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Musings > Sunday, 31 October 2010 23:54:20 EST

Taking Stories In Their Own Context

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

Many pseudo scientists love to look up historical accounts and the like and interpret them by reading between the lines.  This is especially popular with believers in ancient aliens, who enjoy going through the Bible and writing in interpretations to make the stories say things that aren't evident in the original text.

I think it needs to be illustrated why you've got to take these stories as they're told, and not write in what you imagine the author might have meant.  You've got to take the stories in their own context, and not write in details that are not present in the stories themselves.

For example, imagine that you're a police chief, and a crime has occurred. The only eyewitness description of the perpetrator that you have is from a 6 year old boy. You've got the description in front of you, it reads:

He was a wizard because he carried a magic wand. And he had the face of a panther and he breathed fire! And he had a lion with him!

One of your officers approaches you and says, "Listen, chief. I think I've got an idea of what that kid was talking about. He said the perp had a magic wand and that there was a lion... well, the kid probably got a little confused. I'll bet the man's blind and he carries a stick for sensing objects on the ground. And he probably has a guide dog, maybe an especially big one that would seem to a little kid to be kind of like a lion."

"Interesting...", you say, "Please continue."

"Okay, " he continues, "The kid said that the man breathed fire... that probably means that he was smoking a cigarette. And he had the face of a panther... well, that probably means that this was an African American. I think what we need to do is advise our officers to be on the lookout for a blind, African American chain smoker whose guide dog is especially large."

A second officer overhears the conversation and decides to break in.

"Chief, " he says, "I think that's the wrong path to take. It's entirely possible that this is what the kid saw and that he elaborated the description in this way. But there's no way to know that. If you take this description to be what the child meant, you're kind of putting words in the kid's mouth that he never actually said. We need to take this description in it's own context as the story of a 6 year old boy. There are plenty of other possibilities in that context. The kid could have been playing make believe, or he could have just woken up from a nap and had a dream. Or he could have just made something up in order to please a questioning adult. There's no way we can use this description in order to determine a description of the perpetrator."

Which officer's explanation would you choose to act on?

As silly as it seems for an officer to make such a deduction, these are exactly the kinds of deductions that are made by ancient alien theorists, and conspiracy theorists of all stripes for that matter.  They say "Well, statement X could have actually meant Y" - but statement X only said X, not Y.  If you interpret X to mean Y you're going beyond the evidence available and writing in details that are not warranted.

It seems like this kind of point should be straightforward, but so many people fail to understand it and will make these kinds of tangentially related substitutions with complete disregard.  And they feel like by making these kinds of substitutions they've built up a solid case, when in reality they've based their arguments on completely unsupportable assumptions.

When you're looking into strange stories and claims, remember to never go beyond the evidence available.


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