True Or False?

I begin with a rather lengthy quote from Wikipedia regarding one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by one group of human beings against another. I refer, of course, to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, also referred to as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, between 1941 and 1945. Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event involving the persecution and murder of other groups, including in particular the Roma and “incurably sick”, as well as ethnic Poles, Soviet citizens, Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, gay men and Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in up to 17 million deaths overall.

Germany implemented the persecution in stages. Following Adolf Hitler‘s rise to power in 1933, the government passed laws to exclude Jews from civil society, most prominently the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Starting in 1933, the Nazis built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and people deemed “undesirable”. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Over 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other detention sites were established.

The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question“, discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout German-occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.

There are those among us who would insist that we cannot judge the Nazis because we haven’t walked in their boots. Seriously. There are also those among us who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, who insist that it is a fiction. These people also believe, many of them at any rate, that the moon landing was staged and never happened. I suspect these people also believe the earth is flat and that the sitting President of the United States is an exemplary human being.

What we need to think about when it comes to truth and falsity — which are being conflated these days in order to carry forth hidden agendas by those in power, I strongly suspect — is that the truth need not be pleasant. It need not fit in with our preconceptions and predilections. It can even be a bit ugly — like the truth about the Holocaust. The sheer numbers in the above quote beggar belief. And since the quote is from Wikipedia there are many who would question the truth of those claims. But there is a considerable body of evidence — available to anyone who wants to examine it — that those figures are accurate. Indeed, this is the nature of truth and how we can separate it from the falsehoods that parade as true because we (or someone out there) wants to (us) believe them. The truth can be corroborated by anyone at any time and in any place. Falsehoods cannot: they dissolve in the face of evidence, criticism, and sound argumentation. More than ever before, perhaps, it is imperative that we insist upon the difference between the two.

The way one goes about proving a statement, as we know from the hard sciences, is to seek to disprove the statement. If we cannot do so, we must accept it as true, like it or not. This was once known as the “Socratic method,” the method Socrates used in pleasant conversations with young men in Athens to test the claims that were floating about in the air — seeing if he could prove them to be mere “wind-eggs.” So much of what we hear today is in that category and we, as responsible adults, should dismiss them out of hand and insist that we be told the truth.

There is much to learn from history and we ignore it to our peril. We must test all claims, including those of historians — and if they are any good they would insist that we do so. But if those claims can stand the test of criticism and review then we must accept them, like it or not. That’s the nature of truth.

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Spurious Reasoning

This post is aimed at those among us who think everything is a “matter of opinion.” During my years of teaching that became one of my pet peeves — and I have many. There is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as sound reasoning. The opposite of truth is falsehood and the opposite of sound reasoning is spurious reasoning. During the recent presidential race we were witness to innumerable examples of spurious reasoning. My favorite was: The economy is in the toilet. Sitting presidents are responsible for the economy. Barack Obama is the sitting president. Therefore Obama is responsible for the poor economy. There are two problems with this reasoning: it smacks of what logicians call “false cause,” about which I have blogged previously. And the second premise is false: the sitting president is not alone responsible for the weak economy. This raises the interesting question: how many politicians does it take to weaken the economy? I leave the answer to you.

But my favorite example of spurious reasoning of all time occurred some years ago when a woman in Maine was shot and killed by a deer hunter while in her back yard hanging up the wash. After the trial in which the shooter was found “not guilty” of manslaughter (!) one of the jurors was asked why he voted as he did. He answered: she should have known better than to have been in her yard during deer season. Now the woman had recently moved to Maine from Ohio so there might have been a tad bit of bias against “Westerners” — those who live West of the Maine boundary. But whatever the man’s reasoning process might have been, and I doubt there was any at all, it is most assuredly a prime example of spurious reasoning. It requires that we accept the fact that an example of a person getting shot is not an instance of “manslaughter,” which it is by definition. It also avoids altogether the ethical principle that one should not shoot at another person — even during deer season. In a word, it avoids the central issue altogether.

And this brings me to my main point: even in ethics where the common notion is that everyone is “entitled” to his or her opinion, there are arguments and claims that are just plain silly, and opinions that are just plain stupid. Ethical arguments where we try to establish the viability of an ethical conclusion by incorporating specific principles and relevant facts can be sound or spurious — just like our reasoning in any other sphere of investigation. We need to separate the facts from the falsehoods and examine the reasoning critically, which is why critical reasoning is such an important part of everyone’s education. We rely on sound reasoning in nearly every endeavor we undertake every day of our lives — and especially when we seek the “moral high ground,” or when we are deciding which candidate is best qualified for political office (which I suppose should be called the “moral low ground”).