The (Endless) Appeal To Research Fallacy

by Ben Albahari 11. August 2010 13:54

I don't know if this fallacy has been named - let me know if it has.

It's the one when someone claims that your belief has little weight because you haven't researched the issue as much as they have.

For example, someone claims aliens have visited Earth. No matter what arguments you give, they will say: "But have you considered this piece of evidence? No? Oh really? Well you haven't really researched it enough. You need to read this book."

Every conspiracy theorist and alternative therapist loves this fallacy, because it insidiously shifts the burden of proof to their opponents. People who support a position will almost always spend far more time investigating that position than those who refute it. This is the ammunition of this fallacy. The homeopath has spent his life devoted to homeopathy, while the skeptic has merely written a book. The girl visiting the homeopath has read a book on homeopathy, while the dude has merely read an article on it.

This fallacy, when taken to its logical conclusion, requires that one should be open minded to any position in the case that someone has spent more time researching it than you. Purely in terms of time management, it makes the shtick of a skeptic untenable.

The fallacy will also endlessly appeal to research - there's no end to new evidence and new arguments coming from the believers - see the Bottomless Well of Bullshit.

The flaw in the fallacy is the assumption that a position cannot be easily refuted, and that the skeptics don't have good reasons that negate the need to explore the issue further. Suppose I tell you that gnomes are living in your basement. You tell me you don't have a basement. I say that's what you think, and that you need to reserve judgement until you've read "Gnomes in our Homes". Is there anything in that book that could change your mind? Of course not!

The sad truth of the matter is that many people have heavily invested in an easily refuted belief. When you point out the easy refutation, they get defensive, and say you need to read more. As Leo Tolstoy said:

"I know that most men — not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic, problems — can seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as obliges them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives."

People usually pitch an Appeal To Research after their woolly explanation of their belief has failed to infect your brain. They might even say something like "Well I'm not an expert on this, but this guy is, and once you read his book, you will be convinced" (see also The Convert Pitch, The Testimonial Pitch). And if you don't look eager to read their book they'll follow up with The Closed Minded Pitch. The hypocrisy! As if you should have to do work to make up for their woolliness. The onus is on them to read your books, not on you to read their books. Mirror them. If in the mood, tease them with their hypocritical reluctance to read your books on science and skepticism.