LATIN, AND THE MODUS OPERANDI OF THE SUPER SCEPTIC
HOW TO WIN ARGUMENTS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
It’s never too late to learn new things. If your Latin knowledge is nil, then take a look at Sceptic Guru Daryl Ilbury’s crash course. It won’t just impress your friends: it could also help you win any argument!
English is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of scientific communication, allowing scientists the world over to share their ideas and discoveries. But English is not the only language to empower scientists, and give voice to scientific reason. It’s ironic that one of the most powerful tools for debunking both pseudoscience and those superstitions rooted in archaic thinking is itself thousands of years old. So what is this language? Our Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, has the answer: it’s Latin.
Don’t laugh and roll your eyes. It’s easy to dismiss Latin as a ‘dead’ language, particularly given that it’s no longer the official language of any country. However, not only is it still used, but it also remains the bedrock of several cornerstones of modern civilisation – most notably law and medicine. And for this reason it evokes strength and authority. It’s also impressive. Whip out the odd Latin phrase in polite discourse, especially with a dash of restrained ceremony, and it has the same impact as George Clooney announcing at a ladies’ book club that he also has a PhD in astrophysics: discussion suddenly stops and everyone pauses to ponder what’s just been said, invariably with at least an eyebrow cocked. So here are some handy Latin phrases to keep tucked into your sceptic tool belt, and explanations of how to use them in situations drenched in superstition and pseudoscience:
The dinner party scenario: ‘How I got pregnant…’
You’re at a dinner party and a woman claims that she is finally pregnant after months of trying, and it’s all because – on the advice of an aunt – she and her husband made love with a potato under the bed. After everyone has smiled and nodded, you lean forward and say wistfully: “Aaah – the classic post hoc ergo
propter hoc fallacy”. When everyone looks at you with raised eyebrows you explain – with mild surprise that they obviously didn’t get it – it means ‘after this therefore because of this’. This is a commonly-used line of reasoning employed by peddlers of pseudoscience and superstitions, which basically goes like this: if B follows A then A must have caused B. This is ridiculous because it assumes coincidence is causation. Example: after successive games without scoring, a footballer dons a new pair of underpants when getting into his kit, and later scores a goal. Ergo, the new pair of underpants must have been responsible.
The argument erupts
After hearing your explanation for the above pregnancy, the women in the room angrily snap, “What do you know? You’re stupid!” To this you raise a finger and say, “I see now you’re resorting to an ad hominem argument”. This means ‘to the man’ and refers to the act of saying something is wrong based purely on a – usually irrelevant – judgment of that person. This tactic is generally employed by people who cannot provide evidence to support their argument, so resort instead to attacking the person with whom they are arguing – because they are an atheist, or because they support Manchester City, for example.
The office scenario: ‘Check out my magic crystal…’
To some degree, this is the flip side of the women’s outburst. Someone in the office shows you a crystal they believe contains magic powers, and they rub it every day because, according to them, it will bring them good luck. They ‘know’ this to be so because the crystal was given to them by a friend of theirs who has traveled extensively throughout the world and is therefore very wise. Latin has a handy warning for moments such as this: nullius in
verba – take nobody’s word for it. It is the motto of the Royal Society, and is explained thus: “It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”
At the gym
A friend shows you their new ‘Quantum Electro-Therapy’ bracelet that supposedly aligns the ‘geomagnetic arterial essences’ in their body. After finally composing yourself and wiping away the tears, you explain it’s a load of pseudoscientific rubbish. Clearly upset, they challenge you by saying: “How can you say that? I see a lot of people wearing them.” That’s when you slowly shake your head, smile and say, “Oh Bob, you’re a victim of the ad populum fallacy. The belief that something being popular is a reason for accepting it as true.”
In the doctor’s waiting room
A friend says they’ve decided to seek the help of a homeopath because “they’ve tried everything” that their doctor has prescribed, apparently without success. The Latin phrase for this ridiculous leap of logic is a non sequitur, meaning ‘does not follow’. Just because one doctor hasn’t successfully diagnosed or treated an ailment doesn’t mean that a homeopath will.
You hear of someone who is denying their child medical attention because they believe some form of divine intervention will cure them. Their belief is based solely on faith, but the scientist in you knows this will place the health of the child at risk. You slowly shake your head, and say sadly, “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”). This is the seemingly paradoxical justification employed by those who believe that reason and faith are hostile to each other and that faith is superior at arriving at particular truths.
So make a note of these phrases. Maybe even keep them in your mobile phone. And when the occasion arises (and if there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that superstition and pseudoscience remain ever popular) you’ll know what to do.
RIGHT: A tablet with a 5th century Latin inscription located in the Colosseum in Rome.