I’ve long been intrigued by psuedoscience and conspiracy theories (ever since I took an undergraduate philosophy of biology class and read some exchanges between creationists and scientists). I’m particularly fascinated by what such accounts reveal about how we assess and deal with our own ignorance.
There are lots of things we don’t know. The important question (to this philosopher, at least) is is what conclusions we draw from our lack of understanding.
One of the features of pseudoscience/conspiracy theories/denialism is the tendency to draw some positive conclusion from our ignorance of some fact. This is is a fallacy known as an “argument from ignorance,” which at root has the following form:
- I don’t know that P is true.
- Therefore P is false.
This is often coupled with a another fallacy, known a “false dilemma,” which has this form:
- P is false.
- Therefore Q is true.
Obviously this is a fallacy when and only when the implicitly assumed disjunction (“either P is true or Q is true”) doesn’t actually hold — that is, when the supposed dilemma is a false dilemma.
We find an example of this sort of bad reasoning in many current discussions of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines jet. There was a roundup of some crazy conspiracy theories about the missing plane in my local paper the other day (My favorite on that list is that it was destroyed by a mini black hole, but they didn’t notice the even juicier theories that involve a time-travel portal.) There’s another, more politically themed, list here.
As I expected as soon as I heard about this case, the alien abduction crowd sees this as decisive evidence that a flying saucer has nabbed a plane full of Earthlings. See for example, here (and you’ll want to read the comments too):
There were no reports of bad weather and no sign of why the plane would vanished from radar screens almost an hour after it took off. There are reports of two oil slicks off the coast but absolutely no wreckage has yet to be found. Where did the plane go?
There is only one possible answer. Aliens.
“There is only one possible answer.” There’s your false dilemma in a nutshell.
Let’s bring this back to questions about science and denialism. Notice that we have a genuine mystery that standard accepted processes of reason and evidence has been unable to solve. Call that “science” if you like. Here’s something that science hasn’t explained.
But the denialist needs to go further. The denialist needs to say that we have something that science cannot explain.
Now it’s undeniably true that this is a case that is unexpected for those of us who don’t think that aliens visit Earth and abduct humans. We’d have thought that if a flight didn’t land where it was supposed to, we’d find the airplane (or what’s left of it) somewhere along the flight path sooner than later.
But it’s obviously not the case that all non-alien (or non-time-portal) explanations have been ruled out. We have no reason to suppose that science can’t explain what happened, and we have every reason to suppose that science will discover what happened eventually.
And what’s true for missing airplanes is also true for so-called “missing links” in evolution, and other supposed gaps in our naturalistic account of the world. There’s much that we don’t understand, but none of the mysteries we find give us reason to suppose that there’s something paranormal, or conspiratorial, or supernatural, going on.