The Fallacy Of Special Pleading

This post first appeared on Lernabit.com.

Special pleading is a fallacy in which someone makes a claim, then when that claim is refuted by evidence, they state that their claim is an exception to the rule or immune to the implications of that evidence, while failing to explain why the special rules apply.

Another way to look at this is that it is simply a double standard. It can also take the form of hypocrisy when used in the context of someone’s actions. In effect, the argument states: “These rules apply to claims you make, but not to claims I make.”

Another type of special pleading is when someone makes a claim that is impossible to verify. When someone’s claim is refuted by scientific evidence, a common argument is that the rules of science don’t apply to their claim, or that their evidence is unable to be measured by scientific methods. This argument is found in just about every claim regarding paranormal activity.

Specifically, this fallacy is made a lot by so-called “ghost hunters”, who claim that old buildings are haunted by ghosts or spirits. When searching for ghosts using modern scientific equipment and finding no evidence of ghosts or spiritual entities, believers will usually claim that the ghost can’t be seen by such instruments.

But this raises an important point. If a spiritual being is unobservable, then how can anyone be certain that it exists? It either has to be observable, in which case science can test it, or it is unobservable, in which case, nobody can be certain. At best, the claim is uncertain, at worst, it is just plain wrong. So to claim with certainty that there is some unobservable spirit is a case of special pleading, because the only way the claim can make sense is if it is given an exemption from the laws of science.

While it is a fallacy to claim special rules if those exceptions aren’t justified, it is not a fallacy to claim an exception to the rules when there is a justifiable reason to do so. Special pleading only applies when the exception cannot be justified, such as in the ghost hunter example. As another example, consider the traffic laws that prohibit people from driving through a red light.

While it is normally against the law to drive through a red light, it is okay for emergency vehicles to do so because they really are a valid exception to the rule. It is not special pleading to say that emergency vehicles get a free pass at red lights, because the exception for emergency vehicles is justified. It would be special pleading if some random person claimed that they are also excluded from traffic laws with no good reason to justify that claim.

As another example, let’s go back to the issue of whether or not something is observable. Scientists do sometimes base their conclusions on things that are not quite observable for reasons such as shortcomings in our current technology. This is especially true in fields like astronomy and astrophysics. So an opponent might conclude that astrophysics is just a bunch of special pleading. After all, if we can’t be certain of the existence of an unobservable ghost, then how can we be sure of some astrophysical phenomenon that can’t be observed either? Isn’t that also just a bunch of special pleading?

Well, no, actually, because the comparison between ghost-hunting and astrophysics is not an accurate comparison. In the case of ghost-hunters, they are claiming to have observed a ghost that is observable to their biological senses, while unobservable to scientific instruments. They are claiming that the ghost is both observable and unobservable at the same time.

In contrast, an astrophysicist is making a conclusion based on evidence-based knowledge of the universe, along with some predictions about what we should see if we had the technology to observe it. Those predictions are further supported by rigorous math, which is itself a form of observation. So a more accurate comparison between ghost-hunters and astrophysicists would involve the ghost-hunter presenting mathematical calculations predicting the existence of ghosts, rather than just saying that they heard something in the attic.

The precise logic of an argument can vary depending on its context and the topic of debate. In some situations, an argument does deserve some special privileges or rules, but those special rules must be justified. When someone claims to be an exception to the rules of logic, or expects special treatment without justification, they are committing the fallacy of special pleading.