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[Chalice] My Favorite Fallacies [Chalice]

Presented October 25, 2015, by Dr. Steve Wiegensein

I want to start this morning by thinking a little more about our opening hymn [Die Gedanken Sind Frei - hymn No. 291]. It's one of those tunes that gets inside your head and stays there for days at a time, and it's been doing that for me all week. Some of you may recognize it. We had a record of it when I was a kid. My mother was a great fan of Pete Seeger, and it was on one of his albums. It had even been a minor hit for the Limelighters during the first wave of folk music popularity in the 1950s.

But the song has a much longer history. It was sung during the Peasants' Rebellion in Germany in the 1500s. The Peasants' Rebellion was one of the rare occasions when both Martin Luther and the Catholic Church were in agreement - namely, that the peasants needed to be put back in their place. After the failed German rebellion of 1848, the song was banned. And it was a popular song among some anti-Nazi resistance movements during the Second World War. So it's a song with a long and honored history.

And the sentiments of the song have a powerful message as well. Our thoughts are free, whatever our life situation may be. We can all think of situations that illustrate this message: Nelson Mandela, leading his movement from an island prison. Stephen Hawking, his thoughts ranging though time and space despite the prison of his body. And closer to home, free-ranging thoughts have gotten many a bored school child through a long day.

But while unchained thoughts are a noble and delightful image, thinking freely isn't as universal or simple as it may sound. Here's another childhood recollection: I remember reading biographies of famous literary or historical figures, and often there would be the remark that this or that person had gotten in trouble, been rejected by a potential spouse, or suffered some other ill consequence because of being a "freethinker." That always puzzled me when I was young. What could be the problem with thinking freely?

Nowadays, I realize what "freethinker" meant in earlier times. It was someone who rejected religious authority in favor of rational thought, and more specifically, someone who denied the divinity of Jesus. So there's the problem. Free thought is dangerous to the established order. Being a "freethinker" in past centuries was the equivalent of being a thought criminal. You were a risky person to hang around with, a troublemaker and a threat.

It would be nice if such ideas were a thing of the past, but they're not. I drove past a church billboard the other day that had the message, "Question Doubt - Feed Your Faith." This isn't an uncommon idea, that entertaining doubts is a dangerous thing, and that good Christians should not allow doubts about dogma to interfere with their beliefs. Rather, they should work to keep doubts out of their minds, and to regard them with suspicion whenever they occur. Faith is the superior virtue.

This is not an attitude that meets with much enthusiasm in the Unitarian Church. We take more of a "cherish doubt" approach. Doubt, for UUs, is part of the process of growth. Doubt is a step on the way to study and deeper understanding. If our church ever tried to suppress doubt or "free thinking," it would lose the very thing that attracts us in the first place, its sense of openness to experience and celebration of difference, and its appreciation of the fun of thinking.

But before we start feeling all superior, we should reflect on the process of thinking itself, and on just how "free" our thoughts are. When I was teaching a course on mass media every year, I would do an exercise at the beginning of the semester that I called, "How do you know that?" The exercise goes like this: I would put some commonly held beliefs on the board, such as "North Korea is a threat to the United States" or "Kids watch too much TV" or "Gun violence is an increasing problem." Then I probe those commonplace ideas with the question, "How do you know that?" The point of this exercise is to observe that very few of our beliefs come from actual direct experience. I've never been to Korea, and I've never done any study of TV watching. Instead, I learn these facts and opinions through the mass media. Some of this received wisdom is objectively true, and some is not. For example, teenagers and young adults watch less TV than any other age group. Whether they watch "too much" is a value judgment based on your own limited experiences and whatever information you've gathered from media sources that you trust. The truth or falsity of these ideas is not as significant as the recognition that ultimately, they're not yours; they're someone else's that you have adopted as your own.

So while my thoughts may be free, they're not entirely mine. I'm not saying this pejoratively. It's just the way we know things in our modern age. And these second-hand thoughts develop enormous power over time, the more they are repeated and accepted. I recall watching an exchange between a presidential candidate and a voter. The voter said, "Why should I vote for you when you don't have a chance?" The candidate's reply was, "If you vote for me, then I'll have a chance!" Unfortunately, the power of received ideas is such that repetition gives them a sort of "truth" in the sense of being universally accepted. Step outside what all the authorities agree on, and you are a crackpot.

I don't mean to suggest that we're all just puppets of the media. Only the most dedicated conspiracy hounds think that. But there is a subtle influence that works on us all the time to think within certain boundaries, along certain lines. In my academic field this is called the agenda-setting function of the media. The media do not tell us what to think, but they tell us what to think about. Nobody just hears a news story or sees an advertisement and then simple-mindedly believes everything it says. But through the gradual process of repetition and prioritizing, certain viewpoints and ideas become our own, and we can hardly recall where we got them. Sometimes this influence can be good. Think of the social shift that has occurred within a single generation about seat belts, for example, or smoking. I can remember when I was in high school, how my classmates and I would debate about whether seat belts were sensible or useful. Today I feel naked without one on, and it's not because of personal experience. It's through the change in attitudes we've all experienced by the pressure of received opinion over time.

On the other hand, agenda-setting sometimes just perpetuates false or simple-minded ideas. You can see that in the narrow and constricted thinking about what constitutes beauty, or who is considered beautiful. Or in fads and crazes. There's a motive behind a lot of this guided thinking, of course. There's money to be made in keeping us from thinking too much. Advertisers have a term called "brand image." Brand image is what you use to sell a product that is indistinguishable from its competitors, like bottled water or pain relievers. You concoct an image of your product that makes people think it's different. It depends on consumers not applying their reason or independent consideration, but responding unthinkingly to the appeal of the product. And the amazing thing is, it works. Just ask the folks at Eveready batteries, whose "Energizer bunny" was the most successful ad campaign of the 1980s, and which never made a single claim about the product that couldn't be made by any other battery manufacturer.

Now that a presidential election is looming on the horizon, we are all getting to experience that uncomfortable situation of deciding whether to unfriend or hide people on our Facebook news feed because of the ignorant opinions they are expressing, or the aggressive way in which they express them. And most of the ideas that are swapped on the Internet are definitely second-hand, and not intended to promote clarity or independent thinking. And I'll confess, I'm just as guilty of sloppy thinking as everybody else, which is why I titled this talk "My Favorite Fallacy." You have probably seen those charts that go around from time to time, detailing the most common logical fallacies that we use in everyday life. Well, I'm here to acknowledge myself as the practitioner of some of those fallacies, not something to be proud of, to be sure, but there it is.

Let's start with that familiar one, the argumentum ad hominem. This one involves attacking the person rather than the argument. That's one I engage in pretty frequently. But I think we should distinguish between the classic ad hominem argument, in which you attack the source as a way of distracting from the argument, and what I think is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, and that's point out if the source of an idea has a history of error or prevarication. For example, it may be a logical fallacy to say that a column written by Bill Kristol is wrong just because Bill Kristol wrote it, but it's not a bad idea to point out how many times Kristol has been wrong in the past.

Another fallacy that I'll own up to is the one that goes by the common term of "cluster-connection." The idea there is that just because things occur in proximity to each other, they must have some connection. You see this fallacy exposed in the comical graphs people make, pointing out that the stock market appears to rise and fall in accordance with which league wins the World Series, and so forth. I recognize that this is a logical error, but I can't help doing it anyway. It's the principle of circumstantial evidence. I know it's not strictly logical to assume that there's a connection between the unusual car that drives past and the stray dog that appears at my door later that afternoon, but it's not entirely illogical either. So I commit the deductive fallacy but hope to keep it within the bounds of reason.

I'd like to throw in one more complication, too. I've been emphasizing the "conventional" in "conventional wisdom" up to this point, but I should also acknowledge the "wisdom" too. There's as much silliness in being willfully unconventional as there is in being stupidly conventional. I think of Emerson's famous comment about individuality: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." The adjective that often gets overlooked there is the "foolish" before the "consistency." It's not consistency itself that is the problem, it's foolish consistency, following the dictates of convention without knowing why or having good reason. It's fine to scorn the herd, but sometimes the herd is heading for the waterhole. Conventional wisdom is sometimes conventional because it's wise.

It seems like the older I get, the more the idea of the wisdom of the elders makes sense to me. What the elders have to offer is accumulated practical experience, the knowledge of what works and what doesn't. The word "orthodox" originally meant "correct thinking." Rejecting the conventional sometimes means rejecting common sense, substituting what you would like to be true for what is true. My "unorthodox ideas" may just be whims. Emerson writes in "Self-Reliance," "I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim," but I would not recommend using whim to build your porch.

One of my favorite writers on the self and community is Joan Didion. In her essay "On Morality," Didion reminds us that complete freedom of the self is a prison of its own sort. She writes, "What could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?" By this I think she means that when we cut ourselves loose from the values and ideas of the tribe, we open up the scary possibility that all we have to rely on for value is ourselves. My brilliant and unorthodox interpretation of the world is just as good as, but no better than, your nutty and cranky one. Because in casting aside other people's standards, I am implicitly tossing out my standing to judge other people along with it. Living in the real world means inhabiting a web of influence and obligation. When we try to free ourselves completely from the thoughts and influences of others, we lose the necessary sense of connectedness and obligation that binds us as a society. And yes, obligation is a part of freedom. Even if one could throw off all the conventions of society, something I don't really think is possible, the loss would be greater than the gain. Didion writes: "'I followed my own conscience.' 'I did what I thought was right.' How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murderers? Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have all been wrong."

So where does this leave us? I hope to remind myself more often that when I hear ideas that "everybody knows," to ask myself whether they're true, and to doubt them for a while until I've accepted them for myself. At the same time, I hope to remember that I'm not such a great genius that I can simply reject other people's ideas in favor of my own, no matter how brilliant I find myself to be. And finally, I intend to pay more attention to the interplay between self and others, and to take pleasure in that push and pull of living in a society. When you think of the people we might call the great originals of our day, the thing I notice about them is that they did not exercise their originality in splendid isolation, but instead worked it through the place and time where they lived. They had new ideas, ideas that set them at odds with their peers, but instead of contenting themselves with their originality and their distance from convention, they worked to make their original ideas become the conventional wisdom - to reshape what everyone was thinking. And perhaps that's the best form of originality. Thoughts may be free, but they become valuable when we spend them in our lives.

©2015 Dr. Steve Wiegensein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegensein, Dr. Steve 2015. My Favorite Fallacies, /talks/20151025.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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