creedal minimalism vs Skeptic magazine

Lyle Burkhead (
Fri, 27 Dec 1996 05:29:24 -0500 (EST)

The form of the argument

The heart of Michael Shermer's argument is to be found on pages
41 - 43 of "Proving the Holocaust." This is where he illustrates
how "convergence" is supposed to work, by presenting 18 "bits" of

When Michael presents his 18 bits of evidence, he sets up a dialogue
in which he presents some evidence, and the revisionists deny it;
he presents another piece of evidence, and they deny it; and this goes
on and on, with him getting more and more exasperated, and the
revisionists looking more and more foolish, in his eyes at least.
But what about this witness? But what about all these other witnesses?
But what about the Zyklon B? But what about the missing Jews?
In this dialogue Michael's imaginary opponent automatically denies
everything -- and gives very lame reasons for his denials -- because
he is defending his belief system at all costs.

The principle seems to be: If A can put forth 18 bits of evidence for his
thesis, and B denies them all, and A can describe this in such a way that
it appears that B is going to absurd lengths to cling to his belief system,
then A must be right. To give credit where credit is due, from now on
let's call this "the Shermer principle."

Well, Michael: This form of argument can be used against you.
Someone who wants to prove the existence of UFOs could proceed
in exactly the same way, casting *you* in the role of the benighted

The UFO advocate starts out by listing the types of evidence for UFOs.
There are hundreds of thousands of documents, letters, government
reports, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings describing UFOs.
There are many photographs. There are eyewitnesses from all walks of
life, including many responsible people. He describes this evidence
in a tone which suggests it is too obvious to argue about; anyone
who doesn't accept it is just out of touch with reality. Of course,
UFOs exist. Everybody knows that.

Then he presents a witness. (He has plenty to choose from. There
must be a million people who have "seen a UFO" at some time.)
You, the revisionist, say he saw swamp gas. He presents another
witness. You say he saw the planet Venus. Another witness -- you say
this one saw a weather balloon. Another witness -- Venus again.
Another witness -- this sighting is a hoax, you say; the witness is
simply lying. He goes though enough witnesses to create the
impression that you are grasping at straws. No matter what he says,
you will automatically find some far-fetched "explanation."

He presents a witness who was abducted. Here, he says, you have
someone who not only saw a UFO, he was *in* one. What about him?!
You say this person is unfortunately deluded. He comments
mockingly: "'No one knows why people confess to ridiculous
episodes,' explains the revisionist, 'but they do.' "

Then he goes on: He presents a photograph of a UFO. It's fake,
you say. He presents another photograph. It's fake too, you say.
A whole collection of photographs. All fake. Ah, these revisionists!
They cling to their belief system no matter what. But, he goes on:
what about this picture of a dead alien, being kept in a secret military
base? It's fake too, you say. What about President Eisenhower's treaty
with the aliens? It's fake too, you say, looking more and more

Now, he says, triumphantly, the revisionist must rationalize no less than
14 different bits of evidence that "jump together" to a specific
conclusion. But our convergence continues. If all those people were
not abducted, where did they go? They are still here, you reply, lamely.
What about crop circles? You say the crop circles are hoaxes.
What about all those pilots who have seen UFOs on their radar?
Equipment malfunctions sometimes. What about the mutilated cattle?
The cattle, you say, were mutilated by coyotes with very sharp teeth.
Yeah, right, he says. You've got an answer for everything, don't you?
Coyotes with sharp teeth! Very precise coyotes.

Post Hoc Rationalization: We are now up to 18 proofs all converging
toward one conclusion. The revisionist (you, Michael!) is desperately
swinging away at them all, steadfastly determined not to give up his
belief system...

Are you sure you want to admit that this form of argument is valid,

I could go through this same routine again, and "prove" the existence
of psi phenomena. There are many types of evidence. Witnesses: any
number of people will testify that they have had psychic experiences
of some kind. Physical evidence: spoons bent by Uri Geller, vases
broken by poltergeists, etc. Scientific experiments: several different
kinds of experiments conducted by Rhine, Soal, Tart, and others.
And so forth. I could easily come up with 18 bits of evidence for
psi phenomena, and if you found fault with each one, I could
make it appear that you were grasping at straws. I could invent a
dialogue in which I am a normal person presenting evidence that
"jumps together" to an obvious conclusion, and you are a fanatic
desperately searching for any explanation, no matter how far-fetched,
to defend your belief system.

Does the fact that I could invent such a dialogue imply that
psi phenomena are real? Obviously not.

The thing is, the Shermer principle isn't really supposed to prove
anything. Its purpose is to distract the reader, to engage him in a
back and forth dialog, to keep his attemtion moving along, so that
he/she won't notice that no conclusion is ever proved. M.S. never
demonstrates that his 18 bits *imply* anything about gas chambers.
The concept of implication is entirely missing here. It has been
replaced by "convergence" or "jumping together."

According to M.S, this is how "convergence" works: First you
construct a picture of the whole thing, the Holocaust -- the menacing
speeches, the trains, the unloading platforms, the gas chambers,
the ovens, the burning pits, the mass graves, the starving prisoners
in the camps at the end of the war. Then you say that any evidence
for any part of this picture is a "proof" of the whole thing; and if you
have 18 "proofs," they "converge" to the conclusion that the whole
picture is true. This is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except that
it isn't necessary to cover the whole picture. If you can cover most of
it, the rest "jumps together." Of course, from a logical point of view
this is nonsense.

The "jumping together" phenomenon is how illusionists produce their
illusions. This is exactly what skeptics are supposed to be skeptical of.