Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Plausibility Index

Given the fact that virtually everything that comes out of the mouths of Republicans (and, to be fair, politicians in general) are either distortions, exaggerations, or outright lies, we desperately need something by way of a plausibility index, or meter, or scale, or measure, or however you wish to describe it. Not only do we need such a scale it must also be a universal one, a scale that everyone can believe in. I certainly have a personal plausibility scale that I employ, but I’m sure that other people’s scale , if they have one, doesn’t necessarily agree with mine. I don’t know precisely how we might create such a scale, perhaps a completely independent agency dedicated only to the truth, an impartial jury that can weigh the relative plausibility of the thousands of claims we hear all the time. Some of these claims might have an air of plausibility about them but many are completely implausible. How might we be able to rank them as to their plausibility, and what, if anything, might we do about them?

If Mitt Romney, for example, announces authoritatively that “If President Obama is re-elected Iran will have a nuclear bomb,” what are we to believe? He has no way of knowing that, unless, of course he might have some secret source of information we know nothing about. But surely that is most implausible. On the other hand there is a slight degree of plausibility if only because Iran might eventually have a bomb no matter who is elected President. We cannot say with absolute certainty there is no plausibility whatever in this case. One a scale of one to one hundred, with one hundred being the highest, maybe we could consider Romney’s claim at about one percent.

If, as some claim, Iran is secretly trying to build a nuclear bomb, although they deny it and there is no evidence for it, what plausibility might we assign to that claim. About the only reason to accept it, in the absence of proof, is because we know we would do it if we were in their place. That we probably would is plausible, but that they are doing so is somewhat less plausible. Let’s give it another one on our scale.

When New Gingrich says if he is President we will have $2.50 gasoline most of us would certainly regard that as completely implausible, and recognize it as merely an empty promise. But Gingrich must believe that at least some people might believe it or he presumably wouldn’t say it. On the grounds that gas could conceivably come down to that little, depending upon the world market, if speculators were not allowed, and etc., I guess we could say it has a plausibility factor of perhaps one half of one per cent.

Rick Santorum falsely claimed that President Obama “wants everyone to go to college,” and is therefore a “snob.” President Obama did not say he wanted everyone to go to college, but only to go on to school beyond High School. But Perhaps President Obama would like everyone to go to college, an obvious exaggeration of his position, would that lend plausibility to Santorum’s claim? How about Obama wanting everyone to go to college so they could be “like him?” I think we could reasonably dismiss Santorum’s claim as just another election exaggeration and implausible.
If Iran were to get a nuclear bomb it would change the situation in the Middle East, that strikes me as perfectly plausible, certainly the case. But if someone says If Iran gets a bomb they will use it on Israel that is completely implausible. To believe that one would have to believe the Iranians are crazy and would be willing to sacrifice their own existence to do something that suicidal. When someone else says if they get a bomb they will attack the U.S. it is beyond implausible and you would have to believe the speaker was perhaps out of his/her mind.

Sarah Palin says that President Obama would like us to return to “pre civil war times,” a statement so patently absurd as to be seen as little more than the babbling of a near moron. Pre civil war times would mean that Obama would most probably be a slave, a condition that clearly he would not envisage. It is not difficult to see how completely implausible Palin’s claim is, so “off the wall” as to not even be considered as serious. So why do the MSM keep insisting on giving her air time?

Then there are people like Santorum and Inhofe who believe global warming is a “hoax.” They also do not believe in evolution. To claim global warming is a hoax, and that evolution is not true, is to push plausibility to an extreme. Aside from the fact that the vast majority of scientists all over the world believe global warming is real, and in fact the evidence is now right before our eyes with the disappearance of the glaciers and so on, to deny that it is happening is implausible. And to not believe in evolution and global warming is basically to not believe in science itself, a position that in the 21st century is just not plausible. It is because people do not agree on such things that we need an objective authority on such matters, although there are probably some who would not believe in any case.

This is a complicated issue. It probably doesn’t matter much if Gingrich makes absurd claims about the price of gasoline, or if Santorum makes silly claims about Obama’s position on education, but it matters a great deal if people on the public stage make implausible claims about Iran’s intentions or deny global warming and evolution. What could we do with respect to those who make egregious and dangerous claims that could have absolutely devastating effects on human life? I guess capital punishment may be rather extreme. We do, after all, believe in free speech, and people are entitled to say whatever they wish with virtually no restrictions (other than yelling “fire” in crowded rooms, etc.).

I suggest those who can be identified as the worst offenders when it comes to making dangerous and implausible statements should be restricted to the amount of air time and publicity they are allowed to have. The more extreme and thoughtless their remarks the less they get to say. Granted this is a bit draconian, and even perhaps a mild form of censorship, but it seems to me the right to free speech must carry with it some responsibility as well. It is completely irresponsible to say implausible things like Iran is going to attack Israel or the United States when they don’t even have a bomb, or even if they did have a bomb. This is just a dangerous form of hysteria that can only have undesirable consequences. Maybe if they were curbed a bit by denying them a bit of air time they might take the hint and clean up their acts. Maybe we could make them wear dunce caps and sit in the corner for a time, like children used to be disciplined for irresponsible behavior.

The hare-brained chatter of irresponsible frivolity.
Benjamin Disraeli

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