Logic portal (courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
How should we deal with a journalist who writes an op-ed piece in a popular newspaper online and uses unreasonable tactics? I am choosing to expose this writer’s illogical devices.
John Birmingham, for the Brisbane Times, wrote an opinion piece, ‘For God’s sake, how did he get out?’ (February 6, 2014). Part of Birmingham’s cynicism was:
I’m sorry, Kentucky. We could have kept him here, you know. We have a large containment facility where we store all of our Ken Hams, a free range Wallyworld we like to call the Sunshine State. I’m not sure how Ham got out of the Queensland high school system where he had been teaching – ahem – science, and made his way to your fair shores, but, sorry about that.
This is part of his ‘comment’ on the USA debate between Australian-born creationist and former Queensland science school teacher, Ken Ham, and popular scientist, Bill Nye. The debate was held at the Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky, on February 4, 2014, and the debate was titled: ‘Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?’. All of the criticism was against Ken Ham, the creationist. I did not read one piece of critique of Bill Nye’s views. In fact, apart from identification of Nye as one debater, I didn’t read a thing about Nye’s views. There was only one snippet of news grab video associated with the article. It was nothing more than a grab one would get from a TV news bulletin. To listen to the debate, see, ‘Bill Nye debates Ken Ham’.
We will notice that John Birmingham used logical fallacies in his article and some of the comments which follow use logical fallacies that create situations where it is impossible to have a logical discussion. Reasonable conversation becomes futile. “Wallyworld’ labelling is using an ad hominem fallacy. Hang on, as I attempt to explain.
What is a logical fallacy?
‘A fallacy is, very generally, an error in reasoning. This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts. To be more specific, a fallacy is an “argument” in which the premises given for the conclusion do not provide the needed degree of support’ (Labossiere 1995).
Why should we even be concerned about people using logical fallacies in conversation or when they write? What is your response when a person doesn’t deal with the issues you are raising? They may give you the flick pass of avoidance, change the topic, reach a conclusion that is unrelated to the flow of the conversation, and may abuse you. Does that cause you to want to engage in discussion with them? Is it possible to have a rational conversation with people who do this?
When someone uses such a fallacy, it is unattainable to have a logical conversation with that person as the person is committing a logical error. He or she is being illogical in the discussion. When discussions become irrational – because of false logic – there is no way to get back on track until the matter is addressed.
I struck an example of an illogical discussion in this well-known journalist’s article in an opinion piece in an online newspaper.
Birmingham’s use of logical fallacies
Back to Birmingham’s cynicism and tactics in his article. He stated that
I’m sorry, Kentucky, that Ken Ham had nothing better to offer in argument than biblical passages and a weird new division between ‘observational science’ and ‘historical science’ which seemed to be based on a deeper categorical separation between ‘confusing thinky stuff often involving big sums’ and ‘awesome bible stories which would be even more awesome with a hard-rockin’ but not too hard Christian rock soundtrack.’
a. Appeal to ridicule
Notice his tactics:
- ‘Ken Ham had nothing better to offer in argument than biblical passages and a weird new division between “observational science” and “historical science”’ (Birmingham 2014).
Here Birmingham committed the logical fallacy known as, ‘Appeal to ridicule fallacy’, also known as ‘appeal to mockery, the horse laugh’. Labossiere explained the nature of this fallacy:
The Appeal to Ridicule is a fallacy in which ridicule or mockery is substituted for evidence in an “argument.” This line of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. X, which is some form of ridicule is presented (typically directed at the claim).
2. Therefore claim C is false.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because mocking a claim does not show that it is false (Appeal to ridicule fallacy: Labossiere 1995).
Birmingham’s appeal to ridicule continued: ‘“confusing thinky stuff often involving big sums” and “awesome bible stories which would be even more awesome with a hard-rockin’ but not too hard Christian rock soundtrack”’.
Birmingham is not dealing with the issues raised by Ham or Nye; he is only interested in scoffing at Ham’s tactics in the debate. It is a fallacious tactic using the illogic of an appeal to ridicule fallacy.
The ridicule continued against Ken Ham:
I promise you, Kentucky, this will not happen again.
We’ll get Mr Ham back here and make sure he’s securely confined again where he belongs. Teaching science in the Queensland school system (Birmingham 2014).
The ridicule is used to avoid dealing with the issues Ken Ham raised in the debate. It is obvious that Birmingham is against the content of Ham’s portion of the debate but not once in this article did he engage his readers with the evidence Ham raised. Birmingham’s points were to denigrate Ham and what Ham considers is a biblical position on creation. Birmingham’s view was:
We have a large containment facility where we store all of our Ken Hams, a free range Wallyworld we like to call the Sunshine State. I’m not sure how Ham got out of the Queensland high school system where he had been teaching – ahem – science, and made his way to your fair shores, but, sorry about that.
That’s another appeal to ridicule. It’s a despicable tactic to avoid dealing with the issues raised. It’s a scoffing ploy to avoid fronting the matters Ham advanced. It is sloppy, illogical journalism that is meant to divert attention from the content of the debate.
Birmingham did it especially with the title of his article, ‘For God’s sake, how did he get out?’ He detests biblical creation, but has no problem using ‘God’ in what seems like a blasphemous way. ‘How did he get out?’
He’s talking about how he got out of Queensland, Australia with this language: ‘Border control somehow slipped up and let Ken Ham out of the country’; ‘Ken Ham out of the country’, ‘I’m not sure how Ham got out of the Queensland high school system’, and ‘we’ll get Mr Ham back here and make sure he’s securely confined again where he belongs. Teaching science in the Queensland school system’.
But there is more….
b. Ad hominem fallacy
Birmingham’s use of logical fallacies continued. As an adjunct at the end of his article, he wrote an ‘updater’ in which he gave his assessment of those who made comments to his article:
Vintage comments below. Who’d a thunk a blog about nut job creationism would bring out the nut job creationists. I’d be fascinated for all the fairy tale fans who comment today to add some extra data. Just for me. If you believe the world was created in six days, could you also tell me whether you find the science of climate change to be (a) compelling, or (b) a conspiracy of super wealthy lab coat wearing geeks (Birmingham 2014)
Notice what he does here.
· He uses ‘thunk’, which is crass language for lack of thinking by idiots. The Urban Dictionary gives the meaning of ‘thunk’ as, ‘Hillbilly terminoligy for thought’ (Urban dictionary 2004. S v thunk). Another definition was, ‘bastardization of thought. Used only by idiots with poor grammar’ (Urban dictionary 2003. S v thunk).
‘Nut job creationism’;
‘Nut job creationists’;
‘Fairy tale fans who comment’;
Six day creationists: Could you ‘tell me whether you find the science of climate change’ compelling or a conspiracy?
‘Thunk’ and ‘nut job’ are designed as name calling or an attack against the person. What is this? It is known as an ad hominem fallacy and is illogical (fallacious) reasoning:
An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:
1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
3. Therefore A’s claim is false.
The reason why an Ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made) [Ad Hominem: Labossiere 1995].
c. Red herring fallacy
What is Birmingham doing when he asks, ‘Six day creationists: Could you “tell me whether you find the science of climate change” compelling or a conspiracy?’ The topic is six day creationism but he goes to ‘the science of climate change’. What is he doing? He’s switching topics. He doesn’t want to discuss the topic he raises, ‘six day creationists’, but goes to what he wants to discuss – climate change. This is known as a red herring fallacy because he switches topics but going to an irrelevant topic that is not related to the theory put forward by six day creationists.
What’s the nature of a red herring fallacy? It’s also called a smoke screen or a wild goose chase.
A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Topic A is under discussion.
2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim (Red Herring: Labossiere 1995).
Birmingham’s model set for the commenters
I took the opportunity to respond online to Birmingham with a comment:
I have come to respect the Brisbane Times as a reliable online news service.
That objectivity flew out the journalistic window with this comment.
John Birmingham’s cynical sarcasm of the Nye-Ham debate on creationism and science was an example of bias. The assessment of the debate in, ‘Clash over worldviews’ (Creation Ministries International), at least treated the content of the Nye vs Ham debate seriously. But that would be too creationist savvy for Birmingham.
Now is the time for the Brisbane Times to present a balanced perspective by asking a creationist, say from the Brisbane-based Creation Ministries International (that employs PhD scientists), to respond to the debate and publish in the Brisbane Times.
Nicolas P. Rougier’s rendering of the human brain.png (courtesy Wikipedia)
The rant and rave
Then came the predictable tirade of comments against what I, a reasonable and responsible Christian, wrote. Let’s examine a few of the comments:
a. Ad hominem
Here’s one of them:
I hold responsible CMI, Church of ‘Christ’ or whatever the whackos call themselves and people like you for the following-
Back around 1999 2000 I was studying with a young man at tertiary Level in the subject of Physics.
We were lab partners and I very much enjoyed his company.
He left Uni after succumbing to the shit that causes brain and knowledge cancer called ‘Christianity’.
I am Christian, but the shit these cults use is very potent.
Like suicide bombers going to heaven in ISlam I guess.
Messes their heads up right and proper.
I tried after a plea from his family to call him back from picking nuts for some ‘church’.
Slave Labour in other words.
I don’t know where he is but I wish him well.
This type of ‘Religion’ is a mental illness.
Note his ad hominem attacks, ‘the whackos … and people like you’; ‘the shit that causes brain and knowledge cancer called “Christianity”’; ‘the shit these cults use’, ‘Slave Labour in other words’. These are illogical ad hominem fallacies that prevent reasonable discussion of the issues raised.
To say, ‘I am Christian’, and then speak about ‘the shit that causes brain and knowledge cancer called “Christianity”’, smacks of hypocrisy.
Then this person is using another fallacy.
b. Genetic fallacy
He blamed CMI [Creation Ministries International], Church of ‘Christ’, ‘Christianity’ and me (he doesn’t even know me apart from what I wrote) for what happened to a young man studying physics with him. Blaming other organisations, Christianity and me for causing this situation is using a genetic logical fallacy where ‘a perceived defect in the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence that discredits the claim or thing itself. It is also a line of reasoning in which the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence for the claim or thing’ (Genetic fallacy: Labossiere 1995).
Another commenter perpetrated the same fallacy when he wrote:
I roared with laughter when commenter Dougie suggested that Creation Ministries International, the Brisbane based Young Earth Creationist outfit, be asked to provide some context or commentary on the debate.
Dougie must have a short memory. Ken Ham committed a fraud against CMI when he stole CMI’s magazine subscriber base. When CMI filed suit against Ken Ham for “unbiblical, unethical, and unlawful behaviour”, Ken Ham shot straight back claiming CMI staff had “spiritual problems”, including inferring they had issues with “immorality, witchcraft and necrophilia.”
The dispute dragged on, acrimoniously, from 2005 to 2009, confirming to Christians and non-Christians alike that neither Creationist outfit neither understands or follows the teachings of Jesus. Hardly surprising.
Observe his approach. He did not deal with the issue I raised but used the conflict about fraud between Ken Ham and CMI. This is blaming issues with two organisations and this has nothing to do with the matter which I raised. When Nathan referred to a defect in the origin of a claim rather than dealing with the claim itself, he committed a genetic logical fallacy.
By the way, I do not support Christians taking Christians to court on the basis of what is taught in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 (NLT). However, Nathan scuttles logical discussion about the creation-evolution debate by spinning off into a discussion he wants to pursue about Ken Ham vs CMI conflict (a genetic fallacy). This shipwrecks logical discussion about the issues at hand.
c. Appeal to ridicule
Nathan also committed the appeal to ridicule fallacy of flaming and goading me with his comment, ‘I roared with laughter when commenter Dougie suggested….’. He also did it with his statement, ‘confirming to Christians and non-Christians alike that neither Creationist outfit neither (sic) understands or (sic) follows the teachings of Jesus. Hardly surprising’.
There are quite a few other responses to me that I could examine for fallacies used, but let’s look at one more by Big willie Style:
@ Dougie “Now is the time for the Brisbane Times to present a balanced prspective…”
a. The article includes video footage of the debate between Nye & Ham. You’re free to investigate further, as is anyone else, and get both sides of the argument.
b. You do realise Blunt Instrument is an opinion column? JB [John Birmingham] isn’t BT’s [Brisbane Time’s] resident writer on scients, religion, politics or anything else. He’s free to give his opinion, as are you.
c. “A balanced perspective”. Spare me. Fairfax and the ABC are the only sane media organisations left in this country. Jump over to one of the Daily Terror’s online articles and try and post a comment that disagrees with their status quo. All the reason, logic and correct grammar in the world won’t help you get it through the moderator. For an institution that bangs on about free speech, the Murdochracy is doing its best to ensure otherwise.
Big willie has engaged in one of the common fallacies to side-track an argument. He built a….
d. Straw man fallacy
What is that? ‘The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position…. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person’ (Straw man: Labossiere 1995).
How does Big willie do this? He cited what I said, ‘Now is the time for the Brisbane Times to present a balanced perspective…’ Then he gave what he considered was ‘a balanced perspective’:
There is video footage of the debate in the article. No there is NOT, Willie. There is only a TV news grab, not the whole debate. What he failed to say was that John Birmingham’s article, even though an opinion piece, did not fairly address the issues raised by BOTH debaters. John hoed into Ken Ham’s views but Bill Nye’s views were given a clean slate.
I’m free to investigate further (both sides of the debate). That does not give a balanced written piece of opinion by JB. I had to Google for the debate online.
The writer is free to give his opinion because it is an opinion piece of writing. Fair enough! But opinion when it is one-eyed is not giving an opinion on the content that both men in the debate gave. It is bigotry when only one side is lambasted by a writer.
If I want ‘a balanced perspective’, I should go to Fairfax or the ABC says Big willie, as they ‘are the only sane media organisations left in this country’. The others are described as ‘Daily Terror’s online articles’ and ‘Murdochracy’.
These points are obviously in support of Big willie’s view but he is presenting a picture of a person who ‘simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position’. I’m speaking about the Ham-Nye positions. It’s a straw man fallacy (Straw man: Labossiere 1995).
In his last point, Big willie has committed another fallacy with his preferring Fairfax and the ABC over the Daily Mirror (which he calls Daily Terror) and Murdoch (News Limited) newspapers/publications, which he called ‘Murdochracy’. This is another example of the appeal to ridicule fallacy.
Logical discussion by both writers and those who provide comments to those writers (even letters-to-the-editor) can be inhibited when logical fallacies are used. An examination of this article by John Birmingham and some of the comments has demonstrated that some of the common fallacies used were: appeal to ridicule, ad hominem, red herring, straw man, and genetic fallacy.
It is important for readers of any material to be aware of the nature of logical fallacies, name them where possible, and to show how logical discussion is handicapped by the use of fallacies.
The creation-evolution debate is only one of the topics that attracts those who engage in this kind of illogical activity. Logical fallacies use fallacious reasoning that causes logical discussion to be shipwrecked on the rocks of unreasonableness.
I invite you to read all of the comments to the John Birmingham article to identify the use of further logical fallacies. I have relied on Michael Labossiere’s identification and explanation of a group of logical fallacies.
What kinds of logical fallacies are used in this comment?
That is correct. JB [John Birmingham] is biased. We all are.
He is biased in favour of common sense, critical thinking and evidence based knowledge.
On the other hand there are a lot of people posting here who are biased in favour of believing stories that are clearly not meant to be true or accurate.
Take your pick.
Birmingham, J 2014. For God’s sake, how did he get out? Brisbane Times (online), February 6. Available at: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/blunt-instrument/for-gods-sake-how-did-he-get-out-20140205-321yi (Accessed 30 May 2015).
Labossiere, M C 1995. Fallacies. The Nizkor Project (online). Available at: http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ (Accessed 30 May 2015).
 The Brisbane Times identifies John Birmingham as ‘a columnist and blogger for Fairfax Media. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude’. Available at: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/by/John-Birmingham (Accessed 30 May 2015).
 Available at: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/blunt-instrument/for-gods-sake-how-did-he-get-out-20140205-321yi (Accessed 30 May 2015).
 All examples of logical fallacies in my article here are by Michael C Labossiere (1995).
 Dougie, North Lakes, Qld, February 06, 2014, 7.56AM, available at: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/comment/blunt-instrument/for-gods-sake-how-did-he-get-out-20140205-321yi (Accessed 30 May 2015).
 Ibid., Dino not to be confused with, Sydney, February 06, 2014, 5:38PM.
 Ibid., Nathan Zamprogno, Sydney, February 06, 2014, 1:49PM.
 Ibid., Big willie Style, February 06, 2014, 9:05AM.
 Ibid.,Seedysea, February 06, 2014, 11:36AM.
Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 November 2015.