Post Truth

The folks who publish  Oxford Dictionary have decided to introduce a new term in the world’s American/English vocabulary: post-truth. To be specific:

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

There are two things that must be noted about this new term. To begin with, the reduction of truth to “emotion and personal belief” is not new. Hardly. It has been around ever since humans started worrying about what is and what is not the case. Even the brightest among us find ourselves accepting as true those statements that fit nicely with our belief-set. If it is comfortable, it must be true. The only thing new here is that this reduction has become commonplace to the point where a great many people now dismiss as false even those claims for which there is a mountain of evidence — such things as global warming, for example. But the notion is rejected because it makes people feel uncomfortable, not because it is false. After all, should we have to alter our life-style just because a bunch of scientists tell us the earth is slowly being destroyed by our ignorance and neglect? The answer is, of course, “yes.” But not for those who reduce truth to personal belief.

But it behooves us to consider what truth is before we reject it out of hand. It pertains to statements, or claims. And those statements are true if, and only if, there is a fact “out there” that corresponds with that statement. If there is, in fact a blue chair in my living room I can make the statement that it is so and anyone who chooses to do so can go into the living room and corroborate the claim for himself or herself. Moreover, even if a claim cannot be immediately verified by me, if it is coherent and fits logically with a set of facts known to be true, independently of my own particular wishes or desires, then that claim can be regarded as itself true. That’s the point: truth claims can be verified, or corroborated by anyone at any time. They are not private claims; they are not a personal set of statements that I find comforting. Truth is universal, it is not subjective and relative. Beliefs are relative and personal, but beliefs may or may not have anything whatever to do with truth.

Science deals in truth, because the claims of the scientist can be verified by any other scientist at any time. If the claims cannot be verified, such as claims regarding cold fusion, for example, then the scientific community rejects those claims as false. It matters not how much I want to believe in cold fusion, the evidence suggests that it is not possible. And until it can be verified by the scientific community — and anyone else who might be interested — it must remain merely a hope.

But we should all be concerned about the truth or falsity of the things we say and not just the scientists among us. The recent phenomenon involving major politicians standing before huge crowds and spouting innumerable untruths has become commonplace — to the point where we now talk about “post-truth.” But the concept is absurd and we must insist that there are claims that are true and claims that are not true regardless of how much we may want to believe or to disbelieve those claims. To reduce all claims to mere subjective belief is to turn our backs on features of our common world that we might find uncomfortable, but which may make our lives richer in the long run.  Like it or not, we must accept as true those claims for which there is a body of evidence that cannot be dismissed in all intellectual honesty, and not just because the person who said it did so with conviction or what he said fits nicely into my personal belief-set. A world consisting merely of personal beliefs is a shrunken world. It lacks dimension, color, and life.


Seeking Answers

I hesitate to suggest a possible explanation for the increasing nervousness that seems to be surrounding us. Clearly, there are numerous causes. But the fact that people are growing increasingly fearful is clear and it behooves those of us who seek to understand to suggest possible reasons for that fear. As increasing  numbers of people in this country turn to people like Trump for answers we must admit that many seek a person or persons who can make them feel safer from the evils that surround them and which are exaggerated at every possible opportunity by those who seek power over them.

But the fear is more widespread than just in this country as we see England withdraw from the European Union and we hear about coups in Turkey and massive killings in France. The world is in turmoil and clear heads are hard to find in the midst of confusion. The trend is decidedly toward isolationism as folks seem convinced they are safer if left alone and rid of people unlike themselves. We see it on a personal level as the trend toward what I have called “inverted consciousness,” the tendency to fixate on the self and personalize all issues, has gradually become commonplace. The social media simply exacerbate the problem. And we now are beginning see it on an international level as countries seek to isolate themselves and turn their attention inward rather than outwards.

A blogging buddy of mine has suggested on his blog that we need to build bridges rather than fences and he is right. Until or unless folks start talking with one another they will continue to fear what they do not understand. And as the human population grows, the planet becomes more crowded, and violence becomes more widespread among frustrated and fearful people, the desire for fences, unfortunately, will become even greater. Fear is the rule of the day and the demagogues who seek public office know this better than anyone. They feed on it and pass it around like porridge, knowing that starving folks will gobble it down. And they offer solutions in the form of platitudes and over simplifications — and downright lies. Their seeming command of answers reassures those who have none and who live with their own sense of powerlessness. “Deliver us from evil.” That is the promise.

The fact is, however, that others cannot solve our problems. We cannot escape the fear except by knowing more and we cannot understand others without opening lines of communication with them. DeTocqueville once said that Americans desire freedom but they would trade it away in a second for equality — they want what others have more than they want the freedom that brings with it the burden of responsibility. The same could be said about security. We talk about freedom and think we have it here in this country. But we vie with our neighbors and we wallow in fear of those who seem to threaten us in one way or another. It appears we will settle for the security offered by those who promise to rid us of our fears, even if in doing so we abandon freedom altogether. That way lies totalitarianism, political control by the few and powerful.

In any event, we must not look to others for solutions. We must seek solutions ourselves. We must come out of ourselves and turn toward others since that is the way toward increased understanding. Others might frighten us (heaven knows Trump frightens me) but we must try to listen to what they have to say and figure out some way to open lines of communication rather than turn away, build fences, and seek safety in our hidey-holes. The answer is not found in social media or self-absorption, and it is not in the lies and empty promises of vapid politicians; rather it lies in seeking to know the truth about the real world, terrifying though it is, and the people who make up the real world, terrifying though they can be at times.


It is common knowledge that the Republicans in the Senate have vowed not to allow President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court ever see the light of day. It is also common knowledge that those same Republicans are deep into the pocket of the NRA and recently voted as a group not to pass any laws restricting the use of AK-15s and other weapons of mass destruction. They have bought into the dream of the gun manufacturers, who support the NRA, that every man, woman, and child in this country should be armed against….every other man, woman, and child.

Furthermore, it is widely known that the core of the Republicans in Congress met soon after Barack Obama’s election and vowed not to pass on any legislation the man favored, to adopt what has been called a “scorched-earth” policy of no compromise. But, as has recently been pointed out, this policy goes back further than Obama and those who chalk it up to the determination of a group of racists not to cooperate with a black president may have to rethink their position. It appears it is not racism; it is simply twisted political thinking. As a recent article points out:

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.
This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP’s midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it.

What this means is that the commonsense notion that politics is all about compromise, reaching the decision that works best for everyone — even though it may not be the decision that each individual wants — has been displaced in our era by a group of small-minded men and women whose only goal is to oppose the opposition, to see to it that their party is strengthened and the opposition party rendered weak and helpless. The central notion of the “Common Good” that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, has been preempted in our era by “what’s good for the party is good for me.” The idea is that the political party that one belongs to demands complete loyalty because it is that party — and the money that goes into that party’s coffers — that will determine whether or not I keep my high-paying job. And please note: this is not about party loyalty. It’s about self-interest.

If the Supreme Court must limp along with only eight members for a while, or if more and more people must be killed by weapons designed for modern warfare (and not for killing deer) so be it. What matters now is ME. If I am an elected official my only goal is to remain in office and do whatever it takes to remain there. What is good for my constituency matters not a whit. What matters is what is good for me and for my ability to remain in public office.

The two main players in this sick drama are, of course, the PACs and the lack of term limits in public office. The entire situation could be remedied if the Congress were to address these two issues. But they will not because those two factors are what keep them in office. And professional politicians, which is what we are surrounded by today, know what side their bread is buttered on — if they know nothing else.

Do Cheaters Win?

When I coached the women’s tennis team at our university back in the Dark Ages we were initially associated with the A.I.A.W., which was an athletics association organized specifically for women in the early days of Title Nine. The organization made the huge mistake of taking the N.C.A.A. to court on the grounds that they were a monopoly and were in violation of anti-trust laws. The N.C.A.A., which even at that time was very powerful, won the case easily and the A.I.A.W. faded into the night. Our conference was faced with the option of joining the N.A.I.A. or the N.C.A.A. and I was delighted when the Conference decided to join the former. It allowed a great deal of local autonomy and there was very little politicking involved. For example, when we won our district Championship we automatically went to the National Tournament. In the N.C.A.A.  a committee votes on who gets to go to their national tournaments, though they pay the expenses, whereas the N.A.I.A. does not.

The Conference was dominated in most sports by the University of Minnesota at Duluth and when their softball team won their district championship one year it cost the university a small fortune to send the team to Florida for the National Tournament. The President of the university decided that this was enough of that sort of foolishness and he threw his weight around to persuade the other presidents to leave the N.A.I.A. and join the N.C.A.A. At that point I retired from coaching women’s tennis, thankfully. I was delighted that I would not have to deal with the N.C.A.A. which had a rule-book as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory and was an organization that was run out of a central office that allowed little or no local autonomy and politics were the order of the day.

Since that time I have had an opportunity to take closer look at the N.C.A.A. and especially its control over the large semi-professional (let’s admit it) sports programs at the Division I level. I have written about it and will not repeat here what I have already said. But I noted recently that Bob Bowlsby, Commissioner of the Big 12 Conference expressed his dismay over the alleged fact that the N.C.A.A. was lax in its enforcement of its own rules. He indicated that a high percentage of the universities involved in football and basketball at the Division I level were in violation of the rules and yet the N.C.A.A. was doing nothing about it. Bowlsby also claimed that their infraction committee hadn’t even met for nearly a year — even though it is generally known that there are violators of the innumerable rules governing fair play in all sports at the collegiate level. Furthermore, many of these violators were heading up very successful and lucrative programs, prompting Bowlsby to remark that “cheating pays” at the highest levels of college sports. Needless to say, a number of football coaches expressed well-rehearsed outrage at those comments.

Sociologists love to point out that the problems at the collegiate level merely reflect the problems of society at large. If this is so (and I don’t claim to be a sociologist) then there are a lot of cheaters out there who are very successful in spite of (because of?) the fact that they are breaking the rules knowingly. As some wag once said: “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” This is nonsense, of course, but I do believe that this attitude is widely shared and that the colleges and universities are merely in step with some of the most successful people in this society. As a culture we have lost sight of the moral high ground that Martin Luther King spoke about so eloquently and have convinced ourselves that since everyone does the wrong thing that it therefore isn’t wrong. When Nixon was caught in the Watergate scandal, for example, it was said by many outspoken commentators that this wasn’t such a bad thing because all politicians do that sort of thing. If everyone does it, it can’t be wrong. This is what logicians call the fallacy of ad populum, or the appeal to what is generally done. It saves us having to think about things and, of course, is a handy excuse if we do get caught.

But one would hope that the universities and colleges would hold themselves to a higher standard than politicians and other low-lifes, and if, in fact, cheating in college sports is widespread it should be thoroughly investigated and the culprits publicly shamed. The Commissioner I referred to above suggested that outside agencies, even the Federal Government, should get involved. I would hope the Federal Government has more important fish to fry, but the suggestion of an outside agency is not a bad one. If the N.C.A.A. cannot police its own rules, then someone else should do it. Or the N.C.A.A. should be disbanded altogether, which may not be such a bad idea. If the N.C.A.A. won’t even enforce its own rules, it seems to have outgrown its usefulness and appears to be motivated by greed, pure and simple. There is a hellova lot of money involved in collegiate sports these days — and that may be the root of the entire problem, come to think of it.

Remembering Swift

With apologies to Jon Stewart and Tom Lehrer, the greatest satirist who ever lived was Jonathan Swift. He is best known from the watered-down versions of his classic Gulliver’s Travels that has been turned into a children’s book — or from one of the terrible movies starring buffoons like Jack Black that trample on the greatness that was Swift. But Swift was above all things a cleric and a moralist and his satirical writings — of which Gulliver was merely one small portion — were almost always written to draw attention to a wrong with an eye to remedying the situation. And in Swift’s age, the latter seventeenth century and the early eighteenth, there was much that was wrong.  Swift saw it through the eyes of a brilliant, witty misanthrope. Human foibles drove him wild even though he was an amiable friend and companion with a small group of close friends and the two women who worshipped the ground he walked upon. And the Irish loved him and regarded him as their champion — as indeed he was.

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jonathan Swift (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Swift could be downright acerbic in his observations, as when he wrote the following in voicing his conviction that humans don’t bear a close look because the deeper you probe the worse they seem to be: “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” But he could be not only witty but wise and very timely — which is why he is worth reading even today. He noted, for example, that “. . . if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either in the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. . . .This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state, of being a fool among knaves.” Those of us who are not rich and who like to believe that the rich are not truly happy can take comfort in the conviction that their “happiness” is a “deception.”

Swift generally pilloried the vanities and stupidities of his age, always with an eye toward the need for bringing reason to bear on the frailties and weaknesses of humans. He was, among other things, a deeply religious and a wise man who knew the absurdities of many of the religious as well as most of those of the wealthy and famous. Of religion, for example, he said “We have just religion enough to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another.” When he turned his attention to the politicians and academics around him he could be particularly scathing. In fact, the major portion of his classic about Lemuel Gulliver focuses on the politics and politicians of his day many of whom he knew close up. He also knew and hated the pretense he found in the universities. In the third trip Gulliver made, for example, after being lowered from the flying island he visited an academy in the city of Lagado and was confronted by a variety of dusty and smelly academics who were intent on such esoteric pursuits as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the top down “like bees and spiders,” plowing fields with the snouts of hogs, making silk from spider webs, and curing colic with a pair of bellows. These were busy little men and women involved in absurd intellectual games while those around them went without food and shelter and agriculture suffered. We can agree that even in our day there is much being done in the academies of learning that has little to do with what is going on in the real world. One must wonder, for example, how research on the “Use of the Past-Perfect Participle In Late Elizabethan English” will help improve the lot of humankind. And it could be said that the entire attempt to land a man on the moon or a rover on Mars takes millions of dollars away from the genuine human needs here on our planet where many people don’t have food to put on the table — or a table, come to that. Swift was above all else a moralist.

Indeed, Swift’s “Modest Proposal” of eating all the small children in Ireland was an attempt to draw attention in England to the plight of the poor in Ireland where he was Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin until his death. But those in his day who read his works (always written anonymously) were afraid of the Dean and kept him from the posts he dearly wanted back in England. They knew who wrote them, and they read his works with great glee, laughing up their collective sleeves, but never realized that it was they who were being made to look foolish. In the end, Swift concluded, satire is a mirror in which the viewer sees everyone but himself. Indeed.

Leaders Who Follow

An interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times recently made the case for more aggressive leadership in Congress. It concluded with the following paragraph:

Politicians play in a rugged arena and are understandably obsessed about losing power. But that power needs to be used for something other than perpetual re-election. The next two years will challenge lawmakers of both parties to demonstrate that they came to Washington for a purpose.

The article generally faults a number of Senators for failure of nerve and the Democrats generally for their lack of cohesion, sense of purpose, and their timidity. They are in a position of power and influence after the recent election yet they hesitate to take charge and lead the country. Instead they wait to see which way the wind is blowing and adjust their sails accordingly.

This is a most interesting point. I have referred in previous blogs to Joseph Schumpeter’s claims in the 1940s that the only real job professional politicians have any more is to get re-elected. This is certainly one of the author’s points above when he refers to “perpetual reelection.” But his point that those in Congress need to step up to the plate and take a healthy cut — to assume the mantle of leadership and show a bit of courage — is well taken. Even in a political climate where those with large purses call the shots, there is room for an occasional Congressman to play a leadership role, though I recognize that it takes courage. Rather than simply holding up a wet finger to see which way the political wind blows, or transferring allegiance to the lobbyists who wait in the outer office to take them to dinner and fatten their campaign war chests, one wonders whether a courageous man or woman might not appear on the horizon who is willing to take a risk in order to do the right thing. Imagine the groundswell of popular support for such a person!

The article focuses attention on several possible candidates, among whom one of the more interesting is the Senator from West Virginia who won re-election by a large margin and is in a position to take a decisive stand on the issue of gun control. Instead, we are told:

. . . senators have an obligation to lead public opinion, not to follow it blindly. Hunters in red states know full well that a semiautomatic weapon bristling with military features is unnecessary to bring down a deer or a duck. If Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who just won re-election comfortably, were to make that case, he might change a few minds, given his unquestionable support for Second Amendment rights.

If Mr. Manchin explained that such a ban was anything but a “gun grab,” people would pay attention. Instead, though he supports background checks, he will not endorse anything further.

Whether Joe Manchin hears the call to leadership remains to be seen. One does begin to doubt. The siren call of reelection seems so much more alluring where a high-paying job is assured and little is demanded but continued efforts to please those who slip them money under the table. It is sad to admit that Schumpeter may well be right: the only thing on the minds of a majority of those in Washington is hanging on to the soft job that offers them a public spotlight when they want it and job security as long as they don’t rock the boat.

What He Said!

[ This is a bit of a cop-out. But I spent Thanksgiving with my son and his family and wasn’t able to write a blog. But after seeing the feeble response the last two days I may stop blogging altogether. I must say I liked the time away from the computer! In any event, I am “borrowing” this editorial because I couldn’t have said it better myself. I hope I don’t get sued.]


By Jeff Greenfield

Did you know that Hillary Clinton has a commanding lead in the Iowa caucuses, just 162 weeks or so away in 2016? That’s what POLITICO reported—“exclusively,” no less—60 hours or so after President Barack Obama was re-elected.

Did you know that Republicans are optimistic about re-taking the Senate in 2014, what with 20 Democratic seats in play compared with only 13 GOP seats? The Washington Post offered up a detailed look at the field in September, two months before the 2012 races had been decided.

Did you know that Republicans Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and John Thune might run for president next time, along with Democrats Andrew Cuomo, John Hickenlooper and Martin O’Malley?

Now I know what you’re thinking: Here comes another rant deploring these worthless exercises in political prognostication.

But friends, the truth is I have given up the ghost. The forces that propel the political community into premature evaluation—or is it electoral dysfunction—are simply too powerful to withstand. Would-be candidates have money to raise, consultants to hire. Those in the congressional minorities gaze wistfully at the perquisites of sub-committee chairmanships and dream of wielding a gavel and holding forth on Sunday talk shows.

As for the political press: nothing better encapsulates our sense of priorities than a single sentence spoken by one of the nation’s best-known journalists who had a front-row seat during Obama’s first term.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for three and a half years!” this correspondent exulted from Des Moines last January, on the morning of the Iowa caucuses.

(I am preserving anonymity because those sentiments could have been expressed by dozens of others.)

Taxes? Budgets? Two wars? Yeah, yeah, but this is Iowa, baby!

So, rather than emulating King Canute and beseeching the tide of campaign-centric obsession to recede, I offer instead a more modest proposal: Let’s make February 2013 National Governing Month.

For that one month, let’s have our elected officials agree not to appear at any political gathering; not to fund-raise; not to hold committee hearings whose chief purpose is to embarrass the other party. Let’s have the president agree to a similar set of restrictions.

Instead, for the entire twenty-eight days, let the folks we just elected to run the government . run the government.

Instead of running across the street from the Capitol to offices where it’s legal to make money-begging calls, members of the House and Senate would stay at the Capitol, possibly even trying to discover some common ground.

Instead of churning out press releases, Tweets, blogs, and talking points, the army of political operatives would find other work to do — perhaps cleaning up public parks.

As for the press, the First Amendment does seem to preclude any official sanction for political gas-baggery. Still, it is at least possible to imagine that reporters might be shamed into temporary silence when a normally effusive political community collectively said, “Don’t you know this is National Governing Month? Call me March 1st.”

Okay, maybe that “shame the press” idea is overreaching.

But we are, I think, already getting a sense of what National Governing Month might offer us in the way of a more substantive, less overtly politicized political atmosphere.

When Congress and the White House built the political Doomsday Device known as “sequestration,” with its toxic brew of spending cuts and tax hikes, the assumption was that getting really close to the “fiscal cliff” would be unthinkable. With that cliff only weeks away, some serious analysis about the priorities of government and the nature of the tax burden has begun to dominate the conversation.

Now imagine making that kind of conversation a permanent part of the political calendar. Who knows? In those 28 days of National Governing Month, it might even occur to folks that dreaming about next election might not be the most productive use of time and energy.

Well, this is a fantasy.

For Better, For Worse

Living as I do in Minnesota where a referendum item regarding “same-sex marriage” on this year’s ballot has drawn considerable discussion and a great deal of wasted money on TV ads pro and con, I was interested that a New York appeals court declared a similar law in that state unconstitutional. As a Yahoo News story tells us:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An appeals court in New York ruled on Thursday that a law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional. It was the second federal appeals court to reject the law, which could go before the Supreme Court soon.

New York is the third state to rule the law unconstitutional and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon, since these cases involve the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 and the federal government at present does not recognize same-sex marriages. That should be interesting, though the verdict is predictable. But as a philosopher the entire issue strikes me as puzzling in the extreme. Same-sex marriages are “victimless crimes,” though I would not call them crimes at all. Why do we need laws prohibiting acts that do not involve harm to others? It reeks of paternalism. No one is getting hurt: on the contrary. These marriages are merely found to be offensive by the homophobes among us and those people should simply be told to shut up and find something to keep them busy.

In any event, the people most intimately involved are together because they love one another and that is supposed to be the cornerstone of the religion that harbors the greatest number of critics of same-sex marriage. The inconsistency is glaring. But consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds, as Emerson said. So we can take comfort in the fact that the critics of same-sex marriage are simply much smarter than the rest of us who embrace the laws of contradiction and seek to make sure our thinking is consistent and coherent. Right. (I never did agree with Emerson.) Of course in cases such as this there is very little thought of any kind involved, mostly just feelings — strong, often incoherent, feelings.

Seriously, folks, where’s the moral issue here? There is none. And why are states and the federal government wasting precious time and money on a non-issue when there are serious problems to be solved — or at least addressed? People are walking around with semi-automatic weapons in their pockets; the planet is under siege; and the economy is in the toilet while these overpaid politicians waste time discussing whether men should marry men or women marry women. This waste of time and money is the problem, not the pseudo-issue of whether persons who love one another should marry. It’s time to turn to problems that demand solutions and away from trivial issues that don’t deserve serious attention.

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.