Logically Delicious is part of a continuing series within Thinking About Thinking. I’m hunting Bad Takes in The Wild, and exposing the logical fallacies that fester within.
In our No True Scotsman article, we described that fallacy as “A combination of moving the goalposts and special pleading.” Last week, we tackled special pleading, so this week let’s address the other half of that fallacy: Moving the goalposts.
THE FALLACY: Moving the Goalpoasts
Moving the goalposts is a familiar fallacy to anyone who has ever had an argument with someone who refuses to admit defeat.
This probably looks familiar to many of you. The person you’re arguing with raises an objection to something you say, you respond to that objection, and they keep moving on to other objections until they reach one that’s impossible to respond to.
At no point do they concede any point or abandon the argument, and once you’re unable to respond to their final, impossible request, they take that as a victory.
Since this position has enjoyed a resurgence lately, let’s look at the idea that Earth is flat rather than round. We’ll show through a hypothetical dialogue how moving the goalposts plays out.
“Look at the horizon, right? It’s flat! If Earth were round wouldn’t it curve?”
“It does curve, you just can’t perceive it because the planet is so large and we’re on the ground level. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane and looked at the horizon, you could see a slight curve.”
“Well if Earth is round how does the ocean stay attached to the planet instead of falling off into space?”
“Because of gravity. Same reason you don’t fall out of your chair when you go upside-down on a roller coaster – the force of gravity from the speed of the coaster is enough to keep you in your seat. In this case, it’s Earth’s rotation keeping the water and everything else from drifting off.”
“How can you know it’s round? Have you ever been to space?”
“No, but plenty of people have and we’ve got pictures and videos showing a round, rotating Earth.”
“But YOU have never been to space, have you? Neither have I. You’re just trusting what you’re shown. Unless you can take me to space I can’t be sure the world is round.”
“Well, I can’t take you to space.”
WHY IT’S WRONG
Moving the goalposts means never having to say you’re sorry.
Notice that in the above dialogue, plenty of evidence was provided that Earth is round. Every objection was addressed, and at no point did the flat-earth advocate address any of those points, they simply moved right along to the next thing in the queue.
This is an effective technique used by propagandists, advertisers, governments, and snake-oil salesmen of all types because it’s easy for this subtle manipulation to go unnoticed. And it means they don’t have to train their devotees to do any critical thinking.
In fact, it helps them to avoid critical thought, because if they stepped back to think about things they may not buy the propaganda and snake oil anymore.
WHAT IT IS NOT: An argument that already contains multiple propositions.
The difference is subtle, but in the above example, we’re only talking about one thing: Is Earth round or not? Multi-faceted arguments may require multiple refutations to fully address the objections raised.
HOW TO CONFRONT THE FALLACY
The best way to confront a goalpost-mover is to cut right to the chase: Ask them what they would accept as definitive proof of your position.
If they can’t think of anything, then you’re arguing about beliefs … which is fine, of course, not everything can be definitively proven. That’s what philosophy is for. But it can be helpful to illuminate if all participants were previously under the impression that this was an argument about facts.
If the person you’re arguing with says nothing will convince them, or if the only proof they’d accept would be impossible to satisfy, well, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of time and headache. There’s no need to continue the argument at that point.
Until next time … keep thinking!