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Truth has an uncorrupted kingly bloodline; yet our world seems peopled with Error's bastards. Wrong thinking, reasoning that could never stand up to scrutiny, is universal and nearly constant. Why? Merely doubting is not a sufficient test to drive out error; nor is the classical machinery of formal logic. The Baconian revolution, however, established the scientific method and gave us a way to put ideas-in any language, at any scale-through the test of truthfulness. But this is a method we consistently fail to use in daily life, not just because it's a troublesome yoke, but because we don't naturally think that way. So is it more natural to be wrong? We'll see.
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Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas-that would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, molluscs and the gods. Human stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. -HENRY DE MONTHERLANT, Carnets
A DEMOCRACY OF DUNCES
People-other people, that is-make such stupid, easily avoided mistakes and never seem to learn from them. Try as you might tosupport the "in apprehension how like a god" theory of humanity, you're struck almost immediately by some counterexample that puts "quintessence of dust" back in the top billing. If we were indeed made in the divine image, it must have been when the Creator had misplaced his glasses.
This puts us humans in the unique position of being constantly disappointed in ourselves, expecting a higher standard of reasoning and behavior than we ever actually achieve. "Well, duh" has become an accepted term in debate presuming simultaneously that the truth will be obvious and that everyone will miss it. We easily spot and gleefully point out the fatuities of our opponents-and wonder, in lonely midnight hours, whether we ourselves are any less absurd. Error is democratic and egalitarian: go scrutinize the opinions of even the best educated, and you will find them still largely a patchwork of hearsay, authority, prejudice, and self-accommodation; basic illogicalities prevail alike in the labs of MIT as in the stands at World Wrestling Entertainment. Such universal dopiness (or, to give it its traditional name, "vulgar error") is not just a matter of being mistaken about the unknown-through excusable ignorance of string theory, say, or counterpoint, or Kierkegaard; no, it's being bald-facedly wrong in familiar things we say and do every day. We shamelessly yield to impulse and invent reasons afterward. We impute motives to distant figures and events of which, despite the global wash of media, we really know almost nothing. We shift our grounds, making the same issue a matter of fact or of principle as it suits our local purpose ("I'm a true believer, so my beliefs must be true"). We allow others to impose on us with slippery rhetoric and bogus statistics ("all real Americans will support me": "200 percent lower prices!"). We cower from difficult truths and cry after comforting illusions. And yet, astonishingly, here we still are-the masters of creation. For idiots, we have been remarkably successful: our grand entrances may start on a banana peel, our sweeping exits lead into a closet, but we are the stars of this show.
The problem, like most, goes back to Genesis. The Bible has human history begin with a blunder: coming to know, through a temporary lapse in divine discipline, the difference between right and wrong. That blunder was the parent of all subsequent faults, errors, mistakes, and gaffes-because to know is to be allowed choice; and to choose is to have the option of choosing badly, assuming falsely, and indulging in all manner of specious self-justification. Since the exile from Eden, Right and Wrong have remained our intimate companions, presiding over every exalted and trivial thing we do, from declaring war to guessing the answer on game shows. Error is something that we both casually expect and find alarming to the point of apocalyptic despair.
"As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise?" Solomon was neither first nor last to worry about this: throughout humankind's triumphant progress similarly grim prophets have reminded us that our basic senselessness (now compounded by vast power) may soon lead us over the precipice. Yet despite these constant warnings we can never be sure exactly which of our many errors is the basic one, the fault we ought to tackle preferentially: Meat-eating during Lent or not feeding the hungry? Sloth or excessive energy consumption? Our fractured family or our divided society? It's not surprising that, when the English Protestants first made confession public, they also had to make it all-encompassingly general: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us." Well, it's a start, at least.
Our dilemma may simply be a matter of probabilities: the intrinsic difference in likelihood between the one right way and many wrong ones. The path of righteousness is straight and narrow, but error can wander all over the plain. On one hand, we have the valid, the true, and the good: desirable ends, but only three. On the other, we have legion: bilge, bunk, and bosh; FUBB, FUBAR, and SNAFU; hokum, hooey, and humbug; rimble-ramble, whiffle-waffle, and yawp. Having set down our few commandments, we open myriad opportunities to screw them up.
This idea was given a sharp point by the Italian economist Carlo Cipolla in his essay "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity." Cipolla observed that the bad is statistically more likely than the good. Of the four categories of human-which he calls the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid-three are composed of people destined by character to cause harm to others, themselves, or both. Cipolla's further laws establish that there is a constant irreducible proportion of stupidity in any human group (he includes college professors and Nobel laureates); that an observer will always underestimate the amount of stupidity in circulation and its power to do harm; and that the stupid person is the most dangerous of all, both because he does not intend the actual results of his actions and because stupid deeds by definition produce no benefit for anyone. "Day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one's activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbable moments." The reader chuckles, but not overloudly-this is too familiar.
Error is pervasive: it seeps into thought, word, and deed. It is universal: there are no Happy Isles where humankind is free of it. And like all blemishes, it is more obvious in others than in oneself. No wonder then that there have been so many attempts throughout history to free us from it.
THE FAILURE OF FALLACIES
In a world of stupid beliefs, doubt is the beginning of wisdom: if you can see that your neighbor's ideas have no Foundation, you can at least avoid going inside them, even if that leaves you no place to live yourself. The Han dynasty scholar Wang Chong (a familiar university-town figure-prickly and poor, haunter of tea shops and secondhand bookstalls) had a keen nose for nonsense, and found much to offend it in the China of his time. The imperial government, first to rule over the whole Middle Kingdom, was constantly battling barbarians without and rebels within; under this stress a centralizing instinct (always strong in Chinese history) had condensed government, culture, and religion into a single lump of doctrine, to be swallowed whole. Confucianism, once a humanistic search after the harmonious life, had shrunk to a state church with Confucius promoted to godhead. Taoism, once a spiritual quest for tranquility in the flux of existence, had coarsened into a species of alchemy, touting secret immorality powders and condemning future generations to the rigors of feng shui. Official thinking was absurd and self-contradictory; but it was official, so anyone who went against it would need to be willing to seem awkward-and willing to stay poor. This was a job for Wang Chong.
His Lun Heng, or Critical Essays, ran through the body of contemporary superstition and muzzy thinking in eighty-five righteously indignant chapters. He asked, for instance, why aren't ghosts naked? The clothes of the dead had no vital force that would permit them to return. If setting up an earthenware dragon attracts rain, why wasn't the dragon-obsessed Duke of She, whose palace was entrusted with the things, flooded out? Lao Tzu says we attain great age by banishing ambition, yet many ambitious men live to be a hundred, while plants, seemingly the least ambitious of living beings, perish in a season. In a culture obsessed with signs and portents, Wang Chong's unwelcome message was the basic indifference of a world on which we live "as lice do on the human body." It's pointless inventing supernatural powers and beings: once you admit that at least some things just happen, you have lost any sure way to distinguish divine will from pure chance. Good and bad things occur everywhere in all ages. Why, then, is your good fortune a reward from God while your neighbor was merely lucky? When, say, Pat Robertson claimed to be able to steer hurricanes away from his broadcasting studios through the power of prayer, the Wang Chong question would be, "What about the other lives and property destroyed by hurricanes? Did these all belong to people who failed the prayer test?"
But even as he battled accepted foolishness, Wang Chong himself suffered from a fatal deficiency: he had nothing to put in its place. Some concepts might seem less vulnerable to doubt than others, but he had no uniform standards by which to test them. He was not even able to separate the two essential types of doubt: doubt from inconsistency and doubt from improbability-that is, things that don't fit what you've said versus things that don't fit what I've seen. What he needed was some kind of philosopher's stone to find the sense within nonsense, to tell meaning from meaninglessness.
Had he found the works of Aristotle on a bookseller's stall, he would have been able to take this next step. Aristotle holds a solar position in the history of thought: he is the source of illumination for so many subjects and the gravitational center around which so much later work revolved. His genius was method, sorting the richness of experience into logical categories and ordering these categories into chains of causality. The habit your science teacher insisted on, of defining your terms and specifying the relation between those terms before you went on, is a legacy from Aristotle, providing not just a powerful educational tool but also the means to isolate the valid from the fallacious in reasoning and speech-means we still use today in every lecture hall, courtroom, and debating chamber.
Aristotle's own teacher, Plato, had lacked such a method. He would ask, through the literary medium of Socrates, questions of the form "what actually is ...?" What is Virtue? What is the Good? What is the true meaning of these big concepts we all bring so easily and so unthinkingly into our conversation? It was no good saying, "Well, Themistocles is good; Aristides is virtuous." Examples are not explanations, any more than the scrawled diagram on the blackboard really is the proof in geometry. Plato's disputants constantly came up against this problem, because the most interesting ideas usually resonate beyond any explanation. Words indicate things they cannot contain. Often, the dialogues trail off into a state that contemporary rhetoric called aporia-the realization that there is no more that can be said. Not, for any Greek, a happy ending.
Plato's response to this embarrassing lack of a reliable clincher in argument was to posit, somewhere outside human existence, a world of Forms: perfect originals of which everything we see is a flawed copy. Forms relate to each other only one way-the right way, which we could confidently call Truth ... if only we knew it. We come into this life having already known the Forms, so our ability to assign abstract qualities to things is a kind of remembering, a fleeting connection to the ideal knowledge we once held, shining and complete, in our bodiless minds. Stupid or unthinking people have simply forgotten more, and so are best governed by means of "noble lies"; people who love truth are more fit to rule as philosopher-kings, because they at least are more aware of what they have forgotten. All err, but at least the aristoi know they do. Well, yes-but determining who genuinely remembers most about the Forms is not a straightforward business: even Socrates' closest companions regularly found themselves at odds. What was really needed was a test that anyone, regardless of his degree of forgetfulness, could use to decide whether a given statement is valid or not.
Aristotle came up with the answer, and his solution was the one that works so often in mathematics: he turned the problem on its head. He reasoned, not from Form to example, but from example to form, from the world's things (nouns) to its qualities (adjectives). He left aside the absolute meaning of terms to concentrate on their use. Does this adjective red properly apply to this noun chair? Can it extend to include other nouns-table, flag, China? Does it encompass or nest within some other adjective-scarlet, say, or colored? If you take this noun-adjective relationship and then add four functional connectors-all, some, not all, none-and tie them up with the conclusive therefore, you will have all the tools you need to do formal deductive logic, the method we still use to decide whether a statement is valid; that is, whether it is consistent with a previous statement or line of argument.
It's a powerful technique. If I claim "all animals move," or "none are immortal," you call explode either of those statements forever with a single counterexample. Or say I propose the following syllogism:
1. All terrorists are extremists.
2. Omar is an extremist.
3. Therefore Omar is a terrorist.
You can expose the flaw in my reasoning by, for instance, pointing out that it is formally identical to "all chimpanzees eat bananas; my brother eats bananas; therefore ..." Assuming you had read your Aristotle, you could casually mention that I had just committed the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle, and that it is one of around twenty similar dodges (including the Illicit Minor, the Masked Man fallacy, and even the Fallacy fallacy) by which devious or ignorant wheedlers try to get you to agree that the world is divided up in ways it isn't or that properties of one thing can be transferred to another, when they can't. Such fallacies are the code violations of formal logic: once you spot one, you have condemned the whole jerry-built argument. The structure is clearly unfit for use; your opponent will have to take it down and construct another.
Aristotle was, in fact, too experienced a man to expect real people to actually argue using formal logic. He knew that speakers rely as much on appearance as on substance, just as "physically some people are in a vigorous condition, while others merely seem to be so by blowing and rigging themselves out as the tribesmen do their victims for sacrifice." So to help us tell the mental athlete from the mere blowhard, he wrote On Sophistical Refutations, a handbook of rhetorical fakery as applicable now as it was in the fourth century B.C. It lists in order the various verbal equivalents of bustles, toupees, and elevator shoes that sophists use to tart up their unappealing doctrines. It covers question-begging, weak analogies, false generalizations, ad hominem arguments, appeals to force-all the slippery faults that, in logical terms, are not even wrong. In Sophistical Refutations, we have a catalog of every type of evasive maneuver, from amphibology ("I am opposed to war which dishonors our country"-comma, or no comma?) to tu quoque ("who are you to tell me drinking is harmful? You're a lush."). When you sense that some slick demagogue knows every trick in the book ... this is the book.
Excerpted from BOZO SAPIENS by Michael Kaplan Ellen Kaplan Copyright © 2009 by Michael and Ellen Kaplan. Excerpted by permission.
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Bozo Sapiens is very informative and useful yet is interesting enough that the reader does not lose interest. One is constantly having to reevaluate the way they think about and see the world throughout the book. It is a must-read for any intellectual, scholar, or professional. While it is interesting, I wouldn't recommend it for a casual reader, it is just a shade to deep and complicated for light reading.
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Posted March 25, 2011
What a treat. As the title suggests, this book is both scientific and funny -- a hard trick to pull off. It addresses incredibly serious questions about human nature, but in such a light-hearted, clever way and with such interesting stories that it just sails along. And it left me feeling like I understand humanity a little better (and like it more).Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 25, 2013
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Posted October 9, 2010
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