January 19, 2016

Stephen Hawking perfectly illustrates false appeals to authority

Stephen Hawking: Exhibit A on what
constitutes false appeal to authority.
Fallacious appeals to authority are a classic error of common-sense, informal logic, and Stephen Hawking continues to make statements that others give credence that might not be warranted. (Per the first commenter, it's the "others giving credence" that's a fallacious appeal to authority, per the third paragraph and following.)

His latest? We're about to wipe ourselves out.

Maybe we are, maybe we're not, but he brings no special scientific credence to the table on the issue, unless there's a previously undiscovered black hole hurtling toward earth, and even then, that would be the black hole wiping us out, not we ourselves.

Look, he may be right.

But, that's not because he says so, it's because the most pessimistic climate scientists turn out to be right, or the most pessimistic students of nuclear weaponry turn out to be right.

On the former, while I'm no Pollyanna, I'm no James Howard Kunstler, either. On the latter, while I'm no modern day Atoms for Peace type, I think the world, by slow fits and starts, continues to become slightly less nuclearized.

Back to Hawking.

He's been wrong in something halfway approaching his sphere of expertise before, which further undercuts his credibility outside that sphere.

He has claimed, for example, that aliens could wipe us out. Given that we've not discovered any evidence of such aliens so far, and given that, IMO, many touters of SETI have overestimated the values of most variables in the Drake equations, may have psychological reasons for so doing, especially in America, and are deservedly spoofed, I highly doubt his claims.

Of course, his answer has been manned colonization elsewhere.

Per the commenter below, if use of sarcasm is an ad hominem
then we've opened the French window Overton Window.
Well, first of all, Prof. Hawking, if aliens attacked Earth, they'd attack Mars, too, and we certainly won't have the ability for interstellar colonization for thousands if not tens of thousands of years.

Second, given that you've been wrong about manned travel to Mars, overlooking the dangers of cosmic radiation, and other costs, your credibility in this whole area is kind of shot.

I'll grant a slightly higher likelihood Hawking is right about high-tech robots, but, to the degree I do, it's not because of his say-so, it's the say-so of experts in the field.

Back to the main point.

False appeal to authority is just one of a couple of dozen fallacies of informal logic. I encourage people to bookmark that link.

Update: I'm going to tackle the aliens part in further depth.

First, by when our first big radio telescopes were built, we know pretty well that there's no intelligent life within 100 light years of Earth.

Second, alien civilizations advanced enough to travel 100 light years or more probably wouldn't even bother wasting their time on us.

Third, if they did want to wipe us out, they'd have Star Trek-type cloaking devices or something. We'd never know what hit us.

Update 2: Per the second round of comments, I've tagged this post with the tag "salvific technologism." To explain, that's the idea that technology will always be the cavalry, always riding over the hill to save human nature. Having seen the massive problems with importing one invasive species to battle another, the idea that humans would go beyond that, the idea that human control of biology will always save us (it won't always fail us, though, and this should not be read as something anti-GMO), to the idea that human technological engineering will always save us, like in geoengineering against climate change, or blasting off to another planet after wrecking this one, is appalling, as well as being about as likely to be true as biological controls I mentioned at the start of the sentence.

And, for either of the commenters, or others, who have not read through my blog otherwise, those thoughts aren't just mine. I strongly suggest reading the likes of Evgeny Morozov.


SkpeticSeeker said...

Reading your comments here; you take some disparate talks from Stephen Hawking and then mash them together. You also take what he says to extremes. His warnings are pretty general, and nothing that hasn't been said by experts in those areas, and even science fiction authors. It would be pretty hard to imagine that he has not spoken to colleagues who's area of expertise he's commenting on. In one such case, he wasn't giving a talk about aliens imminent destruction of the earth, he was answering an unrelated question from an audience member (he was giving a talk on black holes). Can you point out where he states that colonizing Mars will save us from extinction if aliens attack? How has his comments differed from authorities in that area? (Arguments from authority carry little weight - "authorities" have been wrong in the past. They will do so in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts. - Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World)

"He's been wrong in something halfway approaching his sphere of expertise before." So. Einstein made mistakes as well.

I wouldn't say he was committing a false appeal to authority, but lending his weight to those without exposure to mass media.

Logical fallacies committed by you: ad hominem, reductio ad absurdum, strawman fallacy, logic chopping

Gadfly said...

First fallacy by YOU is misreading the post.

I said, in the body of the post, that the logical fallacy is committed by those invoking him. And, that's true. Headers on blog posts, just like on other stories, whether online or in print, are of necessity short. That still doesn't excuse reading in the body of the post.

His warning about aliens is specific enough, in light of SETI's lack of findings, and what I noted about the Drake equations, to be debunked.

Mars is the next closest place for us to move, therefore the logical next stop.

He was clearly wrong about interplanetary space travel on overlooking cosmic radiation.

As for the question by a member of the audience, he could have answered differently.

I already said that you read this post wrong as far as whose committing the fallacious appeal to authority. Per my response, as noted, I totally reject the strawman claim.

Given that I never attacked his character, the ad hominem claim is ludicrous. If you really believe it's not, I suggest you aren't an actual skeptic, unless the misspelling in your "handle" is deliberate. And, combining all of that above, I of course reject logic chopping.

Therefore, I'll charge you back with, per the Wikipedia list, argument from ignorance, argument from personal incredulity, continuum fallacy, and intentionality fallacy. I can think of more if you give me time.

Actually, I don't need more time. If you're trying to defend Stephen Hawking "just because he's Stephen Hawking," well, then, it's petard-hoisting time, baby, because you just committed the false appeal to authority, or maybe an unspoken appeal to emotion, yourself.

PDiddie said...

SkepticSeeker gets it.

This is the worst post (and Tweets) you have ever written.

Gadfly said...

Thank you! :) Or more seriously ... I don't care.

SkepticSeeker said...

Part 1.
"Stephen Hawking perfectly illustrates false appeals to authority"

Subject: Stephen Hawking
Verb: illustrates
Prepositional phrase: false appeal to authority.

The title of your post leads to the conclusion. Had you started with "Citing Stephen Hawking demonstrates false appeal to authority" the unspoken subject would imply, as you added to your post, others, not Stephen. If misreading is a fallacy (not on your linked list), then misleading is a fallacy, which is what your title does. If you were seeking brevity, then you could have said, "Citing Hawking off-topic demonstrates logical fallacy." Newspapers have limited space, the internet not so much, so you're over-reaching there.

Let's look at what Mr. Hawking has to say...

On alien life:
"...[F]amed physicist Stephen Hawking posited that an alien visitation would put Earthlings in the same position as Native Americans when Columbus landed on their shores." I've read this elsewhere by other scientists and anthropologists. "'Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach,' Hawking speculated." Speculated: v, form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence.

Does alien life exist? We don't know. But lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Life arose here, there's a strong possibility that it arose somewhere else amongst all the billions of planets circling billions of star within billions of galaxies, and there's more universe beyond what we can see. Are they space-faring? Probably not. Have they reached us. I have some serious doubts. I don't have a problem with believing alien life has arisen somewhere. Until presented with real evidence (hence I'm a skeptic), I don't have a problem with believing ET has never visited earth.

On travelling to Mars:
Hawking: "...we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years..." He doesn't say why.

"By that time [1,000-10,000 years] we should have spread out into space, and to other stars,..."

I don't see where he missed the problem of cosmic radiation (amongst many other problems he fails to mention). I think there are many other things to worry about overcoming first. I also don't see how he thinks it will be easy, nor that cosmic radiation is not problem. In other areas, he may be overly optimistic. But there isn't enough information in the news story to demonstrate that he's ignorant of cosmic radiation. Hence, your strawman fallacy.

SkepticSeeker said...

Part 2 (and it does't accept the html code is said it does)

Am I defending Hawking because he's Hawking? Despite your belief, no. But you do seem to be attacking him because he's Stephen Hawking. I count 4 commentaries, one starts "Hawking still clueless." Between that and (paraphrasing) he's only a particle physicist, not an expert in other areas, therefore we can't take what he speaks about outside physics seriously, I think ad hominem stands.

"Well, first of all, Prof. Hawking, if aliens attacked Earth, they'd attack Mars, too,..." - You
I don't see where he talked about colonizing Mars to save us from alien attacks; from ourselves, certainly, but not aliens. You've combined two separate comments into one commentary. Hence, logic chopping. If not, then which fallacy best describes this? Unless of course you rise to the challenge in my first comment, "Can you point out where he states that colonizing Mars will save us from extinction if aliens attack?"

You're problem here is citing news stories, which you seem to do a lot of, but I'll concede that I haven't checked everyone link you've made, and nor do I want to code a bot to collect the data either, but I doubt you have the statistic handy either. News stories never really capture the entirety of what is said. (And some older ones are now missing.) Certainly there are quotes, but it's not likely to catch every quote, and will be edited for brevity. And your link in this commentary is to a news story of a news story about an upcoming broadcast on 26 January (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35344664). I suggest not using news bites as sound sources of information, they're hardly the best source for in-depth information. And it is too easy to fill in the gaps, which you have done, with your own opinions. Hawking's own site only mentions Mars as part of a series of children's books. Looking at his list of publications, I fail to see anything he's published on the topics, so he's speaking from opinion. The weight of his opinion brings me to the next topic.

The mass majority of scientist lack the public exposure that Hawking commands. And his brief comments parrot what I have read from other experts in various fields. You don't really address that either.

You state that Hawking is only a cosmologist and particle physicist, and "NOT an astronaut, a planetary astronomer/physicist, nor an astronautics engineer." You then speak with authority on a broader range of topics in your blog than Hawking, most of which you are certainly not an expert in. So, if you're only expressing an opinion, why can't he?

I certainly don't have a problem with you pointing out mistakes. But make sure what you're claiming the person said, is what they said. You did quite well on the Lincoln atheist entry, even if I don't agree entirely with you, and I learned a few things as well.