Two fallacies to avoid

Avoiding logical fallacies can be tricky and, as responses to some of my recent posts has made clear, anyone who spends time debating evolutionary psychology, behaviour genetics or science in general will find themselves having to hack through thick swathes of them in their attempts to get a little closer to truth. Two particularly prevalent and egregious fallacies we must strive to avoid are the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy.

The naturalistic fallacy, first coined by the philosopher G.E. Moore, is similar in construction to Hume’s ‘is/ought problem’. The fallacy, in essence, confuses what’s natural with what’s good and leads us to believe that what is, is what ought to be. An example of this fallacy would be to say that because different groups of people are genetically different, they ought to be treated differently. This is the kind of wrong-headed nonsense that led to the excesses of eugenics.

The opposite of the naturalistic fallacy is the moralistic fallacy, which traces its roots back to the microbiologist, Bernard Davis and refers to the leap from ought to is, and the claim that the way we would like things to be is they way they actually are. This leads to all kinds of absurd denialism that allows people to refute the existence of things they don’t like so, when presented with evidence about the surprising lack of parenting effects, they will say something along the lines of, “Well, I think parenting must have more effect than that!” and, through an effort of will, strive to make reality conform to their preferences. Another example would be to say that because everyone ought to be treated equally, there are no meaningful genetic differences between different groups of people.

In The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker draws the distinction thus:

The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the naturalistic fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave (as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK)…

The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary.

How likely we are to fall victim to these fallacies seems tied to our political affiliations. Science writer, Matt Ridley observes that conservatives are more likely to commit the naturalistic fallacy – men are physically stronger and more competitive so they should go out work whereas women, who nature has designed to be more maternal should stay at home and look after the kids. Liberals are more prone to the moralistic fallacy – men and women should be treated equally and therefore, despite their physical differences, are pretty much the same, biologically speaking. If any research or scientific finding shows otherwise, it is, a priori, false. The only acceptable science is that which is in line with our beliefs about the world.

I have no data for this, but it seems plausible to think that more traditionally minded teachers may be likely to conclude that what’s always been must be best, whereas progressives will be more inclined to think along the lines of children working in groups is good, therefore it’s the best way to teach. This might make an interesting subject for further study, if anyone fancies doing some research in this area.

Whilst both of these fallacies get in the way of progress, the moralistic fallacy is far more prevalent amongst the type of social scientists who make their living in the world of education research. As soon as anyone dares to broach the subject of racial or sexual differences, a lynch mob emerge to scream out “Eugenics!” “White privilege!” or some other dog whistle totem in their efforts to move heaven and earth to deny the reality of inconvenient empirical data. As I explained here, this just results in identity politics, post-modernism and the denial of scientific objectivity.

There’s an easy way to avoid both kinds of fallacy: resist the temptation to frame debates in terms of what ought to be and only talk about what is. This is much easier said than done in a field like education. Drawing moral conclusion from empirical observations is a potentially dangerous game, but how we educate children cannot simply be reduced to what is – the whole purpose of eduction is to reimagine the world as we think it ought to be and try to mould children accordingly. I don’t know if this is a temptation that can be resisted, but if it can’t, knowing about and trying not to commit these two fallacies should help us in our endeavours.

17 Responses to Two fallacies to avoid

  1. paceni says:

    I’ll stick with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s advice; “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” to avoid stepping on the fallacy ice.

  2. ZebaC says:

    I think it is a stretch to see Matt Ridley as a science writer – he is certainly eminently qualified in both experience and educational background, I know, but given his strong political bias against e.g. Climate change and resource depletion, and as a reader of his weekly column in the Times, I don’t feel he is reliable (equally, though I am a far bigger fan of Dawkins than Ridley, I would argue that Dawkins too is no longer necessarily a reliable source).

    In response to the sacking of the Google employee James Damore, that too is a more nuanced and complex issue than it seems on the surface. His paper was deeply flawed, and while I would question that it should lead to his dismissal, it certainly was not a sound basis for HR policy-making in terms of approaching the knotty issue of the lack of senior women in the tech industry.

    Evolutionary biology and psychology produce hugely contested and inconclusive results currently. I remember when LSE Bad-boy Satoshi Kanazawa first began courting controversy with extreme opinions and his Savanna principle. I think he continues to be quite widely discredited in many respects although he is still at LSE. But there were all sorts of commentators who bought into the theories he produced based on sketchy data.

    Meanwhile, we are all prepping our schemes of work and curriculum outlines for the imminent 2017-18 academic year, and common sense will tell us that for some of our students this is a big deal because school matters to them a great deal, while for others, school is incidental in its influence and role in their lives. For the students who’ve collected their ten GCSEs at top grades and are on their way into the sixth form where they aim to excel once again, school is incredibly important. To those who squeaked through or failed their GCSE exams but are headed down vocational pathways where they have already had a taste of work experience, their secondary school experience may well have been largely irrelevant to their future. In terms of teaching, does it matter? Our day-to-day experience is about providing our students with the knowledge, skills and motivation to do their best regardless of whether school matters to them or not. We owe every student who comes into our classes the same care, dedication and drive.

    • David Didau says:

      I’m sorry, is any of that in support of people making either of the two fallacies I’ve written about?

      • ZebaC says:

        No, it isn’t about the fallacies, it’s about being careful about what references you cite and how irrelevant this actually is to teachers in the classroom.

        • David Didau says:

          What has relevance to teachers got to do with it? You can’t mean that only should only be allowed to write things of direct relevance to teachers, can you?

          • ZebaC says:

            Your position is clear…you are campaigning for teachers to use techniques and approaches in the classroom that are based on verifiable academic research. With this post, you directly explore one of the perceived current dichotomies in US/UK teaching, namely the traditional versus progressive perspective, and how we teachers should keep in mind the two fallacies as we go about our work. You raise the issue of relevance by suggesting that we teachers keep these fallacies in mind as we go about our work. I am simply pointing out that that these fallacies are unlikely to be at the forefront of our planning and delivery of teaching.

          • David Didau says:

            OK. The point of the post was to provide some perspective for online debates. I didn’t really think these fallacies had any particular application for classroom practice.

    • Jenny says:

      Your comment was really relevant to the post on whether schools matter. Meanwhile, as a person who sees climate change as a natural phenomena on the one hand and a distraction from the real and horrifying pollution on the planet on the other,, which cannot be tackled without making changes in business and lifestyle, I don’t agree that someone with non standard views in climate change is unworthy of citation. The man made climate changers and the business interests that support them are very keen to trash anyone who won’t jump on their bandwagon, see what happened to David Bellamy, who disagrees with man made climate change. Actually to think we could have changed the climate of the planet is hubris, and I am sure you know where that leads.

      • ZebaC says:

        My quibbles with Matt Ridley as a credible source of academic reliability are clearly and concisely explored here:

        Given that man-made climate change has been widely and thoroughly tracked and documented, I would not describe it as hubris to believe in it…more like hubris to ignore the implications of decades of research. I fully agree that pollution and deforestation are horrifying, and I believe they have both contributed significantly to climate change, e.g. The terrible floods in Bangladesh and Nepal only this week.

  3. […] and postmodernism to empirical data. As such, they are particularly prone to committing the moralistic fallacy and asserting that what ought to be is in fact true. What ought to be only ever exists in our minds […]

  4. […] Monod thought it farcical to try to “derive the ought from the is,” but as I argued here, education is a project built on what ought to be; I think there’s much more danger in trying […]

  5. […] decisions in an education context would be entirely wrong. These are ethical considerations and, as I’ve suggested before, science makes a poor guide in determining what is right. What it does do, is give us a better […]

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