Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Why Study Nonsense?

Nonsense, as the term is used here, refers to statements about human behavior and mental health that are implausible because of their faulty logic and because of their lack of congruence with well-established information on similar topics. Why should we study this at all? Why not just ignore or try to get rid of it?

In a way, the study of nonsense resembles the work of teachers at all levels of education. Experienced teachers tend to prefer essay or short answer exams over multiple choice, even though it’s more work to grade essays. Why? Because as you examine the details of an essay answer, it’s possible tell why a student makes a mistake--  to detect the misunderstanding or erroneous assumption that leads to a wrong answer. In some cases, even the rationale for a “right” answer can reveal misunderstandings that would go uncorrected if the answer alone were examined.

Similarly, studying examples of nonsense from the social sciences and mental health practice can  reveal the basic misunderstandings and mistaken a priori assumptions behind nonsensical conclusions. When these inner workings of nonsense are shown, it becomes possible to argue along more productive lines than the “yes, it is”, “no, it isn’t” so characteristic of discussions between proponents of conventional and unorthodox belief systems. The task is thus worth doing, but it is a challenging and time-consuming job. A student of nonsense has much to read and watch, to identify and to cross-check. Authors of nonsense rarely do us the favor of identifying the sources of their ideas, defining their terms, or announcing when they have changed their minds or stating their reasons for doing so.

Producing nonsense and believing in nonsense are actions of interest in themselves, as examples of human cognitive abilities affected by a complicated network of misdirecting factors.  But nonsense is also of interest because of the potential it offers for harmful outcomes motivated by nonsensical beliefs. Those harmful outcomes may be waste of time and resources, or they may be physical or emotional injury to individuals. They may even involve dangers to populations or nations when political decisions are based on nonsensical claims. Understanding nonsense and working effectively to oppose it can reduce the harm it does when uncontradicted.

[The study of nonsense is not the same thing as agnotology, a term developed and defined by Robert Proctor as  the study of “culturally constructed ignorance, purposefully created by special interest groups working hard to create confusion and suppress the truth”. Special interest groups certainly produce and benefit from nonsense. However, agnotology seems to focus on the intentions and motives of propagandists rather on the step-by-step parsing of their arguments and claims that I am calling the study of nonsense. There’s no question that agnotology is a juicier term than “the study of nonsense”, and is anyone wants to call the latter “somniology” from the Latin word for daydreams, fantasy, and so on, I won’t complain, but I think I’ll stick to the plain English myself.].

N.B. I will be happy to post suitable material from contributors. Let me know by way of a comment.


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