It’s logical fallacy hour again, here in Skeptictionary corner.
That rule doesn’t apply to me because I’m a beautiful and unique snowflake.
Special pleading can often look reasonably convincing, and be quite persuasive if you don’t know what to watch out for. It might also appeal if you’re already inclined to believe in the amazing specialness of the snowflake in question. It’s when someone presents what they want to use as a get-out clause, to stop you from drawing a particular conclusion. If the evidence seems to lead in a direction that they have a problem with, they might jump in with a special pleading to divert you from it. It can essentially be boiled down to, “That doesn’t count in this case, because…” followed by an irrelevant justification for why some particular example should be considered an exception to the rule.
I’m not selling medicines; all my products are natural herbal remedies, which re-align people with the spiritual energies of their mother Earth. So of course they shouldn’t be regulated for safety and efficacy the same way as conventional pharmaceuticals.
The love potion didn’t work? Ah, it’s because you used it when Mercury was in retrograde. That’ll be what went wrong.
It’s a popular one among psychics, or other supernatural nuts who’ve never managed to give any convincing demonstration of their supposed abilities. The JREF often sees it in applicants to their million-dollar challenge, who were all set to wow the world with their powers, agreed to all the conditions set, then fizzled out hopelessly when it came to the crunch. Patricia Putt was a recent example of this: after failing to do anything impressive, she started coming up with excuses as to why it didn’t work, in an effort to avoid the obvious, simple, parsimonious solution that her magical powers are all in her head. The “negative skeptical energies” which so often throw the powers out of alignment only seem to come up after the fact, when the psychic powers have failed to do what was promised and we’re ready to conclude that they don’t exist. Then a special pleading is necessary to try and get around this; suddenly there’s “a perfectly good reason” why it didn’t work.
When considering this fallacy, it’s important to remember that not all post-hoc reasoning is invalid, and not every exception to a rule means there must be an unfair double standard at work. The Fallacy Files use the example of police officers being permitted to break certain laws which normally apply to all road users, such as speed limits, under certain conditions which we can agree justify this exception being made (like if they’re in hot pursuit of some villainous mastermind). Police needing to drive fast to do their job properly is a relevant and realistic exception to the normal rules. My urgently needing to get home in time to catch the final of The Apprentice, however, is not.
Or, if I claim to be able to run a marathon in under 3 hours, it’s not special pleading to insist that the course avoid scaling any mountains. That’s a reasonable request, perfectly in line with what any reasonable person would infer from the initial statement, and doesn’t much diminish the claim. But if I also say that I have to be allowed to use rollerskates, because that’s just how I’m used to running, then that’s less logically sound.
A crucial part of what makes this argument fallacious, then, is that the excuse has to fail to explain why this example should be treated differently than it would normally be. This might be because it’s irrelevant (like the “natural” status of alternative medicinal treatments) or because there’s no reason to suppose it’s true (what the hell does Mercury have to do with anything?). This latter is the form that tends to crop up when skeptically analysing unlikely claims.
If, to leap haphazardly across to yet another example, your highly technical ghost-measuring device is failing to measure any ghosts where ghosts ought to be, but you then find out that you forgot to put the batteries in, then fair enough. It’s clear that an electronic gadget needs power to run, so it’s not like you’re only bringing this up now as a post-hoc excuse. You still haven’t proved anything, but we can agree that you’re not simply making a special pleading to explain this.
On the other hand, if everything was functioning properly, and you had to resort to complaining about “negative vibes” to explain why the ghosts didn’t seem to be there, then you’re floundering in fallacy. If your magic powers haven’t worked, then it doesn’t make your position any more tenable to blame it on someone else’s bad juju, when there’s no more evidence for that than for the ghosts. It just adds another layer of implausible claims which there’s no good reason to take seriously.
You still haven’t proved that someone doesn’t have magic powers, or that ghosts don’t exist, just by bringing the whininess of their special pleading into light, of course. But the burden of proof is on them if they want to be believed, and conjuring elaborate circumstances to excuse a failed attempt just raises the bar higher for how much evidence they need to bring.