Moving the Goal Posts

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Also Known As: Raising the Bar

Description:

This fallacy occurs when evidence against a claim is rejected by insisting, in an unprincipled way, that different (typically greater) evidence be provided. The fallacy has the following forms:

 

Version 1

Premise 1: Evidence E against claim C is presented.

Premise 2: It is insisted (without justification) that a different sort of evidence, D, must be presented against C.

Conclusion:  E is rejected.

 

Version 2

Premise 1: Evidence E against claim C is presented.

Premise 2: It is insisted (without justification) that a different sort of evidence, D, must be presented against C.

Premise 3:  E is rejected.

Conclusion: C is true.

 

This is a fallacy because changing the conditions under which something counts as evidence against a claim (in an unprincipled way) does not show that the evidence does not count.  This is analogous to moving a goal post after a goal has been scored and then insisting that the goal does not count, hence the name.

It is not a fallacy to argue that alleged evidence against a claim is not evidence against that claim. The fallacy occurs when the rejection of the evidence is done in a way that is not justified. Typically, this is done simply to “protect” the claim from criticism.

There are cases in which the standards of what count as evidence against a claim can shift in a justified manner during an argument. Not surprisingly, what counts as a justified change in standards can be a matter of considerable debate and goes beyond the scope of this book.

There is also another version of this fallacy in which a claim is “defended” from refutation by switching to a new or modified claim and treating that claim as if it were the original claim. This version of the fallacy has the following form:

 

Version 3

Premise 1: Person A makes claim C.

Premise 2: Evidence E against claim C is presented.

Premise 3: A shifts to claim D.

Conclusion:  E is rejected.

 

Version 4

Premise 1: Person A makes claim C.

Premise 2: Evidence E against claim C is presented.

Premise 3: A shifts to claim D.

Premise 4:  E is rejected.

Conclusion: D is true.

 

This reasoning is fallacious because unprincipled shifting from one claim to another does not defend the original claim from the evidence against it. One variant of this fallacy, which is usually considered a type of Fallacy of Equivocation, is called the motte-and-bailey fallacy or doctrine. This fallacy was first presented by philosopher Nicholas Shackel.

While it can be tempting to see any change of claim as this fallacy, modifying a claim in good faith in response to evidence would not commit this fallacy.

Moving the Goal Posts is often used as a bad faith tactic to exhaust an opponent who is arguing in good faith. From a psychological standpoint, a person who uses this fallacy might appear to be “winning” a debate, because they can create the illusion that they are countering each objection to their claim. If their opponent gives up in frustration, they can then use the Appeal to Silence to claim that they have won.

While this fallacy is usually used in bad faith, a person could commit it without realizing that they are doing so. While it would still be a fallacy if committed in good faith, there is a chance of convincing a person to stop using it.

 

Defense: To avoid inflicting this fallacy on yourself, consider whether you are rejecting evidence or shifting your claim in a principled way. If you are engaged with someone who might be using this technique, the main defense is to look for signs that they are rejecting the evidence you present or shifting their claim in an unprincipled way. If they are, then attempt to point this out.

If your opponent is using this fallacy in bad faith, they will probably attempt to exhaust you by using it repeatedly. From a practical standpoint, engaging them will almost certainly be a waste of time. The best strategy is to establish that they are Moving the Goal Posts, state that discussing it more is pointless, and explain the Appeal to Silence fallacy before they try to use it against you.

 

Example #1

Gary: “The moon landings were faked. If they were real, there would be photos of the landing sites from later probes.”

Janet: “Well, there are. NASA released the photos a while ago.”

Gary: “Well, NASA no doubt modified the images using Photoshop.”

Janet: “That kind of modification can be checked, you know.”

Gary: “NASA’s technology is good. They can fool the experts.”

Janet: “Well, what about the Russians. If we had faked the landings, they would have revealed it to the world.”

Gary: “The Russians were in on it. We lied for them; they lie for us.”

Janet: “For the love of God, what would count as proof? What if you were able to go to the moon and see the lander?”

Gary: “That could be planted there before I arrive.”

Janet: “I give up.”

Gary: “I win!”

 

Example #2

Donald: “I still have doubts that Obama was born in America.”

Bill: “I didn’t vote for him, but he released his certificate of live birth. That seems good enough for me.”

Donald: “But a certificate of live birth is not the same thing as a birth certificate, so I have my doubts.”

Bill: “Legally, it is good enough. Also, do you think that McCain, Rove, and all those major Republicans wouldn’t have challenged him if there was any basis for this?”

Donald: “They’re politicians, so they all stick together.”

Bill: “Yeah, I can see the love they had for Obama. But it doesn’t really matter-Obama released his ‘long form” birth certificate, you know.”

Donald: “That could be a fake.”

 

Example #3

Rachel: “I’m not getting my son vaccinated. They cause autism.”

Juan: “That does not seem to be true.”

Rachel: “It is. The mercury in the thimerosal used as preservative for vaccines causes autism.”

Juan: “Well, that was removed from vaccines years ago and there was no statistically significant change.”

Rachel: “Well, the toxins in the vaccines cause autism.”

Juan: “This has been thoroughly investigated and no causal link has been found. But don’t take my word on this-check out the studies.”

Rachel: “Those studies are flawed. No doubt they were sponsored by the companies that sell vaccines.”

 

Example #4

Lola: “I think that politician you like is a racist.”

Ted: “Really? He doesn’t seem to be a racist.”

Lola: “I heard that he has connections to white supremacist groups.”

Ted: “Those were debunked. Even MSNBC agreed that those claims were false.”

Lola: “Well, he has said things that are racist. Like that tweet.”

Ted: “Well, I do agree that tweet you mention could be interpreted as having some racial overtones, but he apologized right away for the awkward wording. Do you know of anything else he said that would be racist?”

Lola: “I bet he suffers from implicit bias.”

Ted: “Doesn’t everybody?”

Lola: “He is probably a secret racist. Just waiting until he is elected.”

Ted: “Um, I don’t know what is really in his mind. I don’t have telepathy.”

Lola: “Check and mate.”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More

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