Dawkins’ Relevance Fallacy

Mohammed_Flying_HorseTheists reflexively don’t like Richard Dawkins, but can upset Atheists too when he speaks on religion. Personally, I think Dawkins’ atheist efforts have had a very good impact. Yet I am sympathetic with some of the objections people have toward him.  For unlike Dawkins, I am not an all-religion-is-bad atheist. But even with objections, I think Dawkins offers us a lot. Heck, I am sympathetic with peoples’ objections about me too, and yet I still like myself.🙂

When people make objections about Dawkins, I prefer they make careful objections. But a large number of objections I hear about Dawkins are irrational. Today I will explore one of Dawkins’ bad argument classes — one I hear him make often.  Then I will show how ironically, a criticism of Dawkins consists of the same sort of fallacy: a relevance fallacy.

István Aranyosi (a philosophy professor at a Turkish University but possibly Romanian or Bulgarian) wrote a fascinating article in Boston Review, discussing this issue. Below I will only discuss the section on the Fallacy of Relevance.

Dawkin apparently tweeted:

“Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”

AF_RelevanceThis tweet implies a fallacy of relevance that I often see among atheists. As Aranyosi says, “Hasan’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to his journalistic activities. It is what we call a “fallacy of relevance” in informal logic.”  In my jargon, the reason it is a fallacy is because we have multiple selves and/or our minds are partitioned, thus even brilliant people can hold ridiculous beliefs which don’t necessarily interfere with other areas of their lives.

Here is how I would formalize the logic in Dawkins’ tweet:

(1) If someone believes any ridiculous thing, they can’t be a good journalist
(2) Hasan believes a horse once flew
(3) Believing a horse once flew is a silly thing
:: therefore, Hasan can’t be a good journalist

Aranyosi calls this a fallacy of relevance.  The Relevance Fallacy is a broad category within the category of Informal Fallacies — those lying within the premises.  The fallacy of relevance is also called Ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant conclusion — See here for a list of such fallacies. In that list, however, I can not find this fallacy. Instead, I think this is the “Black-or-White Fallacy” (see the Fallacy Files explanation here).

FallaciesSo in my formalization above, the error lies in the first premises — the second and third premise are true and the conclusion flows from the first three premises.  But the first premise is false because it is has a “Black-or-White Fallacy” buried within it which says something like this:

“If someone believes even one ridiculous thing,
then they will believe many ridiculous things
and thus inevitably be bad at everything they do.”

The general form of Dawkin’s claim is then:

(1) If X believes even one ridiculous thing,
then X can’t be good at any job requiring reason
(2) Y believes Z
(3) Z is a ridiculous belief
:: therefore, Y can’t can be good at any job requiring reason

This Black-or-White Fallacy is a common one I see among atheists when they generalize about religion.

In Aranyosi’s article he points out how anti-Dawkins folks create the same fallacy of relevance by saying his argument (his tweet) is evidence that he is an anti-Muslim bigot. But just because Dawkin’s feels that a ridiculous belief (like a winged-horse) stops good journalism does not point to his bigotry, because Dawkins makes this sort of illogical claim against many religious and even non-religious folks.  It is not enough to use this to claim that Dawkins has pan-anti-Islamic bigotry.  Just because he dislikes one religious belief, does not mean he is bigoted agains Muslims.  He may be, but this is not evidence for such a claim.

Question for Readers:  Do you think my formalization of Dawkin’s tweet is accurate.  Do you think the fallacy classifications are accurate?  (Please note, I really don’t want to discuss Dawkins — instead, this is an exercise in logic.)


Footnote:  Mohammed’s horse’s name is Burāq, which means “lightning”.  On hearing that name I thought Buraq may be the origin of Barack Obama’s first name.  But apparently, “Barack” is an African name meaning “blessed” which itself comes from of the Hebrew word ‘Baruch’ meaning the same [ as does the Arabic name ‘Mubarak’].  Googling shows that many people wrongly wondered as I have.  Some maintain their view because it feeds position that Obama is a secret Muslim.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “Dawkins’ Relevance Fallacy

  1. I don’t use twitter. It seems to be a place where people sometimes write things without first thinking about them.

    I would not think of the particular Dawkins statement as a fallacy. When I listen to a news report, there is always a question of the extent to which I can have confidence in the reporter. We learn, through experience, to make those judgments. I take Dawkins as suggesting caution when looking at the reporting of Mehdi Hasan.

    While I don’t see that as a fallacy, I also don’t see much point to it. Most people have weird beliefs about one thing or another. We should judge the qualities of a news reporter on our observations of his/her reporting, rather than on whether the reporter happens to have weird beliefs in some other sphere of his/her life.

  2. Wait, Neil. In isolation, you don’t see that syllogism (given in formal form in the opening of this post) as a fallacy? Your last statement seems to show that you indeed understand that it is a fallacy. I am confused.

  3. It isn’t a syllogism as expressed by Dawkins. I am disagreeing with your formalizing. It is innuendo, not argument.

  4. Hey, Neil,

    (1) Formalization
    (a) You are right, Dawkins was speaking in sentences and not composing formal logic, I’d imagine. If you disagree with my formalizing, do you have a better formalization or do you disagree with formalization in this case.

    (b) Even if someone is talking or writing and not constructing a formal argument, teasing out the argument is a valid enterprise, don’t you think?

    (2) argument vs innuendo
    I certainly don’t want to argue words, but I usually don’t look at these as mutually exclusive terms. Arguments often have all sorts of innuendos.

    Hasan may be a questionable journalist, I have no idea. But he is not a a questionable journalist for the reason Dawkin’s argument puts forth with its innuendos.

  5. Stan Giesea

    I absolutely disagree that Hasan’s credentials as a journalist should not be seriously questioned as a result of his admitting to believe ridiculous things (i.e., a flying horse). Journalists are meant to objectively report facts with a solid evidentiary basis. Anyone who would believe such nonsense cannot reasonably be trusted to discern the difference between fact and fantasy. I agree that Dawkins’ syllogism may be a fallacy in some contexts, but in this regard it is directly applicable.

  6. While you do make a good point saying that even brilliant people can hold ridiculous beliefs, though one may find it difficult to find these days when religion is excluded, I think what Dawkins may be trying to point out is the fact that people don’t find that belief too ridiculous. And in deeper contemplation, it really is. I mean there is a man we are to trust which holds the belief that a man flew to heaven on a winged horse. He holds this belief so strongly that he is also willing to profess this belief!

    This touches on the idea that atheists should pressure people to utter statements like these with such confidence. What I am trying to say here is we would probably be having a different conversation about Mehdi Hasan if he proclaimed a sincere belief in the tooth fairy or that Elvis manifests himself in the hearts of everyone. All claims, including Mehdi’s actual claim, are equally ridiculous. But for an odd reason, he is not critically scrutinized for one of them…

  7. TWF

    Given Dawkin’s lack of formal argument structure, it’s a little bit more difficult to parse. I would offer Denying the Anticedent as another possible label:

    (1) If someone is free of believing in silly things, they will be good journalists.
    (2) Hasan believes in silly things.
    Therefore, he can’t be a good journalist.

    Incidentally, I struggle with this same type of fallacy every time I see someone with a neck tattoo. 😉

  8. Wow, this is fascinating. I did not expect this much controversy on this post. I was just looking for a little labeling help. But I prefer the controversy, as you can imagine. 🙂
    So here goes:

    @Stan Giesea:
    So it sounds like you would doubt the quality of work of any journalist, physician, scientist, judge, police officer, teacher or any number of other professionals if they confessed ridiculous religious beliefs. You must be new on my site. I don’t know where to begin with how mistaken I think your views are. Well, unless I misunderstand them. Since >70% of Americans confess believing ridiculous religious or superstitious beliefs (I wager it is much higher), you virtually doubt the quality of work of everyone except perhaps yourself.

    Dawkins was of course trying to show that people don’t find that belief too ridiculous. As he does with believing in Yahweh. But he went further, and that is the point, saying that anyone who believes in flying horses should be a suspect journalist. If Hasan confessed a belief in Jesus walking on water, would that make you doubt his Journalistic skills too? See my note to Stan.

  9. TWF,
    First, thanks for playing!
    I think your syllogism is a bit off. But using your same form, I think your point is clearer if I put your syllogism (and the claim of Dawkins and commentors above) as follows:

    (1) If someone believes any ridiculous thing, they can’t be a good journalist
    (2) Hasan believes a horse once flew
    (3) Believing a horse once flew is a silly thing
    :: therefore, Hasan can’t be a good journalist

    So this should make it clear that this does not appear to be a “denying the antecedent” issue. Instead, the first premise is just wrong.

    So, as this image shows:

    The fallacy of this argument lies in a premise, so it is an informal fallacy, not a formal logical fallacy (like a denying the antecedent” that you suggest. A subclass of informal fallacies is called “Fallacies of Relevance” which the author claims Dawkin’s uses. After thinking about it (I am more awake now), I think this is the Black-or-White Fallacy which sounds like this:

    If anyone believes any ridiculous thing, they will believe tons of ridiculous things and thus inevitably be bad at everything they do.

    What do you think, TWF?

  10. I wouldn’t say they are a bad journalist for that reason. But when religion played a role in one of his writings there could be cause for concern. I see the fallacy. But like I said, if someone proclaims their sincere belief in the tooth fairy, their reasoning faculties must be questioned. For some reason, that’s not the case for flying to heaven on a horse. Saying my point in another way, I think Dawkins was using a sarcastic tongue to make a point rather than a firm argument that if a man believes something like that, he can’t be a journalist. Obviously it’s not true.

  11. @ Michael2232 Ah, if want to doubt specifically his journalism about religion, I could understand that. But if Dawkins was using hyperbole to criticize religious belief at the expense of slander about a man’s career, then he is worse than being wrong, he is being immoral. I only think he was wrong — I’ve heard him do that sort of mistake before.

    On Fri, Sep 6, 2013 at 7:15 PM, Triangulations

  12. Immoral may be a strong word. His true intentions are for him to defend so I can’t say much on that. However… Being that we are discussing a Twitter post leads me to believe that it was, at worst, a joke that fell a little under the belt.

  13. And as I said, I have heard him do this before and so disagree with you. But that is OK, we disagree and it may not be an important disagreement. I think you understand the fallacy — but I am not sure you agree with it. I have re-written the post in light of the above comments to make it more clear — I wonder if you agree now about the Black-and-White Fallacy.

    Thanks to TWF for getting me to come up with the type of fallacy and re-write the syllogism.

  14. Yes, I do see the fallacy. In reflection, it is quite puzzling how often we see this fallacy day to day.

  15. lilystrange

    I think you’re right on target. My problem with Richard Dawkins is kind of a knee-jerk one and probably not a particularly useful observation. He comes off as a closed-minded, pompous ass.
    Some people seem to think that being an atheist automatically means the person is “enlightened.” It’s not necessarily so. It just means they don’t believe in deities.

  16. @ lillystrange,
    As I wrote in the post, I am not really writing this post to discuss Richard Dawkins, but only one version of logic he sometimes abuses. I abuse many myself, very often. I think Dawkins has made fantastic contributions to fighting the abuses of religion and am thankful for his work.

    I agree that some atheists can meander into righteous rationalism and don’t recognize the limitations of their own silliness — whether they constantly do it, I am in doubt. We all act differently in different domains.

  17. TWF

    Sounds good to me, Sabio. 🙂

  18. Istvan Aranyosi sounds very much like a Hungarian name. Are you sure he’s a Turkish professor?

  19. @ “faithman” :
    Thanks. Yes, it appears you are right – or partially so. He appears he is originally a Romanian (see his CV in the link I supplied in the post) but now (somehow) teaching at a Turkish University in Ankara. At least that is the best I can tell. Why don’t you research more for us. Maybe he is of Bulgarian stock or maybe it is more complicated. I corrected the post.

    So, perhaps now you can tell us how you found this blog and what you think of the post if you are following.

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