Avoiding logical fallacies can be tricky and, as responses to some of my recent posts has made clear, anyone who spends time debating evolutionary psychology, behaviour genetics or science in general will find themselves having to hack through thick swathes of them in their attempts to get a little closer to truth. Two particularly prevalent and egregious fallacies we must strive to avoid are the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy.

The naturalistic fallacy, first coined by the philosopher G.E. Moore, is similar in construction to Hume’s ‘is/ought problem’. The fallacy, in essence, confuses what’s natural with what’s good and leads us to believe that what is, is what ought to be. An example of this fallacy would be to say that because different groups of people are genetically different, they ought to be treated differently. This is the kind of wrong-headed nonsense that led to the horrors of eugenics.

The opposite of the naturalistic fallacy is the moralistic fallacy, which traces its roots back to the microbiologist, Bernard Davis and refers to the leap from ought to is, and the claim that the way we would like things to be is they way they actually are. This leads to all kinds of absurd denialism that allows people to refute the existence of things they don’t like so, when presented with, for instance, evidence about the surprising lack of parenting effects, they will say something along the lines of, “Well, I think parenting must have more effect than that!” and, through an effort of will, strive to make reality conform to their preferences. Another example would be to say that because everyone ought to be treated equally, there are no meaningful differences between different groups of people.

In The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker draws the distinction thus:

The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the naturalistic fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave (as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK)…

The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary.

How likely we are to fall victim to these fallacies seems tied to our political affiliations. Interestingly, conservatives are more likely to commit the naturalistic fallacy – men are physically stronger and more competitive so they should go out work whereas women, who nature has designed to be more maternal should stay at home and look after the kids. Liberals are more prone to the moralistic fallacy – men and women should be treated equally and therefore, despite their physical differences, are pretty much the same, biologically speaking. If any research or scientific finding shows otherwise, it is, a priori, false. The only acceptable science is that which is in line with our beliefs about the world.

I have no data for this, but it seems plausible to think that more traditionally minded teachers may be likely to conclude that what’s always been must be best, whereas progressives will be more inclined to think along the lines of children working in groups is good, therefore it’s the best way to teach. This might make an interesting subject for further study, if anyone fancies doing some research in this area.

Whilst both of these fallacies get in the way of progress, the moralistic fallacy is far more prevalent amongst the type of social scientists who make their living in the world of education research. As soon as anyone dares to broach the subject of racial or sexual differences, a lynch mob emerge to scream out “Eugenics!” “White privilege!” or some other dog whistle totem in their efforts to move heaven and earth to deny the reality of inconvenient empirical data. As I explained here, this just results in identity politics, post-modernism and the denial of scientific objectivity.

There’s an easy way to avoid both kinds of fallacy: resist the temptation to frame debates in terms of what ought to be and only talk about what is. This is much easier said than done in a field like education. Drawing moral conclusion from empirical observations is a potentially dangerous game, but how we educate children cannot simply be reduced to what is – the whole purpose of eduction is to reimagine the world as we think it ought to be and try to mould children accordingly. I don’t know if this is a temptation that can be resisted, but if it can’t, knowing about and trying not to commit these two fallacies should help us in our endeavours.