The argument from personal incredulity

By January 22, 2024Education, Science, Society

Being in palaeontology, I have joined a couple of palaeontologically oriented groups on Facebook. However, the ‘Paleontology’ groups isn’t one of them. However, someone I am ‘friends’ with on Facebook replied to this post, so it appeared in my feed.

“Somebody help me understand if possible. I have a real hard time believing all trilobites* are dead. Isn’t it likely that we just haven’t found the remaining ones? I know that’s not scientific and not proven because the evidence doesn’t exist that they are still alive. But didn’t they mostly inhabit the sea floor? How is it possible that a group of species that inhabited every niche everywhere got entirely wiped out? I know about all the great dyings in the past with the extinctions. What was it that caused them *all* to die off. I just have kind of special feelings towards trilobites since I was a kid, and I really hope some are still out there… somewhere.”

While I have often mused about such things such as this over my career it was more of a ‘what if’ rather than ‘I cannot believe’ musing. When younger, was a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote The Lost World. Conan Doyle also wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories and I still have The Complete Sherlock Holmes I bought many years ago. The Lost World was about an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon where “ape-men”, dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles had survived to the present day (or at least to 1912, when the book was published)1. I was also a fan of Jules Verne, who wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth2, again with dinosaurs! But I digress.

While it would be fascinating to be able to study living trilobites to see how our interpretations from fossils match up with the living organisms, it is not going to happen. The last remaining lineages, and there were only a few left, were wiped out in the massive extinction event at the end of the Permian, about 251.9 million years ago. I suspect some of you, through personal incredulity are thinking ‘how can they be that numerically precise?’ We can be that precise, because radioisotopic dating of zircons has improved dramatically over the last two decades3. Science is advancing so rapidly, it is hard to keep up. This huge extinction event at the end of the Permian was likely caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Siberia which lasted for a couple of million years and dramatically heated the planet4.

The item I received through Facebook in which the person said ‘I have a real hard time believing….’. Is what author and biologist Richard Dawkins calls the ‘argument from personal incredulity’5. It is generally stated thus: I cannot believe it, therefore it is not so’. Creationists use the same mode of argument when they say they ‘can’t believe that chance could create something as complex as an eye’. Yet throughout the biological realm we have almost every intermediate step in that evolution present today in different groups of animals6. Wilful ignorance is not an argument.

Some of the replies to the original post demonstrate almost unbelievable ignorance from people who apparently belong to the ‘Paleontology’ group. One person ‘believed’ that trilobites had evolved into woodlice (isopods we call slaters and Americans call pill-bugs), seemingly unaware that trilobites and slaters are not closely related. I couldn’t help myself and had to reply, stating that the person ‘should look it up, as a fair proportion of the world’s knowledge is now online (as is a lot of bullshit) and all you have to do is go to reputable sources to find stuff out’. I also attached a site on trilobites from the Australian Museum in Sydney7.

Those reputable sources include museums, universities and other government institutions and departments, among others. Wikipedia is often a good place to start. It isn’t difficult to find stuff online, but seems to be beyond the abilities of some people. Why that is so? I suspect it is because some people are too ignorant to know how ignorant they are, and they think that just because they can dream up a scenario in their head, that scenario is a possibility.




  • JON says:

    As always, context is critical, but in the Dawkins quote if you replace ‘cannot’ with ‘refuse to’ I think you’ll be correct more often than not. While healthy scepticism (and a relatively open mind) is important, as we know a certain cohort shuns credible information and knowledge, especially where it challenges their myopic views of how things work/actually are. Its members often prefer their own (invariably ignorant) opinion to the (usually qualified) views of anyone who knows more and has more expereince than them – especially experts. The more extreme sections of the same demographic throw reason out the door and actually believe, embrace and promote conspiracy theories in lieu of credible information, analysis and reason. I’m sure there are many reasons why people are suckered into the conspiracy rabbit hole but there are only three I can think of for their promulgation – money, power, disruption. There’s a fourth, but this is too delicate a blog and besides it isn’t Tuesday yet.

    • admin says:

      Yeah, there are lots of reasons why people embrace bullshit rather than science or other facets of reality, but not all are malignant. Some people are so ignorant, that if something seems real to them, then they believe it is real. Evidence to them is an alien concept, especially if it goes against what they feel. I find Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle bizarre and although I know what it means, I find it largely incomprehensible. However, I am not going to argue with a nuclear physicist that it doesn’t seem right, therefore it cannot be true. This is because I am not too ignorant to realise how ignorant I am. Conspiracy theorists have a completely different brain malfunction.

      • JON says:

        Happy to admit I’m profoundly ignorant, but somewhat curious and sceptical (my bs antenna is serviceable enough). Which probably means I’m well informed relative to ideologists, idiots, and come to think of it, most conservatives (as JS Mill might once have suggested). I used to be astounded by the opinionated ignorance and stupidity of some sm commenters, but no longer. I’m now more astounded by their arrogance in insisting that their obviously uninformed opinions either trump those of recognised experts, or at least should be given the same consideration. That is lunatic territory.

        • admin says:

          That lunacy was perfectly expressed by the halfwit Tony Abbott when in 2011, he railed against ‘unelected experts’ having influence over government policy. His acceptable corollary would seem to be ‘elected non-experts’. This sounds just as stupid as he is. His idea behind this seems to have been ‘when in government we want to do things which go against reality but the people who actually know about that reality don’t want us to’. He is as viscous as porcine excrement (as thick as pig shit).

  • Mark Dougall says:

    Isaac Asimov said that “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” ” Unfortunately it is a cult that has spread worldwide. As we see with Trump’s followers, and here to a significant extent, this cult of ignorance has become a potent and dangerous political force.

    • admin says:

      I bumped into one yesterday. He was so bereft of facts that all he resorted to was abuse of lefties and all those terrorists we consort with. These people are a viscous as porcine excrement. I still get the impression that a few of them are starting to realise that people like Trump, Morrison and co. are having a lend of them.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.