Daily Archives: 2015-08-30 05:00:33 GMT+0000

The Memory Mavens, Part 7: When Terms Matter

In foreign policy, the United States — especially in the last hundred years or so — has tried to have it both ways: assiduously following the Constitution and domestic law, as well as keeping within the dictates of international agreements, while at the same time aggressively maintaining an empire with far-reaching hegemony. In doing so, the executive branch often finds itself carrying out actions that conform to the letter of the law, but would seem to violate its spirit.

Aerial photograph of an SA-2 site in Cuba. Tak...
Aerial photograph of an SA-2 site in Cuba. Taken by RF-101 Voodoo during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Duck Test

War and diplomacy, domains in which precision in word choice matters, are fertile grounds for Newspeak. Consider, for example, the frequent use of the words “conflict” and “police action” after World War II. The U.S. government has tended to avoid the word “war,” because it has a definite meaning, a specific basis in law. For the U.S., it means that Congress has approved a formal declaration of war against another sovereign state or group of states. The new terms play a role in American “freedom of action” (viz., the use of violence and the constant threat of violence to advance policy) while apparently staying within the boundaries of the law.

Consider, as well, President John F. Kennedy‘s use of the term “quarantine” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, deftly avoiding the word “blockade,” which is a legal term that signifies an act of war. The administration called it a quarantine for diplomatic purposes; however for the purpose of exercising power, it did the job equally well. It quacked like a duck and walked like a duck, but calling it a duck might have precipitated World War III. (As it was, we were closer to doomsday than we realized.)

Finally, consider the terms “detainee” and “unlawful combatant” as used by American administrations in the wars that followed the September 11 terror attacks on U.S. soil. “Prisoners of war” have a distinct status in international law, and all signatories to the Geneva Conventions have agreed to treat those prisoners according to a detailed set of protocols. Yet the Bush administration said that despite the all the quacking and the cloud of feathers, those waddling birds were not ducks.

Terms of Art

In the social sciences as well, we have terms of art that refer to specifically defined concepts, conditions, events, etc. It drives experts in psychology, well, a bit mad when authors in popular media incorrectly use terms like schizophrenia. Notice that I deliberately avoided the word “insane,” since that’s a term of art in both the clinic and the courtroom. It is especially important when writing about a particular subject matter to use terms of art only for their intended purpose. Moreover, if you (unadvisedly) choose to redefine a well-established term of art, then you should clearly state what you’re doing up front.

The realm of memory theory, including the psychological study of personal memory and the sociological study of group memory, has its own terms of art. I offer the following examples.

  • False memory
  • Counter-memory

I present these two here because I have lately seen Memory Mavens misuse them in the similar ways. Specifically, they incorrectly use a term of art to describe a general condition or event. Doing so muddies the water; it confuses the experts who know how the term ought to be used, and it misinforms the general public who trust scholars and expect them to know what they’re writing about. read more »

Understanding Extremist Religion

An inevitable question arising out of my preceding two posts that attempt to set out the fundamentals of Neil Van Leeuwen’s analysis of the nature of “religious belief/credence” is where extremist views fit in. This is a topic I’ve broached several times before from different perspectives and hope to again as I get through more readings from various fields (e.g. anthropology, philosophy). In this post I add Van Leeuwen’s comment.

First, to recap:

Characteristics of Factual Belief

1. Factual belief is independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse. 

2. Factual beliefs have cognitive governance

The reverse is not true: we may imagine people really do turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. 

3. Factual beliefs are vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

Characteristics of Religious Credence

1. Religious credence is dependent on its ritual and religious places and moments; it is not independent of its practical setting

We can believe our ancestor can see but this credence is elicited by ritual or religious moments and never changes our belief that the ancestor is a lifeless corpse.

2. Religious credence does not govern factual beliefs

We may believe people turn into animals but do not worry we are eating a person when eating a pig. Creationists rely upon clusters of other religious credences to maintain their opposition to the facts of geology.

3. Religious credence is not vulnerable to evidence

Failed predictions like the Y2K fear are forgotten; failed predictions in religions are maintained by adding further credences to them.

4. Perceived Normative Orientation

Credences structure behaviour towards “the good” and away from “the bad”.

5. Free Elaboration

Credences can be elaborated and imaginatively extended (e.g. God is more angry with people in your city today than with those in Hell); one cannot elaborate factual beliefs.

6. Vulnerability to Special Authority

Devotees can accept empirical failings in a guru but not moral hypocrisy.

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Van Leeuwen sees extremist credence as another cognitive attitude that needs defining.

So what are the characteristics of extremist credence?  Note that 1 and 2 overlap with properties of factual beliefs: read more »