5X5 Episode 67

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5X5 Episode 67
Special Pleading
30th April 2009

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5X5 66 5X5 68
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Skepticism 101 - Special Pleading[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about special pleading. Special pleading is a fallacious form of argument in which someone defends a proposition, a claim, or a position from possible criticism by coming up with a special exception or reason to explain all contradicting evidence or the lack of any evidence for the claim that they're making.

R: Steve, before we go any further, I know that normally on 5X5 each of us is supposed to contribute something of merit, but I think that tonight I should be exempted from that because my throat is just a little sore and also because I'm a special snowflake.

J: (laughs) Special snowflake!

S: You're a special snowflake?

R: Yes.

E: (laughs) I mean, what I'm reminded of is when Randi challenges people to take his million dollar challenge and they step up to the plate and they actually get to the point of performing the test and it turns out that they fail in the test every time it's done, that's when the special pleading kicks in. "Oh well, the stars weren't aligned correctly," or "the skeptics in the room were giving off negative vibrations, and therefore I couldn't accomplish my paranormal feat."

J: Yeah, that's one of my favorite ones; that's great. In a way it's like they're casting an immunity [spell] on their belief or their claim, saying that "you can't judge this because of x, y and z," and in that case there's no way to test it. And anything that is untestable is typically used for special—typically, special pleading is used to make excuses for it.

S: Right, so with enough special pleading you can eventually render any claim unfalsifiable because you're saying, "any way that there is to falsify this notion, there is this arbitrary reason why it doesn't work."

B: Yeah, they're trying to hand out a "get out of jail free" card in order for people to swallow what they're trying to sell. It just doesn't work. Science doesn't work that way.

S: Yeah, but you know, there is sometimes superficial similarities to ways science does proceed, and oftentimes we get questions to the effect of "well, why isn't this scientific process the same thing as special pleading?" Like for example, if a scientist has a hypothesis, he does a study and it comes out negative, it falsifies his hypothesis or he doesn't get the results that he or she thought they were going to get, then he may come up with another hypothesis as for why that was. Why didn't the experiment work out the way that was predicted. That's not special pleading, that's just generating—

B: But you test that.

S: Yeah, but then you have to test it, that's the key. It's that—

B: Right.

S: —you're not just coming up with an excuse for lack of evidence or for contradictory evidence; you're coming up with yet another hypothesis that in and of itself needs to be falsifiable and testable. So that's OK, it's OK to have a chain. It's also OK to bring up factors that are known to exist. That's not special pleading either if you know that there is some effect or some force at work, and that that could confound an observation or a study. Then it's OK to invoke that. Again, you should still put all your ducks in a row; test your specific explanation. But when special pleading really becomes fallacious is when new things are made up as needed—so-called post hoc or ad-hoc rationalization—for each case, in order to explain away the lack of evidence.

R: Right, the best way to tell special pleading is when someone is coming up with an exception to a rule that is completely irrelevant.

J: Yeah, one of the most famous examples of special pleading would be Carl Sagan's invisible dragon. Like, a good example would be that Carl Sagan says, "well, did you know that I have a dragon?" And you say, "yeah, well where is it?" And he goes, "well, the dragon is invisible." "Oh yeah, well let me go over and try to touch it." "Well, I'm the only one that can actually touch the dragon." "OK, well, let me put some powder on the floor and see its footprints." "Well, it's levitating." You know, so any time you throw another question out there to validate the claim, another excuse is given to make it so you can't test against it.

S: Right, and that's an obvious example to illustrate the point. But special pleading is often much more subtle when employed by defenders of various pseudo-sciences like people who think that UFOs are extraterrestrial space craft. We might ask "well how come there isn't one completely in-focus unambiguous photo or video of something that can't be anything other than a sophisticated space craft?" And then they say, "well, the aliens only want to give us a glimpse, they don't want to reveal themselves unambiguously." OK, they just made that up to explain away the lack of evidence. But that is what we encounter quite frequently.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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