Counterfactuals

What with the Trumpet going on about how if the people who were attacked in Paris had been carrying guns there would have been fewer deaths it would appear it is time for another logic lesson. I realize I have touched on this in a past blog post, but apparently the Republicans aren’t listening — or at least the loudest one.

Here’s the thing: you cannot, logically, verify or falsify a counter-to-fact conditional statement. It simply cannot be done. You can speculate about what would have happened IF something else had not happened — say what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Poland — but you cannot verify any speculation you might choose to make.

Consider the following simple case. “If it had rained yesterday I would have taken my umbrella to the store with me.” Now we can verify that you actually went to the store and we can even verify whether or not it rained — let’s agree that it did not. But since it didn’t rain there is simply no way we can verify the truth of your statement. It is counter-to-fact. We might speculate that since you are a cautious sort and have a brand new umbrella that you have been dying to show off you might well have taken it to the store with you had it rained. But since it didn’t rain (presumably) we will never know. Never.

Similarly, when the Trumpet says that IF the people at the concert in Paris who were attacked by terrorists had been carrying guns THEN there would have been fewer deaths, we can say with certainty that he doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about — which is not all that unusual. Again, we can speculate and we can appeal to the emotions of an audience of conservatives in Texas, or wherever, who are gun-totin’ folks who tend to think as does the Trumpet. But it’s just that, an appeal to emotion that cannot be proved one way or the other. The fact is that there was a terrorist attack in Paris and many were left dead as a result. It is terrible, but it might have been even worse had the people who died been carrying guns.

One can speculate about either possibility. But one cannot prove it either way. Thus the Trumpet’s claim cannot be said to be true. Or false.

Something Rotten

Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, noted that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. He may have been right, but he obviously never checked out Florida where the stink is so offensive it provokes nausea. The recent juxtaposition of two stories coming out of that state are testimony of that condition. On the one hand, George Zimmerman, who shot a 17 years old boy to death on a Florida street because he “looked suspicious” was found not guilty of murder — or even of manslaughter. Apparently the jury was in denial. That is, they denied that a young man had been shot to death. At the very least, this was a clear case of manslaughter. One might have determined that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder, given the insane “stand your ground” law in Florida that allows anyone to shoot anyone else if they suspect possible foul play. But that tells us a great deal about the law and very little about Zimmerman’s culpability.

But wait a minute. Apparently some Floridians can’t shoot anyone they like, or even shoot at them.  At least not Marissa Alexander who was sentenced to twenty years for firing warning shots at an abusive husband because he was about to attack her and she feared for her life. She had already gone to the police about the man’s aggressive behavior, but a jury in its wisdom decided that even though she killed no one she should be locked up for our safety. Apparently she was not to be allowed to “stand her ground.”

Now, despite the fact that this is a clear case of a double standard, since we are talking about the same law in the same state we might simply note the hypocrisy and pass on. But when we think of the family of Trayvon Martin who will have to live with the injustice of the verdict, or we think about Marissa Alexander who faces 20 years in prison for defending herself against an abusive husband we must pause and reflect.

The country’s love of guns and violence has been noted often and written about until it no longer registers on those who might actually give a damn. But the new spate of laws around the country — especially in the South — that not only allow but (in a town in Texas) actually require that people carry guns to protect themselves are marginally insane. It is one thing to defend the possession of hand guns and automatic weapons on the grounds of a complete misreading of the Second Amendment, but it is quite another to insist that people must carry guns and when something moves, pull the trigger. But there is a connection, of course. Those who insist that we all have a “right” to carry a gun are scared to death that the wrong people (i.e., people other than themselves) will get a hold of them. So they insist that their legislators pass laws allowing them to defend themselves against the “crazies” who might want to shoot them down in the street. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this leads.

Is it too obvious to point out that the solution to this entire insane scenario is to take the guns away from everyone? That, of course, will never happen. But it is none the less so obvious a three year-old could figure it out. In the meantime, we will have more cases like the George Zimmerman case and more applications of the double standard as in the Marissa Alexander case and we might as well get used to it. The fact that both victims in these cases were black enters the equation, of course, but we now live in an age of terrorism where fear rules, reason is stunted by the passions, and the stink you smell will simply get stronger as people continue to commit stupid acts and juries demonstrate their blindness to simple facts.

Embrace the ‘Morrow!

Has it struck you that it is a bit curious to see people buying weapons and stockpiling foodstuff to prepare for an angry tomorrow when many of them don’t think tomorrow will come? The English call these people the “nutters.” I refer, of course, to the brew-ha-ha out there about the end of the world that was to have come on the winter solstice. Apparently just in case the world doesn’t end as the Mayans predicted, some people want to be prepared for the worst. Moreover, the “worst” in their minds seems to be earthquakes, flood, and other maniacs carrying guns.

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown there has been a flurry of activity in the nutter-world (not to mention the world of the NRA — or is THAT the “nutter-world”?): a frenzy of blogging activity, mountains of rhetoric, much tearing-out of hair, beating of the chest, and crazy proposals aplenty. The HuffPost just notified me by email that some Minnesota legislators have proposed a law requiring that all school teachers in Minnesota carry weapons. The idea is apparently that if shooting someone is a bad idea, the more who can do it the merrier. That makes about as much sense as the law in Minnesota increasing speed limits on country roads in order to slow down the traffic. I kid you not: that’s what the legislature did in this state. But Minnesota politicians aren’t the only ones vying for the Darwin Award for stupidity: the Congress of the United States refuses to pass tough gun restrictions while at the same time they require metal detectors to protect themselves from gun-carrying maniacs. Emerson once said that consistency is the hob-goblin of tiny minds. I would say that inconsistency is the hob-goblins of mindless idiots.

There are times when one wants to crawl into a hole and hide. I remember the day when I was proud to say I live in Minnesota where the people, for the most part, are smart enough to do the right thing most of the time and where they tend to vote for remarkable politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Now they vote for people like Michelle Bachman and talk about arming the teachers. And not long ago the legislature passed a law permitting all and sundry to carry concealed weapons. Sigh.

All of the evidence supports the view that more people carrying weapons will result in more deaths, though the NRA would have us ignore the data and just listen to Charlton Heston. Surely, what we are seeing is simply the way some people express their fear and even, perhaps, their grief over the deaths of very young children. Cooler heads will prevail in the end, will they not? Eh?

In any event, I write this on the eve of the coming of the end of the world confident that tomorrow will come and I will greet it with open arms ( though I will not be carrying any — tomorrow or even the day after). I hasten to add in closing, as a fellow-blogger from Australia reminds me, it was tomorrow yesterday in that part of the world. Were the Mayan’s aware of that, I wonder?

More Madness

When I was seven years old we moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Dodgingtown, Connecticut — midway between Bethel and Newtown. My sister and I went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was a member of Troop 70 Boy Scouts in Newtown, caddied at the Newtown golf course, walked with a friend of mine every Saturday afternoon to the movie house in Newtown to watch the latest cowboy thriller, and my mother ran a shop in Newtown called “Presents Unlimited.” Newtown, Connecticut is a place I once knew very well.

So when I read about the latest shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, I was touched on a very deep level. I have so many childhood memories of that region. Now those memories are mixed with mayhem. It leaves the stomach unsettled and the mind in a whirl.

The President of the United States fought back tears as he pledged to rise above politics and make sure something is done to stop this carnage. He has said this before, but this time he seems to mean it. Easier said than done: the NRA will be geared up for battle and they are one of the most powerful and effective lobbying groups in Washington. We can expect little in the way of serious gun control to come out of this Congress. But gun control is not the whole answer. To be sure, it is a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient to stop the craziness that seems to be growing in our population. We need to probe for deeper causes.

Let’s take a close look at the youth in this culture who spend hours each day playing violent games on their Xboxes and watch even more hours of violence on TV and in the movies (which make my cowboy thrillers look like Sunday School stories). Humans are animals and young animals learn from imitation. There can be no question the constant immersion in violence plants seeds in the young. Add to this a weakening reality principle, a thin thread separating these kids from the fantasy world of their games where they rule and the real world where (as things now stand) they also rule: they are told they can do no wrong and they are entitled to accolades and applause for every breath they take. Their sense of self grows as their sense of the world they live in shrinks. They crave fame and glory, like the heroes they play in their games. They learn to expect applause for their every effort no matter how impotent. Their ability to connect with other humans weakens as they become more and more isolated.

These speculations are not far-fetched; they are based on solid data, studies that show our culture is becoming increasingly narcissistic and self-absorbed. Combine these factors with the ready availability of guns and one can easily imagine a young Adam Lanza strapping on a bullet-proof vest, grabbing his automatic weapons, and storming into a school pulling the triggers on both weapons as he shoots his “enemies” and emerges a “hero” to the applause of thousands.

Granted, this scenario is a bit of a stretch, but what I say is based on solid evidence and there is a disturbing sense of truth to what I have supposed here. How else do we explain this madness? How else do we explain how a young man can shoot innocent children and their teachers? Only in a world where people get cut off from reality, where the thin thread connecting them to the real world suddenly snaps and their fantasy world takes over. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut cannot be real: it must be a video game — except it isn’t.

Mill’s Methods and Violence

John Stuart Mill wrote a book many years ago that very few people have read — except maybe his mother and his wife.. . . and me (don’t ask me why).  It is a book on inductive logic and scientific method. I learned a number of interesting things in reading the book. For instance I learned that evidence and arguments “imply” conclusions; we “infer” the conclusion from the evidence. In a word, inference is something we do whereas implication is something arguments and evidence do. Further, I learned that points cannot be “valid,” and neither can ideas — though Sheldon Cooper (on “The Big Bang Theory”) keeps insisting they are. Arguments are valid (or invalid) whereas points and ideas can be spot on, insightful, interesting, telling, or perhaps simply stupid — they cannot be “valid.” So you can see my time was not wasted. I dearly love Sheldon Cooper but am delighted to trip him up!

But I also learned something much more interesting, because in his book Mill explained his methods for determining causes. These rules were, respectively, “the “method of similarity” and “the method of difference.” I won’t go into detail, but the former tells us that if you want to know why a group of people got sick at a convention, for example, look for the common denominator — something they all ate or drank. Isolate the item and you can pretty much figure that’s the cause. Years ago it was determined that the cause of a large group of convention-goers getting sick was the ventilating system at their hotel. They all ate and drank different things, but they all breathed the same air.

On the other hand, the method of difference seeks to isolate the causal factor by looking at the one thing that is different in a group that exhibits some strange affliction. Let’s say we want to know why America is such a violent nation. Now we know that there is violence in other countries, but that violence pales in contrast to the frequent violence in this country. Why is that?? Michael Moore made a movie (“Bowling for Columbine”) that attempted to determine the cause and he concluded that it was probably (we can’t be sure) the frequent violence in our news broadcasts. Let’s examine his reasoning.

We begin by comparing and contrasting America with, say, Britain, Japan, and Germany and we look at what the countries have in common: they all watch violent TV, play violent video games, and watch violent movies (often American movies that are known for their violence). Moore thus ruled out those factors as causes of violence in America. What he found was that American news broadcasts are much more violent than the news broadcasts in other developed countries. So he suggested that violence in the news we watch is the likely cause of violence in this country.

This reasoning is sound as far as it goes. But we might just as well pick out coffee as the single factor that separates America from the other countries. In the other three countries tea is the drink of choice; Americans drink a lot of coffee. Or perhaps it’s widespread ownership of guns: Americans own more guns than most other people on earth — except for the Canadians, as I understand it. And the Canadians watch just as much violent TV, movies, and play violent video games. So it can’t be gun ownership. Perhaps it is the violent news programs, as Moore suggested. Or the coffee. Canadians also drink tea as their drink of choice, not coffee. I’m going with coffee.

But then, perhaps it is a combination of the factors listed above. We know that animals learn by imitation and that humans are animals. Further, we know that Americans watch a great deal of violence in their TV, video games, and movies — and their news programs. They also own a great many guns.  And they also drink a lot of coffee. So, perhaps, the cause of violence in America is a combination of these factors: the many guns we own together with violence we are exposed to plus the stimulation of a drink spiked with lots of caffeine. You never know! Damn! Causal reasoning is hard.

And yet, there are politicians out there who think it’s easy. They say that the sitting President is the cause of the poor economy because he is the sitting president and the economy is weak. It’s like saying coffee is the cause of violence in America because Americans drink a lot of coffee. And it’s just as stupid.