Fallacy Detective

July 03 2018 | by

HEY DIDDLE diddle, the cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon,

The little dog laughed to see such sport,

And the dish ran away with the spoon.

If we saw a newspaper article with the headline Doggy Laughs While Cow Jumps, with a reference to this nursery rhyme, we would know that we were reading fake news. However, if you do an Internet search on ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, you discover multiple theories, none of which seem plausible, that try to link this nursery rhyme to social and political events. Most scholars believe that this old rhyme is simply nonsense. Nevertheless, is it nonsense when an Internet article analyzes ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ and concludes that the spoon color changed in the moonlight, making the spoon more alluring to the dish? The article claims that this seemingly silly conclusion is based on a study conducted at the University of Oxford which determined that the color of a spoon affects our taste experience. Is this study fake news? The Internet post gives no background or dates for the study. It does mention two individuals, but are they the researchers or the authors?

Actual fake news stories of 2017 included the accusation of a double for USA First Lady Melania Trump, the falsified size of President Trump’s inauguration crowd, and the allegation of what organization or individual was behind various terrorist attacks.

Those who suspect a fake news story can do some checking on the Internet. They can look at the web address and see if it’s a legitimate address. For example, ‘.com’ is legitimate whereas ‘.com.co’ may be suspect. Sleuths can check quotes supposedly from famous figures and see if the same quotes can be found elsewhere in original documents or transcripts. They can look for reputable names in the ‘About Us’ section and see who made the quotes and comments. Note that several of these checks rely on the reputation of the people involved. In other words, if reputable authorities are speaking or sponsoring the site, we can reasonably believe that the story is true.

According to Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn, authors of ‘The Fallacy Detective’, believing something on the word of a well-known figure or supposed expert could be a fallacy which they call “Faulty Appeal to Authority.” One can recognize a possible fallacy by determining whether the person making the statement is an unbiased expert on the subject being discussed. The key words here are unbiased, expert, and subject. Some careful digging and researching on so-called experts can help the clever investigator to determine if the information is factual or slanted and the opinions biased.


Medieval science


Saint Anthony appealed to the scientific knowledge of his day whenever he made comparisons between spiritual topics and nature. Today we know that much of that medieval scientific ‘knowledge’ has been contradicted by more recent data. For example, in his sermon on the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Anthony makes this statement: “Natural History says that the bee generates without coupling, because she contains the power of generation” (Sermons for Sunday and Festivals IV, p. 119; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova). Modern science has established beyond any reasonable doubt that bees mate, generally in flight. However, while Anthony’s scientific information is factually incorrect, Anthony employs it to make a strong analogy with the virginal conception of Jesus. “In the same way our Lady, Blessed Mary, gave birth to the Son of God without defilement, because The Holy Ghost came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her [cf Lk 1”35]”. Anthony’s expert was not scientific knowledge, but rather the Holy Spirit whom he continuously called upon in his preaching and writing.


Hyper-partisan view


Dealing with fake news in the worldly realm, such as whether or not voter fraud took place in an election, requires delving into the facts and verifying their truth. However, trying to differentiate between fake news and the truth in the moral realm is easier for those who follow Jesus. It’s important to remember that, while fake news stories originally referred to falsified information, the term ‘fake news’ has come to mean a hyper- partisan news story or even a story with which the reader disagrees, even if the story is true.

An online dictionary defines hyper-partisan as “extremely biased in favor of a political party. Sharply polarized by political parties in fierce disagreement with each other.” People who disagree with a particular viewpoint can label as hyper-partisan a view which may be morally sound. For example, when people state that abortion is a political issue and that certain parties have a hyper-partisan view regarding it, they are ignoring the moral nature of abortion. These individuals want to apply an amoral standard to the taking of a human life before birth. Therefore, to these individuals, descriptions and photographs of unborn children and of aborted babies are fake. Because they believe that abortion is an acceptable solution to an unwanted pregnancy, such individuals do not bother to check the facts. If the facts do not meet their viewpoint, the facts are deemed fake.


Abortion issue


St Anthony would tell us to seek our authority in Scripture and in the words of our Lord. Jeremiah 1:5 is a strong argument in favor of the humanity and spiritual worth of unborn human beings: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Abortion was not an issue in Anthony’s time so one is hard-pressed to find references to abortion in Anthony’s sermon notes. However, Anthony did address other strong social and political issues while referring to God as the expert in dealing with them. For example, in his sermon notes for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Anthony takes the Gospel passage, “The Lord fed 5000 men with five loaves and two fishes,”(Sermons I, p.177) and then extrapolates the meaning of the loaves, fishes, and thousands. The thousands, for example, he divides into five groups. The first group represents the introduction of discord into creation through the fallen angel Lucifer. The second assembly represents the garden of Eden where our first parents hatched disobedience. “In the third assembly came simony, the buying and selling of something spiritual, or something connected with the spiritual. What could be more spiritual or more holy than Christ, whom Judas sold? And so, we may believe, he fell into the peril of simony… In the fourth assembly, poverty was transgressed when Ananias and Sapphira, for the sake of the money they had sold their field for, held onto their property and lied to the Holy Spirit… In the fifth assembly, chastity was lost” in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 5: 1-5) when Paul excommunicated a fornicator who took his father’s wife (Sermons I, p.186-87). Thus, Anthony introduces ‘hot topics,’ backed up by Scriptural references to the preachers who will use his sermon notes.


Me first philosophy


Today, discord is rampant. Obedience to the laws of God is considered archaic. The modern form of simony is avarice/greed where cheating and the ‘me first’ philosophy reign. Today chastity is not only lost, but also mocked. When reading any news or opinions regarding these other topics, the reader should determine if the author has a preconceived agenda or a moral stance which is opposed to Christ’s teaching. This knowledge will assist in determining if the conclusions are a faulty appeal to authority and if the supposed results are fake or slanted.

Updated on July 03 2018