This is the last of my posts on Daniel Dennett’s tools for thinking outlined in Intuition Pumps. You can read the others here.
Everyone wants to find meaning in their actions and the events which surround them; the idea that stuff just happens and there is no deeper meaning can be alarming. As such we are attracted to the profound. The Barnum effect – named after the American circus entertainer P.T. Barnum by the psychologist Paul Meehl in his essay Wanted – a Good Cookbook – is the observation that when we encounter vague, general statements we’re inclined to leap on them and say, “That’s me, that is!” This is perhaps why, despite any confirming evidence, astrology, fortune-telling and other kinds of personality tests are so enduringly popular.
Many arguments – especially in education – seem entropically drawn to this kind of pseudo-profundity. Dennett warns us against the tendency:
A deepity … is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity.
High profile New Ager and alternative medicine peddler, Deepak Chopra is the master of such superficially meaningful but ultimately empty mumbo jumbo. There’s some fascinating research into people’s inability to distinguish between Chopra’s weighty utterances and deliberate, unambiguous bullshit. Check out Chopra’s Twitter stream for yourself. It’s not all that different from some education Tweets, is it?
Consider the Twitter account of Alistair Forer*. This was an experiment conducted in late 2015 to see what sort of responses might be provoked by educational deepities. Here’s a sample:
Sports day done! Competing is important but don’t you feel success lies in collaboration these days? I’m always liaising with others!
— LeadLearner (@Alistair_Forer) July 9, 2015
I don’t want children to think of learning as a row of tick boxes, but more as a woven tapestry. Learning is a thing of beauty!
— LeadLearner (@Alistair_Forer) July 8, 2015
I worry that sometimes the accountability pressures on teachers put stress on our children.
— LeadLearner (@Alistair_Forer) July 20, 2015
Teaching is like a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us! #ukedchat
— LeadLearner (@Alistair_Forer) December 2, 2015
These all sound like they mean something and there may be a part of you that chimes in recognition, but they’re bland to the point of meaninglessness. Dennett’s advice is to avoid ambiguity wherever possible. Although abstract thoughts are often too complex to reduce to pithy one-liners, we should strive mightily to say exactly what we mean by being clear, precise and concise. It’s also an injunction against ‘truthiness‘: things which sound true without actually being so.
So, what can we do to avoid being taken in by deepities? One very useful critical thinking technique is reductio ad absurdum – the act of reducing an argument to absurdity – in order to see whether it can survive the process. Dennett models the process here:
Love is just a word. Oh wow! Cosmic. Mind-blowing, right? Wrong. On one reading, it is manifestly false. I’m not sure what love is – maybe an emotion or emotional attachment, maybe an interpersonal relationship, maybe the highest state a human mind can achieve – but we all know it isn’t a word. You can’t find love in the dictionary!
We can bring out the other reading by availing ourselves of a convention philosophers care mightily about: when we talk about a word, we put it in quotation marks, thus: “love” is just a word. “Cheeseburger” is just a word. “Word” is just a word. But this isn’t fair, you say. Whoever said that love is just a word meant something else, surely. No doubt, but they didn’t say it.
This is a similar process to one outlined in #4 in this series, answering rhetorical questions.
If we want to think better we must resist the temptation of the false comfort offered by platitudes. Carl Hendrik does a good job of inoculating us in this post. Just because something sounds nice doesn’t make it true. Sadly, what’s true doesn’t always sound nice, but we would do far better to se the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be. To that end, we should confront unscrupulous optimism wherever it arises.
*The Forer effect is an alternative name for the Barnum effect named after the psychologist Bertram R. Forer.