Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Straw Men Among Us, and the Nowhere Man That Is Us



My previous post about the much-repeated and possibly-mythical definitions of the Latin words aut and vel reminds me of the concept of truthiness. After all, it seems true that the reason we use "v" in logic to symbolize the "inclusive or" is because the Latin word for the "inclusive or" is said to be "vel." Makes sense.

There are many branches of logic. Some seek to symbolize language, some seek to build syllogisms, others prefer to explore the means of drawing generalizations and testing hypotheses.

The branch of logic that explores the common fallacies (bad arguments) of everyday epistemology must pay close attention to what D.Q. McInerny described as "Sources of Illogical Thinking."

One, I would offer, is truthiness.



Humorist Stephen Colbert claims to have coined the term, though it does technically predate him. Regardless, he has elevated it in modern discourse.

I would offer that in an introductory logic course, where junior high or high school students are being challenged with the basic ideas of truth, validity, evidence, deduction and induction, the influence of truthiness on everyday thought is worth exploring.

Something is truthy when it feels true - when its confirmation is the speaker or hearer affirming that it seems true.

Here are some famous truthy statements:

1. Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death.

2. Shaving hair makes it come back thicker.

3. The Great Wall of China can be seen by the naked eye on the moon, or in orbit.

4. Abraham Lincoln was an abolitionist.

5. The victims of the Salem Witch Trials were burned.


You may know these as urban legends. Certain Christians refuse to drink Coca-Cola because they have heard it was owned by Mormons, for one. Another recent one was that Barack Obama is a Muslim. A legend spread in the late sixties that Paul McCartney was dead, and the facts of his death were hidden in Beatles songs.

Notice that urban legends rarely claim something patently absurd, but things that are plausible, or sound plausible to the average person.

People say that truthiness relies on intuition, and thus is wrong, but that's not even my problem with it: I want to kill with fire the myth that intuition is a mode of thinking that necessarily stands in contrast to systematic thought.

I would offer that intuitive reasoning is a form of less-deliberative deductive, inductive or abductive reasoning that is possibly strong in the hands of someone with a wide body of experience or knowledge but is not some higher form of mental activity. Deductive logic is the process of reaching specific conclusions off general assumptions. Inductive logic collects specific instances to create generalizations. Abductive logic is the branch of logic that organizes inductive and deductive information to find the best explanation for an observation. It is the scientific method, but it is exercised in law, in literature, in every field.

When I walk into a room full of people and I claim that I intuitively felt a brooding mood, I am simply understating the ability of my brain. The process may be partially instinctual, but I am still interpreting sense data. I may not even realize it. The silence or murmur of the room, the looks on the first faces I see, the postures of people in the room - all of these are visual and auditory clues that I am trained from birth to note, so I quickly make an assumption based on given evidence.

I may be drawing a hasty induction: I see four morose faces, and thus I assume the party is morose overall. All of the times this quick induction held, I proudly chalked it up to intuition. When it didn't hold up, I ignored the fact my "intuition" was wrong.

There can also be cases of quick and faulty deduction. Many people with names like Obama or Hussein are Muslim. This gentleman's full name is Barack Hussein Obama. Therefore, he's Muslim. In formal terms, this is the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle. In informal terms, it's "guilt" by association (I append quotation marks lest someone think that I think Muslims are the enemy).

In each of these cases, the Hypothetical Me was jumping to conclusions.

Truthiness preys upon this. Notice the examples above - doesn't it seem true that the Great Wall of China can be seen by the naked eye from space? Doesn't it seem true that Abraham Lincoln made the abolition of slaves a cornerstone of his principles as he pursued the White House? Doesn't it seem true that hair feels thicker a couple days after a shaving?

Deduction depends on a set of non-negotiable rules regarding implication and contradiction. Induction depends on an ever-widening body of observations. Abduction relies on a repeatable process of testing and contemplating competing hypotheses under a range of circumstances. Proof requires many different sources of evidence: immediate observation, reliable testimony, repeatable experiences, etc.

Truthiness attempts to bypass all of these, and go "from the gut" as the esteemed Colbert would say.

It is truly the is-seems problem of logic. People who decry the study of formal logic, be it the symbolic branches, the debate-oriented types, or other forms, often claim it is unnecessary. "I can judge a deductive argument invalid just by eyeballing it!" Perhaps you can. But the rules make it much easier, and they allow us to refer to a set of testable precepts instead of your ability to at that moment explain your reasoning.

Aksapada Gautama noted the difference between a thing as it is and a thing as it seems. For instance, a glass of water that has been poisoned vs. a harmless glass of water. From a distance, one is more likely to perceive the item as the latter. However, this does not change its being.

The issue here is limitation. From ten feet away, I cannot tell if an object is clear rock candy, or glass. This does not change the object's essential being, but woe be to me if I assume it is edible and tell a child to go have a bite and then discover my perception was wrong!

The Beatles' "Nowhere Man," primarily written by John Lennon, only tangentially relates to truthiness. It's this lyric that sticks out:

He's as blind as he can be/Just sees what he wants to see

This is the problem of truthiness. Rather than test statements, people simply accommodate those ideas that best fit their existing presuppositions and biases.

Now, this could be argued to be an epistemological necessity. There are only so many hours in a day, and there are so many assertions constantly bombarding a rational mind in a complex society, especially one as media-saturated as ours. Thus, people have to trust certain generally-reliable authorities, or the ability of their particular slice of the culture to disseminate truth to them. I am sympathetic to this, but still wary.

After all, careers and lives are ruined by false accusations becoming part of that person's reputation. Companies are hurt by falsehoods (remember when various designers were quoted, falsely, as saying they had produced clothing meant just for white people?). Religious and philosophical discourse is harmed by Straw Man argumentation.

The Straw Man fallacy is where a person twists their opponent's argument, sticking to the original topic but dropping the original conclusion or premises. They then attack this Straw Man. Especially damaging are Straw Men created outside of a public debate, where the opponent can note the fallacy! Most Straw Men are stuffed without the original model nearby, and thus spread quickly before they can be addressed.

Yet, because they stick to the same topic and appeal to the crowd's biases, they seem to be a good analysis of the original argument.

Here's are two examples:

"You're against gun control measures? You must want every child in the United States to have access to a loaded weapon - which is absurd. Therefore, your position is absurd!"

"You support US troops being deployed in UN missions? You must want the United Nations to assume command of the US military!"

This happens so often in modern political discourse. A politician's views are misrepresented by his opponents, and their followers don't bother to check the statements.

There's a psychological basis to all this that is chilling.

It goes back to the non-aggression axiom known best in modern society as the words of Christ: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Of course, the idea is older than Judea in the Pax Romana. All the way back in Egyptian fiction we see the idea stated. The average person wants to be judged fairly - of facts and not assumptions. Yet too often we do not apply this idea of fairness to our thoughts on others.

Evasive (non-religious) agnosticism or even nihilism are not practical responses to truthiness. However, cultivating a basic "Show Me" attitude means that you will begin training the instinctual part of your mind to seek out evidence. An assertion that cannot be supported with readily offered evidence upon being questioned (a range of expert testimony, with credentials; a demonstration in real time; eyewitness accounts) should be treated as dubious, instead of cataloged as a fact.

Junior high and high school students are told often to be careful not to believe everything they hear, read or see. By explaining the idea of demonstratable proof as opposed to and complimented by reliable, relevant testimony, teachers can broach the topic of epistemology at an age-appropriate level.

In light of how easily misled people can be, a student has the choice to think rationally, or risk being an incarnation of John Lennon's Nowhere Man, either "see[ing] just what he wants to see," or, by retreating into extreme agnosticism, lacking "a point of view, know[ing] not where he's going to."

No comments:

Post a Comment