Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Anything You *Don’t* Say May Be Held Against You! (Red Herrings, Part 17)

Part 17 of Red Herrings covers still more responses to arguments that distract from the argument rather than address it directly. This week we cover the argument from silence.

Argumentum e Silentio

If I refuse to answer the question, what conclusions can you draw? Unlike most red herring fallacies, this one depends on the circumstances. In pure reasoning, a conclusion drawn from the silence of another is automatically fallacious. But in abductive reasoning (the process of drawing logical inferences), however, it is sometimes quite reasonable to draw meaning from the absence of communication.

If I claim to be an expert speaker of German, but won’t tell you the proper German phrase for happy birthday, which is more probable: (a) I know, but won’t tell you out of spite, or (b) I really don’t know and my claims to be a German linguist are overblown? Common sense suggests (b) is more likely than (a) — after all, it would be so easy for me to just tell you and move on. On the other hand, if I claim to know my wife’s password but refuse to tell you, it’s unreasonable to conclude that because I won’t tell you, I don’t know.

A fallacious use of the argument from silence is to shift the burden of proof. Bertrand Russell wrote that if he claimed a teapot were orbiting the Sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars, it would be unreasonable to expect others to believe him on the grounds they couldn’t prove him wrong. In other words, your silence in being unable to disprove an argument doesn’t constitute proof that the argument was right all along.

Historians sometimes use the argument from silence in drawing conclusions about what one group of people knew about another, on the grounds that some facts are so natural that their omission legitimately implies ignorance.

In American jurisprudence, the right to silence has the effect of barring the argument from silence, although there are some subtle ways to work it in.

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