Any computer programmer will be familiar with the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.” It’s nerd shorthand for “no matter how good your program is, the results it gives you are only as good as the data you put into it.” This is a narrow application of the more general logical principle that there’s a big difference between “logical” and “rational.” You can employ impeccable logic, but if your initial premises are flawed, all the logic in the world won’t save you from coming to an incorrect conclusion based on your starting point.
Sometimes this is a useful literary device. No one did it better than William Gilbert. In The Mikado, he asks us early on to buy into two absurd premises:
1. That the heir to the throne of the Empire of Japan could wander the country unrecognized, disguised as a traveling musician.
2. That the Emperor would issue a decree that the only crime punishable by death in Japan is flirting.
Having bought into these two premises, several other absurd situations follow:
3. A local tailor, sentenced to death (presumably for flirting), is made the Lord High Executioner, the city’s highest-ranking officer, on the grounds that as long as he’s next in line for execution and he can’t cut off his own head, everyone else in town is safe.
4. All of the other officers of the town resign rather than serve under such a lowly personage, paving the way for Pooh-Bah to debase himself by serving in their positions (and accepting the salaries that go with them).
And things just get sillier from there, like a scene where the Heir Apparent and his love interest declare how they would flirt if it wasn’t for the law (flirting all the time, of course). This makes for great fun in a make-believe Japan populated by Victorian Englishmen, but in real life it has predictable consequences.
There’s another term familiar to computer programmers: “Garbage In, Gospel Out.” Again this is a shorthand for “people tend to believe just about anything if it comes from a computer.” Extending this into real life, people often believe things just because an authority figure said so without doing research to verify the assumptions underlying the statements.
This was brought to focus this week in a New Yorker article by historian Sean Wilentz: “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War roots.” Wilentz points to Glenn Beck as one of the Tea Party’s leading influences and shows how Beck’s philosophy was shaped by post-McCarthy radical conservatism.
In an interview recently on NPR’s Fresh Air, Wilentz spoke of the John Birch Society and its founder, Robert Welch. In Welch’s world view the American government and the Soviet government were both run by a secretive cabal bent on imposing communism upon the world. The Soviet side had just been more overtly successful, but they believed that America was overrun with communists, up to and including President Dwight Eisenhower, who was supposedly controlled by his brother Milton. Based on this faulty worldview, many of Welch’s theories seemed logical.
The John Birch Society had influence far beyond its membership. For instance, conservative icon William F. Buckley regularly denounced the Society. He saw its beliefs as an impediment to his goal of a conservative-led government, and was vindicated in this belief when Barry Goldwater refused to denounce the Birchers and indeed made a nod to them in his famous “Extremism in the defense of liberty” acceptance speech for the 1964 Republican Presidental nomination. Goldwater was trounced in the subsequent election.
Welch’s beliefs also made an impression on a professor of religion at Brigham Young University and former police chief, W. Cleon Skousen. Skousen, while never a member of the Society himself, took up their cause in a series of books that purported to show communist influence over the United States.
Which brings us to Glenn Beck. The point of Wilentz’ article is that Beck has largely adopted the ideas of Skousen and through him, Welch. And while Welch’s ideas were once ridiculed as too far “out there” to be acceptable, by giving them a platform that Welch and Skousen could never have dreamed of Beck has re-introduced these ideas to an audience all too willing to accept them.
The ideas are appealing: All this stuff that’s happened over the last few years that make people scared and angry? It’s all the work of a shadowy “Them,” whether the “Them” is communists or liberals or Martians or whether they’re all in it together. And if you just listen to me and learn what I’m willing to teach you, you will know who They are and have the tools to fight back against Them.
It sounds reasonable. It sounds logical. But it’s built on a faulty premise, so no matter how logical it is, it isn’t rational.