Why Science?

After addressing the U.S. Congress recently the young, courageous Greta Thunberg who was warning us all of the dangers of global warming (which we euphemistically call “climate change”) was asked by one of our feckless leaders “why should we pay any attention to science?” Or words to that effect.

The man then almost certainly left the House, climbed into a taxi and drive to the airport where he boarded an airplane to fly home to hob-nob with his corporate sponsors. I dare to say he saw no contradiction whatever between his question and his behavior. But the fact is that science is all around us and it almost always provides us with the truth of things. Not always, but almost always. And the evidence of global warming and the role humans have played in the drama has gone beyond the level of mere conjecture and is now a virtual certainty.

So the answer to the man’s question (if it deserves an answer) is “because it is giving us a warning and whether or not we want to listen to that warning it would be prudent to do so.” Our situation is not unlike that described by Pascal when he told us that we would all be better off to believe in God than not. In both cases, the chance we might be wrong to believe in science or God results in altered behavior, simply. But if Science is right and if God does exist then we would be wise to believe and act accordingly. In the case of global warming it is a matter of life and death. It may not appear so, but it is and that fact is supported by overwhelming evidence. Evidence that only the most stupid among us can continue to ignore.

As one who taught both logic and the philosophy of science for many years, however, I am fully aware that neither tool will deliver all the goods. Life does not always (seldom?) accord with logic and science cannot tell us about things that are deeply important to us — such as how to live our lives. Or how to resolve a moral dilemma, or how to judge a work of art.

But the denial of science in an age such as ours is not borderline stupid: it crosses the border into insanity. There is a point at which the evidence is so heavy that we cannot bear it even though we must. The changes in our behavior that might make a difference in the rapidly warming globe on which we live are minimal when compared to the alterations in all our behavior that must occur when the consequences of global warming are felt by us all — when, for example, we cannot afford the cost of basic foods in our grocery stores whose shelves are nearly empty because the earth simply cannot produce enough food to support a growing human population.

The problem with blog posts such as this, of course, is that they border on preaching and the congregation listening, or reading, already knows whereof I speak and write. But that doesn’t make it any the less important to continue to shout fire in a burning building, because if things remain as they are at present the building will burn down around us and we shall perish in the aftermath. There is no Plan B.

Scandal!

When I was a young man fresh out of graduate school, PhD in hand and filled with optimism, I taught at the University of Rhode Island for two years. Rhode Island was a great place to live and the University was a good place to work. As a new player on the team of seven professors I was handed the chore of teaching several sections of logic along with a course in the history of philosophy. Two other members of the department taught logic as well, since it was a university requirement that all students at the university take the course (imagine that!). Thus there were seven or eight sections of the course taught in three different ways.

Strange to say, the university scheduled all of the logic finals to be given in the gymnasium on he same day at the same hour. Strange, because it caused endless conflicts and when I pointed out to the powers-that-be they they could avoid conflicts if they scheduled finals by the class schedule instead of subject matter, they told me “this is the way we have always done things.” So it was in New England. Much like Old England, so I hear.

Anyway, the morning when finals had been scheduled to begin I was called by the chairman of the department to report ASAP because somehow one of the final exams had gotten out and was being copied and spread around to young students eager to learn. It was about 5:00 AM as I recall and I hopped to it! When I arrived I spent a couple of hours with the other instructors putting together a common exam for all students as we had no idea whose final had been pilfered. Imagine that! Several hundred students were now going to take an exam made up by three different instructors who each taught the course a different way. It was bedlam. The students complained — with good reason — and I had to lower the curve to make sure at least half the class passed the course. All because some kid, as it turned out, rummaged through the trash bin outside the philosophy department and found the plastic sheet that in those days covered the mimeograph paper and was later tossed aside: it being possible to determine just what was on the plastic sheet with just a touch of pencil rubbed on the overlay. What we didn’t know was whose exam had been pilfered. So we needed to design a new one we could give to all our students.

After the event we discovered that a fraternity man found the exam and was selling it to long lines of students lined up that morning eager to find out what was on the impending examination — even though they had no idea whose exam it was since the instructor’s name was not on the final exam! Still, it was a mess. And the rationalization that went around was that this was not such a bad thing: it was no different from keeping a wallet found on the street. Really? I was outraged.

Not only because I had to get up at dawn and rush to the university and try to put together an exam with a couple of my fellows, but because the excuse sounded so hollow, I wrote my first ever letter to the student paper. (It was not my last, as my wife will attest. I am a bit compulsive about such things — which is why I blog, I guess.) Anyway my letter pointed out that rummaging around in a dumpster outside the philosophy department was hardly like finding a wallet on the street. The  analogy was not only weak but the ethical conclusion in both cases was bogus: in either case it was wrong to (a) keep the wallet and (b) make money by selling copies of the exam to other students. Some things are just wrong.

Within a week I had a call from the Dean’s office and was told to report as soon as “convenient.” I was told that the university did not want a scandal and I should let the matter drop. Being bold and a bit naive I asked what was going to happen to the fraternity responsible as everyone knew which one it was — as determined by the lines in front of a particular fraternity house the morning of the exam. He said the university would handle it and repeated that I should let the matter drop. What this translated to was sweeping the whole thing under the carpet in hopes of saving face. So much for integrity in the Ivory Tower!

Interestingly enough I had one student, a young woman majoring in mathematics, who earned a legitimate B+ — on an exam that asked questions about things we had never even discussed in class. How remarkable!  But the rest of the students suffered from the entire episode, needless to say. And the fraternity got off scot free in order to avoid a scandal! Was it then that I began to be just a bit cynical?

 

Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

Great Men Can Be Foolish

Can we call great men truly great if they have said things we now know are not only false but even offensive? For example, Aristotle thought that some men are “naturally slaves,” and that women should be subjects to men. Heidegger was a Nazi supporter, Plato supported a closed society in which the few ruled with little or no restraint, Ptolemy thought the earth was at the center of a finite universe. And so on. Are these men still “great”? This is an interesting question and it was raised in a comic I read on a daily basis, believe it or not.

But the issue fails to focus on one central point: we need not worry about who said what; we need to focus on what was said. I realize that Curtler’s Second Law states that we should consider the source of comments in weighing their worth — in the case of complex national issues involving, say, the future of the planet where special interests are involved. But in general, we are prone to the ad hominem fallacy in our culture, where we reject an argument because of who put it forward. “Oh, that can’t be true, the man’s a liberal.” Or, “that is absurd; after all she is known to be a loose woman.” Or whatever. We forget that liberals (and even conservatives) and loose women can put forward excellent arguments. In the vast majority of cases the arguments stand or fall on their own feet. It matters not who put them forward.

Aristotle said many foolish things. And he was certainly wrong to ignore what his predecessor Plato said about women: they can also be rulers of his Republic. But Aristotle also invented logic and was the first empirical scientist who was interested in all things living and dead. He invented the complicated system of taxonomy which is still used in the biological sciences.  One could say he is the father of modern science. He also observed that cities whose leaders become motivated by self-interest rather than the common good degenerate into base forms of political systems — democracies, for example, degenerate into oligarchies (as we are finding out to our chagrin). And Heidegger was a brilliant man who made important contributions to philosophy. The same could be said of Plato who wrote the book to which, according to John Dewey, the history of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes. In order to evaluate the greatness of a mind, no matter whose mind is in question, we need to read and consider carefully what that person said.

It has been said that because Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate children with Sally, one of his slaves, we should reject all he wrote and said. This is part of the P.C. movement that is sweeping the academies of “higher learning” as well as the country itself. Now, whether or not this is true, it is irrelevant. We need to separate the man from what the man said or wrote. He was a genius and his contributions not only to political philosophy but even to things as remote as agriculture and architecture are of seminal importance. Again, we need to be wary of the ad hominem argument. Aristotle, Heidegger, Plato, and Jefferson were extraordinary men and their contributions have made us all better informed and a bit wiser. But we need to work our way through their claims carefully.

Ideas stand or fall on the basis of the evidence and support that is offered in their behalf. Why did Aristotle think some men were naturally slaves, for example? It is not an absurd argument, after all, simply because it will offend some people. He looked around and saw a great many people who simply went along with the crowd, who seemed to lack autonomy, the power to think for themselves and take control of situations much less direct the actions of others. Other men, meanwhile, had those qualities and he concluded that some men were natural slaves while others were natural leaders. We blanch at the word “slave,” and well we should. But the fact that Aristotle points to is undeniable: some people would rather follow than to lead. We even find this in considering the corporate ladder where we discover men and women who are perfectly content to remain on the lower rungs rather than to step higher and take on more responsibility. It’s not a foolish thought or a weak argument. It is simply that we are today hypersensitive to certain words — like “slave” or “Nazi” or “closed society” to carefully consider the argument itself.

Real thought moves past the question of who put what argument forward and regards critically the argument itself. Ptolemy was wrong, but we do not dismiss him as a fool. We simply realize that we now know a great deal more than he knew and we realize the mistakes he made. Science, and knowledge generally, moves progressively forward by fits and starts. Trial and error. But the worst thing we can do is ignore the evidence and the argument altogether simply because we don’t like the person putting it forward. I will allow that in complex arguments where we cannot possibly follow the reasoning process we are warranted in rejecting the claims of those with vested interests in the outcomes. But, in general, critical thought demands that we focus on the ideas themselves regardless of who out them forward.

Logic Lesson

I taught logic and critical thinking for over forty years and while I knew neither could answer many of the deep problems we face as human beings, they always seemed to me to be a way to clarify things a bit so we might then find an answer or two.

One of the puzzles of our times is the claim we hear from time to time that “Since all great men are persecuted in their lifetime and since I am being  persecuted therefore I must be a great man.” This is what logicians call a false conversion. While we can certainly question the original claim that ALL great men have been persecuted it is none the less the case that many were. Jesus, Socrates, and Galileo leap to mind.

But even if we allow that all great men were persecuted in their lifetime (which I do not) we cannot infer that anyone who is persecuted is therefore a great man. Many a mediocre mind finds comfort in that thought, erroneous though it is. “I am being persecuted therefore I must be a great man (or woman).” Not so.

Consider these examples of false conversion:

All men are animals, therefore all animals are men.

All red-heads have quick tempers, therefore anyone who is quick-tempered is a red-head.

All triangles are geometrical figures, therefore all geometrical figures are triangles.

Bear in mind that we are not talking about whether any of those claims are true or false. Not all red-headed persons have a quick temper, for example. But we are simply asking that IF the first statement were true would the second statement follow from it? And clearly it does not. These are all what logicians call “a” propositions, universal affirmative propositions of the type All S is P, or SaP.

Therefore, just because a man or a woman is persecuted in his or her lifetime it does not follow that such a person is a genius. I can think of many who were and are persecuted in their lifetime who fully deserve it and they certainly were not geniuses. Geniuses, for example, do not spell “forest” with two “r’s.” And geniuses don’t threaten to discontinue funding FEMA since it has been found that some of the fires were started due to negligence on the part of park employees and THEN turn around and shut down the government so that Federal park employees are out of work and cannot possibly prevent fires in the future, much less improve on their past performance. Consistency is not this man’s strong suit. And consistency is a Cardinal Rule in logic and critical thinking. It is the sine qua non of genius. I’m just saying.

Once we have clarified the nuts and bolts of this particular puzzle we can move on to more important issues, such as, does such and such a person deserve to be persecuted — or at least pilloried — in his or her lifetime? As you can imagine, I can think of a couple.

 

One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.

 

Disgusted

I was determined not to add my voice to the outcry about the latest revelations regarding Donald Trump’s utter contempt for women whom he sees simply as objects placed on earth to satisfy his sexual urges. I really didn’t want this blog to lower itself to that level, the level of the gutter where this man seems to be most at home. But there are a few things that really need to be said.

I begin with the fact that the revelations about his vulgar comments regarding women do not really surprise me. I am past being surprised by anything this man says or does. But I continue to be amazed that those women who still follow him continue to do so regardless. For example, take the case of  Cynthia Schiaroli, a retired elementary school teacher in Reading, Pennsylvania who insists that she will vote for Donald Trump:

“I am not voting for him to be pope,” [she said].
While Schiaroli was “disgusted” by the tape and said she would have a serious problem with her own husband saying anything like that, she believes Bill and Hillary Clinton have said and done things just as bad, if not worse.
“Hillary gets passes for everything,” Schiaroli told CNN Money on Saturday.

This woman dismissed Trump’s comments as no worse than the kinds of things Bill and Hillary Clinton say, which makes me wonder how she comes by this inside information about the private conversations of the Clintons, but it matters not. Her blind dislike of Hillary Clinton makes it impossible for her to even consider leaving the Trump camp. This, in turn, leads to a question.

How does one get from the hatred of a woman one doesn’t even know, except from media reports and mud-slinging sketches put together by marketing firms, to blind support of a vulgar, narcissistic, megalomaniac? There is a leap there somewhere and it is impossible, I suspect, to follow it. “I can’t stand Hillary, therefore I will vote for the man bent on demeaning all women and those who disagree with him while he clearly lacks the knowledge to run the country he insists only he can save.” Clearly this is a muddled mind.

Trump was reported to have said at one point that he could shoot someone in the middle of main street in front of a number of witnesses and he would still have thousands of loyal followers behind him. I thought at the time this was simply another example of his propensity to brag and blow himself up in his eyes and those of his adoring minions. But I am beginning to believe that he was right. It doesn’t seem to matter what he does; those loyal to him are also purblind to his obvious shortcomings — if one can use such a mild term to describe this man’s total lack of character.

When this election is finally over — and it cannot possibly come too soon for my liking — we will really have address what might be called “the Trump phenomenon.” That is to say, how is it possible for thousands of people to hang on this man’s every word — so many of which are bald-faced lies — and grant him license to describe someone like Hillary Clinton as a “horribly flawed person.” Why does this not strike a chord in his followers suggesting that this comment, among so many others like it, is the epitome of hypocrisy: it is the pot calling the kettle black. And there is little evidence that the charge against Clinton has any grounds whatever in the truth.

But the truth seems not to matter. For his mindless minions, as I have noted in the past, this man can say whatever he wants to say and it will be believed. Indeed, for those who have attached themselves to him like Velcro this man defines what is true and what is false. This may change from day-to-day, but it makes no difference: what he says is all that matters. Those who would criticize him are simply out to get him which proves, in their minds, that he is right and they are wrong.

In this regard, I do suspect that when this man comes under attack he becomes the victim no matter how well-grounded in truth the allegations against him might be. He is under attack from the Establishment, an ill-defined group of smart-ass liberals who are “out to get us” — which is why his minions need someone like Trump to hang on to. He gives them a desperately needed sense of power which they otherwise lack and he says and does those things his followers would like to say or do but have heretofore been disallowed  by the have-it-alls. It is interesting in this regard that the woman quoted above can’t stand Hillary because she “gets passes,” is allowed to get away with everything. The Establishment protects its own in the tiny minds of the fearful minions.

The sheer illogicality of the Trump phenomenon beggars belief and demands close scrutiny by those who claim expertise in understanding the meanderings of troubled minds. For myself, I easily lose my way and feel like Alice in Wonderland where everything is upside down and back to front. It’s not a world in which I want to try to find my way, but I do hope there are others who will make the effort and then reveal to us how this could possibly have happened.

Straw Woman

There is an informal fallacy in logic that is committed with great frequency. It is called a “straw man argument.” It occurs when person A misrepresents the argument put forward by person B and attacks the misrepresentation — which is always a weaker form of person B’s original argument. Thus, I might argue that you should stop smoking because there is a very high correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, and despite the fact that a strict cause between cigarette smoking and cancer has not been shown — due to the fact that some people smoke and do not get lung cancer and some who do not smoke  get lung cancer anyway. You might then say, “oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re saying that there really is no risk in smoking because no one has been able to show a causal relationship between the smoking and lung cancer.” In this replay we see the “straw man,” a weaker (distorted?) form of my argument that is easier to attack because it is vulnerable.

A similar sort of thing is taking place in today’s political contest for the office of president of the United States. The opponents of Hillary Clinton have created a “straw woman,” a fictional person who closely resembles the female form of the devil (Trump has actually called her that, among other things!) and who is in no way like the original. This fiction is easy to attack because she embodies evil, is ambitious, dishonest, weak, and determined to bring the country down about her ears.

Now, I don’t know the “real” Hillary Clinton but from what I have read, despite her flaws, she is nothing like the creation of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. But since the real Hillary will be hard to beat, the creation has taken her place in the minds of a great many voters who now hate the woman and would not vote for her even if she could walk on water.

We tend to believe what we want to believe, of course. So it is easy to “sell” this fictional person to the voters of this country who almost certainly fear strong women in their lives in order to sell them their own fiction, a man who “tells it like it is” and offers us his proven expertise as a successful businessman and a refreshing alternative to politics as usual. Clearly, this is a fiction and nothing like what we know about the man himself. But it is a fiction that “sells” and in the minds of a great many people is preferable to the straw woman they have grown to hate and fear.

To be sure, attacks on politicians whose image has been created for us by marketing experts are always terribly weak, though commonplace. Such attacks tend to miss the mark because we have no way to know precisely who those people are and what they will do when elected to public office. Such is the case with Hillary Clinton — and Donald Trump, to be honest — because the straw woman has become the main figure in the target practice that has become politics. Create the image you want to hate and start slinging mud. That’s now the name of the game.

As responsible voters, we must do whatever we can to put aside those caricatures and try to see who the people running for office really are: listen carefully to what they have to say, “vet” them to know as far as possible how much experience they have had and what sort of track record they have thus far. We must rely on the media, which is a problem, but there are sources that are known to be unreliable (e.g., Fox News) and there are sources that are known to be reliable (e.g., the New York Times, CNN, and PBS — or even the BBC). The latter sources are more likely to present us with a true picture of the candidate than are the former. But, in the end, we must be as sure as we can be that the person we vote for is the person himself or herself and not a straw image that will hurst into flames as soon as elected.

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.

Either/Or (Both?)

One of the basic lessons in a logic class is the distinction between two types of disjunction. On the one hand, there is the exclusive disjunction that maintains either A or B, but not both. The inclusive disjunction, which is considerably more common suggests that either A or B, possibly both. In the latter case I might have either soup or a sandwich for lunch, possibly both. In the former case the traffic light is either green or red, it cannot be both (at the same time).

One of the “big” issues that is taking up considerable air time these days is (not global warming, but) one-day fantasy football leagues like “Fan Duel.” A number of states, including Nevada (!), have insisted that these games are a form of gambling and they have disallowed them in the state until or unless they are licensed. The N.C.A.A. has determined to penalize college football payers who get involved, because the N.C.A.A. likes to present itself as the guardian of purity in college sports. States like Nevada, I presume, want a cut of the profits which, we are told, run to the billions of dollars. Those who defend the activity insist that it is not gambling, but a game of skill. In a word, they insist there is an exclusive disjunction that insists that weekly fantasy leagues either are gambling or they are games of skill. And since they are games of skill they cannot be a form of gambling. But this is clearly false: we have here an inclusive disjunction, because it could be both: fantasy football leagues might be both gambling and a game of skill — like poker.

In the end, it strikes me as a tempest in a teapot. The issue is clear: the football one day fantasy leagues that are raking in billions of dollars and paying countless millions to swamp the TV networks with advertisements are clearly both games of skill (one needs to know a thing or two about football) and a form of gambling, since players pay in to the leagues and stand to win big if the players they pick each week pay off.

When I become Commissar of Culture I will rule this entire discussion out of order. These games are a form of gambling, period. So, isn’t it time we turned to more important issues? Heaven knows there are tons of them out there!