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Poor reasoning: lifeblood of the powerful & lazy

By July 27, 2011culture, web-tech

Let’s face it: most of us are a little lazy when it comes to challenging propositions that we read in magazines and newspapers. Of course, this plays right into the even lazier mindset of the journalists who write these articles.

Bottom line: it doesn’t take much to manipulate the average American into accepting propositions with weak, or little, support. Politicians use this to their advantage too, but most of our pablum diet comes from journalists.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. In a recent article in The Week (link to PDF copy) I read a story about the supposedly emerging trend of not allowing young kids in certain restaurants. Obviously, not all restaurants are on the brink of banning kids. I say “obviously,” but that point is only obvious if you use your common sense and powers of observation.

So here’s a quote from the article, which is designed to take you from the idea that there (1) is an emerging trend to ban kids, to (2) the reaction to that trend.

“As a parent myself, said Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon.com, I have to question whether it’s really fair to sentence all moms and dads to a decade of eating at McDonald’s.”

Note how quickly we jump to the assumption that (1) because some restaurants have started banning kids (2) all restaurants will soon ban kids and (3) soon parents will only be able to bring their kids to fast food restaurants.

According to the article, Ms. Mary Elizabeth Williams wants to make it seem as though parents are being denied a choice, with the result that their kids will suffer nutritionally. In fact, parents are not being denied a choice because they can always choose to go to a restaurant that allows kids. If we get to the point where the majority of restaurants somehow decide to ban parents from bringing kids than she might have a point. Of course, by the time that happens, there will no doubt be restaurants that cater to parents who want to bring their kids to non-fast food dining establishments.

What about the choice of restaurant owners? What about the choice of patrons who want to go to restaurants and know that they won’t be disturbed by children? Notice how Ms. Mary Elizabeth Williams elevates the “choice of parents” above all other interested parties. That's in addition to making the ridiculous assumption that soon parents will only be allowed to take their kids to fast food restaurants.

Why would a respectable periodical even present this sort of view as rational? Sadly, because if most people say things that lack rational foundation then newspapers can print these views as though they represent mainstream thought.

We live in a world where poor reasoning is common. Journalists don’t even try to filter it out; of course not, it leads to controversy and that leads to higher readership. Politicians appreciate this lack of reasoning as well. It's a lot easier to manipulate people who think poorly, especially if the press encourages them to remain ignorant.

If I were in charge of our educational system, I would devote at least a year to teaching high school students how to recognize spurious reasoning in everyday life. Of course, the educational system will never be changed in this way. Too many powerful (and lazy) self-interests would resist.

Their livelihood depends on poor reasoning, at least in the short run. And almost no one thinks about the long run anymore.

Update on July 30th: I received a comment from Mary Elizabeth Williams (see comments below) saying that I was lazy for not checking this link to an article on Salon.com, which doesn't contain the quote I included above. I have edited this post to provide a link to the article I read in The Week. Initially, I didn't say which publication I had read the article in, because I didn't think it mattered. Now that there's a possible dispute about the accuracy of Ms. Williams' quote I am referencing the article and providing a PDF copy.

I didn't check the Salon.com article because the article I read didn't reference a specific article, and I assumed that The Week wouldn't simply make up a quote. But if they did then shame on them. And shame on me for not checking more thoroughly. I guess you can't assume anything you read in a weekly publication is true. 

Either way, this new information still proves my point: the mainstream media is more interested in spurring mindless debates with quotes that either (1) demonstrate poor reasoning, or (2) demonstrate poor reasoning AND are entirely made up.

I apologize to Ms. Williams if I helped perpetuate the misattribution. I hope that she is able to provide additional information once she contacts The Week, so we can learn exactly what happened.


P.S. If you appreciate my observations, you might want to join my inner circle.

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