Is a bad explanation better than no explanation?
Cranks, when faced with issues where science has yet to find a solid answer, often appeal to a classic quote from the literary character Sherlock Holmes that has appeared in different forms in many of his adventures:
When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
This claim, which could be called the Sherlock Holmes gambit has been used in many different contexts:
- Greg Cochran uses it indirectly to argue for the existence of a virus that turns men gay because he finds explanations based on genes, hormones and selection unpersuasive. This has led race realist JayMan to conclude that the germ hypothesis is “almost certainly” correct despite the fact that no clear evidence exists for that idea. The pathogen has not been identified and no clinical or epidemiological evidence has been presented.
- John Lennox uses it to argue that the resurrection of Jesus was so improbable that it just had to be true. This line of argument has been forcefully refuted by Richard Carrier.
- All conspiracy theorists everywhere use it when talking about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
However, this argument is flawed in at least four separate ways:
(1) Constitutes a false dilemma
Attacking alternative explanations is not evidence for the proposed explanation. Faulty criticisms against evolution is not evidence for creationism and misguided arguments against quantum mechanics is not arguments for new age mysticism. That would qualify as the fallacy known as false dilemma.
(2) No evidence for the improbable explanation
Nowhere in this gambit is evidence presented for this improbable explanation. It is an evidence-free argument. In fact, it tacitly admits that the prior probability of the claim being made is exceedingly low.
(3) Ignores unknown explanations
Science does not know everything right now. It might never know everything there is to know about the world. Therefore, this gambit ignores the possibility of future explanations. Just because we cannot explain a novel card trick right now does not mean that supernatural powers were involved and not being able to explain engineering anomalies does not mean that a plane was shot down.
(4) Assumes correct understanding of current alternative explanations
The Sherlock Holmes gambit usually include an extremely superficial treatment of alternative explanations. Misunderstandings of evolution, genetics, engineering and other topics are common. Thus, these alternative explanations have not really been excluded as “impossible”. Even if those were currently “impossible”, future discoveries or elucidations might make them more scientifically credible.