Monday, February 10, 2014

The false compromise argument: why ignorance is not a point of view.

I had a familiar conversation with a stranger recently. This person remarked that maybe “there is no one healthy for every person? What’s healthy for you might not be for me?” This kind of flippant answer usually gets my hackles up. It’s not because I disagree with the premise. It’s the “split the baby” response to a problem that can’t be solved practically that raises my ire. That isn’t a solution. It’s a cop out.

Argumentum ad temperantiam a.k.a. the false compromise, gray fallacy and the golden mean fallacy is the idea that the truth must lie between the extremes. If I argue that a low carb, high fat, animal-based diet is best, and someone else argues that a high carb, low fat, plant-based vegan diet is the one true path to health, then the real answer must be some kind of moderation of plant and animal foods. That might be true, but you don’t get to make an unfounded claim because it sounds reasonable. You’ve got the same burden of proof as the so-called extremists. Ignorance is not a point of view.

I responded by using a dialectical example to reveal the logical fallacy in their reasoning.
“Some would say that hydrogen cyanide is a delicious and necessary part of the human diet, but others claim it is a toxic and dangerous substance. The truth must therefore be somewhere in between.”
A reasonable person could respond a number of ways. They could provide the missing evidence that supports their original premise. They could claim my reductio ad absurdum of their argument is unfounded because I assumed too much and misinterpreted their intent. But I didn’t misinterpret. Instead, they double-downed.

Semicontrolled Demolition
Munroe, Randall. “Semicontrolled Demolition.” xkcd.
“Perhaps your levels of toxic are different than mine?” was their response. This completely side-steps the problem by changing the example. They couldn’t address the “beneficial vs. toxic” presumption and instead changed it to, “How much is toxic?” Of course, even that non-sequitur requires evidence, too.

I want to be clear that I agree to some extent with this person’s premise. The difference between me and them is that I can point to examples that support my point of view. The number of AMY1 gene copies a person has may affect their ability to process starches. Insulin resistant people will react differently than insulin sensitive people to diet. Some people can eat a crap diet and still be a world class athlete, but other people get flabby just by glancing at a donut. However, that doesn’t mean an “extreme” position can’t be the truth, either. Perhaps a vegan diet is best, but a controlled experiment is too difficult to accomplish to prove? Perhaps an otherwise healthy person who eats processed foods would be even healthier on a low carb diet, but simply has no motivation to change? How can we ever solve such a complex problem rife with confounders and a lack of control?

You might ask what was the impetus for the stranger to interact with me in the first place? It was this article by Gary Taubes: “Why Nutrition Is So Confusing.” An article that bemoans the lack of rigorous scientific testing in the field of nutrition and cites that as the reason for the multitude of divergent and unfalsifiable opinions. As Taubes writes, “Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.”


An article about unfounded opinions on nutrition due to a lack of evidence triggers a response consisting of an unfounded opinion on nutrition without evidence.

Just a moment, I’m drinking in the irony of it all... o-o-o-o-o-kay.

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