Essential Intellectual References Weekly #5

This week, an analysis of proof and a jackass named McCarthy who had no clue what the word meant.

Zack S. Westby Zack S. West

Proof is a difficult thing to talk about, because we're not exactly sure what it is. We know a lot of things that it isn't, but the process of elimination can only get you so far. Proof is ever elusive. Proof is malleable. But most importantly, proof is something that we hope we have when we make accusations. More often than not, we have none. So, before you run to your brother's apartment and shoot him for sleeping with your wife, let's try and understand proof, and the dangers of misunderstanding it.

 

I know for a FACT that I didn't bother to see the movie Proof.

 

Correlation is not Causation

So, this is going to seem really obvious for a hot minute, but is actually a mistake we all make, multiple times a day. "Correlation is not causation" is an idea derived from the concept that just because one thing is related to another does not mean the former is an acting catalyst on the latter. For example, the fact that someone eats fast food for every meal is not necessarily the reason they are so morbidly obese that their veins are as big as your wrist. That may have been a bad example.

Let's try this again. Way back in the Salem Witch Trials, a bunch of people were murdered because their executioners believed they had 'proof' that the defendant was a witch. Before that, during the Spanish Inquisition, torture and slaughter ran roughshod through all of Europe in the name of 'proof' of working with the Devil. But as we all learned from Monty Python, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition (to judge people fairly), and just because a woman looks like a witch doesn't mean she is one.  She has to weigh the same as a duck.

The thing is, while we laugh at the ignorance of the past, we all make this mistake daily. No, it did not rain just because you had a picnic planned. You are not compatible with your significant other because you are a Scorpio and they are a Libra. That guy didn't cut you off only to make you miss the light, you didn't blow the interview because you couldn't find your lucky tie, and you certainly didn't get your house broken into because you accidentally ran over that cat last week. These are completely unrelated, but your mind is designed to notice patterns, so we create a lot of superfluous connections. We just assume it makes sense. And when we all do that together, something truly horrifying happens.

 

Remember this face. It is the face of True Evil.

Senator Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare

The problem with telling this story in this day and age is that nobody really believes it. Our political structure has become so haphazard and belligerent that it's almost impossible to believe our entire government, not too long ago, agreed on something so entirely that they followed a madman. (And you thought only the Germans did that, didn't you?)

During the Cold War (so named because Americans never shot Russians in public, because that makes sense), there was a lot of paranoia. Everyone was afraid of the Atomic Bomb, and therefore, though the transitive property, everyone was afraid of the Russians. If we were afraid of the Russians and their bombs, that meant we were also afraid of everything they were. Chiefly, Communism.

We've set the stage, and here's the player. Senator Joe McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin. In what was apparently an attempt to get in with the cool senators, Joe decided to terrify every single American so much and so often that there would be a nationwide pants shortage. So, he decided to make up a bunch of stuff about how there were secret communists everywhere, plotting to… I don't even know. Turn us all into their communist zombie army? The whole thing sounds like it came out of a comic book. I'm kind of embarrassed that this person wasn't ejected from reality on the grounds of being too ostentatiously evil.

The point is, he targeted everyone from Industry Leaders to Hollywood, and even the Government, with his accusations of secret Communism. He held trials for thousands of people that had as much to do with justice as the Salem witch trials had to do with witches. Convicted Communists were blacklisted everywhere. And he did it all in front of everybody.

Eventually he was stopped, but we need to learn from this, guys. Justice only works with proof. And not iffy proof. Not "I heard it from my mom's friend" proof. Not "he kinda looks like one" proof. Not "I saw it on TV!" Real, proper, solid, "everything here has led me to an intelligent and well thought out conclusion" proof. Correlation is not causation, but all accusations have an equal and opposite reaction. So make them carefully.

Thank you, Alcoholism, for ridding the world of this.