in matters of small importance, it is likely that when the time comes to consider a matter of great importance, you simply will not have the necessary skills to make the right decisions. One can far too easily believe in things that will result in suffering and disaster.

Are you saying that the lack of critical thinking has serious consequences?

Absolutely. If you, the people around you, the government, and other institutions base decisions on fallacious reasoning, flawed logic, or a misinterpretation of science, it is highly probable that life as you know it will be worse than if the principles of critical thought, logic, and science were followed. Granted, there are indeed situations where an individual behaved irrationally, such as playing the lottery by buying 1,000 tickets and selecting the same numbers on each ticket, and still got what he sought—say winning a million dollars. But such outcomes are rare. Like playing the lottery, ignoring the laws of logic and science may give you a good result occasionally, but the odds are against it.

Many of the atrocities that have occurred historically have their roots in the lack of critical thinking when the population as a whole failed to question bad premises. Combined with fallacious reasoning, such poor mental practices were used either to justify atrocities or led directly to them.

Maimonides said: “One must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” Logic, reason, science, and critical thought are the measures taken to prevent the illnesses of authoritarianism and dogmatism that often lead to persecution and tragedy. As Brand Blanshard noted: “Where great human good and ills are involved, the distortion of belief from any sort of avoidable cause is immoral, and the more immoral the greater the stakes.”

Part of thinking critically includes avoiding what are called fallacies or fallacious reasoning. For example, according to Wikipedia the Irrelevant Conclusion Fallacy: “diverts attention away from a fact in dispute rather than address it directly.” (Diverting the argument, especially when you are losing, is what Dr Ringach did when I answered his question about anesthesia (see below).)

Appeal to emotion occurs when “an argument is made due to the manipulation of emotions, rather than the use of valid reasoning.” For example, saying you want to help sick people or people suffering from paralysis or children born prematurely. We all want that! The question under discussion is how it can be best accomplished. As long as the animal model community can make the scientifically under-educated public dewy-eyed with the mere mention of curing childhood cancer, blindness or paralysis, society will never address whether animal models will actually result in those cures.

Appeal to authority is when “an assertion is deemed true because of the position or authority of the person asserting it.”

The ad hominem is “attacking the person instead of the argument.”

Let’s compare the above to recent statements from Dr Ringach. In his blog titled Trying to Help Patients with Paralysis Dr Ringach uses emotion to make his case that research on animals is helping people with paralysis. After all, who would not want to help people with paralysis? If research on animals were in fact helping people by developing a brain-computer interface (BCI), then Dr Ringach would be justified in stating his case as he does. But lets look at the facts. The BCI is in its initial stages of development. It is not even close to being mass marketed. It is largely the result of advances in computer technology, and many similar technologies have looked good at this stage only to fail later. Further, Dr Ringach has stated as self-evident (I read his references and they do not prove his case) the claim that research with animals has made the development so far a reality. In fact, research using animals was at most responsible for discovering very basic facts about the brain and these could have been discovered in other ways. Even if we take Dr Ringach at his word about the basic discoveries, attributing BCI to animal-based research is like attributing the invention of the space shuttle to the people who first forged metal. This essay violates both appeal to authority and appeal to emotion in addition to misrepresenting the facts. A similar argument can be made about his surfactant claims.

His essays are nonetheless typical of animal-based researchers and their supporters. They cannot refute the claims I have made about prediction and the harm from animal-based research and therefore must resort to writing promissory notes for the future. I sincerely hope that BCI becomes a reality but it is isn’t there yet and promising that someday it will be there unrealistically raises the hopes of people with paralysis and that is just plain mean. How many times have the headlines screamed Cancer Cured but when we read further we find out the cancer was in mice? There are countless examples of this. The animal model community has been writing checks it can’t cash for decades. My blog on yet another cancer mouse that is supposed to solve all the problems of making mice into humans is example.

In the last sentence of the blog Dr Ringach states “Does the science work?  Just watch the video.  As they say...  The proof is in the pudding.” Number 1, no one, especially me is challenging whether science works. This is called a straw man argument, which is defined as “based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position.” Basically you say or imply your opponent said X and then refute X. I am unaware of anyone questioning, in my back and forth with Dr Ringach, whether science works therefore I am perplexed as to why he would feel the need to say this. We both agree science works we disagree on whether using animals as predictive models for humans is science. I discount using animals as predictive models and astrology both on the grounds that they guess the right answer only a small percentage of the time. (Astrology fails on other grounds as well, but that is immaterial to the argument.)

Number 2, the video is not a ringing endorsement of the technique. Similar results have been obtained with surface EEG. The scientific literature is clear on the pitfalls of the technology to date. The proof is indeed in the pudding.

In another blog Dr Ringach similarly stated: “Such conspiracy theories are not dissimilar from those held by other science denialists.” Again, comparing me to a science denialist serves no purpose other than to hopefully (in Dr Ringach’s mind) confuse the reader into thinking I am a science denialist. For the careless reader, I am sure this must work some of the time. As to whether I weave a conspiracy theory in my blogs, I leave that to the reader to decide. The results when large egos are combined with large amounts of money need no conspiracy theory to explain. (For more on the money involved in animal-based research please see Animal Models in Light of Evolution.)

In another blog Dr Ringach stated: “As Dr. Greek is an anesthesiologist, I would like him to explain (in a self-contained post) how anesthesia works without using any concepts and knowledge that were the  result of the use of animals in biomedical research.” I answered him by explaining that science still has not provided an answer to his question at which point he changed the question and claimed victory. This is an example of the Irrelevant Conclusion Fallacy. It is simply changing the subject when you have been found out.

His blog on complex systems is similar. He wrote about how complex systems can be analyzed and prediction made. This is absolutely true! The only problem with the blog is that I never claimed complex or chaotic systems could not be analyzed or predictions made, rather I stated that two very similar complex systems, like monozygotic twins or chimpanzees and humans, can exhibit different outcomes to pertubations (exposure to drugs or disease) of the system (in this cases their bodies), because of very small differences between the systems for example differences imposed by epigenetics. My position on this is not controversial! (Read Animal Models in Light of Evolution! It is all in there. And again, I don’t make money on the book!!)

As a final example, in Dr Ringach’s blog about all the groups that support the use of animals in research, he equates this support with truth. Several points need to be made here. Bertrand Russell said that even when all the experts agree that does not mean they are right. But the experts Dr Ringach cited have, for the most part, a vested interest in sustaining animal-based research. (For more on this, see my recent blog on money and animal models.) The AMA and the other physician and scientist-based groups are supported in part by universities which bring in large amounts of money from the animal model. They are also staffed (meaning their president, vice-president, and board and so forth) by doctors who come primarily from universities where animal-based research funds the coffers. This is not an insignificant conflict! The charities mentioned also have a long history of funding animal-based research which makes it unlikely they will come out and admit the inadequacy of the practice. This is not a conspiracy this is simply Facts of Life 101. Combine the aforementioned fallacies with outright misrepresentations of the facts, for example accusing me of currently sharing an address with Rick Bogle in hopes of discrediting me (an ad hominem), the reader has cause to seriously doubt Dr Ringach is playing fair with the facts. (Although I say again, Mr Bogle is actually a nice guy. He just needs to stay away from the computer when imbibing.)

I should here again remind the reader that my main purpose in considering the issue of animals in science is not to analyze past discoveries or the social and political issues surrounding their use. The only issue Dr Shanks and I present in our books, and that AFMA is concerned with, is that of using animals as predictive models. History is important and I do not like to let pass any version of the history of science that does not stand up to scrutiny. But in the final analysis my issue is all about prediction. The importance of that issue dwarfs the rest, regardless of whether you are an animal protectionist or current or future patient.

If Dr Ringach disagrees with me, and he obviously does, then lets get up in front of a live audience and put our facts out for all to judge. Dario Ringach, you promised a debate on prediction in exchange for me appearing on your panel! Keep that promise and I will then debate you on any subject(s) of your choosing.

Blogs are not debates.


(For more about critical thought and other issues raised above, please see FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed. For scientists and or those already familiar with critical thinking and who are more focused on the hardcore science of our position, please see Animal Models in Light of Evolution.