Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Five 'A's of Empty Argument

I’ve been on enough professional development courses to know that memorable techniques all need to be either a mnemonic or begin with the same letter.

I have gone for the latter, as it seems to work quite well – the idea came to me during the recent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which included debates on the use of animal-human hybrid embryos, Saviour Siblings, and lowering the time limit for abortions. DrAUST has written a comprehensive and sensible blog post on this issue, so no need to duplicate it all here.

What I wanted to blog was a brief summary of some of the tactics used to cloud debate, how to spot them and more importantly, how to deal with them.

(Incidentally, I should point out that there are undoubtedly more than 5, and indeed they may or may not begin with A, but the ones below are the main ones and will hopefully prove useful)

1. Argument from Authority

A real favourite for the Complementary and Alternative ‘medicine’ people. You can read the full silly story of lame homeopathic warrior Dana Ullman, insisting that Charles Darwin was an advocate of homeopathy.

Even if he was (he wasn’t) he’d have been wrong - it would add no value at all to the argument. Famous people are not infallible; because they were very clever about one area doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable about all.

2. Argument from Anecdote

“My sister often suffered from…… but since……”

Again, a classic (s)CAM argument – religious ‘miracles’ are also perpetuated this way.

This gives no idea as to confounding factors, people’s selective memories, story telling mistakes, mis-interpreted results etc etc. Humans are terribly prone to bias, which is why the gold standard for clinical trials is a randomised,double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-centre trial. Also, from a statistical point of view, it may be pure chance, unless you have a handle on the numbers of people in the same position (the ‘n’ number). Derren Brown’s The System shown on Channel 4 in Feb 2008 is an excellent demonstration - a good overview is here.

3. Argument by Appeal to Emotion

I had a different example for this but MP Edward Leigh’s emotive nonsense in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill debate discussing human-animal hybrid embryos, takes some beating
If an embryo could talk, perhaps they would echo what Mary Shelley wrote in “Frankenstein”:
“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on."

OK. The embryo can’t talk. End of argument. This is pure appeal to emotion, carries no weight of evidence and in my view, demonstrates Mr Leigh’s poor debating technique.

If my coffee cup could talk perhaps it would say “I, the miserable stained cup made to endure boiling water……”. Nonsense.

4. Argument from the Alternative

This is trying to give weight to an argument by attempting to show that the alternative is not preferable. It may be a relevant point, but it doesn’t provide any evidence for what is being argued for. The textbook (and frequently trotted out) example of this is:

“There must be a God, otherwise there would be no point to life” – answer – why must there be a point to life, apart from you feel there should be one?

Regardless of the argument in point, arguing that the alternative is preferable is not evidence for the opposite. (For another example see Anonymous comment on the blog post regarding double-blind, placebo controlled trials – not only argument for the alternative, but argument from …em…. being wrong.

5. Argument by Ad hominem

Ad hominem
is latin for ‘to the man’, but its meaning in debating circles is to use (irrelevant and often untrue) character slight as a means of winning an debate. Again, the homeopaths especially like to use this one - if you take them to task about the lack of evidence that exists for their quackery, you will often be portrayed as a ‘big Pharma shill’ with no independent thought. Again, even if it is true (it isn’t) it doesn’t change the fact that homeopathy (and other CAM techniques) are quackery and have no solid evidence of efficacy. The person making the statement of fact has no bearing on the veracity of the fact.

So there you have it. The Five A’s of Empty Argument – now, where is my book deal and whirlwind world tour?

(Post more below, but please try and make them begin with A or else we won't get anywhere :)

ETA - There is a prize of an internet to anyone who can find all five being used in the same place (sCAM fora, blog posts, etc).
Obviously this blog doesn't count.....

EDIT (18/06/08): Thanks to Nash for giving the 6th 'A' - Argument from Antiquity. Many CAM-type rationales (and religious reasonings) come from the thought that "it has been done for hundreds/thousands of years". It well have a long history, but it may also have been wrong as well.

EDIT (03/07/08): Seven seems a much better number that 6 or even 5, and so, thanks to Deano over at BadScience for adding "Argument by Analogy" to the list. Something along the lines of
"When steam builds up in a steam engine, it needs to be let out.
Emotions build in people just like steam builds up in steam engines.
Therefore, emotions need to be let out."

Keep them coming!


  1. I'd vote for argument from 'are the other side any better?' - but it needs a catchier name. HolfordWatch had a beauty of a comment from someone - “i wondered if you criticize the pharmacuetical industry as much”.
    1. Erm, the site is called Holford Watch - not Pharma Watch.
    2. How would bad behaviour by Big Pharma excuse bad behaviour by Holford?

  2. Argument from alchemy. We once had a comment about chelation - it's too tedious to go into the details but we were told that "calcium isn't a metal, it's a mineral" so it can't be removed during heavy-metal chelation (albeit another favourite abuse of chelation is promoting it for the removal of calcium plaques from arteries).

    Argument from astronomy - bear with me. If I get another comment quoting, "There are more things in heaven and earth...".

    Argument clinic - people doing it just because they want to.

    Argument from Aristotle manque - I didn't read much of Laughing My Socks Off et al but somehow it came to mind as an example.

  3. Good post, homophone-nazi comment though, you don't "sleight" someone, you "slight" them.

  4. It is wonderfully ironic that people who think of themselves as "defenders of science" tend to have such an unscientific attitude. For instance, you said above that I have insisted that Darwin "advocated" for homeopathy. Please show me where I said THAT. I didn't...never did.

    What I did say is that Darwin went to a physician who practiced homeopathy and that prior to going to Dr. James Manby Gully, Darwin wrote that he was dying and that he could not work one out of every three days. And yet, after going to him, he never again reported having the following symptoms: heart palpitations, spots before his eyes, and fainting spells which he had had for 2-12 years! Not bad.

    For more detailed information about Darwin and his homeopathic doctor, go to:,128

    Or better, read the entire chapter about famous physicians and scientists who either used or advocated for homeopathy in my new book, THE HOMEOPATHIC REVOLUTION.

    For clarity sake, Darwin never advocated for homeopathy, though he did acknowledge taking homeopathic medicines.

  5. Is this your first visit from the DUllman? It's like being blooded or something for fox-hunting.

    Can I offer Argument from Apotheosis - only sometimes, it looks like people go beyond revering Linus Pauling, Chopra et al to well, apotheosis...


  6. "Is this your first visit from the DUllman? It's like being blooded or something for fox-hunting."
    Nah - it's more like having next-door's dog come round and crap on your lawn.

    "It is wonderfully ironic that people who think of themselves as "defenders of science" tend to have such an unscientific attitude."
    If, in your opinion, someone has chosen their words poorly then that does not mean that their attitude is unscientific. By the way, it really is wonderfully ironic that you (of all people!) are criticising someone else's unscientific attitude. I've read your posts on JREF and on the various blogs that you have spammed with adverts for your book and I'm shocked that you consider yourself an appropriate person to rule on how scientific someone else's attitude is - you really are not competent to do so and you seem even to be unaware of your lack of competence in this area. [A possible example of the Kruger-Dunning effect]

  7. Ullman is back! He seems to have laid off skeptical blogs and forums recently, but perhaps being banned from homeopathy-related pages at Wikipedia has left him short of places to spam.

  8. Sorry to continue the digression, but out of interest I followed the links through to the article in Homeopathy in Practice.

    "Unfamiliar homeopathic connections

    The Homeopathic Revolution

    Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy

    – extracts from Dana Ullman’s new book

    Do you know what Charles Dickens, Paul Gauguin, Charles Darwin,
    John D. Rockefeller and seven popes have in common? They’ve all
    used and advocated homeopathy. This eagerly awaited book is full
    of the most fascinating anecdotes about less well-known aspects of
    the famous, sometimes iconic, sometimes infamous characters of the
    last 200 years.
    Dana Ullman, America’s leading spokesperson for homeopathy and
    the author of ten books on the subject, has kindly given us permission
    to print a few selected biographies as ‘tasters’ for his new book which
    deserves a place in everyone’s Christmas stocking."

    I can't believe that's not 100% accurate?

  9. "Do you know what Charles Dickens, Paul Gauguin, Charles Darwin, John D. Rockefeller and seven popes have in common? They’ve all used and advocated homeopathy"


    "For instance, you said above that I have insisted that Darwin "advocated" for homeopathy. Please show me where I said THAT. I didn't...never did."

    Of course, pointing out flaws in Ullman's claims is like shooting fish in a barrel.

    It's OK; Ullman doesn't need coherent arguments or even relevance or evidence; Ullman has *faith*. When you have faith, any old stream of words will do.

  10. Sloppy, even very sloppy.

    All of those above quotes are ABOUT my book and were NOT written by me.

    I have asserted that those cultural heroes used OR advocated for homeopathy.

    It is interesting that many of your posters here prefer to call names rather than engage in conversation...and if this is what "defenders of science" do, science is in bad bad shape.

  11. And if the journal Homeopathy in Practice misrepresented you, you know who to complain to.

  12. Thanks everyone for your comments. Norbury - thanks for the heads-up, now changed :)

    Dana - thanks for the clarification (despite fulfilling Argument from Ad Hominem) but I think the comments above show that if you have an issue, you need to go the Homeopathy In Practice magazine.

    Thanks also to Sandy @ JunkFoodScience for blogging the 5 'A's here


  13. Following on from holfordwatch

    "Arguement from Astrology"

    Looking at the biographical details the Hoes post on their websites, a large proportion of them believe in Astrology .

    an example is

  14. OR how anyone who doesn't perfectly follow the AGW line is an oil company shill? Just askin...

  15. Re: anonymous, yes, that's equally bad. However one difference is that many of those speaking out against AGW are oil company shills, as proven by documented evidence. Many people quoting misinformed anti-AGW arguments are therefore genuinely repeating propaganda that can be traced back to those shills.

    In spite of that though, you're right that even if an assertion does come from an oil company mouthpiece, doesn't make it wrong, it just means you should be careful. The key to good research is good understanding of your sources.

  16. @Dana Ullman:

    What particularly annoys me about you is your hit-and-run approach to engaging your critics. For example, you posted a rambling rant in the comments on my blog a couple of months ago (

    A whole bunch of people responded demonstrating how poor and distorted your grasp and presentation of the facts was, but of course you vanished, never to confront your critics.

  17. And the same trait has been shown here, someone who has been patiently shown to be wrong so many times and yet still repeats the same refuted arguments.

    What a waste of electrons.

  18. Sixth A?

    Argument from Antiquity.

    Alties and Hoes constant appeals to "Ancient Wisdom" springs to mind.

    This may also cover Argument From Astrology as well.

  19. Nash, that is excellent. Cheers for that :)