Patten, Bernard M. Truth, Knowledge, or Just Plain Bull: How to Tell the Difference. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

I have a history with this book. I read it once before, about 10 years ago, at least part-way through, while sitting in the surgery waiting room of Jewish Hospital, waiting to hear how my dad’s hip replacement had gone.

I thought it was a good book then, by which I mean a book worth reading, thinking about, and paying attention to, although I had some reservations. One of the author’s first points, that simple solutions to complex problems are probably wrong, impressed me so profoundly that I added it to my basic view of reality. Nevertheless, Truth, Knowledge, or Just Plain Bull was probably not ideal reading for the surgery waiting room. I remember thinking “I’ll need to go back over that again later.”

“Later” finally arrived a few months ago. For some unknown reason, maybe the unconscious force of that 10-year-anniversary mark, maybe not, I thought of the book and wanted to check out some of its other points, as well as the specific formulation of the “simple solutions” principle. By this time I’d forgotten the author and title and only remembered what the cover looked like; I couldn’t find it on the shelves in the basement, where it should have been; I figured I’d sold it. So when I bumped into it again on our annual Black Friday family book-buying expedition, I bought a second copy.

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From this story you could infer that cognitive dissonance may bias my review of this book. I probably wouldn’t want to admit to being the kind of fool who pays good money for a bad book twice. So when I say that, 10 years later, I still think this is a good book, by which I mean a book worth reading, thinking about, and paying attention to, even though I have some issues with it, you will know to discount my recommendation appropriately.

So you may not find this book as useful as I did. You may already be an advanced clear thinker, alert enough not to need reminding of the many, common ways various influential authorities in our society, like politicians, investment analysts, advertisers, and pundits of many kinds pass off “just plain bull” as information or reason. You may not have much room for improvement in this area. Sadly, I keep finding that I do.

[For instance, I didn’t have objections to Patten’s treatment of deduction and induction in his chapter on “overgeneralization.” According to one reviewer, however, I should have. If I had ever taken that formal logic class in college, and known more about abduction, maybe I would have.]

On this score, I particularly appreciated Patten’s treatment of “false analogies” and his detailed examples of how reasoning by analogy can lead thinkers to wildly erroneous conclusions. His analysis of the differences between brains and computers is hilarious, convincing, and comes with a catchy song (“There is Nothing Like a Brain,” sung to a tune by Rodgers and Hammerstein). This discussion also gave me a terrific new reason to disparage Plato, whose analogy between the human individual and the state is as baseless as they come; that alone made the price of the second copy more than worth it, from my perspective.

Similarly, after reading Patten’s discussion of “begging the question,” I feel more alert than ever to the many, insistent manifestations of question begging in our world. His discussion and examples of the diverse ways people proffer non-responsive non-information and non-reason in place of relevant and responsive information and reason go a long way to clarify what he means by “just plain bull.” And how to side-step it.

Patten serves up his analyses, principles and recommendations with, to my way of thinking, a commendable pragmatism, which he styles a commitment to “the reality situation.” We have a saying in our family, “physics always wins.” I get the impression Dr. Patten would affirm that one.

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On the other hand, I suspect that pragmatism informs Patten’s distinctive writing style, which I would describe as plain and blunt, even hard-boiled, and decidedly assertive. I suspect that plain, blunt, assertive quality stems from the decisions Patten has made about basic questions related to purpose, audience, language and communication, making it “style” in precisely the deep sense discussed by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in their masterpiece Clear and Simple as the Truth. I suspect, as well, that this plain, bluntly assertive style signals intellectual clarity and honesty to Dr. Patten, making it, in itself, a piece of evidence, that is, a “sign that leads towards truth and away from error” in his eyes.

Some people will probably enjoy that blunt, no-“just-plain-bull” writing style. I couldn’t decide whether I was one of those people 10 years ago. I couldn’t decide whether I am one of those people now, 10 years later, either. At times I got along with it. At others, I found it tedious. On balance, I managed to put up with it, for the sake of getting through all of the ideas.

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I felt the ideas were worth getting through, and that I had something to learn from this book, in spite of my recurrent reservations.

Some of these reservations had to do with language, and Patten’s chapter on “vague definition.” His discussion there seems to presuppose the kind of stable, precise correspondence of words to things, especially abstract things, that medieval nominalism, post-modern linguistics, and our ordinary, everyday awareness that language changes with time and use all deny. I agree that people in conversation ought to check their assumptions about reference, and that what we think we’re talking about matters for how the conversations and the thinking go. But if Patten means, as he seems to, that there are “correct” or “reality situation” definitions of terms, I’d have to disagree.

Like physics, usage always wins.

If I get to “pick my battles,” I’ll pick staying away from ones about “the real” or “the true” Whatever-It-Is. Yes, that probably does mean that real-life Newspeak will kill some words; Patten voices concern about that. But I think people with that concern will have better luck inventing new terms for the old ideas than they will ever have policing other people’s language.

I had different issues with his discussion of “emotional factors” in the “partial selection of evidence.” Patten seems to have the idea that “emotion” is separate and separable from the “rational” thought processes by which people sift and assess evidence and arguments. I have a hard time buying that, probably because I already own the idea that there are no thoughts without feelings, or feelings without thoughts, and have never bought the idea that the human mind divides, even messily, into two parts, the rational part and the irrational one. Instead, I think that thought and feeling and conscious commitments and unconscious structures are all always involved in all human deliberations. But maybe I am misreading Patten. I can’t object to his main point here: that human beings are prone to treat partial evidence as good enough for their thinking purposes, and therefore are prone to errors in judgment.

Patten treats things like “the reality situation,” “facts,” “evidence” and “what is, as opposed to what is not” as uncontroversial, although he allows for customs to be “neither right nor wrong – just culturally relative” (190). I doubt we can have both those things, ultimately. Most of us accept that preferences and values are culturally relative; but then, interpretations must be, too; and therefore, perceptions; and then, what’s left of what we probably thought we meant by facts, those “observations” that everyone can agree on? What can we put in their place? Please don’t get me wrong here – I am no fan of the “post-fact” world we seem to be living in! I believe facts are real, ineluctable, good to know, and ought to be taken seriously. Facts and God have a lot in common, come to think of it. But I think establishing what they are is more difficult and complicated than Patten allows.

All in all then, despite that first principle I like so much, Truth, Knowledge, or Just Plain Bull paints a simplified picture of the challenge of using facts, evidence and sound reason to reduce errors and align one’s thinking more closely with truth.

On the other hand, maybe that made it a good book for me. Even that simplified picture is challenging. And maybe I got more mental exercise out of Patten’s simplified treatment, that I could follow and engage with, than I would have gotten out of someone else’s more sophisticated one.

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Some of that exercise involved my effort to deduce Patten’s religious commitments. Some of his statements – like his glowing assessment of Thomas Aquinas’s On Laws, Morality, and Politics, his facile use of scripture, and his extended analysis of John’s account of Pilate’s examination of Jesus (194-195) – led me to think he had some background in and commitment to Christianity.

He even draws one of his striking principles from that analysis of Pilate’s examination:

Principle: Chanting crowds are herds out of control. The stronger the crowd feels about something, the less likely it makes sense.

From which it follows:

Lesson: Chanting crowds mean trouble. Avoid them. Usually, what the crowd wants is wrong. Have nothing to do with it (195).

Other statements, though, like his rejection of the ontological proof of God, his insistence that we shouldn’t accept any premises that aren’t supported by evidence, his explicit appreciation of Charles Darwin, and his conclusion that “skepticism, though uncomfortable, is probably more useful than faith” (197) made me think that he may have abandoned that background, or at least, some version of it. He never came right out and said, one way or the other.

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Dad woke up from the surgery 10 years ago with a case of hiccups that lasted for almost a week. The doctors, nurses, aides, and everyone else who heard about it suggested various home remedies, in addition to the prescribed medical treatment, which obviously wasn’t working. The hiccups finally abated. We didn’t know what did it, though – time, maybe, or muscle fatigue.

It probably wasn’t this book.

But there’s a remote chance it could have been. Once I’d refreshed my memory as to author and title, I found the original copy right where it should have been, in alphabetical order on the bookshelf in the basement, sporting one of Dad’s signature Kleenex™ bookmarks. I must have loaned it to Dad to read in the hospital, to take his mind off the hiccups. So the hiccups stopped sometime after he started reading Truth, Knowledge, or Just Plain Bull.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical error, even though conclusions drawn from it aren’t always wrong; Patten spends a whole chapter on that one. And there’s no good reason to think a book can cure hiccups, anyway.

Although scares are supposed to cure hiccups. And some of the things Patten says are scary. Dad had bookmarked page 170, where Patten says this:

Slogans are suspect. Watch out for them. Watch out for slogans that are repeated over and over again. They are usually dead wrong. Slogans that are repeated imply that the opposite of the slogan’s implications is closer to the truth. Repeated slogans are a form of cheerleading, which should make us reason darkly about why such cheers are being foisted on us.

That’s almost certainly not what cured Dad’s hiccups. But 10 years later, I don’t rule it out … entirely.

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interior of a hollow tower of stacked books
Read Me.