“We must baptise dead people who didn’t believe when they were alive or they will not be saved. I know this to be true!”
“Can you prove that?”
“Can you disprove it?”
“No – it’s impossible to disprove.”
“Then it must be true.”
By the way – I haven’t made that stuff up. It’s part of doctrine for a very well-established worldwide religion. Devotees of The Church of Jesus Christ & Latter Day Saints (LDS) really believe that. You may have heard of this religion before. It’s more usual name is Mormonism.I use this example because of a discussion I had with a couple of Mormon missionaries who knocked on my door in an attempt to convert me to their way of thinking. They didn’t particularly want to talk about baptising the dead as it happens. It was one of a long list of topics they like to avoid with new ’prospects’ including:
The need to wear protective underwear (temple garments);
The belief that black people are unworthy;
The belief that black people can become “white and delightsome to the Lord” if they lead a good life;
The belief that women should be subservient to men.
There are many more unsubstantiable beliefs I could have listed but it isn’t my intention to pick on Mormonism particularly here. The LDS doctrine of post-mortem baptism is just an illustration to demonstrate how weak an argument becomes when the only way to support it is to show that others can’t disprove it.
The philosopher, Bertrand Russell illustrated this beautifully when he asserted that there was a silver teapot orbiting the earth and invited people to believe in it without evidence. To the best of my knowledge nobody did (not even Russell himself) precisely because there is no reason to believe in it.
Interestingly Russell’s assertion that nobody could disprove the existence of his teapot didn’t cut much ice with most people. I suspect that even Mormon missionaries can see right through that line of argument when it suits them.
Not being able to disprove something is no reason to assume it must be true. There needs to be positive evidence, not merely the absence of the negative.
But let’s not worry too much about religion here. Let’s face it, we’ve covered that enough in this series already. Instead we’ll turn to some other equally disreputable uses of this same tactic. The example I’m choosing here is used by various religions (including LDS as it happens) but I’m much more interested in its secular use right now. It’s the idea that white people are superior to other races.
This idea has been around for centuries and is still a major blight on human society. Racism, like sexism and a host of other discriminatory ’isms’ makes no sense to the critical observer. B for those whose grasp of evidence and the nature of reality is at best tenuous it is convincing enough to prompt violence, even murder, segregation and a whole host of atrocities that are too well documented elsewhere to need much repetition here.
Of course most people don’t spend too much time thinking about racism. At least most people I know don’t. Race just isn’t relevant to many people. It’s reflects hereditary differences that are no more significant than eye colour or the particular shape of an individual’s chin.
Unfortunately though, the acceptance that race is irrelevant may not be enough. Maybe, just maybe those of us who aren’t directly affected by racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism etc should be more prepared to stand up and be counted in support of our peers (our very clearly equal peers) who are.
For those of us who do attempt to have reasonable discussions with racists the conversations are extremely illuminating. Admittedly such conversations don’t tend to teach us much about race but they do provide valuable insights into the way that many racists think (or perhaps more accurately don’t think) about what they believe.
A typical conversation goes something like this…
“White people are the best”
“How do you know”
“How is it obvious?”
“We just are.”
“I don’t think so. I’m white but I don’t think I’m particularly special.”
“You’re a traitor to your race.”
How can I be a traitor to something that doesn’t really matter?”
“But it does matter.”
“Can you tell me why it matters?”
“Because it does.”
“But can you tell me why?”
“Can you tell me why it doesn’t?”
Of course – it’s not actually that hard to illustrate that race doesn’t matter a jot. There are plenty of illustrations that can be used to show both the highest and the lowest forms of human behaviour and achievement from across all racial groups. But that, of course, can be reduced to anecdote and so dismissed by the racist. And in fairness I have some sympathy with that process. Anecdote isn’t proof of anything.
But then I don’t have to prove that race is irrelevant. I’m not the one making the claim that it matters. The burden of proof is on the racist to convince the rest of us that they have a point and that means provide some proper evidence.
If you want my agreement – you need to give me a reason to believe you. It’s not enough just to assert that I can’t prove you wrong.
Typically at this point the racist will trot out an anecdote of their own about some Asian bloke who looked at them funny or a black woman who didn’t say thankyou when they held the door open for her. But that’s just as weak as every other form of anecdote. It proves nothing that can be generalised to an entire race of people.
Whenever I point this out (and the fact that they are using the same sort of argument they quite rightly declared invalid when I used it earlier) they almost always resort to the shifting the burden argument.
“You can’t prove that black people are as good as white people.”
And of course, they’re right, I can’t. I can’t prove that there is a silver teapot orbiting the planet either but that doesn’t mean it’s really there.
The principle is simple. If you want others to believe something, be it racism, religion, scientific conclusions, claims about therapeutic treatments or anything else, then you need to provide a convincing argument for that belief. That is your responsibility. The rest of us don’t have to disprove your ideas. You need to show why you are right.
If the person trying to convince you of their point of view has no argument beyond “You can’t prove me wrong” then I’d strongly suggest you take that as evidence in itself. They have just demonstrated how weak their assertions probably are. They have, in fact, almost (but not quite) proven themselves to be wrong.
After all – when they have no evidence to support their argument what other conclusion are we expected to reach?
About the ‘Fallacies’ series
The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com