28 October 2019
by Steve Liskow
A few weeks ago, I was reading a novel I'm supposed to review, and I encountered a dialogue exchange that brought me to a screeching halt. The protagonist and his sidekick were talking abut a new discovery in the case, and the sidekick said, "Well, that proves that we've been right all along and X did Y."
I re-read the previous few pages three times because I thought I must have missed something, but no, the passage proved nothing of the kind. That conclusion couldn't possibly come from the information in the scene. It was the third or fourth time that happened in the book, and I'm going to mention it when I post the review. I see this problem and the ever-popular Deus ex Machina more and more in recent novels, and it bothers me.
I try to keep my personal politics out of this column even though my leanings are no secret. Last month, a very conservative musician I've known for years made a comment and I disagreed. He brought up a point I'd never heard before and I asked for his source. He replied, "Clinton."
"No," I said. "You say that Clinton did A, but that's not your source. Where did you get the information?" Bad mistake. He went off on a rant that added more information that was so obviously false that I walked out of the open mic without playing. Back home, I browsed for two hours, looking for confirmation of his claim, and the closest I came was a site labelled by Media Bias as "A propaganda site that uses false or misleading data to promote a far-right agenda." The post in question used the key words from the musician's assertion, but didn't make the claim he repeated. And that post was over a year old.
This is the level of discourse we have reached. Large segments of the population no longer treat science, mathematics, history or other intellectual disciplines as valid, and it has damaged--if not eliminated--rational discussion.
When I was in high school, several friends were on the debate team, with an adviser who was respected throughout the region as an exemplary teacher. I didn't take the class because I was so shy, but I learned second-hand about reductio ad absurdum, begging the questions (Which does NOT mean "motivating or giving rise to the question"), ad hominem arguments, false premises, and many other specious rhetorical techniques. Years later, I presented those techniques in my composition classes as faulty was to support a thesis.
I even used to tell my kids that the best class I ever had in learning to support an argument was plane geometry. We used axioms to prove theorems and theorems to solve equations, and we could support every statement we made. We also learned how to build the sequence concisely and clearly.
All that is fading. Too many people now invent data or facts on the spot to win an argument that may not even be worth having. It has infected fiction writing, too. More and more, I see language used poorly by major writers, and they can't build a logical argument/plot to lead to the solution of their mystery. Rex Stout used to drive me crazy with Nero Wolfe's passionate love of inductive instead of deductive reasoning, but it was a supportable discipline. Now, far too often, I know you walk to school because the tissue paper is orange on Tuesday.
We need to go back to teaching rhetoric and insisting that our students say what they mean, mean what they say, and understand the difference. Dreyer's English, Garner's Modern American Usage, a good dictionary and a good grammar book should be on every writer's desk. When Humpty Dumpty said he used a word to mean what he wanted it to mean, it used to be a joke. Now it's a fact of life.
And it's dangerous. Ask Greta Thunberg.
02 May 2018
I'm going to ramble a bit today on the subject of logic. (We will see how often I can tie it to the subject of crime fiction.) I am doing this because I just heard, for the millionth time, someone define Occam's razor incorrectly. Specifically, the person claimed that Occam's razor says that the simplest explanation is probably correct.
It doesn't say that.
Occam's razor is, of course, a principle for scientific research, and it is usually attributed to a thirteenth century monk named William of Ockham (Ockham is an English village. Occam comes from the Latin translation). Actually, we owe the most famous famous version of the rule ("entitles must not be multiplied beyond necessity") to John Punch, several centuries later. The principle, in one form or another, goes back at least to Aristotle. I recently realized that it also hides within one of my favorite quotes of Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." (And speaking of things, not being simple, Einstein apparently never said that.)
|One of Ockham's more distinguished, if fictional, students.|
But my point is that Punch/Occam is not saying that the simpler explanation is the most likely one. It is simply the one you should examine first. Not because it is the most likely to be correct, but because examining it is the fastest way to reach the truth.
Let's take an example from our own field. The police are called to a building. They find that the store on the ground floor has been robbed, and that a man has been murdered on the third floor. Should the robbery squad be called to one crime scene and the homicide team to the other? Or are we looking at a single event?
Brother William made no specific recommendations about police personnel matters, but his principle advises treating this as the "simpler" situation, i.e. one event. If the cops do that, and if they do their job properly, they are more likely to find something wrong with their solution, than if they start at the other end.
Perhaps the two crimes happened at the same time, or maybe the robber was right-handed and the killer was a southpaw. But if instead they begin by assuming there were two separate criminals - and there was only one - it is going to be harder for them to realize that one of their proposed culprits is imaginary (an unnecessary entity).
You may remember the TV series House, MD, which was a medical detective show, about a diagnostician (whose name was a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, by the way). In an episode called (surprise!) "Occam's Razor," the physicians are unable to explain all of a patient's symptoms with one disease, so House suggests that there are two illnesses present. His team is not buying it.
Foreman: Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is always the best.
House: And you think one is simpler than two.
Cameron: Pretty sure it is, yeah.
House: Baby shows up. Chase tells you that two people exchanged fluids to create this being. I tell you that one stork dropped the little tyke off in a diaper. You going to go with the two or the one?
Foreman: I think your argument is specious.
House: I think your tie is ugly.
Leaving aside House's maturity issues, he is making a point about Dr. Foreman's misunderstanding of the 'ol razor. And that brings us, naturally, to Asimov's elephant.
Isaac Asimov was, of course, a great science fiction writer. He also wrote devilishly clever mystery stories, and was a brilliant explainer of science. One of his contributions was the concept of unexplaining. He said that pseudoscience typically unexplained more than it explained. Consider his little parable:
Imagine you are strolling through a park and see a tall tree split right down the middle. Cut asunder. You begin to seek an explanation.
So you could say: there was this elephant, flying through the sky, whistling a happy tune. It decides to have a little rest and lands SHEBANG! onto the poor tree, which breaks in two. The elephant falls to the ground, swears 'Oy vay!' and flies off again.
Now that is one explanation of why the tree is broken. Trouble is it unexplains everything you previously thought you knew about elephants. So, instead, using Ockham's Razor, you say simply, the tree was hit by lightning!*
I love that 'Oy vay!' Clearly a Jewish elephant. Of course, Asimov has pointed out the problem with Dr. House's obstetrical stork.
So one issue about the razor is that people will disagree as to which explanation is simpler, and what
is left unexplained. Therefore I am going to end with my favorite quotation from the philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein. (And by the way, Ludwig was a huge fan of crime fiction; not the logic puzzles of the golden age, but the messy thinking of hardboiled tales.)
Supposedly he asked a friend: "Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?"
"Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth."
"Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?"
*I found this parable in Asimov's Elephant, edited by Robyn Williams. It is a collection of essays from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called, yup, Ockham's Razor.
26 February 2012
06 February 2012
by Fran Rizer
Paterno doesn't exactly fit this scenario because he was fired and forced to leave his job. One announcer drew the conclusion that being fired from his position CAUSED his cancer. I don't believe that! Had Paterno not been involved in the Penn State scandal, he would have eventually grown too old, too tired, too ill and his physical condition would have forced retirement. I think that he would have held out until his demise was near. Regardless, my sympathies are with the Paterno family.
A few weeks ago, when Joe Paterno died three months after leaving his job, several news commentators remarked how often people who work into old age die fairly soon after quitting work. Clearly, the inference was that stopping work led to their deaths. I propose that many times, the cause and effect are reversed. Some people won’t stop until working is totally beyond their health and strength. Rather than retirement causing the decline, the person’s decline forces them to finally quit work.
A similar lesson in logic is that if A is true and B is true, then C is true. Classic example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, therefore C – All dogs are vertebrates. This is true.
Faulty reasoning example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, then C – all vertebrates are dogs. Unfortunately, this kind of faulty reasoning sometimes shows up in mysteries, where we’re more familiar with calling cause and effect, as well as logic, clues and conclusions.
Here are three short mystery/brain teasers. No, I didn't create them. They remind me of those amazing flash fiction mysteries that John Floyd has in Women's World. I always try to solve John's before tipping the mag upside down to read the solution. These were emailed to me by my fantasy writer friend Nynaeve.