Chapter 30: Forget the Facts - Focus on the Fallacies

Forget the Facts - Focus on the Fallacies

In Chapter 17 we started to consider some of the philosophical issues concerned with this case.

We looked at whether absence of evidence could become evidence of absence ( it can!) and we touched on Logic and fallacious arguments

What I want to do now is look at it purely from the point of view of Formal Logic.
We know, know, that there is no forensic evidence of an abduction on Thursday 3rd May 2007
So let us look at the logic of the arguments that have been put forward in the absence of that evidence.

There seem to be three phases, each involving different fallacies.
I will try to pursue them in chronological order

1 Argument by assertion.

Of the night in question, 3rd May 2007 Kate writes “I’d done that, and I knew, I knew, that Madeleine had been abducted.”

The addition of the second ‘I knew’, and putting it in italic is clearly designed to emphasise and therefore to persuade.

This is a classical fallacy known as the Argument by assertion.
If you have no evidence, simply state something. If necessary shout, and as we saw in Chapter 17 in the Lewis Carrol extract - What I tell you three times is true ( and other less amusing and more sinister examples)

If in doubt, Keep repeating it.

It is then sometimes referred to as the Argument by repeated assertion.
This does not reinforce the argument. In some cases it may make it weaker in the minds of perceptive listeners, as the lack of any supporting evidence is exposed.

In fact Kate does this as well in her book. In one paragraph she says “Refusing to acknowledge what I already knew, . . . mentally ticking boxes that I knew, deep down, were already ticked.” In two short paragraphs she uses the word four times, without adducing a single piece of relevant evidence to support the contention.

Gradually this fallacy can begin to metamorphose into the Argumentum ad baculum - the Argument with the club, as the repetition becomes more violent and aggressive, and develops into legal proceedings or in hounding a person to their death. I discuss this later.

It can also become the Argumentum ad lapidem - the argument by kicking a stone to prove its existence.

Even Dr Johnson used / misused these forms. “I know our will is free. And there’s an end on’t!

2 Affirming the consequent. This is a form of non sequitur (it does not follow) argument, and was used from the start by the McCanns

The correct form of the argument is this. It is called the modus ponens, and is logically sound

It is usually put in the form of a syllogism, formed by the combination of a general statement (the major premise) and a specific statement (the minor premise), from which the conclusion is deduced

If a child is abducted, it disappears

General statement, antecedent -> consequent
Madeleine has been abducted
Specific statement, confirming the antecedent
Therefore she has disappeared. 
Conclusion following logically

But affirming the consequent turns it round; it places the consequent (the consequence = ‘disappears’) before the antecedent (abducted) and this makes it logically unsound, a fallacious argument

If a child is abducted, it disappears

General statement
Madeleine has disappeared
Specific statement, confirms the consequent
Therefore she has been abducted.
Conclusion is not logical

To continue with this argument would require evidence of abduction, but this cannot be deduced from the second line.

This can look similar to the fallacy of the undistributed middle, where the minor premise talks about Some, but not All, leading to an illogical conclusion, but it is in fact something different.

This example mixes both

3 The Red Herring They then move to a fallacious argument, that even Kate in her book refers to, by name.

The McCanns invoke several ‘red herring’ arguments to wriggle out of their original statement that the window was open, the curtains were wide open, and the shutters were pulled up when she entered the room. These range from “the intruder was in the room whilst I was there,” to “someone did a dummy run the night before”, and even to “ left the shutters open as a red herring” whilst leaving by the patio door and down the stairs right past where Gerry was standing . . . (I’m not making this up!)

The Red Herring is a reference to a stinky fish dragged across a trail being followed by hounds in order to divert them by leaving a stronger scent.
In fact the main Red Herring which was pulled across the trail of the PJ was the insistence by 9 professional people that everything happened on the evening of Thursday 3rd May 2007 between 9:10pm and 9:50pm. (see also Appeal to authority, post.)
It was wholly successful.

The PJ, and almost everyone else concentrated on that day and date, those times, and the description of the situation in the apartment, and tried to make everything fit within them.

In fact even the alleged “evidential facts” do not fit.

But the Red Herring was sufficiently pungent to keep most of the Truth Hounds on the false trail for a long time.

Get back on the real trail and follow the squirrel - not the herring, and another much more productive line of enquiry shows itself.

4 The next fallacious argument they use is the Argumentum ad nauseam. The fallacy of Argument by constant repetition.

For this they quickly sought professional help. Bell Pottinger who were paid £0.5m, Hanover who were paid some unspecified amount, several gullible or paid tabloid journalists, and a series of spokesmen, culminating with the egregious Clarence Mitchell who went round the world repeating the official story ad nauseam, were employed specifically to promulgate this fallacy.

Their job was to repeat the word “abduction” as many times as possible, and to allow no other

If you state something to be true, then you have the burden of proof, and it is not up to people who doubt you to provide any evidence against what you have said, until you yourself provide evidence of its truth.

Gerry does this outside the Court in Portugal. “where is. . . where is . . . Where is the child, we’re looking for that evidence, what other explanation can explain why she’s not here , . . .” [3] at 7:15

Simple answer – MANY – but it is not our responsibility to provide them, until you show us the evidence you have of abduction.

In fact the reporter presses the point “Are there any other explanations . . .?”
But Gerry shuts him down, turns away with “OK, any other questions.”
(See also false dilemma, post.)
After the initial stages we moved into TV interviews, articles in the press, visits to foreign countries, press articles and other things, and a new set of Logical fallacies came to the fore.

6 At this stage the Argumentum ad baculum - the argument with a big stick, became much more serious.
The famous or infamous – depending on your status as litigant – libel lawyers Carter-Ruck specialise in this and are acknowledged to be best in the world at what they do.

Never once did they allow their case to be sullied with evidence, or statements given under oath, or to be tested in open court by qualified forensic practitioners.

What they do is more devious.

They threaten their victims with penury, with impoverishment, by quoting exorbitant fees and costs, all of which will have to be paid if one word or phrase can be shown to be defamatory . . . and by so doing are able to get grudging and coerced agreement for signed undertakings, and qualified admissions. They then claim this as victory for their clients.

It is NOT.

None of it speaks to the truth or otherwise of what has been said.

It is therefore a fallacious argument.

The only time the truth has been even partially tested, the McCanns lost. And the Supreme Court of Portugal made the unprecedented statement that their status as suspects was still not settled.

The Argumentum ad baculum was then used to deadly effect against a random internet poster, Brenda Leyland, who after being hounded by Sky News and Martin Brunt over an entire day, took her own life. The ‘truth’ or otherwise of the contents of the ‘Dossier of Death’ may be judged by the fact that neither the Metropolitan Police, nor Leicestershire Police found sufficient in it to take any action at all. [vide Chapter 13]

7 The next fallacious argument used is the Argumentum ad numeram, the bandwagon argument, which is a species of Appeal to the people.

In Germany at a press conference they were asked whether they were involved in the disappearance.

Kate replies “To be honest I don’t actually think that is the case, I think that’s a small number of people who criticise us”. [4]. 0:27

Whether that statement is correct or not is immaterial. The issue is whether they were, or were not involved. The numbers of people who believe it or do not is entirely irrelevant to the truth of the matter.

8 They then moved to the Appeal to Authority.
This is an interesting one.
We are used to accepting the word of experts with knowledge outside our own personal sphere.

We might for example be impressed by a keynote speech on the Aetiology of paroxysmal atrial fibrillation if it came from an experienced consultant cardiologist.

We might be equally impressed by a description of the protocols and legal procedures necessary to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights if that came from a Queens Council

But perhaps not if these were the other way round.

The appeal to authority becomes fallacious if the authority itself is irrelevant or non-existent.

We saw that in the court in Portugal where one witness, Pike, held himself out to be a psychologist. His evidence was undermined when he did have to tell them that he held no such qualification.

Similarly the retired Detective Inspector Edgar gave evidence which was similarly undermined when he admitted that not only had he not read the book in question, but that neither had he been given, nor had he read, all the relevant documents.

Their evidence may in fact have been accurate, but their proven lack of authority condemned it.

The fallacy is overused. A man whose authority depends on his historical skill in playing Association football and of selling potato crisps is invited to give his views on the ‘political and socio-economic implications of Britain’s leaving the European Union’.

A woman with a décolletage whose size can vary with the seasons and a name which is similarly flexible, is invited to give her views, not about décolletage, but about matters unrelated to any of her known or supposed expertise.

9          This fallacy has a close relative, the Appeal to vague authority
Here the authority itself is presented as relevant, and may indeed be so, but the identity is so vague as to leave the statement as fallacious.

Many scientists believe that the Universe is beginning to shrink”. Well, possibly, but if they are micro-biologists their views may not be as authoritative as those of, say, Astrophysicists.

Kate used this “So on the afternoon of Friday 11 May, the paralegal, accompanied by a barrister, flew out to Portugal. . . .

. . . the barrister first of all assured us that our behaviour could not be deemed negligent and was indeed ‘well within the bounds of reasonable parenting’. “ [p. 124]

We do not know the identity of the alleged barrister, nor whether she or he was a specialist in Family Law, nor of her or his experience, nor whether s/he has a list of relevant authorities and precedents up the sleeve of the gown . . . All we have is Kate’s statement that this was said.

10 As we move further on, we encounter the Argumentum ad hominem (abusive).

Anyone commenting on any aspect of the case was dismissed as a “troll”. The McCanns even had boxes into which they put correspondence they did not agree with, labelled ‘Nasty’, ‘Nutty’, and ‘Psychics Visions Dreams
This vituperation continues to this day on the internet, with some people, suspected to be in the pay of the McCann team scanning the fora and blog sites and putting on-line vile abuse and threats of physical violence against anyone critical of the official story.

[See argumentum ad baculum, supra.]

11 The False dilemma is a favourite fallacious argument used by people in a tight corner
Gerry used it outside the court room in Portugal, where it was also a species of Shifting the burden of proof

His words “where is. . . where is . . . Where is the child, we’re looking for that evidence, what other explanation can explain why she’s not here , . . .” [3] at 7:15. not only try to shift the burden, but to suggest that there is no other valid alternative to the theory being proposed.

12 Every schoolboy knows . . .

Here a statement is made in such a way that there is a suggestion, which may be explicit or implicit, that anyone who does not agree is ignorant or stupid, or both.

It is used more frequently that we notice

Everyone knows there is no link between smoking and lung cancer”. (Said for many decades)

“Only a fool would argue that speed kills, Look at Formula 1”. (Still used !)

And here we saw Gerry
GM: We’ve looked at evidence of cadaver dogs, and they are incredibly unreliable.
Q: Unreliable ?
GM: Cadaver dogs. Yes [5] at 4:39

The clear implication being that only a fool would disagree.

The truth might be that only a fool would refuse to read the detailed evidence of their incredible reliability and almost total infallibility.

We then entered a third phase.  That of consideration of the McCanns themselves and the implications or their being prosecuted or convicted of a crime or offence in Portugal or England

Whilst these may be valid as arguments in themselves, they are fallacious when they are said to speak to the guilt or innocence of any concerned

13 Argumentum ad misericordiam. The Appeal to pity - think of their suffering in a Portuguese or English prison, think of the twins, and the breakup of the family, of the loss of their professional reputations, of the impact on their friends. Who would look after the house...?
Very clearly this says nothing at all about guilt or innocence, but it diverts neatly from that inconvenient issue.
14          This overlaps with the Argumentum ad sentimus. Emotional appeal,

Pity us, cry with us, light candles, hold vigils, pray during services, make programmes with tear-jerking poems about dead children for Radio 4, drop broad hints about mental strain, and even suggest incipient mental illness when convenient. (But obviously be in a position to deny it vehemently when it is not convenient, such as when it is suggested that mental illness might have been the reason behind an assault...)

15          Appeal to ignorance 
We see this fallacy from various people. Some in the press have used it, as have some retired senior Police officers (all of whom ought to know better.)

They all amount to the same thing each time. A bald statement after a re-statement of usually irrelevant details, usually taking the form . . .

“That is why I can’t believe they killed their daughter . . .” or

“I can’t believe they were involved in the disappearance of their daughter . . ."

We are clearly supposed to follow this, relying on the Appeal to authority, but it is fallacious.

The fact that YOU cannot believe it is frankly of no interest, and immaterial to the argument. The question is DID THEY, or DID THEY NOT

16 The Genetic fallacy. This is normally used to destroy an argument, but here it is being used to positive effect. They are Doctors, THEREFORE they are not guilty.

There would rightly be outrage if anyone were to invoke it the other way round, and make loud noises about Dr. Harold Shipman, Dr Crippen, Dr Bodkin Adams, and others through history. [6]

17 The Slippery Slope. This can appear to be persuasive, and is clearly used to stop prosecutions of famous persons, with those cases labelled “Not in the public interest
The argument runs –
If they are prosecuted, let alone found guilty, then look at the list of people who will be sucked into the case. There will be those who on any test would be guilty of Conspiracy of one sort or another, many who would be guilty of professional negligence, those who would be exposed as stupid, and so many who will be embarrassed, either personally or professionally, and risk having their public lives changed irrevocably.

Better to let it just die away, and say no more about it !

Books on the subject and references

1 “How to win every argument: The use and abuse of Logic”. Madsen Pirie, Continuum
International Publishing Group, (Available from

2 Mastering Logical Fallacies”, Michael Witney, Zephyros Press, (Available from