inductive logic, humor and conservative ideology

DirecTV has a set of advertisements on television that are very funny, and all follow a similar pattern.  This is one example:Don't have a grandson with a dog collar

This is a transcript of the narrator’s voice in the ad:

When your cable’s on the fritz, you get frustrated. When you get frustrated, your daughter imitates. When your daughter imitates, she gets thrown out of school. When she gets thrown out of school, she meets undesirables. When she meets undesirables, she ties the knot with undesirables. And when she ties the knot with undesirables, you get a grandson with a dog collar. Don’t have a grandson with a dog collar. Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV.

It’s funny, because it’s ridiculous… but not totally ridiculous. It’s an exaggeration of a normal logical process  that everybody uses every day, called inductive reasoning or inductive logic.

Inductive logic is the kind of logic that you are using when you generalize about a likely conclusion (but not a certain conclusion) that you can draw from a starting point.  Any single step of inductive logic is usually perfectly reasonable. Inductive logic is the kind of thing that lets you conclude that since summers have been warmer than winters in the past, next summer is probably going to be warmer than next winter. Inductive logic is the kind of logic that lets you conclude that if you hate bourbon, then there is a good chance you won’t like scotch. It isn’t certain, but it’s a decent bet.

There is actually an old political joke from 2000 that follows a similar pattern as these DirecTV ads, exposing the same problem with inductive logic: namely, the fact that when you string a whole bunch of steps in a row, the connection from the beginning of the chain to the end gets weaker and weaker with each step:

George W. Bush was flying to a Governor’s conference, and so got on the plane and sat down in his first class seat.

George Bush turned to the man sitting next to him, and said, “Hi there! My name is George Bush, and I’m running for President!”

The man said, “Hello! My name is Professor Brown, and I teach logic at a university, especially inductive logic.”

George Bush said, “Inductive logic? What’s that?”

Professor Brown said, “Well, let me give you an example. Do you own a lawnmower?”

George Bush: “Yes.”

Professor Brown: “Well, from that I infer that you probably have a lawn.”

George Bush: “Yes, I do have a lawn.”

Professor Brown: “And from that, I infer that you most likely own a home.”

George Bush: “Yes, that’s true, I do own a home.”

Professor Brown: “And from that, I infer that you probably have a family.”

George Bush: “Indeed I do! I have a family!”

Professor Brown: “And from that I infer that you are probably heterosexual.”

George Bush: “Wow, Professor. That is very interesting. Thank you so much for explaining inductive logic to me.”

Later on, at a Governor’s conference, another Governor comes up to George Bush and says, “How was your flight?”

George Bush says: “It was fascinating. I sat next to a professor, who taught me about inductive logic!”

The other governor replied: “Inductive logic? What’s that?”

So George Bush says, “Well, let me give you an example. Do you own a lawnmower?”

The Governor replies, “No.”

George Bush says, “Faggot.”

As you can see: the format of the joke is very similar to the format of the DirecTV ads.

What I find particularly interesting, however, is that this format is also implicit in a number of the arguments that I hear from Sean Hannity and Mark Levine on the radio, although they do not make the format of the logic as explicit as it is in these jokes.

Sean Hannity and Mark Levine are famous for making statements like this: “President Obama is trying to increase regulation, which expands the role of government, and takes away your freedom!” This kind of assertion has become so common and so frequent that neither of them bother to explain exactly how these ideas are connected. The connection is merely asserted, over and over again, as if it is impossible to view things in any other way.

What exactly is the connection? Certainly when the average citizen looks at his day-to-day life, it doesn’t seem directly impacted by the passage of a regulation that demands (for example) that the cement barriers used in the protection of drill-shafts in oil rigs have a minimum thickness of however-many inches. He can still go to whatever church he wants to go to, he can still quit his job if that is his inclination. He can write to the local newspaper and not fear imprisonment, and he can pick up and drive where ever he wants without having a government agent demand an explanation. In any of the normal, day-to-day meanings of the term, his “freedom” has not been affected at all.

Yet Mark Levin insists that this kind of regulation absolutely is a tyranny that strips American citizens of their freedom. Conservatives have relentlessly been beating the drums about this connection, to the point that many an “average Joe” in this country (regularly listening to Sean Hannity and Mark Levine on the radio) now immediately perceives any federal law about healthcare or industrial safety or food quality as a tyrannical infringement of his freedom.

What is the logic that connects these ideas?

The answer is a format that you are familiar with: It’s the joke. It’s the DirecTV ad. It’s exactly the same logic that everyone intuitively knows is ridiculous. If they spelled it out, it would go like this:

The regulation of oil companies makes them spend money on safety. When oil companies spend money on safety, they are not investing that money in the community. When they don’t invest money in the community, innovation in that community stagnates. When innovation in that community stagnates, small businesses do not thrive. When small business do not thrive, the services available on the market contract. When the services available in the market contract, consumers have fewer options. When consumers have fewer options, they are less free.

And then comes the punchline:  Don’t become less free. Oppose the regulation of oil companies.

But that is why they don’t spell it out. Because when you spell it out, it becomes obvious that it’s a joke.

But because Sean Hannity and Mark Levine repeat it so seriously, and never spell out the elaborate connect-the-dots required to get there, people fall for it.

They don’t realize that they are being told, for all intents and purposes, that having cable will give them a grandson with a dog collar.