Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Reading Notes

A book arguing for the power of the concept of cognitive dissonance to explain “why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts” lacks one thing: a defensible explanation of what cognitive dissonance is.

The following is not a review but merely a comment on one particular point in the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson,1 namely its failure to explain the concept and the associated theory that are the central theme of its argument. I ought perhaps to mention at this point, since you might think otherwise upon reading what follows, that I found the book immensely instructive and disturbing in a potentially very salutary way. Its strength lies in its description and analysis of the various ways in which our need to feel justified in what we think, say, and do drives us to think, say, and do wrong and harmful things. Its weakness lies in its failure to explain the rubric under which it does this work of description and analysis, the concept of cognitive dissonance.

* * *

Before I read this book, I was acquainted with the term “cognitive dissonance” but had only a rather vague notion of what it means. Having read the book, I have a better idea of what it means, and of the psychological research that is associated with it; but the book contains no satisfactory explanation either of what cognitive dissonance is or what cognitive dissonance theory is. The authors repeatedly say that cognitive dissonance theory predicts this and cognitive dissonance theory predicts that, but they never tell us what the theory is—an omission that diminishes not only the usefulness of their book but also the credibility of their argument. We cannot make any informed judgment of the value of the theory if we are never told what it is, but told only of its alleged predictive successes.

Aronson and Tavris offer an explanation of the term “cognitive dissonance” at one point; but it is quite inadequate. It occurs just after an account of the researches of social psychologist Leon Festinger and his collaborators on the response of the followers of a pretended seer, one Marian Keech, to the failure of her prophecy that on a certain date a spaceship would come to rescue them before the earth would be destroyed.2 One might suppose, if one has not previously observed how the adherents of such prophecies behave when confronted with the failure of them, that the followers would be disillusioned and see that their faith in Mrs. Keech was misplaced. But Festinger, the authors report, made a more nuanced, specific, and, as it transpired, more accurate prediction:
The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them. (12)
At the end, the authors observe, “Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.” They then move on to the theory to which they credit this prediction—the theory of cognitive dissonance. They write:
The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions—especially the wrong ones—is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways. (13)
The authors cite the pair of thoughts “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day” as an example of “two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.” But is there any inconsistency at all between these two thoughts? Certainly they are not logically inconsistent: it is possible for both to be true. Nor is there any kind of probabilistic conflict between the two: it does not defy probability that both should be true. The authors say, in the paragraph immediately following the one just quoted, “Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity . . .” But there is no contradiction between the two cognitions in the example.

The authors say that the two cognitions are psychologically inconsistent. But what is that supposed to mean? That no one can affirm both thoughts at the same time? But surely people can do so; if they could not, then this pair of cognitions could not be an example of cognitive dissonance! Wherein, then, is the “psychological inconsistency” supposed to consist? Perhaps in the fact that affirming both thoughts creates discomfort? But the discomfort was supposed to be the effect of a so-called psychological inconsistency. If the so-called inconsistency is nothing other than the discomfort itself, then the definition amounts to saying that psychological dissonance is the state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that produce a state of tension—which tells us essentially nothing.

It is a dismal failing for a book to give no satisfactory explanation of the very concept that is at the core of its argument. We are left to figure out for ourselves what the concept is from the evidence of the use that the authors make of it.

One point about the concept that is clear is that it has an immediate bearing on the common human proclivity for self-justification. It is, in fact, supposed to provide the answer to the question implied by the book’s subtitle: “why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.” We justify, or attempt to justify, such things because it is difficult for us to accept that our beliefs have been foolish, our decisions bad, or our acts hurtful. It is surely these negative evaluations of ourselves that are the source of the discomfort of which the authors speak. In the example quoted above, there is, as I said earlier, no inconsistency between the thoughts “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day”; but the combination of those thoughts entails the thought “I do a dumb thing.” That implication, and not any inconsistency between the first two thoughts, is the source of our discomfort. To reduce dissonance, we must do things, or rather think things, that will allow us to avoid accepting that conclusion.

It seems to me that all of the examples discussed by the authors fit under this explanation of the concept better than they fit under the explanation that they give. Marian Keech could not give up the idea that she had visionary powers because she had built so much of her understanding and evaluation of herself upon that idea. Her most devoted followers could not give up that idea precisely because they had devoted themselves to her in quite costly ways: to admit that their faith in her was misplaced would be to admit that they had been extravagantly foolish.

Further, it is evident that many cases that fit under the authors’ definition will not illustrate what they mean by cognitive dissonance. Suppose, for instance, that I remember distinctly, or seem to remember distinctly, leaving a book in a certain place a short time ago, but that when I return to that place, I don’t find the book there (and suppose also that I am alone in my room when this has gone on). This may cause me perplexity, consternation, irritation, frustration, and other unpleasant emotions, but it will not give rise to what Aronson and Tavris seem to have in mind when they use the term “cognitive dissonance.” Certainly it will not drive me to try to explain the non-appearance of the book in self-justifying ways. Rather, my reaction will most likely be first to look around to see if the book has fallen down somewhere, and then, if that does not lead to the discovery of it, to conclude that my memory is at fault: I must have put the book somewhere else and forgotten doing so. Yet here we clearly have a case of discomfort produced by an inconsistent pair of cognitions—“I left the book right here (and no one else has been around to move it)” and “The book is not here.” There is no cognitive dissonance involved because the conflict between these two cognitions does not, or does not seriously, threaten my evaluation of myself. It does compel me to acknowledge the faultiness of my memory, but it will not be the first thing to have done that.

In sum, what the authors talk about under the heading of “cognitive dissonance” is not, as they say in their attempt at a definition of the term, an inconsistency between two cognitions, but an inconsistency between some body of cognitions and our estimation of ourselves.

17 June 2012: Correction made in penultimate paragraph: “will not give rise to” replaces “would give rise to.”

* * *

After writing the comment above, I came across the following passage in the Wikipedia article “Cognitive Dissonance”:
An overarching principle of cognitive dissonance is that it involves the formation of an idea or emotion in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as “I am a successful/functional person,” “I am a good person,” or “I made the right decision.”
I wish that I had a better source for the attribution of this principle to the concept or the theory of cognitive dissonance than Wikipedia, but as far as it goes, it confirms the argument that I developed independently. What puzzles me is that something so obviously important would fail to make its way into the argument of Mistakes Were Made. Elliot Aronson, also according to Wikipedia (the article on him), “is listed among the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th Century,” “is the only person in the 120-year history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three of its major awards: for writing, for teaching, and for research,“ and “in 2007 . . . received the William James Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association for Psychological Science.” Why he and Carol Tavris failed to include this essential point in their exposition—which is virtually a non-exposition—of the central concept of their book, I do not know, but the fact that they did so confirms my suspicion that sloppiness in the handling of crucial concepts is very common in the discipline of psychology.


1Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson,  Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Orlando, etc.: Harcourt, 2007)

2Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

Friday, April 1, 2011

Lewis Black on Creationism

Lewis Black explains why Christians get the “Old Testament” wrong. I explain how Black gets George W. Bush wrong—to some degree.

Here is another comedy clip, from Red, White, and Screwed, a video of Lewis Black in performance in Washington, D.C., in 2006. Once again, I have provided a transcript, so that those who like to remind themselves of the best bits, as I do, can have the words in print before them. And as in my previous posting of a clip of a comic in performance, of course, I advise all readers to watch the video before reading the transcript.

This performance took place during that dark age of recent American history known as the presidency of George W. Bush. The clip begins at a somewhat awkward point, in mid-sentence, omitting context that would allow the viewer to understand immediately what Black is talking about. I have therefore supplied, in the transcript that follows, the sentence and a half preceding the words with which the clip begins. (The complete version can be heard at 3:50 in this clip.)
I should have known earlier about President Bush, but I gave him some rope—a lot of rope, and then—he hung all of us with it. I should have known it when I heard him say, “When it comes to evolution, the jury is still out.” What jury, where? The Scopes trial is over.

I never thought that during the course of my life, a president would be elected who didn’t believe in evolution, or at least kind of in the ball park of it, or thought m-m-m-maybe it’s got some MERIT! But NO! He believes that the earth was created in seven days. Whew! Takes my breath away. And why does he believe that? Because he read it in the Old Testament, which is the book of my people—the Jewish people. And that book wasn’t good enough for you Christians, was it? You went, “No, we’ve got a better book, with a better character, you’re going to LOVE him!” And you called your book NEW, and said our book was OLD!

And yet every Sunday I turn on the television set, and there’s a priest or a pastor reading from my book, and interpreting it, and their interpretations, I have to tell you, are usually wrong. It’s not their fault, because it’s not their book. You never see a rabbi on the TV interpreting the New Testament, do you? If you want to truly understand the Old Testament, if there is something you don’t quite get, there are Jews who walk among you, and THEY—I promise you this—will take TIME out of their VERY JEWY, JEWY DAY, and interpret for you anything that you’re having trouble understanding. And we will do that, if, of course, the price is right.

Was the earth created in seven days? No. For those of you who believe it was, for you Christians, let me tell you that you do not understand the Jewish people. We Jews understand that it did not take place in seven days, and that’s because we know what we’re good at; and what we’re really good at is bullshit. This is a wonderful story that was told to the people in the desert in order to distract them from the fact that they did not have air conditioning. I would LOVE to have the FAITH to believe that it took place in seven days, but—I have thoughts. And that can really fuck up the faith thing. Just ask any Catholic priest.

And then, there are fossils. Whenever anybody tries to tell me that they believe it took place in seven days, I reach for a fossil and go, “Fossil!” And if they keep talking I throw it just over their head.

There are people who believe that dinosaurs and men lived together, that they roamed the earth at the same time. There are museums that children go to in which they build dioramas to show them this. And what this is, purely and simply, is a clinical psychotic reaction. They are crazy. They are stone cold fuck nuts. I can’t be kind about this, because these people are watching The Flintstones as if it were a documentary.
For me, the last paragraph, especially its last sentence, makes the whole speech worthwhile. But if the words preceding that line contain a serious error, does the worth of the speech as humor excuse it? I think not. Lewis Black is one of those comics whose performances largely owe their power to their truth. Of course, he often employs overstatement and fantasy, as around the middle of this excerpt; but he never, so far as I know, tries to pass them off as fact. So, as much as I relish making fun of the follies of Christian Biblical literalists and of former President Bush, I feel bound to correct Black’s lumping of the latter with the former.

Let us be clear that Black’s mention of the then-president at the beginning of the excerpt is mainly a transitional device, reflecting what he was saying just beforehand. He was talking about politics; now he wants to talk about the interpretation of Jewish scriptures by Christians, especially by those Christians who are Biblical literalists. Nonetheless, the excerpt begins with a misrepresentation of what President Bush, or rather, as he was at the time of uttering the words, presidential candidate Bush, said and meant. The utterance that Lewis Black approximately quotes was reported as follows in an article in The New York Times in October of 2000:
“From Scripture you can gain a lot of strength and solace and learn life’s lessons. That’s what I believe, and I don’t necessarily believe every single word is literally true. I think that, for example, on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the earth. . . . I don’t use the Bible as necessarily a way to predict the findings of science.” 1
Black’s version incorporates a correction, probably made unwittingly, of the future president’s characteristic confusion of idiom. Bush seems to have conflated the idiomatic phrases “the jury is still out” and “a verdict has not yet been reached” into the mixed-up phrase “the verdict is still out.” This detail does not, however, affect the substance of the words quoted.

What does affect the substance is the remainder of the quotation, which makes Bush out to be less clearly on the side of Biblical literalism than Black would put him. In fact, it puts him on the other side entirely. Then-candidate Bush says explicitly that he does not take the Bible to be literally true in every particular, especially as an anticipation of “the findings of science.” He praises the Bible as a source of “strength and solace” and instruction in “life’s lessons,” and contrasts this with regarding it as a source of scientific knowledge.

One might go further in trying to separate Bush from Biblical literalists and creationists. For Bush does not exactly say that the jury (or the “verdict”) is still out on evolution itself but on “how God created the earth.” One might suggest that the “verdict” that he means is a theological conclusion on how God makes things happen from behind the scenes rather than a scientific one on how the earth and the living things on it came into being.

This, however, is exceedingly unlikely. Creationists have a notorious tendency to conflate questions of the origin of species with questions of the origin of the life, of the earth, and of the universe as a whole: “theory of evolution,” in their usage, often stands for all of these things. The construction of the quoted sentence shows the same confusion, or at least indicates that Bush is only concerned with the theory of evolution so far as it conflicts with the Biblical account of how the earth and what lives on it came into being. It is plainly on this conflict that he takes the jury to be “still out.” Finally, his words to a group of reporters five years later leave no room for doubt as to where he thought that there was room for doubt:
During a press conference with a group of Texas reporters on August 1, 2005, President George W. Bush responded to a question about teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools. The reporter referred to “what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus ‘intelligent design’” and asked, “What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?” In response, Bush referred to his days as governor of Texas, when “I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about.” . . . Pressing the issue, the reporter asked, “So the answer accepts the validity of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative to evolution?” Bush avoided a direct answer, construing the question instead as a fairness issue: “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”2
President Bush makes clear on this occasion that in his view the supposed “debate” concerning the theory of evolution and the so-called theory of intelligent design belongs within the curricula of public schools. It has to be presumed that he means that it belongs within the curricula of science classes, and therefore that he considers it to be a debate within science rather than a debate about science.

In sum, what George W. Bush said publicly does not indicate that he believes, following the Bible, that the earth was created in six days. In fact, it indicates clearly that he is not a Biblical literalist at all, and that he does not think that the Bible should be used as a basis for drawing conclusions in matters of science. However, his utterances also make clear that he considers the theory of evolution—meaning, in this instance, the whole enterprise of explaining speciation by reference to natural causes—to be a matter on which no scientific verdict has been reached.


1 Laurie Goodman, “The 2000 Campaign: Matters of Faith; Bush Uses Religion as Personal and Political Guide,” New York Times, October 22, 2000. Bold type added. A scan of the pertinent passage as it appeared in print can be seen here.

2 Glenn Branch, “President Bush Addresses ‘Intelligent Design,’” Reports of the National Center for Science Education, 25 (2005): 13–14. For equivalent reportage see Peter Baker and Peter Slevin, “Bush Remarks On ‘Intelligent Design’ Theory Fuel Debate,” Washington Post, August 3, 2005, or Elisabeth Bumiller, “Bush Remarks Roil Debate on Teaching of Evolution,” New York Times, August 3, 2005.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

More on That False Truism

How the saying “Everything happens for a reason” combines presumption with obtuseness.

Last week, I posted an entry examining and denigrating the saying “Everything happens for a reason” (“A False Truism,” March 13, 2011). I subsequently learned that, by a curious chance, an article appeared a few days later at under the title “Five Popular Phrases That Make You Look Like an Idiot,” in which the very same phrase appears at the head of the list (though at the end of the article). Reading another writer’s attempt to identify what makes this saying so irritating gives me occasion to reconsider my own analysis.

I was not surprised to find that the author, whose name is given as “Gladstone,” does not share my logical objections to the phrase. Perhaps no one without some years of study of philosophy will do so. Gladstone even gives the saying a pass as far as its literal meaning is concerned:
I suppose this cliché wouldn’t be intolerable if it were merely meant to be taken literally. Everything does happen for a reason. People die young because they get hit by trains or get cancer. People are maimed and disfigured in wars because of bombs. I mean, if that’s all this cliche were trying to convey then it would just be vaguely annoying. You’d assume the speaker were just some mental deficient who says things like “water is wet,” “ice cream is yummy,” or “Tosh is funny.”
I, of course, disagree. Gladstone in effect takes the phrase to be equivalent in literal meaning to the truism “For everything that happens, there is a reason why it happens.” But in my estimation he lets the phrase off too easily. Getting hit by a train or getting cancer may be the reason why someone dies young, but it is not a reason for which someone dies young. People do not die for a reason, as dying is not something that people do, or can do, intentionally. They can intentionally kill themselves or get themselves killed or let themselves die (i.e., refrain from taking action to prevent or delay their dying); but “dying” does not name a possible intentional action, nor even an action at all. Dying is something that befalls one; accordingly, it cannot intelligibly be said to be done “for a reason.” The same goes for any occurrence that is not an intentional action.

For the sake of simplicity, I will hereafter use the phrase “mere happening” for anything that happens that is not the intentional act of an agent. Thus, for instance, someone’s dying is a mere happening; someone’s killing himself is an action. 

I argued in my previous piece that the logical confusions in this saying contribute to its currency by allowing it to pass—in lazy, sloppy, or corrupt minds—for a truism. But even if that is so, perhaps logical confusion is not the most objectionable feature of the saying. It is happens to be the sort of feature that tends to attract my attention, because of my peculiar irritability toward logical confusion and the satisfaction that I find in exposing it. But the logical confusion is just the means by which the phrase conveys its pernicious half-hidden meaning. That meaning combines presumption and obtuseness, as Gladstone vividly points out:
But the annoying thing about this phrase is that the speaker believes he/she has some inside track to God or Fate or whatever mystic unseen hand controls the universe. As if there is a power and that power decided there was an actual reason to inflict a newborn baby with Trisomy 18 or have a woman get gang raped. And given the existence of this rational force—that operates only with justification and reason—who are you to question why someone ravaged your wife, or blew apart your son, or took your leg? This cliché insists that either happy endings always exist (“see, they never would have found that tumor, unless they were repairing that machete wound to your abdomen”) or if there is no happy ending for you then your suffering was part of some greater plan that benefited another (“don’t be sad that you were imprisoned for twenty years by a racist jury for a crime you didn’t commit, I mean, think about the valuable lesson you’ve taught us about bias in criminal juries!”)
To say “Everything happens for a reason” is in effect to deny that there are any of what I termed mere happenings, except perhaps by an arbitrary choice of phrasing. It is to hold that the occurrences that appear to us to be mere happenings, such as someone’s dying of cancer or the fall of a leaf, are actually made to happen by an agent—presumably an all-powerful one that works in ways beyond our powers of observation. That would be, in Gladstone’s words, “God or Fate or whatever mystic unseen hand controls the universe.”

This much is implied by the phrase; and by itself it is outrageous presumption enough. But, as Gladstone rightly observes, the person who says “Everything happens for a reason” typically claims even more than this. It would be compatible with this saying to believe that the universe is governed by a petty, jealous, unjust, vindictive, capricious bully of a deity—such as the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible, for instance (see the opening paragraph of chapter 2 of Richard Dawkins’s The God Illusion Delusion*). Even people who believe that collection of texts to be divinely revealed tend to have a more favorable conception of the invisible agent behind the world’s scenes. They tend to believe, in defiance of the text, that God is just, loving, forgiving, wise, and so forth. Certainly Scripture abounds with passages in which YHWH is described in just such terms; the fact remains that the deity’s record in other passages gives the lie to such white-washing. A father who brutally beats or kills his children for failing to honor him properly does not earn the epithets “just,” “loving,” etc., by behaving more generously on other occasions.

But Biblical exegesis is not the issue. The point is that those who say “Everything happens for a reason” mean more than that some intelligent power of unspecified character makes everything happen. They mean that this power does so only for ends that are of some earthly benefit, either to the victim of suffering or to others. That is why devotees of this saying are given to using it to offer consolation to the afflicted. But to do so merely crowns theological presumption with obtuseness toward human suffering. For whatever the human benefit might be for the sake of which God inflicts misfortune, in serious cases the victim would almost never accept the bargain if he or she had a choice in it. Moreover, if God, or whatever the great stage manager is supposed to be, makes everything happen for a reason, then it is difficult to forgive that party for effecting a good end by evil rather than by good means. If the invisible puppet master can, say, take away a couple’s child to teach them compassion (and if this does not seem a convincing example of this line of thought, some other equally puerile rubbish can be put in its place), surely he or she or it should be able to effect the same end without inflicting such tragedy upon people.

Gladstone concludes with these remarks:
I’m not saying all suffering is random and pointless, or that nothing good can ever come out of a bad situation, but the arrogance that comes from the belief that tragic events are always justified as part of a larger plan is just intolerable. I don’t know why bad things happen, but I do know that no one who throws this cliché around knows either. So to everyone keeping this miserable expression alive, please leave people to their misery and save your cliché for yourself the next time you’re walking in the woods and step into a bear trap after getting shot in the eye by a drunken hunter.
This paragraph might leave those who are given to saying “Everything happens for a reason” complacent in the opinion that they are doing no wrong as long as they refrain from offering that formula for the consolation of others. The declared subject of the article, after all, is “phrases that make you look [“look”? not “sound”?] like an idiot.” But the saying is to be despised on its own account, regardless of the social use to which it is put. It may be handy to have reasons for this summarized here.

(1) The saying is logically confused: it applies to mere happenings a form of expression that applies intelligibly only to intentional actions.

(2) By means of this logical confusion, it assumes the air of a truism, which it decidedly is not. To take it for a truism is foolish, and to offer it to others as a truism is chicanery.

(3) Its half-hidden meaning is that all mere happenings are effected by an inscrutable power for the sake of some benefit to those affected by those happenings. This is an extravagant presumption without foundation in any known facts. To assert it as fact is therefore a fatuous piece of self-conceit.

(4) It implies a theodicy according to which all suffering and misfortune is for the sake of a good that outweighs the evil. This trivializes all suffering and misfortune.


*Richard Dawkins, The God Illusion Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), p. 51. (Thanks to Sarra for pointing out my error.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Changing the Name of the Blog

From “Skeptical Jew” to “Skeptical Observations.”

I have to confess that I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the title that I originally chose for this weblog—Skeptical Jew. As I noted in one entry (“Funny Word, Funnier Concept”), the word “Jew,” perhaps in some degree because of its rather curt sound, carries with it an echo of the scornful tone with which it has at times been uttered—so much so that many non-Jews shy away from using it for fear of sounding anti-Jewish. I was perhaps depending on the insider’s prerogative in entitling my blog “Skeptical Jew”: “Jew” is the standard classificatory term in English for one of such origins as mine, so I can use it with impunity. But I am suspicious on principle of reliance on such insider’s privileges. What is more, I could still hear that echo. So I retained a degree of discomfort with putting the word, as a description of myself, into the title of my blog.

Recently, another consideration has added to my misgivings. Although I have made more frequent entries to the blog of late than I was doing for several months, I have found myself with less and less to say about Jewish topics. This was perhaps inevitable, my knowledge of Judaism being as meager as it is (meager, I mean, not by comparison with what people in general know, but by comparison with what Jews of extensive religious education know). One of the aims with which I started this blog was to reflect on my perplexing condition of being a Jew by something more than descent and upbringing alone, yet less than belief. But since writing three rather inconclusive entries on this topic early on (“Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish,” “Reply to Comment on Jewish Identity,” and “On Being Skeptical”), I have had no new thoughts about it.

I have decided, therefore, to drop the “Jewish” theme from my title while keeping the skeptical one. “Observations” is a loose enough term to capture anything that I may wish to do here, while “skeptical” describes my temperament and my epistemological orientation rather than an object of concern. I hope that I shall have further things to say about Judaism and being Jewish. But I will no longer make any effort to bend my thoughts toward them any more than they are naturally inclined to go.

A Rough Introduction to Critical Thinking

A clip from the video Dara Ó Briain Talks Funny, with a partial transcript.

The clip embedded above is an excerpt from a video recording of Irish comic Dara Ó Briain (pronounced “dah-ra o-bree-an”) in performance at the Hammersmith Apollo Theatre in London in 2008. In this clip, he addresses himself to popular forms of ignorance and misunderstanding regarding matters of scientific knowledge (“a general kind of lack of knowledge about science,” as he says at 0:20). Ó Briain can be a bit rough on those who propagate defective forms of thinking (“Jesus, homeopaths get on my nerves!”), and his performance, being stand-up comedy rather than a lecture, does not include much presentation of evidence pertinent to the evaluation of claims: hence my description of this as a “rough introduction” to critical thinking. But his act shares with critical thinking the aims of exposing folly and revealing truth.

Of course, a performance like this is made to be seen and heard, not to be read in transcribed form. Nonetheless, I find much of it so pithy and so well said that I like to have the words before my eyes. So by all means, watch the video before you read what follows. But once you have watched it, if you find Ó Briain’s words as well chosen as I do, you may want to refer to the following transcript of the stretch of this performance running from about 1:40 to 4:20.
But there’s a kind of notion that “Every opinion is equally valid.” My arse! Bloke who’s a professor of dentistry for forty years does not have a debate with some idiot [eejet] who removes his teeth with string and a door, right? It’s nonsense! And this happens all the time with medical stuff on the television. You’ll have a doctor on and they’ll talk to the doctor and be all “Doctor this” and “Doctor that,” and “What happened there?” and “Doctor, isn’t it awful?”, right? And then the doctor will be talking about something with all the benefit of research and medical evidence, and they’ll turn away from the doctor in the name of “balance,” and turn to some—quack—witch doctor—homeopath—horseshit peddler on the other side of the studio!

And I’m sorry if you’re into homeopathy. It’s water! How often does it need to be said? It’s just water. You’re healing yourself; why don’t you give yourself the credit? Jesus, homeopaths get on my nerves, with the old “Well, science doesn’t know everything”! Well, science knows it doesn’t know everything, otherwise it would stop. But it’s aware of it, you know? Just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean that you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

“Oh, well, the great thing about homeopathy is that you can’t overdose on it.” Well, you can fucking drown! I’m sorry: it seems harsh, and I used to be much more generous about it, but right now I would take homeopaths and I would put them in a big sack with psychics, astrologers, and priests, and I’d close the top of the sack with string, and I’d hit them all with sticks. And I really wouldn’t worry who got the worst of the belt of the sticks, right? Anyone who in answer to the difficult questions in life, to “I don’t know what happens after I die,” or “Please, what happens after my loved ones die?” or “How can I stop myself dying?”—the big questions—gives them an easy bullshit answer, and you go, “Do you have any evidence for that?”, and they go, “There’s more to life than evidence”: get in the fucking sack!

I’m sorry, “Herbal medicine! Oh, herbal medicine’s been around for thousands of years!” Indeed it has, and then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became “medicine,” and the rest of it is just a nice bowl of soup and some potpourri, so knock yourselves out. “Chinese medicine, oh, Chinese medicine! But there are billions of Chinese, Chinese medicine must be working.” Here’s the skinny on Chinese medicine: A hundred years ago the life expectancy in China was 30. The life expectancy in China at the moment is 73. And it’s not feckin’ tiger penis that turned it around for the Chinese. Didn’t do much for the tiger either, if you don’t mind me pointing out.
There is one further joke at the expense of the Chinese before the next burst of laughter and applause from the audience, but I have omitted it, as I think it appears to disadvantage when transcribed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A False Truism

The common saying “Everything happens for a reason” is neither true nor a truism, but a swindle in which the preposterous is peddled in the guise of the obvious.

Logo of the True/False Film Festival

A truism is a statement that is self-evidently true. A false truism would be a statement taken for a truism that is in fact not one, either because it is true but not self-evidently so or because it is not true at all. In the latter case, it is doubly false: it is not a truism, and it is not true. The saying “Everything happens for a reason” is a false trusim of this double-dyed sort.

How does a falsehood get mistaken for a truism? Typically by a woolly-minded, or a devious, confusion with a truism. The saying “Everything happens for a reason” gets its hold on people’s minds, or at least their mouths, by a confusion of elements of two truths that are entirely distinct from it and from each other.

If you deny the saying “Everything happens for a reason,” people who are attached to it may react by saying, “So you think things can happen for no reason at all?” And now you may find yourself embarrassed; for an affirmative answer seems to imply that you think that things can happen without any cause. Thus, the saying in question gains some appearance of cogency from its suggestion of the entirely distinct thought that for everything that happens, there is a reason why it happens. The latter thought is, if not a truism, at least a truth, apart from such arcane reaches as quantum mechanics and cosmogony. It means merely that everything that happens is a consequence of some cause or causes.

Why, for example, does the sun go higher in the sky in summer than in winter? Because the earth’s axis is tilted relative to its orbit, and summer is the time of year when the polar tilt in a given hemisphere is toward the sun, winter the time when it is away from the sun. Why has my car’s fuel mileage suddenly gotten worse? I don’t know why, but I will take it to a repair shop so that a mechanic can find the reason. And so on. These are examples of the use of the concept of a reason why something happens.

The phrase “for a reason” has an entirely different meaning and a different range of application. We can ask for what reason someone does this or that, but it makes no sense to ask about the reason for an occurrence that is not the act of an intelligent agent. For instance, say a creaking sound comes through the ceiling. We might ask: “Why does that happen?” The answer might be: “Someone is walking around in the apartment upstairs.” That is the reason, or a reason, why the creaking happens. We might then ask further: “Why is the person upstairs walking around?” The answer might be: “She has things to do around her apartment (and why shouldn’t she walk around up there, anyway?).” That is the reason—or, again, a reason—for her walking around, or her reason for walking around.

Now consider the question: “For what reason does the ceiling creak?” This is a conflation of two different forms of expression. The ceiling does not creak for a reason; the ceiling does not have a reason for creaking. There is a reason why the ceiling creaks, but that is another matter entirely. It is senseless to attribute reasons to the ceiling because the ceiling is not an intelligent agent. If the person asking this ill-formed question meant exactly what he or she says, then he or she would have to think that the ceiling is an agent and that creaking is something that it does intentionally; for only then would it be intelligible to ask for what reason it does so. More likely, though, the question is just an affected or confused way of asking, “What causes the ceiling to creak?” (or more simply, “Why is the ceiling creaking?”).

So it is fair to say, “For everything that happens, there is a reason why it happens,” or to say, “Everything that is done intentionally is done for a reason.” The former is a truth, arguably a truism, and the latter certainly a truism, as it merely explicates the meaning of the expressions “intentional” and “(to do something) for a reason.” But when people say “Everything happens for a reason,” they do not mean either one of these things, though their utterance gains its appearance of plausibility from its suggestion of both. What do they mean? It is not easy to answer this question, as the utterance gains its hold on people’s minds precisely by its confusion and obscurity.

One cannot translate nonsense into sense, but one can sometimes identify a coherent thought that is half-expressed, half-concealed in an incoherent utterance. In the case of the saying “Everything happens for a reason,” the half-expressed, half-concealed thought is that everything that happens does so because some intelligent agent, whether human or superhuman, makes it happen for some reason. But the saying can only appear truistic by omitting all mention of agency. It incoherently combines the expression “for a reason,” which implies an agent, with “things happen,” which implies no agent (as I noted in my previous entry in this blog with reference to a recent utterance by Newt Gingrich).

Once the implicit thought is made explicit, it loses all appearance of truism, and indeed of plausibility. If someone said, “Everything that happens is intentionally made to happen by some agent or other,” the utterance, if it were not simply dismissed with a snort, would provoke such questions as “How do you know that? What agent or agents do you have in mind? What basis can you possibly have for such an extravagant claim? Do you seriously mean to imply that when I sneeze, there is a sneeze-spirit of some kind that makes me sneeze? Or that God pushes the molecules around to tickle my nose?” And so on. Few people would be willing to commit themselves to such a fatuous claim. Yet millions of speakers are unashamed to utter and to accept a saying in which this very thought is conveyed by subterfuge.

The saying is not just confused, preposterous, and dishonest: it is also insulting to victims of serious misfortune. Those who say to such persons, “Everything happens for a reason,” are almost certainly playing either Polyannas or Job’s comforters. The Polyannas mean that your misfortune serves some good end beyond itself. The Job’s comforters mean that you had it coming to you. Both meanings are obnoxious, as they trivialize the victim’s suffering and even put the victim in the wrong for feeling it. I include the qualification “almost certainly” in my statement because it is just possible that such people intend a different meaning: they could (though I doubt that many do) mean that God, or whatever spirit caused your misfortune, did so for a reason that has nothing to do with justice or goodness. The point is not to console the sufferers but to remind them that we are all helplessly in the shit together. This, to my mind, is the primary thought of the Book of Job, as I have argued in a previous entry, contra Rabbi Harold Kushner; though most people, Rabbi Kushner among them, prefer to impose a more conciliatory meaning upon that terrible tale.

Friday, March 11, 2011

How Many Forms of BS Can You Spot in This Utterance?

Newt Gingrich on his dark past: “There’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard, and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently gave an interview to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. The first of the three clips posted by Brody at (March 8, 2011) begins with him asking Gingrich the following rather elliptical question (the transcriptions that follow are my own):
You know the question, and I’m not going to ask it the way everybody else will ask it, but as it relates to the past, and some of those personal issues that you’ve had. You’ve talked about how God is a forgiving God, and I’d like you to expand upon that: as you went through some of those difficulties, how you saw God’s forgiving nature in all of that.
Such is Brody’s delicacy that he never actually says what “the question” is. Perhaps he is presuming that his viewers will know that Gingrich is now on his third marriage; that his relationship with the woman who became wife no. 2 started while he was married to wife no. 1; that he initiated a divorce from wife no. 1 when she was recovering from surgery for uterine cancer; that his relationship with the woman who became wife no. 3 started while he was married to wife no. 2; that he initiated a divorce from wife no. 2 on the day when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; and that he has a history of further marital infidelities. (For Gingrich’s marital history, see the pages at on Gingrich’s first and second marriages; for his other infidelities, see this article at Frontline.) These matters are presumably the “personal issues” to which Brody vaguely refers. Gingrich replies:
Well, I mean, first of all, there’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard, and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet—I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness—not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness—and that I do believe in a forgiving God. And I think most people, deep down in their hearts, hope there’s a forgiving God.
Now, to be fair, Brody did not ask Gingrich to confess his misdeeds, but only to tell how he understood God’s forgiveness in relation to those misdeeds, whatever they were. Nonetheless, to speak intelligibly of being forgiven, one must at lest acknowledge misconduct. And Gingrich does indeed get around to saying that he “was doing things that were wrong.” It is interesting, though, to see how much evasion and obfuscation he commits before he gets there. Consider his first sentence: At times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, I worked far too hard, and things happened in my life that were not appropriate. There are so many forms of dishonesty and cowardice packed into this fairly short utterance that it is instructive to try to identify them individually.

(1) Let us start with the most obvious one: “partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country.” One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remark upon the resort to patriotism by scoundrels. Here Gingrich suggests that the ultimate motive of his marital misconduct was love of country—or, as the headline of an article by Jack Stuef at Wonkette more satirically puts the claim, that “Newt Gingrich committed adultery because America made him horny.” By trying to attribute his bad conduct to a good motive, Gingrich follows the most commonly practiced strategy of reply to the bullshit interview question “What do you consider your greatest weakness?”, namely to admit to a weakness that is really a strength. In fact, he virtually repeats the best-known bullshit answer: “I sometimes care about my work too much!”

(2) To be sure, Gingrich includes the qualifier “partially,” as if sensing that, without it, his assertion might be a more blatant absurdity than even people who consider him a credible political figure would be able to accept. But that merely compounds the disingenuousness of his statement. The absurdity is not the idea that love of country can be the sole motive to betraying one’s marriage partner, but that it can be such a motive at all. The addition of the word “partially” is a sop thrown to those credulous or dull-minded enough to miss this point.

(3) Perhaps what Gingrich means to attribute to his love of his country is not his marital infidelities but only his working “far too hard,” with the implication that this in turn created the conditions leading to such misconduct. But how so? We have only the bare conjunction of the phrases “I worked far too hard” and “things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” There is no indication of how those two facts are supposed to be related. The attempt to draw blame from his conduct off into the forgivable or even laudable habit of “working too hard” is lost in vagueness.

(4) Compare the following two phrases:
(a) I worked hard.
(b) Things happened.
Notice that the speaker of (a) identifies himself as an agent, while the speaker of (b) does not identify any agent at all, but only uses the vague grammatical subject “things.” When Gingrich is speaking of conduct that may be reckoned to his credit, he identifies himself as an agent: “I worked far too hard.” When he is speaking of his misconduct—perhaps to describe him as “speaking of it” gives him too much credit; “obliquely alluding to it” seems nearer the mark—he disappears in a puff of evasion: “things happened in my life.” This is, of course, a variant of that watchword of the inveterately irresponsible, “Mistakes were made.”

(5) “Not appropriate.” I have saved the worst for last. I know of no phrase whose use so concisely manifests the collapse of moral intelligence as does this one. But that collapse is not at all peculiar to Gingrich; it can be observed wherever English is spoken. An epidemic of stultification seems to have robbed people of the command of intelligent moral vocabulary. Having apparently lost command of terms like “outrageous” (now more commonly used, idiotically, as a term of praise), “unconscionable,” “irresponsible,” “cruel,” “selfish,” “base,” “dishonest,” and so forth, to say nothing of simple and obvious ones like “bad” and “wrong,” people wishing to speak of misconduct find nothing at their disposal but a puffed-up term of etiquette.

Surely we all know what “appropriate” means. A fur hat is not appropriate to wear with a linen suit; “fuck” is an inappropriate word to use in polite company; a Phillips-head screwdriver is not appropriate for driving slotted-head screws. The word “appropriate” is what logicians call a two-place predicate, one that indicates a relation between two things: paradigmatically, a is appropriate to b. What is not appropriate to one thing is typically appropriate to some other. To describe acts of marital infidelity as “things that were not appropriate” implies that their only fault is that they were done at the wrong time, on the wrong occasion, or with the wrong person, in some sense of “wrong” not yet specified—as, for instance, a plaid tie is wrong (inappropriate) to wear with astriped shirt.

Of course, it is safe to presume that Gingrich, like all other people who use this cretinous and obfuscating jargon, does not intend any of these implications. He surely does not mean that he chose the wrong women with whom to betray his wives, or the wrong occasions for doing so. But what does he mean? An associate with whom I was discussing Gingrich’s interview on Facebook made the comment: “The real mistake here is thinking that Mr. Gingrich attaches any meaning other than dog-whistle meaning to his words.” Setting aside the question whether Gingrich has pitched his whistle correctly for the evangelical Christian audience that he hopes to influence, this seems to me correct. When Gingrich describes his former conduct as “not appropriate,” there is not much to be said about what, if anything, he means by his words, in the sense of intending something capable of being true or false. Yet he surely means to do something by uttering those words. I would say that he means to indicate repentance without actually acknowledging misconduct. He does not admit to having acted selfishly, exploitatively, deceptively, cruelly, or irresponsibly; he does not admit to having acted at all; he simply describes “things that happened” in his life as “not appropriate.”

Well, that’s my attempt to analyze the utterance of this paragon of dishonesty and moral cowardice. Does anyone see anything that I have missed?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Trivializing the Diaspora

A new social-networking Web site adopts a tasteless and sophomoric name.

I have just learned that some enterprising morons have produced a new social-networking Web site on which they have conferred the name “Diaspora.” Do these boobs or their audience have any idea what the word means and what it refers to? Here is the entry for the word from the Oxford English Dictionary:
diaspora, n.

Pronunciation: /daɪˈæspərə/

Etymology:  < Greek διασπορά dispersion, < διασπείρ-ειν to disperse, < διά through + σπείρειν to sow, scatter

The Dispersion; i.e. (among the Hellenistic Jews) the whole body of Jews living dispersed among the Gentiles after the Captivity (John vii. 35); (among the early Jewish Christians) the body of Jewish Christians outside of Palestine (Jas. i. 1, 1 Pet. i. 1). Hence transf.: see quots.

(Originating in Deut. xxviii. 25 (Septuagint), ἔση διασπορὰ ἐν πάσαις βασιλείαις τῆς γῆς, thou shalt be a diaspora (or dispersion) in all kingdoms of the earth.)
To call your social-networking business “Diaspora” is as grotesque a trivialization of history as coming up with a new brand of lighter fluid and calling it “Holocaust.”