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WebRanger

Changing Definitions

In politics, people often play games by changing definitions. For example, some propagandists use the term "classic liberal" as a term for a right-winger, or something like that.

Conspiracy theory is an even better example. Propagandists have manufactured all kinds of goofy definitions...

A conspiracy theorist is a person who isn't mental stable.

A conspiracy theory is any theory that differs from the mainstream narrative.

A conspiracy theory is a theory that isn't supported by evidence.

Another example is genocide. Most people think of it as the racially motivated killing of millions of people, but some definitions would label a Democrat who killed six Republicans a genocidal killer.

Anyway, what's the name of the fallacy where people try to support their position by constantly changing definitions?

asked on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 05:05:40 AM by WebRanger

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Rationalissimo
7

Sometimes, a word may genuinely have multiple interpretations or definitions if it is broad enough. This is fine and actually normal.

Also, the meaning of a word can change over time (see semantic shift).

However, someone trying to force their definition of a word ad hoc to "win" arguments by adjusting the boundaries of their parameters is committing a definist fallacy.

A common example is "racism is based on power plus prejudice, so you can't be racist to whites."

answered on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 05:34:15 AM by Rationalissimo

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mchasewalker
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Of course, the question illustrates the problems with hasty generalizations regardless of the persuasion, mental stability, or political leaning of the claimant.  Overall, it is fallacious and misguided to argue that all conspiracy theories and likewise theorists are of the same ilk. 

A rationalist would detect the hasty generalization, and simply inquire further: Wait for a second, which conspiracy theory are we talking about?"  Throughout history, there have been many claims that started out as rather dubious speculations, or against the scholarly consensus, with scant evidence, yet turned out to be more valid than first supposed. 

But just because there may be examples of so-called conspiracy theories proving true, it certainly cannot be claimed that all conspiracy theories however far-fetched, implausible, or reasonable are inherently true, or false, for that matter. (possible Fallacy of Composition)

It might be argued that Watergate began as a highly implausible theory of government corruption and conspiracy at the very top and not just a "third-rate" burglary. In its initial investigation with scant evidence to support it, could Watergate be considered a conspiracy theory that eventually proved out?  No, it was an investigative theory suggesting conspiracy that eventually yielded sufficient evidence to force Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency. 

Similarly, the Kennedy Assassination investigation considered the theory of a conspiratorial cabal of mob figures, foreign agents, and multiple shooters. While the final judgment leaned toward a single-shooter in Lee Harvey Oswald, to this day there are many who would argue against it. The filmmaker, Oliver Stone comes to mind.  Is he a mentally unstable conspiracy theorist, or more likely a compelling storyteller who uses his craft to provoke thought in his audience?

Prosecutors and defense attorneys argue different and opposing legal theories in court every day, some are just as unlikely as the other. Charles Manson was tried and convicted on the prosecutorial theory of conspiracy even though he did not directly take part in the murders.  Was prosecutor Vincent T. Bugliosi Jr. a conspiracy theorist? The great actor, Jack Nicholson allegedly inferred that Manson got a raw deal, and he was great friends with Roman and Sharon Tate Polansky. Is he a non-conspiracy theorist?  It is reported he attended court every day of the Manson murders.

One of the more infamous conspiracy theories of recent times was The Roswell Incident where it was speculated that the so-called weather balloon that crashed in the desert was actually a UFO. Conspiracy theorists came up with various scenarios that suggested the government was conspiring to cover-up the evidence.  As it turned out, the balloon was neither a UFO nor a weather balloon, but a balloon from Project Mogul, a Cold War attempt to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons development that used balloon-borne acoustic detection. It's been proven that the government did, in fact, engage in a cover-up. Was this a conspiracy theory that eventually proved true?  So, you see, it is too broad of a subject to generalize in any way.

Conspiracy theory is an even better example. Propagandists have manufactured all kinds of goofy definitions... ( are they all goofy?) Again, hasty generalization, if not poisoning the well).

A conspiracy theorist is a person who isn't mental (sic) stable. There is evidence that some conspiracy theorists are, in fact, mentally unstable. In fact, there is a recognized psychological syndrome specifically categorized  as Conspiracy Theory Disorder: Understanding Why People Believe https://psychcentral.com/blog/conspiracy-theory-disorder-understanding-why-people-believe?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=social-sharebar-referred-desktop via @PsychCentral 

A conspiracy theory is any theory that differs from the mainstream narrative. 

QED. It depends on the specific theory and not generally. Was Galileo a conspiracy theorist, heretic, or brilliant astronomer with evidence of a Heliocentric universe?

A conspiracy theory is a theory that isn't supported by evidence. Again, QED. 

 

 

answered on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 01:32:03 PM by mchasewalker

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WebRanger writes:

"There is evidence that some conspiracy theorists are, in fact, mentally unstable."

There's PROOF that many anti-conspiracy theorists are mentally unstable. ;)

Seriously, I've been doing some research on the body of medical literature that has grown up around conspiracy, and it's a dream come true for fallacy sleuths. One of my favorites:

A person who believes in one conspiracy theory is likely to believe in another.

Like what kind of fruit cake would believe just one conspiracy ever took place?

posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 01:37:13 PM
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mchasewalker writes:

There's PROOF that many anti-conspiracy theorists are mentally unstable. ;)

Please provide evidence of "Proof", otherwise this can be dismissed as a Tu Quque (ad hominem) fallacy

Anyway, we're getting more into the areas of cognitive biases than logical fallacies.  As Dr. Bo points out there must be a deception to qualify for the latter.  Are you implying that Alex Jones is just as rational and logical as The Amazing Randi?  Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on par with Hume, Michael Shermer, or Daniel Dennett? This is why specificity rather than sweeping generalities is the more valid epistemology. 

Hume's razor can be applied here:  “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.”

While conspiracy theorizing may rarely bear some fruit, it is probably not the best methodology for discerning the truth or falsity of a matter.  

As Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, asked: “Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of the miracle tells a lie.”…

posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 02:20:20 PM
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WebRanger writes:
[To mchasewalker]

If you're suggesting Alex Jones is as big a kook as Michael Sherman, I couldn't agree more. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with Randi, Greene or the others.

An example of a credible conspiracy analyst would be the group Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, or the "Truthers" in general.

People's brains have gotten so scrambled by all the bogus definitions, they don't even realize what conspiracy is. It's almost another word for corruption. Corrupt politicians, corporate tycoons, etc., don't do their dirty work in public. They plot their schemes behind closed doors.

Conspiracy is even a legal term. Newspapers are essentially conspiracy clusters. I've had a lot of experience with the media, and no one described them better than Hunter S. Thompson.

Your Thomas Paine quote about "millions of lies" is right on target. It sometimes seems like there are more lies than truth out there.

[ login to reply ] posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 03:36:18 PM
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mchasewalker writes:
[To WebRanger]

If you're suggesting Alex Jones is as big a kook as Michael Sherman, I couldn't agree more. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with Randi, Greene, or the others.

It's Shermer and not Sherman.

Alex Jones is a kook, a fraud, and a mountebank.

Exposing Alex Jones as a dangerous kook is crucial. Margaret Sullivan The Washington Post

https://www.denverpost.com/2017/06/14/exposing-alex-jones-as-a-dangerous-kook-is-crucial-but-megyn-kellys-interview-isnt-the-way/ via @denverpost   

Dr. Michael Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. The Skeptics Society currently has over 55,000 members.

[ login to reply ] posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 03:48:47 PM
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WebRanger writes:
[To mchasewalker]

Ouch, I think I just spotted a fallacy...

Shermer's club has 55,000 members. Alex Jones probably has far more fans than that. So using that logic, he wins.

But I've investigated both of them, and they're both idiots. The sad thing is that there are literally millions of U.S. citizens who are so brain-dead they obediently follow people like Alex Jones and Michael Shermer.

Also, I wouldn't quote anyone from The Washington Post to make a point. The media are pretty much in the same boat as Jones and Shermer. Then again, The Washington Post no longer has Bill Gates' wife and business partner on its board of directors. It's also now owned by Jeff Bezos, which pretty much sinks that ship.

[ login to reply ] posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 04:40:46 PM
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Jordan Pine writes:

[To WebRanger]

Yes, that would be the ad numerum fallacy (appeal to popularity). Nice catch. There also something here about relativity. What I mean is a number like 55,000 sounds huge and creates the intended submissive effect in an argument -- until we ask, Compared to what? People who aren't skeptical (of God) number in the billions.

Or reverse it. I've often argued that faith and science are not inherently contradictory, and that this is evidenced by the 2,000 active members of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a 75-year-old network of Christians in the sciences. But it would be fair to argue, Compared to what? Scientists who don't believe in God easily outnumber the faithful.

Moving on, the bigger problem with citing The Washington Post as a source of reliable information is not ownership but the transparently partisan nature of the publication (and, in this case, the author). This is true of most legacy media today, unfortunately. Citing CNN, the Washington Post or the New York Times was once possible since no one would seriously dispute the authority or objectivity of these sources. Today, sadly, it's akin to citing Fox News, the New York Post or the Epoch Times. Of course, this raises a larger question: Was it ever logically valid to cite mainstream media in support of an argument? Perhaps such arguments were always ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) arguments and the trick is just more obvious in these hyper-partisan times.

Returning to the topic, you have both identified the problem with loaded terms like "conspiracy theorist." I submit that this is the heart of the fallacies that involve shifting definitions to fit an argument (e.g. definist fallacy, ambiguity fallacy, appeal to definition). Let's play with the latter and attempt to use the dictionary to settle the dispute.

According to Webster, a conspiracy theorist is someone who believes "a secret of great importance is being kept from the public." That would seem to support mchasewalker's argument. For instance, investigative journalists believed this about Watergate -- and they were right! A conspiracy theorist is not necessarily a kook.

But then Webster's give its first example: Person X is "best known for … his conspiracy theory that a secret cabal of reptilian humanoids is running the world." This is where it becomes clear why the previous argument fails and why using the dictionary is problematic. The denotative meaning does not consider the connotative meaning. When someone is accused of being a conspiracy theorist, we think reptilian humanoids, not Woodward & Bernstein.

[ login to reply ] posted on Monday, Feb 22, 2021 09:26:01 AM
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WebRanger writes:
[To Jordan Pine]

Yes, the dictionaries began posting wacko definitions of "conspiracy theory" in relatively recent years.

I'm actually working on a book about conspiracy, and I was surprised to discover that the first and only notable philosopher who discussed it was apparently Macchiavelli. Some time after World War II a "philosopher" named Karl Popper began writing some really deranged stuff about it. He clearly wasn't qualified to be called a philosopher.

More recently, there was a sudden explosion of interest in conspiracy theory, with a flurry of self-professed philosophers and scientists writing the kookiest stuff. Like the physics major who claims he created a formula that can predict when someone will spill the beans on a particular conspiracy theory - to the nearest three days no less.

There are some serious games I'm going on, and it blows my mind that virtually no philosophers, fallacy fans, etc. seem to have a clue.

By the way, I wrote FIVE separate chapters about the definitions of the terms conspire, conspiracy and conspiracy theory in my book. That's how wacky things are.

[ login to reply ] posted on Monday, Feb 22, 2021 04:28:02 PM
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Jordan Pine writes:
[To mchasewalker]

See my note on WebRanger's reply. Thanks for stimulating me to think further about these matters!

[ login to reply ] posted on Monday, Feb 22, 2021 09:32:35 AM
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GoblinCookie writes:
[To mchasewalker]

Nature is always going off course, it just usually isn't as pretty as miracles are.  Not very reasonable our Thomas Paine, who is also dead which proves that his own nature was capable of going off course.  Sceptics are scarcely rational or logical, they just have a compulsion to disbelieve in people whom they consider inferior in order to assert their superiority over them; they will resort to complete unreason before they ever admit the people they look down on may be correct. 

On what basis did we conclude that miracles were uncommon to begin with?  Terms like 'miraculous' are loaded by our prior assumptions about the nature of the world.  If we start with the assumption of a non-miraculous universe and then demand a very high burden of proof to prove the existence of miracles, of course we end up proving our assumption of a non-miraculous universe. 

Conspiracy theory is not really a useful concept.  The reason is that the term conspiracy can incorporate any scale of conspiracy.  A small scale conspiracy involving a few number of elite, well-connected individuals for limited ends is just history.  A large scale conspiracy involving vast secret societies spanning continents and centuries for grand ends is clearly conspiracy theorizing.  The problem here is at what point does a small-scale conspiracy become large enough that talking about it becomes a conspiracy theory.

The basic problem with conspiracy theories is simply logistics.  Secretive organizations find it difficult to organize large-scale operations while maintaining both their internal unity and their secrecy (they are normally organized into cells, which do not have much contact with each-other, making splits easy to arrange).  In effect something becomes a conspiracy theory at the point that logistics render that kind of organization implausible. 

Except that runs into the problem that this is relative to social conditions.  A highly hierarchical setup reduces the logistics cost of a conspiracy provided it is among those near the top of the hierarchy.  Also a wide amount of scepticism regarding conspiracy theories makes secrecy easier to maintain, reducing the secrecy logistics cost. 

[ login to reply ] posted on Monday, Feb 22, 2021 03:46:00 PM
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Jordan Pine
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I agree with Rationalissimo. I would also like to submit that this error in reasoning can fall under the Strawman Fallacy.

"Classic liberal" is a bad example, since it is a legitimate term Libertarians use to define themselves.

Redefining genocide to mean killing six people or redefining a "conspiracy theory" to mean, well, any theory that you don't like -- those are better examples.

Let's get more specific. Person A may believe the 2016 election was influenced by Russia in favor of Donald Trump. If Person B attacked that view as a "conspiracy theory," what he/she is probably doing in straw-manning the person's position. This would become evident when we got further into the debate.

Person B: You guys with your Russia conspiracy theories!

Person A: What conspiracy theories?

Person B: The Mueller Report definitively showed Trump was not some Manchurian Candidate planted by the Russians. Give it up!

Person A: That's not what I was claiming at all. I was talking about the Russian influence campaign the intelligence community reported on, which was accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Or reverse it. Person B may believe the 2020 election was biased against Donald Trump, be suspicious of all the anomalies that seemed to go in one direction and have legitimate questions about how voting rules were altered in some states without the proper consent of legislatures. In other words, Person A may believe the election was fishy and much more transparency would be needed to know if it was fair or not. 

If Person A attacked that view as a "QAnon conspiracy theory," what he/she would be doing is straw-manning Person B's position. 

We see this a lot, and oftentimes it looks like changing definitions to fit straw-man arguments.

Another interesting fallacy that may apply here is the appeal to emotion (sentimens superior), since these terms (genocide, conspiracy theory) are emotionally loaded.

answered on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 12:16:18 PM by Jordan Pine

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WebRanger writes:

Interesting comments. Thanks.

posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 12:21:23 PM
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Jordan Pine writes:
[To WebRanger]

Sure thing. I enjoy thinking about these things.

By the way, this is the most common obstacle to productive debates that I encounter. There is nothing more frustrating that someone who constantly attacks straw-man versions of your argument and then, when you point it out, uses redefinition as a defense. "But you said X and X means [something X does not actually mean]." :-)

[ login to reply ] posted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 12:28:47 PM