Intellectual fraud

I’ve run into this issue in a number of places – in books, and when dealing with professional people who should know better. There is a form of intellectual fraud called circular logic. It occurs to me that one of the reasons it happens is that people using it do not realise it is inherently fraudulent as a way of thinking. It is a fraud because it so readily supports wrong answers, and if you employ it, you can run off down the wrong track without even knowing your are committing a fraud against yourself. My other thought is that if I share the method, it may help other people recognise books and authorities that are trying to manipulate them with circular logic, and thus defend against it.

As soon as we move from observation to asking what it means, we shift from fact to speculation. There are always multiple interpretations available for anything. Some may be more right than others, some may depend on circumstance or the observer. Good thinking holds the possibility for lots of interpretations. If more evidence comes in, it may be possible to see patterns or trends, or a balance of probability. There may even come a time when it is sensible to assert an interpretation as proven, or as fact. However, if you start with a theory, and interpret all of the information in the light of that theory, all you can ever get is ‘proof’ that supports the initial theory. You cannot be proved wrong, and you cannot perceive other interpretations. This is intellectual fraud and it is very dangerous.

For example, we dig up a body from the Celtic era where there is evidence of violent death. We assume sacrifice. We then look for reasons as to why that person would have made a good sacrifice, and whatever is a feature of them becomes a reason. We look at why their location was relevant for sacrifice, and we see some kind of feature and latch onto it as being relevant. We look at the manner of death and interpret it as being sacrificial, and then find something to associate it with that makes sense. We then take all the results of our work and present them a proof that the chap was sacrificed. There is no reason why he couldn’t have been murdered or executed, but we never looked at that.

I wish I was making this up, but I’ve just read the Ross/Robins ‘Life and Death of a Druid Prince’ and it’s like this all the way. When it comes to unpicking history and getting a realistic view of the past, this is bad enough.

It also happens in our day to day lives. We assume that someone is getting at us, so we interpret everything they do and say in this light, and thus we always feel threatened and offended by everything they do and say. We cannot hear the possibility that we’ve got something wrong. We assume we know a person’s motives, interpret accordingly, and never move from our initial assessment to true understanding. If we start out by thinking we know, and making the facts fit, it is impossible to learn. There is no way of seeing something we hadn’t thought of, of making real discovery or of having proper relationship.

What is most frightening, is when someone in a position of power and authority settles on a theory and will not let it go no matter what the evidence. When you watch everything being twisted to fit the other person’s story and are powerless to stop it. I have no idea how you fight that, but it looks like I am going to have to learn. I’m reminded of something I heard on the radio, years ago. A woman who had been diagnosed with severe mental health problems, and sectioned. When she told her doctor that she thought she was making progress and might be able to recover, this was written down as further proof of her being delusional. For people dealing with mental health issues, fighting this kind of intellectual fraud in the circular logic of authority figures, is terrifying and really hard.

I would imagine that if the medical profession, police, or social services, or any other such body make an assessment and then will only interpret new information in the light of it, your life rapidly becomes a nightmare. I’ve been lucky on that score, doctors, police and social services have been open minded, receptive and supportive in my life. But some years ago I dealt with teachers who had decided that bullying was not happening, and made themselves blind to all evidence. Some years on one boy is in a special school, one has an autism diagnosis and one needs a lot of help to rebuild self esteem and social skills. A willingness to look at the evidence objectively would have spared three families a lot of grief.

Sometimes the cruellest and most destructive thing we can do is cling to the idea that everything is fine and normal. By bending all evidence to fit that belief, we distort lives, keep victims powerless, support mistreatment, remove the scope for change, healing or progress and fail to uphold our own honour.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Intellectual fraud

  • redgriffithshaynes

    Absobloodylutely! I think perhaps that our best weapon against it is ourselves, because I think we are all guilty of this in one way or another. How often do we assume that we know someone’s motivations, or that something was personal, that someone was getting at us when in fact they weren’t. If we perceive ourselves as the victim, then that becomes a self fulfiling prophecy. As with anything, we start to make change on a wider level with a shift in our own perception. Every decision or enquiry we make has its foundation in our deepest and most basic assumptions about the world and ourselves. Examining what and where those assumptions are and whether they are valid or need exploding is key to increasing our conscious awareness of how we respond to the world and our engagement in the deeper, honourable relationship that we Druids so often bang on about. It is a life long journey, I think.

  • Jayne

    ‘What is most frightening, is when someone in a position of power and authority settles on a theory and will not let it go no matter what the evidence. When you watch everything being twisted to fit the other person’s story and are powerless to stop it.’
    ..or could this just be that the original story is actually the one that has been twisted,fabricated, whatever and the real story is coming to light?

  • Nimue Brown

    Jayne, your responses are a tad confusing. It;s possible that I’m not expressing myself very well though, so bear with me. Imagine having lived through an experience, and finding that someone else, who was not there, refuses to beleive that it happened. omeone who has a lot of power over what comes next. We could talk about those who are disappeared by nasty regiems, tortured protestors whose experiences are denied by authority, all manner of impersonal examples. I think you’re missing my point, but give me time and I’ll see if I can formulate a better response for you.

  • Nimue Brown

    Ok, here’s a true story that may make a good illustration. A friend of mine has been ill for years. The doctors involved assumed that it was an illness, not the consequence of medical error, so for a long time they didn’t look at radiation poisoning as the possible problem. Only when a different doctor was brought in, was radiation poisoning, caused by a previous cancer treament, identified. The assumption that the medics hadn’t caused the problem they were seeing, prevented the problem from being identified.That’s a nice and easy one because its all about identifiable facts and there’s no subjective/emotional content. That’s the kind of scenario I was talking about. My friend knew there was a big problem and it took years to get that taken seriously even. Now finally, there is some help.

    And, I really appreciate your prompts to go further and to tigten up my arguments, they improve my thinking, and I thank you for them.

  • Weissdorn

    One archaeologist pointed this out in a recent documentary (I cannot remember which one). He said something to the effect, “Every time we some sort altar stone table and see some kind of trough chiselled into it, too many people jump to the immediate conclusion that this trough was to catch the blood of human sacrifices. Very few people assume it was for something mundane like draining off rain water, or that it was a feast table, and the trough was to make cleaning the table easier.
    Many warn about the train of thought you point out. It’s the favourite logic for conspiracy theorists – everything from aliens to 9-11. Make the conclusion first, then dig, dig, dig for answers. Well, Erich von Däniken made his fortune doing exactly this.

  • Nimue Brown

    Jayne, coming back to the idea that the original story was twisted and the truth is now emerging. I think this scenario plays out in the same way. The assumption of the original story, or an innacurate representation as fact may bias how we interpret subsequent information. Keeping an open mind about what we think we know, is vital. Inevitaly where the issues are personal, subjective and emotional we may instead need to recognise a scenario in which there is no single, objective truth, only different, subjective understandings. These are harder to reconcile, but here the critical thing would be to hold the multiple understandings, to recognise the aspect of human interpretation and not to assert one story over the other without regard to issues of individual difference and interpretation. I think it is sometimes possile to achieve an understanding that embraces all perspectives, but that requires all involved to recognise that they hold a perspective, not a hard fact.

  • Jayne

    It sounds like you have a very post-modern perspective. People in authority tend to assume that there is an objective truth out there and so will try to infer it from the various accounts. Is this possibly what you are up against?

  • Nimue Brown

    I caught post modernism at college and never uite got over it! You’re probablyright about how official structures function. At least half of the grrrr pertained to bad authorship as well though 🙂

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