Episode 42: Least Plausible and Far Fetched Hypotheses

I was doing

some work in the wood shop that I expected to go quickly and smoothly.  Oh, when will I ever learn?  Nothing ever goes quickly or smoothly, does it?  In this case, a simple shelf was suddenly turning into quite an endeavor.  First, I’m happily driving in some screws when my portable drill emits some foul odors followed by sparks.  Pretty sure it was about to burst into flame. My wonderful wife finds the old corded drill which surprisingly still works and I can carry on.  Until, that is, I realize I don’t have enough of the screw size I need.  For this simple, quick project I’m now off to the home store to buy supplies and new tools! (believe it or not, this actually happened)

While there I was commiserating with some other patrons, who likely suffered similar problems as me, about the excessively cold temperatures we were having lately.  Even the sheep were saying Wow!  It’s a little chilly out here.  It had been a fairly warm winter so far and the weather caught us by surprise.  One person there, though, knew exactly why it was happening.  You see he said It’s all because of the honey bees.  With their population declining they aren’t fertilizing as many plants which means which means we’ve got less new trees, shrubs and flowers.  Less of them means less CO2 conversion and less oxygen which is totally messing up the weather patterns.  We were all nodding our heads in agreement, mainly because we wanted to get home and finish our projects but also because this was just a bit ‘out there’.

This particular type

of argument doesn’t seem to be a fallacy per se, but it is related to two types of fallacies: Least Plausible Hypothesis and Far Fetched Hypothesis.  In the Least Plausible variant, one would take all things considered plausible for a given event and choose the one with the least amount of supporting evidence.  Say a dam burst flooding a small town.  The possible reasons for the burst are: rains caused flooding that exceeded the dam’s ability to retain the water (highly plausible), manufacturing defects and age of the structure caused deterioration which eventually ended in failure (fairly plausible) or a neighboring town wanted to win the prestigious Best Main Street award so they sent people to sabotage the dam (pretty unlikely).  The Far-Fetched version stretches the causes in a ludicrous direction, abandoning any sense of plausibility.  If we say the dam burst because an alien species needed the underwater environment to lay their eggs that, once hatched, would eat the concrete of the dam for nutrition – that is pretty far-fetched.

Fortunately, these types of arguments tend to come up more in comical form than in other places, but they do happen.  What led me to these today was having run across a slew of articles and videos titled something like “10 Alternate Theories So Crazy They Must Be True”.  As I thought about that I had to scratch my head for a moment and wonder … if something reaches an extreme level of craziness is it suddenly true?  That seems to fly in the face of all reason and logic.  Perhaps a better series of articles would bear the title “10 Alternate Theories with So Many Supporting Facts, Arguments and Independent Testing They Must Be True”.  Now that sounds like an article I can get behind!  I do realize these are meant jokingly, however as good critical thinkers we can realize what they are, even if we want to chuckle at them.

Sometimes the far-fetched hypothesis is used to explain events, though.  This is especially true of events where it seems we had little or no control over.  Conspiracy theories often involve far-fetched reasoning.  For instance, the 9-11 tragedy in New York was actually orchestrated by the US government to provide an excuse to go to war.  If you substituted aliens for government it would have been no less far-fetched.  In this instance there was a wealth of evidence to show what really did transpire.  I’ve heard it said that Hurricane Katrina, which caused massive flooding, evacuations, deaths and property loss in Louisiana was the wrath of god for such a sinful city.  In reality we know it was a rare storm, and the levies and dams were not designed for that much rain.  These are examples where the far-fetched or least plausible are made to seem reasonable and probable and where we must be on guard.

This type of argument is pretty easy to spot.  I’m sure that with only a little thought you can find some examples.  Usually we can chuckle at it or dismiss it as a bit crackpot.  However, when those instances do arise where an important event is given a far-fetched cause we should work to correct that, at least as much as we are able.  Otherwise, these ideas can propagate and stay with us.  Now, who thinks irradiated mutant termites will show up to eat the shelf I finally finished?