President’s Update: Critical Thinking Lessons from the Same Sex Marriage Debate

With thanks to Dr Craig Cormick, President, Australian Science Communicators

Listening to the arguments being made about Same Sex Marriage causes me to ponder how well critical thinking is being used in public debate. Some of the flawed arguments that are being made – predominantly by the No side it has to be said – are similar to arguments being made by those who oppose infant vaccination, climate change, stem cells and other contentious sciences.

That people make illogical arguments to fool themselves is nothing new, but I feel we need to call out those who make illogical arguments to fool others. Particularly those illogical arguments that ‘feel’ right and have become the tools of misinformation.

The reason false arguments work well, in many cases, is that while the world is large and complex our brains favour simple explanations. We tend to seek out ideas to confirm what we already suspect, trust people we find more appealing, and take our own individual experiences and treat it as evidence.

Some of the illogical arguments that are used that you should look out for include:

Broken Logic. An example of broken logic is citing a child who got sick from a vaccination as proof that all vaccinations are dangerous and may make your child sick. Sometimes broken logic statements feel accurate, and only when really analysed do you find they are not. Sometimes they are just clumsy, like finding an error in a report on climate change and then using that to imply that everything in the report is in error. The danger is that those looking for ammunition to support a position that is already anti-climate change science, will hook onto broken logic as if it is actually logic and refuse to be convinced otherwise.

Straw man arguments. This is something that is easily knocked over, like a person made of straw – and is usually done when an opponent claims you are saying something that you actually aren’t, and proceeds to demolish your supposed arguments. An example of this Allan Jones stating: “And of course carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant. It’s a harmless trace gas that’s necessary for life.”

Michael Brown from Monash University has said, “Straw man climate science ignores real world complexity. Variations from year-to-year and place-to-place are assumed to undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change.”

False equivalence: False equivalence is usually made by comparing something morally and emotionally outrageous to some aspect of science that someone is attacking. One of the worst cases of false equivalence I have heard in recent years is when the Australian Vaccination Sceptics Network in 2015 compared infant vaccines to rape.

Case Study of One:  This is usually preceded by a statement like, ‘Well when my aunty visited the Great Barrier Reef and she said…’ Although it is more often based on a person’s own single experience of an incident, such as Pauline Hanson stating that the Reef was clearly in good condition because it looked okay when she visited Great Keppel Island.

John Cook from George Mason University, has described the illogical fallacies often used by science deniers as FLICC. This stands for:

So keep an eye out for them, whether the argument is being made about same sex marriage or science – and as a science communicator don’t be shy of calling ‘Illogical fallacy’ (or just plain ‘Bullshit’) on them.