One of the informal fallacies in reasoning that I teach in my course is the argument from ignorance, a type of false dilemma which also goes by the colloquial name of Russell’s Teapot. It is so called because it was well described by Bertrand Russell in this passage from an article titled Is There a God?:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
Today, I was lucky enough to see a specimen in the wild, kindly provided by Katrina Pierson, spokeswoman for Donald Trump’s campaign for the US presidency, in conversation with CNN journalist Brian Stelter.
You can see the example, beginning at the 6:19 moment at this link to the video.
I can’t embed the link as a video on this page, I apologise, so I’ll provide a transcript:
Brian Stelter: But if you expect honesty from the press, shouldn’t we expect honesty from Mr Trump, when there are things that are factually inaccurate that he says. He did say ‘thousands cheered on 9/11 in New Jersey’ and that’s not true.
Katrina Pierson: Well, can you prove that it’s not true?
Wow! A magnificent specimen, its hide unblemished, its fur lustrous! A better, more clear example of the Teapot has never, cannot possibly ever, exist. It will make a great trophy in the pool room.
Unfortunately, Stelter, not having studied my course, nor having taken a course in logic or reasoning, fails to see Pierson’s trap, and falls headlong into it:
BS: Yes, I can prove that it’s not true, because there’s absolutely no documentation – there’s no video, there’s no photos, there’s no police reports, there’s no crime reports. There’s no proof.
KP: There are no police reports? There are no police reports? There are no reports at all, Brian? Are you sure about that Brian? Maybe you should fact check that, and then we’ll talk about that next time.
Pierson has him. We might call what Stelter has stumbled into the Saddam’s WMD Dilemma – of course he can’t prove that none exist. One simply cannot prove a negative – anywhere, at any time.
Pierson sounds shaky in her questioning, but Stelter’s weak grasp of the rules of reasoning mean that she is now on firmer ground than him.
Realising his weakness, Stelter backs off to safer ground:
BS: I would like to see them, the same way that Donald Trump repeatedly calls for …
Pierson then speaks over Stelter, providing evidence supporting her/Trump’s claim.