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Monday, December 5, 2016

And Now, About That Five-Legged Dog

I’ll get to the dog in a minute, but first a couple of questions. How do you feel about living in a “post-truth era”? Are you convinced “there’s no such thing as facts”? 

Dan Rather – bless his heart! – has come out strongly on the side of facts and truth. Here are a few sample paragraphs for those disinclined to follow the link:
If people want to live in a post-truth world, where "elite" experts are all biased and facts are up for interpretation, I suggest they go all the way. 
You can go to a post-truth doctor who could say "well the elitist scientific tests say you have strep throat but I say it's cancer so let's give you some chemotherapy." 
Or you can go to a post-truth electrician who might say "well those elitist electrical manuals published in New York and those government regulations out of Washington say you should ground your electricity, but that's just a bunch of red tape." 
Or you can go to a post-truth auto mechanic who might say "well those elitist laws of physics say that this is how a braking system works, but let's replace your brake pads with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies because they will smell better when you hit the brake pedal." If people want to live in a post-truth world, where "elite" experts are all biased and facts are up for interpretation, I suggest they go all the way. 
I was reminded of David Hume’s dizzying bout of temporary skepticism, brought on by pursuing justification down a rabbit hole. “How can I believe in the material world, when the senses sometimes deceive and there would be nothing illogical about nonexistence?” For Hume, dinner and conversation with friends, followed (or preceded) by a good game of billiards, sufficed to banish doubt. And as for the rest of us, outside of our own dizzying moments of metaphysical speculation, we have no choice, either, but to “believe in” the earth we stand on. We can no more doubt it while going about our lives than a fish can doubt the reality of water.

My father was no philosopher but an engineer. A “just the facts” kinda guy? Well, he also had a fanciful side that came out in a long-running serial bedtime story about a family of squirrels, and his inclined enough toward dreams that he encouraged me for years to enter the Kentucky Club tobacco contest to name a thoroughbred racehorse and win the horse. That is, he was enough of a story-teller and dreamer that, when I was a child, we shared common loves and interests.

On the other hand, he was a lifelong Republican and a proud army reserve officer, with very traditional conservative values, and our relationship grew strained during my adolescence. He was gung-ho the war in Vietnam and adamantly opposed to the E.R.A. So if he were still alive, where would he stand today?

I need to believe he would come down firmly on Dan Rather’s sturdy position, out of respect for the English language, as well as for facts. You see, in addition to classical music and serious poetry and opera, my father delighted in doggerel and shaggy dog stories and riddles, and one of his favorite riddles, sparking many riotous debates with small daughters, was this puzzler:

Q: If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does the dog have?

When we were little, my sisters and I readily fell for the trick question, eagerly shouting out “Five!” Then came the implacable, rock-ribbed parental lesson:

A: The dog has four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg!

Long after my sisters and I had ceased to be gullible enough to offer the wrong answer, my father continued to trot out his old, tired riddle.

But here’s the thing: the answer never changes. The answer would not have changed even if my sisters and I had insisted for all those years that the tail was a leg and that the hypothetical dog in question had, therefore, five legs. We could have chanted in deafening chorus (Yeah, sure! As if my parents would have put up with that sort of nonsense!): “Five legs! Five legs! Five legs! Five legs!” It wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Repetition would not have made the wrong answer right then, and it doesn’t make it right today. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg. Repeating a lie as the truth does not make it true, no matter how many times you tell the lie, no matter how long and loudly you shout and chant and intoxicate yourself.



Gerry said...

Good post. Um, did you know you quoted the Rather statement twice?

P. J. Grath said...

Oops! I'll fix that, Gerry. Thanks.

BB-Idaho said...

We seem to have approached and burst through the era of fact and logic. Far too many find comfort in alt-reality and "truthiness".
We are sadly reminded of the Dark Ages....