Conservapedia, Reliability, the Genetic Fallacy, and Induction

Conservapedia, Reliability, the Genetic Fallacy, and Induction December 5, 2017

Conservapedia. Oh dear.

I recently posted on my new book out this last week (Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century) and was met with a number of comments from a certain Mark Jones.

A few questions:

1. Does the book talk about how the atheist worldview is shrinking in terms of its global market share as per Encyclopedia Britannica and various scholars (see: http://www.conservapedia.co…

2. Does the book address the scholarship which indicates that Western atheism will hit a plateau sometime between the years of 2021 and 2050? And then the percentage of the religious in the population will increase in the Western World due to the higher fertility rate of the religious and due to immigration. See: http://www.conservapedia.co…

3. Does the book address the matter of various scholars and various atheists indicating that atheist scholarship has stagnated in terms of defending the atheist worldview? See: http://www.conservapedia.co…

I replied:

Hi Mark,

First things first, and this isn’t the fallacy of poisoning the well, but I wouldn’t take too much store in what Conservapedia says. I can’t think of a more openly biased and poor source of “information”.

However, there has been interesting commentary (including here at ATP) on predicting proportions of worldviews across the world as this is very closely linked to birthrates. Countries with higher security, welfare, educational levels have higher secularism. Along with this,though, are lower birthrates. The most violent and poorly educated countries in the world are the most religious (see the Global Peace Index, for example).

Of course, there are many variables at play, but looking outside of the Western world, which has a greater stability and stasis, will indeed be important to garnering the future state of atheism and secularism.

For a really good overview of the state of affairs, I would suggest reading the superb book “The Nonreligious” by Galen, Pasquale and Suckerman.

Amongst other comments in return, Mark said this:

1. You employed the genetic fallacy in relation to using Conservapedia as a source. Furthermore, the wiki encyclopedia articles were well sourced (footnoted) and were not original research.

I want to address this, as it’s a fairly interesting point. What is the Genetic Fallacy (GF)? As logicalfallacies.info states:

The genetic fallacy is committed when an idea is either accepted or rejected because of its source, rather than its merit.

Even from bad things, good may come; we therefore ought not to reject an idea just because of where it comes from, as ad hominem arguments do.

Equally, even good sources may sometimes produce bad results; accepting an idea because of the goodness of its source, as in appeals to authority, is therefore no better than rejecting an idea because of the badness of its source. Both types of argument are fallacious.

Examples

(1) My mommy told me that the tooth fairy is real.
Therefore:
(2) The tooth fairy is real.

(1) Eugenics was pioneered in Germany during the war.
Therefore:
(2) Eugenics is a bad thing.

Each of these arguments commits the genetic fallacy, because each judges an idea by the goodness or badness of its source, rather than on its own merits.

I don’t want to do a hugely detailed analysis of the GF, such as Kevin Klement has done in “When Is Genetic Reasoning Not Fallacious?“, but I do want to raise a few issues.

Induction

We use inductive reasoning all of the time. The thing is, the GF seems to implore that we dismiss inductive reasoning on account of pleading that, the next time, it might come good; that each claim in any given scenario should be treated on its own merits. Sounds like a good idea, but this is utterly implausible.

Inductive reasoning is using empirical evidence and probability to assess a claim. If, for the last 99 times, a source (X) has been found to be wildy inaccurate, then I have some pretty good probabilistic rationale for deeming it, the next time, to be inaccurate. However, you can just invoke the GF by saying that one is discounting X without taking the claim seriously and on its own merit, dismissing it based on its heritage or provenance.

What this means is, that for the fear of falling foul of the GF, we must always and every time fully evaluate every single claim in the world.

This would be pragmatically impossible.

There is certainly a tension here.

Let’s remind ourselves of the explanation above:

Equally, even good sources may sometimes produce bad results; accepting an idea because of the goodness of its source, as in appeals to authority, is therefore no better than rejecting an idea because of the badness of its source. Both types of argument are fallacious.

The problem is, this is the what induction does. And it’s really useful. Without it, our lives would become practically impossible. As Klement exemplifies:

…in the past I have almost always been right when I’ve accepted a mathematical proof as sound; this is a case in which I’ve accepted a mathematical proof as sound, and therefore, I’m (probably) right in this case as well…

This reasoning is fallacious according to such users of the GF as Mark Jones. In fact, he must surely now have to evaluate each and every inductive conclusion he ever comes to. I assume he goes to work each day because he is probabilistically sure that his work won’t be destroyed by an earthquake or he won’t be blown up by a suicide bomber. But he really must evaluate every one of those truth claims every day, otherwise he is being genetically fallacious. He should spend hours calculating, researching and, ultimately, dithering.

As Klement goes on to say:

To sum up the overall conclusions reached so far, the impression one gets from many textbooks, specifically, that one always commits a fallacy when attempting to evaluate a belief or position on the basis of its cause or origin, is surely oversimplistic. There are forms of genetic reasoning that are nonfallacious, specifically those that are able to identify features of the way in which a belief or argument came about that are relevant to assessing its content.

The Reliability of Conservapedia

The problem is highlighted in the name. Here is a source of information that sets its agenda out on its sleeve, and this is very worrying for anyone involved in the search for truth. It has a self-proclaimed conservative agenda. What this means is that anything that does not fit into this paradigm will not be reported in a truthful fashion, or will not feature at all. Indeed, their front page has the subtitle: “In the News. what the MSM isn’t fully covering”. So it features news, as opposed to objective information, and it presents it as a certain type of news: that which the pejoratively titled Mainstream Media is not reporting. Wow.

It is openly anti-evolutionist, pro-creationist, anti-relativity (!), anti-environmentalist and so on. Its description in its own entry for “Conservapedia” used to be:

Wiki encyclopaedia with articles written from a Christian fundamentalist viewpoint.

Goodness, my alarm has just broken from apoplectic ringing. If you proclaim to be writing every article in this fashion, then you do from a very strong viewpoint, and you are openly admitting to huge bias.

Even more importantly, it is constructed in an opposite fashion to open-source wikis. It is a top-down dictatorial prescription of the ultra-conservative Andrew Schafly. All of this should more ring alarm bells for anyone seeking to find objective truth.

In its present description of itself, it claims:

Conservapedia strives to keep its articles concise, informative, family-friendly, and true to the facts, which often back up conservative ideas more than liberal ones. Rather than claim a neutral point of view and then insert bias, Conservapedia is clear that it seeks to give due credit to conservatism and Christianity. Schlafly said in regard to the point of view issue, “It’s impossible for an encyclopedia to be neutral. I mean let’s take a point of view, let’s disclose that point of view to the reader.” [2]

…The administrative hierarchy prevents Conservapedia from being hijacked by a faction, and thus preserves it from mobocracy, as discussed above.

Where Wikipedia, time and again, has been found to be reliable (in relation to traditional encyclopedias), Conservapedia has not. It has famously failed in areas such as history and maths, maths being something that one would think is impervious to bias and reliability issues. Even back in 2007, major issues with its articles on maths were pointed out. It is particularly odd to supposedly have a fair and balanced source of information that happens to be victim to massive censorship.

Forbes stated, in an article on the accuracy of Wikipedia, the following:

Perhaps the most interesting finding of Zhu and Greenstein’s research is that the more times an article is revised on Wikipedia, the less bias it is likely to show—directly contradicting the theory that ideological groups might self-select over time into increasingly biased camps.

“The data suggests that people are engaging in conversation with each other online, even though they have different points of view,” says Zhu. “The crowd does exhibit some wisdom, so to speak, to self-correct bias.”

This puts it into direct contrast with Conservapedia, whose small and highly ideologically driven team, intent on censorship, means that it struggles to self-correct (obstinately so).

The very nature of open-sourcing leads to greater accuracy and less bias; this is what the research shows us.

The sorts of edits you will see at CP when articles are changed are:

”The New York Times”, a far-left newspaper, supported the protestors against those in support of free speech including a liberal professor.<ref>Pollak, Joel B. (June 18, 2017). [http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2017/06/18/new-york-times-sides-leftist-mob-evergreen-college/ New York Times Sides with Leftist Mob at Evergreen College]. ”Breitbart News”. Retrieved June 18, 2017.

The NY Times is so far-left! It’s the Socialist Worker’s Party paper! Trumped by Breitbart, that terribly reliable source (one of the least trusted sources in the US).

Finally, Media Bias/Fact Check rates Conservapedia as a “questionable source” in the “extreme” bracket:

A questionable source exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, overt propaganda, poor or no sourcing to credible information and/or is fake news. Fake News is the deliberate attempt to publish hoaxes and/or disinformation for the purpose of profit or influence (Learn More). Sources listed in the Questionable Category may be very untrustworthy and should be fact checked on a per article basis. Please note sources on this list are not considered fake newsunless specifically written in the notes section for that source. See all Questionable sources.

Bias: Extreme Right, Propaganda

Notes: Conservapedia is an English-language wiki encyclopedia project written from an American conservative, Young Earth creationist, and Christian fundamentalist point of view. This website is not credible for science information and a lot of reports are simply false. (8/21/2016)

So when I see the use of Conservapedia as a source, and when someone attempts to present forceful arguments reliant on claims from Conservapedia, I am rightfully dubious and skeptical. Am I prejudiced and biased? Only if you count pre-judging something as evaluating its reliability based on previously read content and analyses. I am not prejudging, I am a posteriori evaluating and applying a consistent outcome from previous claims to a new claim, using inductive reasoning.

Conclusion

Let me also let you know what Mark Jones hilariously added to another commenter:

Even prominent philosophers have admitted that atheists have done a poor job of intellectually defending atheism in recent times. See: http://www.conservapedia.co…

For example,. in 1990, the atheist philosopher Michael Martin indicated there was a general absence of an atheistic response to contemporary work in the philosophy of religion and in jest he indicated that it was his “cross to bear” to respond to theistic arguments. (Open Questions: Diverse Thinkers Discuss God, Religion, and Faith by Luís F. Rodrigues, page 201). Yet, in 1994, Michael Martin was criticized for his eleventh hour cancellation of his debate with Greg Bahnsen, See: http://www.conservapedia.co…

In addition, there has been a notable number of instances in recent time where prominent atheists were afraid to debate (see: http://www.conservapedia.co… ). For example, Dr. Daniel Came, a member of the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University was quoted as writing to fellow atheist Richard Dawkins concerning his refusal to debate Dr. William Lane Craig, “The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.”

Next, there is no proof and evidence that atheism is true whereas Christianity has an abundance of evidence and sound arguments. See: http://www.conservapedia.co… and http://www.conservapedia.co… and http://www.conservapedia.co…

Lastly, there are various flavors of atheism. See the article “Schools of atheist thought” at: http://www.conservapedia.co… Also, see the article “Atheist factions” at: http://www.conservapedia.co…

I almost can’t contain myself here. You should go and read those links. They are so terrible for so many reasons that I don’t know where to start. I also suggest he actually read Michael Martin, rather than rely on unreliable secondary sources. Perhaps start with the brilliant The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy).

These are such naive and silly claims that I don’t know whether this guy is a Poe. I mean, he is universally and exclusively citing Conservapedia. I can’t stop laughing at this: “Next, there is no proof and evidence that atheism is true whereas Christianity has an abundance of evidence and sound arguments.”

Whatever.

And to refer to Martin cancelling a debate in 1994 and thinking it has any kind of philosophical weight is staggering. What a small world this man lives in.

That he thinks that atheistic philosophy has stagnated just means he hasn’t read around the subject in any sensible manner. Personally, I think the last few decades have brought on some fantastic thinkers and writers.

Yet that Conservapedia entry on Atheist Apologetics is so hilariously bad that I think I want to cry. It has a subtitle: “Creation scientists tend to win the creation-evolution debates” (really? I mean, really?) in which it proceeds to quote someone from 1994, and applies it to reality some 25 years later. The main thrust of the article, and thus Mark Jones’s third point (originally), is Alistair McGrath’s book The Twilight of Atheism. Instead of actually detailing why they think atheistic philosophy is “stagnating” (Jones’s words), they merely paste a number of short, cherry-picked reviews and statements generically about the book. Here, pretty much, is the central piece of the whole article:

Alister McGrath is a Northern Irish biologist and Christian apologist. He is a Professor of Historical Theology at OxfordUniversity. He was a previous head of Wycliffe Hall, one of Oxford’s religious Permanent Private Halls.

McGrath, an rx-atheist, is one of the world’s leading critics of Richard Dawkins. He published a critique of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion titled The Dawkins Delusion?. Another book of McGrath’s is called The Twilight of Atheism, which chronicles the fluctuation of atheism throughout history. He has also publicly debated Richard Dawkins as well as other well-known atheist intellectuals, including Stephen Law, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

Holy shit. This: “which chronicles the fluctuation of atheism throughout history” is all the article has to offer? The rest is autobiographical drivel. This is the what Jones puts on a podium.

Seriously Jones, look at how much time you have made me waste.

Conservapedia is a cornucopia of ideological drivel written by purely agenda-driven ideologues. Please do better.

A lot better.

 


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