Friday, February 25, 2011

Serendipity Or, Cause and Effect

Sometimes, timing is everything.

Around the time that Glenn Beck began suggesting that the uprisings in Egypt were sowing the seeds of a future Islamic caliphate, I just happened to be reading Ferdowsi's The Shahnameh.

Written in 900 C.E., Ferdowsi's poem is a lengthy and imaginative retelling of the history of the kings of Iran (Persia) prior to the Muslim conquest of the Sassanid Empire circa 650.

The poem was commissioned during the course of the first native Persian dynasty to rule after the establishment of the Arab caliphate.  The Samanids promoted both the revival of native Persian culture and the spread of Sunni Islam--The Shahnameh is perhaps the best-known product of that effort. 

So when Beck said, "They want a caliphate. Look it up... don't talk to me about crazy conspiracy theories," my immediate reaction was, "I have looked it up, actually."

Have you?

This is a trend that I find particularly disturbing in the debates raging and swirling on the Internet and Facebook: the insistent charge to "look it up."

It's like a train wreck.  No matter how disgusted and horrified I am, I can't look away.

I spend a lot of time looking things up, actually.  It's my job to teach people how to look things up and how to analyze and synthesize what they find, in order to formulate their own opinions and questions.

That way, they can completely disagree with me in a way that I find interesting and thought-provoking. 

"Looking it up" is not what Beck and others out there on You Tube and Facebook and wherever are doing.

I'm not saying they're "making it up," although some of them are no doubt doing that as well.  But at the most basic level, they misunderstand the way in which persuasive arguments involving cause and effect are created and defended.

This bothers me a lot.  People need to be smarter than that.

When I teach causal arguments, I emphasize the fact that broad-based similarities do not necessarily prove a causal relationship--or even a basic connection--between two events.

I use the following example: you walk into my house, my favorite armchair is white.  My kitchen table is also white, and the towels in my bathroom are white.

You conclude, "She likes the color white.  She prefers white.  Given the choice, she'll choose something white."

Except that, if you asked me, "Is white your favorite color?", I'd look puzzled.  Because it's not.  Not at all.

My armchair is white because it was on sale and the alternative color choice was purple.  My kitchen table was on sale, but only if you bought it in white.  My mom gave me my bathroom towels: they're white because I accidentally ruined the set I had when I was using clindamycin.

So you'd be more correct if you concluded, "She's cheap and not very bright sometimes."

But you couldn't tell that just by looking at the broad similarities between the items in my house, and if you stuck to the conclusion that I love the color white, you'd be wrong.

You just would.  Because "looking at it" and "looking it up" are not the same thing. 

Events have contexts, and those contexts are often quite complex.  Taking an incident out of its context and setting it alongside of another (seemingly similar) event (also taken out of context) may looking quite compelling: See, they're both alike! It's happening again!

But in fact, it's just crappy reasoning.

In the 14th century, the Franciscan friar, William of Ockham, proposed what is known as "Occam's (Ockham's) Razor."

Occam's Razor advocates simplicity as a measure of plausibility: "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily."  (In Latin, "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.")

While the principle of Occam's Razor is not mean to be definitive, it can work to curb overly imaginative excursions in argument.

In most conspiracy theories, simplicity is replaced by a tortuous chain of allegedly compelling interconnections between (usually distant) events, ideas and peoples.  

So although Beck claims he's not putting forward a conspiracy theory, the connections he makes circumvent simplicity: Islamic extremists are collaborating with leftists and Communists are collaborating with the Islamic extremists who are collaborating with the leftists.

So clearly, all of them are promoting chaos and looking to destroy Western capitalism and if you look at the revolution in Egypt, you'll see proof of this.  It's obviously a Muslim caliphate-in-the-making.

Look it up.

Or, people in Egypt were tired of an oppressive government.  They united to express their dissatisfaction, and their unity ended up having an impact on the shape of the world at large.

Hey, wait a minute.  That sounds kinda familiar...

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."