THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 25

Subject:  Epistemology – Bunk vs. Debunk

Event:  Felix Walker from Buncombe County, North Carolina gives a speech, 1820.

On this day in 1820, Felix Walker, a congressman representing Buncombe County, North Carolina, delivered a speech that eventually led to the creation of a new word.

The 16th Congress was debating the issue of statehood for the territory of Missouri.  The key conflict in the debate was the issue of slavery and whether or not Missouri should be admitted as a free state or a slave state.  In the midst of the debate, Congressman Walker rose to speak.  However, instead of presenting remarks that were germane to the issue of slavery, Walker instead began to ramble about topics totally unrelated to the issue at hand.  As he continued to drone on with his irrelevant speech, his colleagues attempted to stifle him.  Walker resisted, saying that he had been sent to Washington to deliver a speech, and he would, therefore, continue to address the constituents who elected him in North Carolina.  Walker’s specific words were:  “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe.”

Buncombe County, North Carolina (Wikimedia Commons)

Walker’s speech was not forgotten — not because of its great content, but because it became synonymous with the type of insincere, bombastic nonsense that some politicians are known for.  The Americanism that emerged from the Walker incident took that name of the Congressman’s county Buncombe, spelling it as bunkum.  Today we recognize the clipped form bunk, meaning “empty, pretentious nonsense” (1).

Later in 1923, novelist and biographer William E. Woodward wrote a novel called Bunk.  In the novel, Woodward introduced the verb debunk, meaning “the act of exposing false claims” (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are the origins of the noun “bunk” and the verb “debunk”?

Challenge – Debunk A Myth:  Since 1994, David and Barbara Mikkelson have been a presence on the internet, debunking false information.  At first, their work revolved mainly around debunking urban legends, but today Snopes.com fact-checks a wide range of subjects.  Visit Snopes and explore some of the topics.  What is one specific subject that Snopes has determined is bunk, and how specifically does Snopes debunk it?

Sources:

1-Chrysti the Wordsmith.  Verbivore’s Feast Second CourseHelena, Montana, Farcountry Press, 2006: 43.

2- Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  53.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 20

Subject:  Epistemology – The Columbo Method

Event:  Premiere of the television detective drama Columbo, 1968.

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. -Thomas Berger

Imagine if the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates became the lead in a new detective television series.  It’s not that far of a stretch when you consider that Socrates was consumed by the same thing that all television detectives are.  Like Socrates, they are on an epistemological quest for knowledge, more specifically, knowledge that will lead them to the truth.  

Socrates used an analogy to describe the difference between unsound truth and sound truth.  He imagined two beautiful statues by the sculptor Daedalus.  The unsound truth, which came about via intuition, is like a statue placed precariously atop a pillar.  The first strong wind that comes along will knock it over.  The sound truth, however, is anchored to the ground by tethering cables, making it impervious to even gale-force winds.  For Socrates, the test of differentiating the unsound truth from the sound truth was to determine which one stood up under the scrutiny of questioning (1).

When we think of Socrates today, we probably think of his characteristic toga, and we probably also think about his characteristic Socratic method of questioning.

File:Columbo Peter Falk 1973.JPG
Peter Falk as Columbo (Wikimedia Common)

Another character known for his characteristic dress and method is the television detective Columbo.  Instead of a toga, he wore a raincoat.  Like Socrates, he valued questioning, but he added a wrinkle that made his method memorable and particularly effective for fighting crime.

The television show Columbo — which premiered on this day in 1968 — had a unique template.  Instead of following the typical “whodunnit” structure of traditional detective dramas, the Columbo writers inverted the template, beginning each episode by making the audience eye-witnesses to the crime being committed, which included knowing the identity of the perpetrator.  Instead of being a “whodunit,” Columbo followed the “howcatchem” format.  After seeing the crime committed before their eyes, the audience then got to see the cigar-smoking, raincoat-clad detective Columbo sniff out the trail of clues until he found the guilty party.

Like Socrates, an essential element of Colombo’s method was questions; however, his approach was a bit more indirect. It begins with an understanding of the importance of first and last impressions. Psychologists who study memory highlight the serial position effect and our tendency to recall best what is presented first (primacy effect) and what is presented last (recency effect). 

Columbo’s method began with a first impression that was deliberately crafted to disarm a suspect.  His disheveled appearance and his seemingly absent-minded manner put the suspect at ease, and his opening questions were always casual, respectful, and non-threatening, designed to get the suspect talking about things other than homicide.   

Columbo’s final interactions with a suspect were also deliberately designed to leave an impression.  Just as he appeared to be finishing his meeting and turning to leave, he would turn back around and say, “There’s just one more thing.”  Having thought that their interaction with the detective had concluded, the suspect would be caught off guard   At this point Columbo would point out facts from the case that appeared to be in conflict.  Instead of presenting this conflict in an accusatory manner, he would state it in a way that was self-deprecating, rubbing his head and expressing his own confusion, appearing to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. He would then deliver the final probing question which the suspect — being disarmed by Columbo’s odd manner — would answer in a careless, less than thoughtful way, often revealing something important (2).

In one episode called “How to Dial a Murder,” one suspect, who happened to be a psychologist, saw through Columbo’s method, saying, “You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. . . . You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a minefield”(3).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Columbo method, and how does it differ from the Socratic method?

Challenge – That is the Question:  Do a search for quotations about “questions.”  Select one quotation that you like, and write a paragraph explaining why you think the quotation is an important one.

Sources:

1-de Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy.  New York:  Vintage International, 2000.

2-”The Columbo Technique.”  Changing Minds.

3-Griffiths, Mark D. ”The Psychology of Columbo.” Psychology Today, 20 Feb. 2018. 

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 12

Subject:  Pros and Cons – Darwin Contemplates Matrimony

Event:  Birthday of Charles Darwin, 1809

Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the Victorian naturalist known for the theory of evolution.  From 1831 to 1836 Darwin sailed aboard the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands and the coast of South America.  Based on the observations he made on this five-year trip, Darwin published, in 1859, the single most influential book of the nineteenth century, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.  Darwin’s work not only revolutionized science, especially the fields of biology and anthropology, but it also sparked furious philosophical, religious, and ethical debates–debates that continue even today.

After his five-year voyage, Darwin returned home to an intense internal debate, not about issues of science but issues of matrimony.  Having fallen in love with his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, Darwin contemplated whether or not to pop the question.  Being a scientist, he approached the matter in a rational and methodical manner, sitting down and writing out a list of pros and cons. Under the heading “Marry” some of the notable arguments for having a wife were “Constant companion . . . better than a dog” and “someone to take care of house.”  As for the cons, under the “Not Marry” heading, he listed, “Less money for books” and “cannot read in the evenings.”  Despite the fact that Darwin’s “Not Marry” column included more reasons than his “Marry” column, we know that in the end, he decided to marry.  He and Emma were married on January 29, 1839.  They had ten children and remained married until Charles died in 1882 (1).

Of course, Darwin was not the first to use the pros and cons method of decision making.  It dates back to Roman times.  “Pros and cons” is derived from the Latin pro et contra, which translates into English as “for and against.”  Another noted man of science who advocated the pro et contra method was Benjamin Franklin.  He wrote a letter to a friend on September 19, 1772, in which he praised this rational method of putting your thoughts on paper:

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra. (2)

It was the Greek tragedian Sophocles who warned, “Quick decisions are unsafe decisions.”  A pros and cons list is a great way to slow down your thinking and force yourself to see at least two sides of an issue.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did Darwin use a pros and cons list for one of his important life decisions?

Challenge – Decisions, Decisions:  What are some of life’s major decisions that require the kind of careful thought and deliberation that require a pros and cons list?  Create your own pros and cons list based on an important life decision that you might make in the future.  Force yourself to go beyond your own biases by trying to create a list that has a balanced proportion of pros and cons.  With Valentine’s Day drawing near, for example, you might consider whether or not to pursue a relationship with a significant other.  Below are some other examples of crucial life decisions:

Marry/Don’t Marry

Go to College/Don’t Go to College

Own a Pet/Don’t Own a Pet

Buy a Home/Rent a Home or Apartment

Buy a New Car/Lease or Buy a Used Car

Have Children/Don’t Have Children

Staycation/Vacation

Work for a Company/Be Self-Employed

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-February 12, 1809:  Abraham Lincoln was born on this day in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky. He said, “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

-February 12, 2002:  U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presented what we might call the “Gettysburg Address of Epistemology” when he discussed evidence regarding Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

Sources:

1-”A Wife is Better Than a Dog: Darwin’s Reason for Marrying”  The Telegraph. 12 Feb. 2016.

2-Benjamin Franklin’s Rule for Making Decisions. FS Blog. 

3-Shermer, Michael. “Rumsfeld’s WisdomScientific American 1 Sept. 2005.