In the course of almost 20 years of experience debating and discoursing with people of various viewpoints, I have encountered arguments that are fallacious which nonetheless do not, as far as I know, have ‘official’ names to them. This might be because the ‘fallacy’ is in fact part of someone’s entire outlook, and does not present as a distinct formal argument.
I’ve always meant to deliberately lay some of these out, but like so much of what I want to say and do, time, energy, and circumstance seem to war against it. I have a mental list of these. Occasionally they find themselves into my writings, such as my reference to and summary of the “collective ‘we'” mentioned here.
The fallacies are sometimes relatively trivial affairs, presenting more as a tactic rather than an argument (eg., ‘blinding by science‘). But others, like the ‘collective we’ fallacy, are serious epistemological mistakes which can lead to massively wrong conclusions, and worse, massively dangerous applications.
The ‘Scaffolding Fallacy’ is such an example.
Let me explain the fallacy by reference to the name I’ve given it.
A scaffold is an mechanism by which someone scales a steep height, building up higher and higher as they go. Or, washing windows, painting, that sort of thing. Importantly, a scaffold does not operate independently. It has to push up off the ground or support itself from the building. One derivative of the scaffolding fallacy is that the independent support is ignored, or, as is often the case, completely unknown to the person making the argument.
Dan Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, probably exhibits this lack of awareness, when contrasting ‘skyhooks’ with ‘cranes.’ ‘Skyhooks’, he rightly says (with a caveat) do not exist in the real world, while ‘cranes’ do. However, even cranes must be held up by something that is not itself a crane, somewhere along the line. Dennett wishes to argue that Darwinism can be explained via a metaphor of cranes, mysteriously forgetting that on his own metaphor, a ‘crane’ is still the product of intelligence and, at any rate, only ‘explains’ the things built with the ‘crane,’ but not that which the ‘cranes’ rest on in order to do their work. In his case, the ‘cranes’ rest on, among other thing, a presumption of atheism; which would be fine, if he did not then use the entire enterprise to demonstrate/prove his atheism.
Now, assuming the thing you wish to prove is a pretty straight forward and well known logical fallacy, but that’s not my point, here. My point is that he invoked a metaphor which required the existence of an ‘independent support,’ and seems oblivious of that fact, let alone the implications of that fact. This is also the guy who in the same book attempts to use ‘reason’ to argue that Darwinism is a ‘universal acid’ that eats through everything… which, if true, means it eats through ‘reason’ itself, thus throwing into doubt the very argument that Darwinism is a ‘universal acid.’ Someone should write a book on that!
The problem with ‘skyhooks,’ ‘cranes,’ and even ‘scaffolds,’ is that they occupy real physical space and as such obey laws of nature. The source of these ‘laws’ and why they are the way they are are an intractable mystery that serve as a ‘final regress’ which is impossible for us to peer behind. But what is impossible in the physical world is entirely possible in the mental world. Dennett is right to point out the difference between ‘skyhooks’ and ‘cranes’ on this point. Skyhooks would be nice–if they could exist. But they only exist in the imagination. The ‘skyhook’ serves as a ‘logical’ trick, or perhaps a rhetorical tactic, by which an argument is dropped out of thin air by the device, and expected to be taken seriously.
The scaffolding fallacy works much the same way, in that instead of ‘top down’ it is ‘bottom up.’ In either case, the argument is left in mid-air, without the supporting apparatus that brought the argument to that point.
If you want a visual of the argument brought to this point, a good one is that old cartoon where the road runner takes a hard turn leaving the hapless Wile-E coyote continues to fly forward off the cliff, where he hovers for a bit before finally succumbing to the laws of nature. [Skip to 2:20 for an ironic reversal on this theme.] There is no reason, within a cartoon, for Wile-E ever being subject to the laws of nature. Likewise, there is no reason, within the mind, for a person binding himself to the laws of nature. Unlike Wile-E, who eventually falls, the one engaging in the ‘scaffolding fallacy’ hovers perpetually, even after all support has fled. Not content to hover indefinitely, this person will also continue to climb higher and higher upon additional scaffolding.
So, if you can imagine it, here is what happens. A person offers argument/evidence A in order to rise to ‘platform’ B. From point B, the person offers argument/evidence C, to elevate to platform D. From point D, the person offers argument/evidence E, and ascends now to platform F. Here he stands on his platform, perhaps hundreds of feet in the air, joyous and triumphant in the achievement. His entire perspective and outlook is based on his arrival at Point F. He pursues his career from the position of Platform F. He advocates for public policy from the perspective of Platform F. He derides and mocks those who have not arrived at the same conclusion as he has, standing virtuously and bravely at Platform F. See diagram.
This is all well and good. Now, for illustration’s sake, let’s pretend there was no building to lean against, because obviously, if one attached Platform F to the building, it could certainly be there indefinitely. So, imagine there is no building. Here comes the fallacy: Platforms A and C are taken away, along with the scaffolding, B and D.
In the real world, Platform F would come plummeting to the ground, causing who knows what damage. But in the mental universe, someone can stay on Platform F until the cows come home, and still expect and demand that everyone treats his argument and evidences with the respect due to a well constructed conclusion.
I have seen this numerous times. As much fun as it would be to provide some smaller scaled anecdotes, let me leap to several that have more pressing consequences to them.
In the first place, is Darwinism itself.
Much of my research has involved reading ‘primary’ sources related to the development of Darwinism and its acceptance and application. This puts me in a unique position to see how it all unfolded. What has struck me is how most, if not all, of the arguments put forward by Darwin have been silently withdrawn–and yet, Darwinism remains as entrenched as ever.
You have to remember that when Darwin proposed his theory and when it was being vetted, the mechanism for variation was largely unknown. Mendel’s pea experiment had already occurred, but it wasn’t until c. 1900-1910 that ‘genetics’ came to the forefront. The development of our understanding of ‘genetics’ positively thrashed Darwinism, finally culminating in what is called the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis,’ or, ‘the modern synthesis.’ This, believe it or not, didn’t take place until the 1950s, almost a hundred years after Darwin published Origins.
The most entertaining thing about the ‘synthesis’ is that it was really a complete rout of Darwinism. Darwinism was forced to pay tribute and homage to genetics, as King. Genetics didn’t even have to lift a finger to accommodate Darwinism. And so it has remained today: very little of life on earth needs Darwinism in order to be understood and accounted for, while, by contrast, Genetics accounts for nearly all of it.
This has not, of course, stopped people from confidently asserting that Darwinism is true. What has actually happened is an application of the Scaffolding Fallacy, although with yet a new twist. The old ‘evidence’ is still often invoked, but in reality, it was swept away. While Platform F hovered in mid-air for a time, they surreptitiously inserted a new ‘support’ for it. See the diagram.
Although very little of the original scaffolding remains of Darwinism, they’ve quietly substituted something else, which does not need Darwinism, and if it meshes with it at all, does so in a very disjointed fashion.
Some people don’t even do the courtesy of swapping in something else. They just run around repeating the stuff from the late 1800s as if they are valid today as they were then, even if it is known that it is not valid. (Peppered moths… finches and more finches, etc).
‘Natural selection’ is a perfectly acceptable (and demonstrable) construct for interpreting variations within a species. As an account of the ‘origins’ of anything of interest, it is unnecessary. It lives on only due to the Scaffolding Fallacy, in all its various forms.
One reason why this is a problem (besides the obvious problem of believing false things), is that as I argue in this post, so long as there are people who believe in Darwinism there will be people who believe that society or the State ought to be involved in harnessing the scientific ‘law’ of the ‘survival of the fittest.’ I consider that to be a pretty serious side effect of this particular example of the Scaffolding Fallacy.
Another example, with just as serious implications, is that of ‘climate change.’ For those who have looked into it and have kept abreast of the shifting rationales for aggressive action by the State re: climate change, its shocking how so little of what justified those rationales in, say, 1970, vs. 2000, vs. 2019, remain the same. It’s almost–dare I say–as if the real purpose is to justify highly intrusive and aggressive State intrusion and not about finding out if Climate Change is ‘ real.’
I’ve now been alive long enough to see dire predictions that are supposed to be based on rock solid science not come to pass. If it was SCIENCE, it should have happened, no? There are now a number of lists out there of predictions that have failed to come to pass. But more than that, arguments that had been made have been silently discarded and replaced with other arguments… if they are replaced at all.
We are supposed to totally re-engineer the entire Global Order based on a proposition that is offered as SCIENCE. Interestingly, the predictions that will happen and the reasons justifying those predictions change as frequently as the climate itself changes. 😉
This warrants a post all on its own, but I can’t help but notice that at the back of every recommendation for enacting policies to ‘fight’ climate change are population control measures. It isn’t exactly brain surgery: if people are the ones killing the earth, obviously the solution is less people.
Just today, in fact, AoC has made similar remarks linking ‘climate’ with whether or not people should have children. It is just one tiny step to make–and there are people who have made it–to say that in light of the stakes, ‘we’ can’t leave this in the hands of private individuals to sort through. The State must take a firm hand in how many reproduce, and, not coincidentally, who reproduces.
I can’t help but notice that this was the same thing the eugenicists said. When they fell out of favor, the exact same people (literally!) then said the same thing about over-population. Then, overt population control measures fell out of favor, and then the exact same people (almost, anyway, since few are alive today from the 1920s), make the same arguments, but today embed it into the ‘climate change’ debate.
(Eg, John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich; Holdren was inspired by the eugenicist Harrison Brown. Holdren and Ehrlich together advocated for radical population control measures in the 1970s. Holdren was still advocating for population control measures pretty well up to the present day, but now the rationale is because of ‘climate change.’ Eg, “Although a few of these fertility-reducing factors have been or could be politically sensitive … […] achieving them would also bring a large societal gain in the form of reduced population growth and the benefits of that for addressing the energy/climate challenge.” emphasis mine.)
It almost seems that for these folks, Platform F is: “We must gain control and management powers over the fertility of all of humanity” and any rationale will do.
If I’m right, then I predict (and I’m not putting this prediction on the ground of SCIENCE!) that when ‘climate change’ falls out of favor (and by all appearances, it will), yet another rationale will come to the forefront, with the exact same remedy: ‘…gaining control and management of human fertility’ “would also bring a large societal gain…” at least, in THEIR opinions.
So, the Scaffolding Fallacy does not seem a trifling affair, to me. It seems to me, a lot is riding on the need to have good reasons for our conclusions and being ready to drop our conclusions when the good reasons themselves are discovered to be, in fact, not very good at all.