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.

At church

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.

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