The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 13 Feb 2009

Stupid crap
This is a short compendium of some of the dumbest arguments I've ever heard. Why? I think it's because they were so egregiously stupid that they've been bugging me ever since.

Anyway, it's been on my to-do list for about three years, so what the hell.

Around 1986, I heard it claimed that Ronald Reagan did not have practical qualifications for the presidency, because he had not been a lawyer or a general or anything like that, but rather an actor. "An actor?" said this person. "How does being an actor prepare you to be President?"

I pointed out that he had also been the Governor of California.

"Oh, yeah."

But it doesn't even stop there. Who says some actor is qualified to govern California? Well, he had previously been president of the Screen Actors' Guild, which seems like a reasonable thing for the Governor of California to have done.

Around 1992, I was talking to a woman who claimed that the presidency was not open to the disabled, because the President was commander-in-chief of the army, he had to satisfy the army's physical criteria, and they got to disqualify him if he couldn't complete basic training, or something like that. I asked how her theory accommodated Ronald Reagan, who had been elected at the age of 68 or whatever. Then I asked how the theory accommodated Franklin Roosevelt, who could not walk, or even stand without assistance, and who traveled in a wheelchair.


I was once harangued by someone for using the phrase "my girlfriend." "She is not 'your' girlfriend," said this knucklehead. "She does not belong to you."

Sometimes you can't think of the right thing to say at the right time, but this time I did think of the right thing. "My father," I said. "My brother. My husband. My doctor. My boss. My congressman."

"Oh yeah."

My notes also suggest a long article about dumb theories in general. For example, I once read about someone who theorized that people were not actually smaller in the Middle Ages than they are today. We only think they were, says this theory, because we have a lot of leftover suits of armor around that are too small to fit on modern adults. But, according to the theory, the full-sized armor got chopped up in battles and fell apart, whereas the armor that's in good condition today is the armor of younger men, not full-grown, who outgrew their first suits, couldn't use them any more, and hung then on the wall as mementoes. (Or tossed them in the cellar.)

I asked my dad about this, and he wanted to know how that theory applied to the low doorways and small furniture. Heh.

I think Herbert Illig's theory is probably in this category, Herbert Illig, in case you missed it, believes that this is actually the year 1712, because the years 614–911 never actually occurred. Rather, they were created by an early 7th-century political conspiracy to rewrite history and tamper with the calendar. Unfortunately, most of the source material is in German, which I cannot read. But it would seem that cross-comparisons of astronomical and historical records should squash this theory pretty flat.

In high school I tried to promulgate the rumor that John Entwistle and Keith Moon were so disgusted by the poor quality of the album Odds & Sods that they refused to pose for the cover photograph. The rest of the band responded by finding two approximate lookalikes to stand in for Moon and Enwistle, and by adopting a cover design calculated to obscure the impostors' faces as much as possible.

This sort of thing was in some ways much harder to pull off successfully in 1985 than it is today. But if you have heard this story before, please forget it, because I made it up.

Addendum 20150513: I have several times heard an argument against hate speech laws on the grounds that no other law punishes a person not for what they did but for what was in their mind. There may be good arguments against hate speech laws, this is not one. If you are the lookout for a failed bank robbery, you will be charged with bank robbery, despite having done nothing but stand on a public streetcorner; if you were the getaway driver you will be charged with bank robbery even if you paid the parking meter. Honest mistakes are distinguished from from fraud based on state of mind: fraud requires an intent to deceive. Assault, battery, and even homicide can be defensible if you are acting in self-defense, which requires a belief that one is in imminent danger. Identical behavior can result in a charge of criminal negligence, manslaughter, second-degree murder, or first-degree murder depending only on the perpetrator's state of mind. Criminal conspiracy is just two people talking in a room, nothing illegal about that, they might have been discussing a mystery novel, except they weren't, they were planning a crime. And so on.

I would like to acknowledge the generous gift of Jack Kennedy. Thank you very much!

This acknowledgement is not intended to be apropos of this blog post. I just decided I should start acknowledging gifts, and this happened to be the first post since I made the decision.

[ See also: radioactive potassium and "Crappiest literary theory this month". ]

[ Addendum 20090214: A similar equivocation of "your" is mentioned by Plato. ]

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