A Theory of Public Nonsense

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

An analysis of nonsense in areas as broad as social behavior, political policy, and science can be complex and intimidating. Since this is so, it seems both necessary and relevant to have some sort of conceptual framework we can use to help us as we plow our way through a sometimes complicated jungle of words, statements, arguments, policies, and so forth. This framework will be called a “Theory of Public Nonsense.” Note that this refers to public nonsense. There is a category that could be called private nonsense, but private matters, by definition, are private and have little or no effect on the public domain. If they do, of course, they are no longer private, but public, and become grist for our mill of public nonsense.

(Note: There are, I suppose, those who would argue that private actions always have some effect on the public domain. If this is true, then all private thoughts and actions would have to be considered public, and any distinction between public and private would cease to exist. I disagree with that position but I’m not going to argue about it. It has no essential effect on the theory of nonsense being presented here. And that position seems to me to lead to all sorts of problematic situations.)

 The Meaning of “Nonsense”

The ordinary dictionary definition of nonsense, which refers to words or actions used to convey an absurd meaning or no meaning at all, is one common way to define nonsense. For example, “ghoti” looks like it might be a word but it is not (at least yet). Since it has no meaning in our language, we refer to this combination of letters as nonsense. This use of nonsense is not usually a problem for us and this is not how the term will be used here. We are going to use the term “nonsense” in a different way.

First, we can apply the term “nonsense” to certain ideas or concepts. For example, the concept “square-circle” is nonsense. It is impossible for such an idea or concept to refer to anything in reality. It is self-contradictory. Some ideas, rather than being contradictory, are simply incompatible. Some people might argue that ideas such as honest politician, altruistic lawyer, freethinking fundamentalist, and God-fearing atheist are nonsense. They may be right. Such ideas are commonly referred to as “oxymorons.” Some really serious examples of nonsense are ideas such as, “All people are equal, but some are more equal than others,” or any concept of “democratic communism” or “freedom-loving fascism.”

Second, the term “nonsense” can be applied to assertions. An assertion is a proposition expressed as true or false. An assertion would be nonsense under the following conditions:

  • It contradicts the known facts or state-of-affairs;
  • It totally lacks any evidence supporting it and contradicts another assertion known to be true;

For example, the statement “The sun revolves around the earth” is nonsense. It is a false statement. It was even nonsense when some of our ancestors believed it; they just didn’t know any better. Also, the assertion “The earth is flat” is nonsense. There is no evidence to support such an assertion and all the available evidence contradicts it. The assertion “Caucasians are by nature intellectually superior to other races” is nonsense. Again, there is no evidence to support this assertion and plenty of evidence to refute it.

Third, we can apply the term “nonsense” to a deductive argument if the argument is illogical (invalid), or to an inductive argument if the evidence presented for it is false or there is a total lack of evidence supporting it and evidence to support its contrary.

A deductive argument involves the claim that its premises provide conclusive grounds for the truth of its conclusion. A deductive argument is valid when its premises, if true, do provide the conclusive grounds for its conclusion. In a valid deductive argument it is impossible for the premises to be true unless the conclusion is true also.

You’ve probably seen this standard deductive argument: “All humans are mortal; Socrates is a human; Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” This argument has a conclusion validly inferred from premises which are known to be true. The conclusion, “Socrates is mortal,” follows by necessity from the premises and the conclusion must be accepted as true. (In this case, of course, the major and minor premises are arrived at through an inductive process.)

Now consider the following deductive argument: “All Americans are human beings, All Europeans are human beings, Therefore, All Europeans are Americans.” This argument is illogical, or invalid. The conclusion, “All Europeans are Americans,” is nonsense. There are very specific rules of logic which must be observed for a deductive argument to be valid and this argument violates at least one of those rules of logic. (The rule violated, by the way, is that of an undistributed middle, but don’t worry about that here.)

Inductive arguments present some special problems because conclusions do not follow necessarily from the premises in an argument. An inductive argument involves the claim, not that its premises give conclusive grounds for the truth of its conclusion, but only that they provide some support for it. Inductive arguments are, therefore, never valid or invalid. They sometimes are considered as better or worse, or sound or unsound, according to the strength of the support provided for the conclusion.

Here is a simple example of an inductive argument: “Socrates is human and is mortal”; “John is human and is mortal”; “Mary is human and is mortal”; “Sam is human and is mortal”; Therefore, probably all humans are mortal.” Note that the conclusion is only probable, and is not absolutely necessitated by the premises (the evidence).

If the evidence used to support the conclusion of an inductive argument is clearly false or contradictory, it is usually a simple matter. The conclusion is nonsense. But how much evidence must be collected to support the conclusion of an inductive argument so that the conclusion is not to be labeled nonsense? How many “examples” of a phenomenon are necessary to draw a reasonable conclusion? Well, of course, a sufficient number or amount. But how sufficient? You can see the problem here.

The term “nonsense” must be applied carefully and guided by common sense and scientific reservation in cases where the sufficiency of the evidence may be in dispute. As a general rule of thumb. a single case is never acceptable. Nor is anecdotal evidence acceptable except in corroboration with additional non-anecdotal evidence or where the anecdotal evidence represents the complete set of all possible examples.

Fourth, we can apply the term “nonsense” to a public human act or behavior if it attempts what is clearly impossible or if it is obviously counterproductive to a desired end. For instance, if Senator Jones wants to promote aviation research by flapping his arms and sailing off the capitol dome, we would consider his behavior to be nonsense. We would say about his attempt, “That’s nonsense.” Similarly, if Senator Jones wants to be president but attempts to do so by performing obviously illegal acts, we would tend to consider his action to be nonsense.

Fifth, we can also apply the term “nonsense” to a policy, practice, or strategy if it is based on any of the nonsense described above. These policies, practices, and strategies are usually plans of action and directions for conducting public affairs. For example, the justification for a public policy may be based on false assertions. Or the argument for a strategy may be illogical. Or a practice may be counterproductive to its desired end. We might say then: “That policy is nonsense,” or “That strategy makes no sense (is nonsense),” or “That is a nonsensical practice (is nonsense).”

To sum up, then, the term “nonsense” can be applied to certain ideas or concepts, statements or propositions, deductive or inductive arguments, public human acts or behaviors, or policies, practices, or strategies for conducting public affairs. So, you can see it’s a big world of potential nonsense out there. One thing needs to be made clear, however, before we go out into that big world of potential nonsense.

We will be discussing “approaches” to reality such as hiding reality, ignoring reality, manipulating reality, and manufacturing reality. Our concern will be with “realities” or “evidence” only in so far as they are of public concern. Private actions and personal beliefs, no matter how nonsensical they may be, are not our concern unless those actions and beliefs somehow affect the public domain. It may be nonsense for you to hide or ignore a potentially lethal disease and not seek medical treatment, but it is your nonsense and, unless that disease affects the public (which includes family, friends, etc.) in some way, it is of no concern here.

The Theory of Public Nonsense is directly concerned with public reality, public evidence, and public nonsense, and these are all involved with what we call objective knowledge or knowledge within the public domain. A clear distinction between objective assertions and subjective assertions must be made. The latter refers to any proposition, mere opinion, or belief falling within the private domain. 

First Approach to Reality: Hiding the Evidence

One approach to dealing with reality is to choose to hide the evidence of reality.

Consider the terrible experiments performed on African-Americans at the Tuskegee Institute between 1932 and 1972, where the U.S. government perpetrated medical malpractice in the name of syphilis research (the “good cause”). Here was a secret hidden from the public at large until it was exposed in 1972. This “reality” did not “officially” exist until it was finally exposed.

Do you remember when Energy Secretary Hazel R. O’Leary announced in 1996 a $4.8 million financial settlement for the families of U.S. citizens secretly injected with radiation during the cold war? For many years this experimentation was deliberately denied by the government and hidden from public view. It did not “officially” exist until it was exposed. Of course, it was also justified with a “good cause” argument: worker safety while working with radiation. Unfortunately, those experimented upon were not privy to this rationale.

The federal government, in fact, seems to have a nasty habit of trying to keep evidence hidden from the American public, therefore denying a reality by hiding it. While there may be some justification for the government to hide evidence where there is an immediate concern for national security, how do we explain the government’s actions regarding situations where national security is hardly an issue?

For example, the federal government recently tried to suppress the results of a study because it did not agree with its conclusions. It was a study involving the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) that concluded it is not effective at reducing youth drug use. The study showed that the program has no statistically significant effect on drug use and is less effective than other programs. The D.A.R.E. program is our largest drug education effort and receives $700 million a year from the Department of Justice, Department of Education, and others.

The government’s decision not to publish the study was criticized by some scientists, including the head of D.A.R.E.’s scientific advisory board. The head of drug studies at UC-San Diego also said the study should be published and that science loses when results of studies are not published. D.A.R.E. has been around for over a decade and has been plagued by studies that have concluded it to be an ineffective program. The Research Triangle Institute was hired in 1991 to do an extensive study of D.A.R.E. and also found the program did not have an effect on drug use.

The results of the new study were, however, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which criticized the government for pressuring it to withdraw the study from publication. One spokesperson at the journal said that D.A.R.E. tried to interfere in the publication of the study and that the agency “tried to intimidate us.” This is just one among many examples of how the government tries to hide evidence from the public because the government disagrees with the results of a scientific study or is trying to cover up its own activities.

The federal government is not alone, of course, in approaching reality by trying to hide evidence. We’ve recently seen an example of this from a religious institution, the California Buddhist temple and the nuns involved in the Democratic Party’s fund-raising fiasco. Three Buddhist nuns testified that they destroyed documents and altered checks after a controversial 1996 fund-raiser held at their temple and attending by Vice President Al Gore. This is an uncommon example of attempting to hide the evidence of a reality through destruction and alteration. The “good cause” argument presented for this action was given by Man Ho, the temple administrator, who told the Senate investigating committee: “I was afraid the documents might cause embarrassment to the temple.” (Not to mention the Democratic Party.)

Hiding reality or the evidence of a reality are not major producers of nonsense in our society today. While hiding reality may be serious and injurious to the public interest in certain specified situations, it hardly competes with the injury that can be caused by ignoring reality or the evidence of reality. Ignoring reality seems to result in far more nonsense. 

Second Approach to Reality: Ignoring the Evidence

Another approach to dealing with reality and thereby promoting nonsense is by choosing to ignore the evidence. There are those who choose to ignore reality, even while accepting the fact that an objective, independent reality does exist. While accepting the truth of objective reality in general, these people choose to ignore certain aspects of reality or they ignore specific evidential claims for some reason or other.

A classic example of ignoring the evidence occurred in the Simpson murder case. The press tried to promote the case as one involving circumstantial evidence and, therefore, posing evidential difficulties for the jury. But it has been pointed out by former L.A. prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his book Outragea critical analysis of the Simpson case, that it was not in fact a genuine circumstantial case at all and was “circumstantial in name only.” A true circumstantial case, says Bugliosi, is one where there are no eyewitnesses and “no physical evidence of any kind connecting the defendant to the crime.”

There was plenty of solid evidence against Simpson including his blood found at the murder scene. This fact, combined with all the other evidence presented during the trial, should have been the end of the matter. Bugliosi notes that “the question in the Simpson case has never been whether he is guilty or not guilty but, given the facts and circumstances of this case, whether it is possible for him to be innocent,” and then he goes on to state that “the answer to that question has always been an unequivocal no.”

The jury simply ignored the evidence. How do we know that?

Former FBI profiler John Douglas in his book Journey Into Darkness gives us a clue. Douglas points to the short amount of time the jury took in coming to a decision. He is not at all convinced that “the few hours they spent were sufficient to examine seriously and conscientiously the many months of testimony and such a huge volume of complex evidence.” Douglas suspects, based on comments made by some of the jurors after they acquitted Simpson, that “most of them didn’t have a clue what this case was all about.”

The jury simply ignored the evidence. By doing so, the jury denied an objective reality and ended up with nonsense. Two brutal murders go unpunished.

Hiding reality and ignoring reality can have serious consequences and these activities always end up promoting nonsense. They are not, however, as damaging as the next approach which is to manipulate reality so as to create a distortion. 

Third Approach to Reality: Manipulating the Evidence

Still another approach to dealing with reality is to attempt to manipulate the evidence in such as way as to distort the perception of reality. In this scenario some of the evidence may be true, but it is entangled with enough falsity or it is “spun” in such a way that the resulting perception is not an accurate picture of what is in fact the case. It is a reality constructed by some individual or social institution.

For example, according to the findings of one study, the media tend to inaccurately portray the poor to the American public, creating a perception that is not a true picture of actual reality. This study, conducted by Yale University, examined five years’ worth of magazine articles and national TV newscasts. It found that the media uses pictures of blacks more often than whites in stories about poverty in America. Most of the nation’s poor, however, are white. The study found that news magazines such as TimeNewsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, pictured blacks 62 percent of the time in stories about poverty. The actual statistics indicate, however, that only 29 percent of Americans below the poverty level are black. The problem was even greater for evening television news, with blacks representing the poor 65 percent of the time.

Commenting on the above study, media critic Norman Solomon, in one of his syndicated columns aptly entitled “Are we suffering from image distortion disorder?,” argues that television, for instance, does not even try to come up with possible remedies for its distortion problem. In fact, Solomon says that “Instead of helping to alleviate Image Distortion Disorder, prime time is ablaze with programming that inflames it.” Solomen also notes that this distortion problem is not restricted just to stories about poverty; it also includes stories about crime and drugs. He concludes that regardless of the issue, “the tilt of the media mirror often makes racial minorities look bad.”

It is all too easy to manipulate reality when a critical ideological position is at stake. For example, the partial-birth abortion issue has been extremely controversial. The procedure is brutal and violent and even its supporters don’t want to hear about or visualize descriptions of the procedure. President Clinton wanted to veto the legislation which made partial-birth abortion illegal, but had to have an acceptable reason or face serious criticism from more conservative members of the public. He got it from the abortion-rights lobby when they argued that the procedure was rare, hardly used, and used only when the mother’s life was at stake. Clinton vetoed the bill with little fallout.

Then came the evidence. The reality surrounding the partial-birth abortion issue had been manipulated. A false picture had been painted by the abortion-rights lobby regarding the when, the why, and how often the procedure is performed. The source of the truth? Not the pro-life movement and not the Christian Coalition. The source was the March 3, 1997 issue of The American Medical News, a publication of the American Medical Association.

Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, admits he deliberately misled the public during the time Congress was considering the partial-birth abortion ban. According to Fitzsimmons, he lied when he said the procedure was rare and he lied when he said it was performed primarily to save the lives or fertility of women pregnant with severely malformed babies. The vast majority of partial-birth abortions are elective procedures, performed on healthy fetuses with healthy mothers.

Here we have a clear case of manipulating reality to gain support for a potentially unpopular piece of legislation. The abortion activists needed a “good cause” justification, and one was handed to them by distorting reality. President Clinton grabbed onto the nonsense to support his veto.

Hiding reality, ignoring reality, and manipulating reality, as we have seen, can have devastating consequences and always promotes nonsense. There is still another approach, however, which is probably the most damaging of all, and that is the manufacturing of reality. This approach inevitably has more serious consequences in the long run and cuts deeply into the heart of truth by fabricating reality itself and promoting nonsense in its most extreme form. 

Fourth Approach to Reality: Manufacturing the Evidence

And finally, another approach to dealing with reality is simply to manufacture it. Indeed, there are many who argue that reality should be socially or individually constructed and that there are different realities and different truths and anyone can affirm whatever “reality” he or she wants. The manufacturing of reality, the creating of “evidence,” is considered necessary and even “ethical” sometimes to achieve what some think are “good” and laudable goals.

Environmental writer Ronald Bailey, in his book Ecoscam, provides an interesting example of this thinking. He tells about a young women who came up to him after a televised debate about the seriousness of the ozone crisis, a debate in which he participated. She told him that it was all right to exaggerate the seriousness of the “crisis” if doing so would get people’s attention. Bailey asked her if she was saying it was all right to make up evidence for the sake of a desired goal. She replied, “Yes, sometimes you have to lie in a good cause.” According to Bailey, she said this “with complete earnestness.”

The “good cause” argument is easy to slide into if one is passionately committed to an ideological position which may be generally unpopular or the arguments for it unpersuasive.

For example, the American Life League, a Christian anti-abortion group based in Stafford, Virginia, maintains that three of Disney’s animated films for children are too risque and asked Disney to immediately remove one of them from video stores. The group claims that the word “sex” briefly appears in “The Lion King,” one of Disney’s most popular movies. The segment in question occurs about midway through the film. Simba, the hero of the cartoon feature, plops down and a cloud of dust rises above him. As the dust begins to trail off, the group maintains, it forms the letters S-E-X, with each letter fading as the next becomes clear.

The American Life League also claims that in “The Little Mermaid,” a wedding officiate becomes visibly sexually aroused, and in “Aladdin,” there is the audible message “Good teenagers, take off your clothes.” The group says it was alerted to the S-E-X message in “The Lion King” by a woman who said her four-year-old son noticed it. It would seem that the four-year-old has sharper eyes than most people. I found no one who, upon viewing the offending segment, could find the word “sex.” Furthermore, I could find no one who had spotted the offensive “evidence” in “The Little Mermaid” or “Aladdin.”

The Disney case seems to be an example of imagining something that isn’t there; which is, of course, another way of saying that it was manufactured. I’m sure the American Life League would argue, however, that it was all for a good cause, protecting the innocent from an evil “sexual” influence.

Manufacturing reality is hardly a new phenomenon. After all, we had the Salem witch trials in our own history and virtually all of the “evidence” presented there was manufactured, also for a good cause. However, we should not dismiss that episode in our past as just an historical anomaly caused by mass hysteria and based on manufactured evidence. We have our own hysterias now based on manufactured evidence at worst and disputed evidence at best.

For instance, Princeton University Professor Elaine Showalter, in her book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, gives us quite a list of modern hysterias such as Gulf War Syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple personality syndrome, belief in recovered memory, belief in ritual satanic abuse, and belief in alien abduction. All of these, she informs us, share “a complete lack of credible evidence.” They are, she argues, “latter-day hysterias, psychosomatic disorders whose roots lie…in psychological distress.”

Psychological distress, which leads so often to mass hysteria, justifies to some the use of manufactured “evidence,” the creation of a subjectively constructed “reality,” all in the name of the “good cause” of getting rid of whatever brought about the psychological distress in the first place. This occurred in the Salem witch trials and we see this in the “sky is falling” attitude of the environmental extremists, as well as in the “secret” messages being sent via the Disney cartoon features.

Whether it’s a matter of hiding reality, ignoring reality, manipulating reality, or manufacturing reality, the primary purpose is the same: to somehow construct a reality which is different from reality as it actually exists. Be that as it may, the more important and fundamental issue involved is actually that regarding the status of “truth” and all that entails. It is our concept of “truth” that is really at stake here. See the essay on Truth and Certainty listed in the Dolhenty Archives Directory.

Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. was the Founder and First President of the Radical Academy and the Center for Applied Philosophy – a project in the process of being resurrected by Steve Farrell and The Self-Educated American – and is honorary Philosophy Editor at The Self-Educated American.