Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Oblecs, or, Statements That Don’t Mean What they Mean

My brother -- known to regular readers as Brother of Dean Dad -- sent me a nifty thought piece that I’d love to get my readers’ help explaining.

Recent polls have shown a terrifying amount of militant know-nothingism. The example that leaps to my mind is how the percentage of people who claim to believe that Barack Obama is a "secret Muslim" or some such crap is shockingly high. Despite this, it's hard to escape the hunch that most people who claim this don't really believe it; they're simply registering a complaint through stupid means. They want to express their discontent through every means at their disposal, and labeling him a Muslim serves as a fatuous shorthand.

Yet, it's also not hard to escape the hunch that the more such a claim is questioned or mocked, the more it will become believed, eventually ossifying into an article of faith. In short, when they first said it, they don't really mean it, but as soon as it's challenged, they believe it fully and without reservation. Only much later, when any and all pressure is removed, might it someday soften and be allowed to be doubted.

High school physics teaches fluid dynamics in part through the medium of "non-Newtonian fluids." Create a slurry of two parts cornmeal to one part water, and you have a classic dilatant. If you lower a spoon into the liquid, it sinks in. If you smack the spoon against the surface of the liquid, it instantly hardens, and the spoon bounces off. The viscosity of the fluid is dependent upon the shearing forces it faces.

There is a subset of canard that behaves similarly. When a person first creates such a canard ("Obama is not an American citizen!"), the speaker knows it is factually false. How that canard is met is key. If approached gently with questions ("Did all of the investigating bodies in the campaign miss it? Are the 1962 Honolulu newspapers with the birth announcement time-traveler-manufactured frauds?"), it can dissolve into a slurry. If attacked ("What? Are you high?"), it ossifies into an article of true faith. This certainly does not apply to all canards or all people, but I've seen it happen.

Thus, I propose a new word for the English language. The non-Newtonian fluid used in high school physics demonstrations is commonly called "oobleck." Ideas that are deliberate falsifications that harden into articles of faith only under pressure are now "oblecs." For example, Rush Limbaugh spouts many oblecs in the course of his day. In low-pressure situations, he'll admit that a particular heap of lies is the product of him "being funny" or stretching the truth to make a point. Under any sort of pressure at all, he'll declare that every word he speaks is the pure truth. It's a sub-variety of doublethink.

To take it out of politics, kids spout out oblecs quite a bit. Wee Johnny says an obvious lie, gets called on it, and suddenly believes it to be a truth upon which he'd stake his very life. That's an everyday oblec.

First, I think his observation is spot-on; I’ve seen people hold to absurdities as a sort of badge of group identity, and then later admit the absurdity when it felt safe.

I’ve seen statements like these referred to as “dog whistles,” in that they hold meaning only to those primed to hear them. They’re a kind of secret verbal handshake, certifying members of the club. To those of us outside the club, they just sound like blowing air.

I’m not sure about the neologism itself, but the phenomenon is real and hard to capture.

Is there a more elegant phrase to describe oblecs? And has anyone out there found a reasonably effective way of dealing with them?

I like "oblec". Even though it doesn't actually contain the Latin root lect-, it looks like it does, and that's fitting.

Effective ways of dealing with them? Well, your observation about "group identity" is important. As an evolutionary biologist, I encounter a lot of people who think that evolution is deliberately anti-religion, and so their oblecs stiffen up as soon as you mention the E-word. Once you convince them that evolution != atheism, they relax. (Of course, some religious views are just flat-out incompatible, but most aren't.)
I LOVE oblec. Well, I loved oobleck, and the description is very illuminating.
I think also, this is subtly different from a dog whistle. "Barack Hussein Obama" is a dog whistle for the oblec "Obama is a sekrit muslim" (side note: EVERYTIME I read that now, I think: "20% of Americans think Obama is a cactus" - BLESS the writers at The Onion). However, I think your Brother is wrong about one thing. People really do believe whacky things about Obama. People also believe that horoscopes predict reality, Bigfoot is roaming the earth, and the world will end in 2012. If you test these beliefs gently, you can get them to doubt. But if you test *most* people's understanding of things in which they are *correct*, you can get them to doubt.
The phenomenon your brother is describing is in no way limited to things you, or I, or your brother, thinks are batshit crazy. Being aware of it can help you from slipping into it, but not usually in the middle of a heated internet argument ;-)
Love the post and the concept of oblec. My kids, both elementary school age, have made ooblecks in the past, so the analogy makes total sense.

I have to say that the Internet seems to provide ripe ground for oblecs. I see it all the time on blogs where people vehemently argue a point of view that I can tell they don't really understand but have just adopted and become adept at parroting. It happens with the endless onslaught of urban legend emails that I get, no matter how many times I gently encourage the senders to refer to resources like snopes.com to investigate the validity of the claims.

Sometimes I think that, like the thought piece you posted suggests, people genuinely are using rhetorical arguments, whether they believe them or not, as a means to an end. A way to further a hidden, or not so hidden, personal agenda. Other times, though, I just think that people have become lazy. They've lost the ability to critically analyze information, dissect arguments, conduct research, and arrive at their own thoughtful views or positions on subject matters. I see it at work, at church, on TV, on the Internet, and, most dishearteningly, even at the very institutions of higher learning where we endeavor to teach people how to think critically.
The original post raises an interesting problem with surveys. Political scientists who study surveys know you can also get purely random answers from people who don't care and don't pay attention. We also get response bias--some appreciable fraction of the population wants to agree with whatever the questioner asks, however stupid it might be.

The problem in getting valid survey answers is illustrated in your brother's example. When you ask people "Do you think Obama is a Muslim?" you're really asking two different questions: 1) Is he a practicing muslim, or 2) Even though Obama is a practicing Christian, do you believe rhetoric that claims Islamic law makes children born of a Muslim father Muslims themselves, (in the sense that non-believers can be Jews if their mother is a Jew). The latter opinion is quite common where I live, and whether it's actually true or not, given people's experience with Jews and the fact that most Americans don't often read tracts on Islamic Law, quite a reasonable position. So you do your survey around here, people who believe #2 say "Yes," and your brother says "OMG, they think he goes to a mosk! ROFL!"

I'm not saying he's a Muslim, I'm just saying taking silly survey results at face value is a mistake. When you see unbelievable results, take some time to relax before you start thinking up hypotheses to explain them.

PS: You know the oobleck they sell in stores for kids? Don't leave it in a hot car. :(
I'm not sure about "oblec," but I love the adjectival form-- "oblective." "That's oblectively false!" "Don't be oblective." "Oblectivity is at an all time high." Nice one.
My favorite neologism was mistranslated Russian: "rasbliuto," which, through an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a book on foreign words without English equivalents, and William Safire, entered the English language as "the emotion a man feels towards a woman he once loved and now does not."

There is no such word in Russian, but there should be, and there should be in English as well. It's a great word for a very particular and strange mixture of emotions.

Thus, my made-up word has a faux-Russian flavor. (Well, it's supposed to, at least.) Plus, "oobleck" is too unserious-looking of a word to get traction.

The "Obama is a Muslim" canard is probably not a good example of an oblec. The key to the oblec is that the speaker, prior to making the false assertion, either knows that the assertion is false or has very strong doubts about it. It's not just about being wrong; it's about being deliberately wrong and then convincing yourself you're right when confronted.

Thus, the "Obama is a Muslim" bit is an oblec only for speakers who have good reason to know it's not true and who will suddenly believe the statement when pressured. "Hurf durf the prez is a moozlim" is only an oblec for some who make that claim. I gotta choose better examples.

A very similar but not identical phenomenon is one where a person knows that statement X is untrue, or at least is pretty darn sure statement X is untrue, and yet the moment statement X falls from his lips, he believes it utterly and always will. The difference between this (which also needs a name) and an oblec is that the oblec's speaker doesn't really believe the statement until challenged. This second case is believed the moment it is spoken.

Any ideas for what to call this second case?
I just think it's awesome that ordinary non-political people have finally realized that the only way to describe the conservative philosophy is to find accurate neologisms for their damaged thought processes.
Finally, the reason people say "Obama is a Muslim" is that he's black. Remember, you have to be pretty . . . simple . . . to be a conservative. So black = Muslim, because of Louis Farrakhan. And Obama = black. You know it's true, because black = boogeyman and Muslim = boogeyman.
I don't like it. It seems to suggest that these statements are something other than patent lies.

Why do we need to have a word apologizing for these people's inability to stick to the truth? Adding a psychological element to explain away the lie seems to soften the blow of the prevarication.

I think the real issue is often more like what we saw in a zombified PhD comic:
A question for Dean Dad: What's your e-mail address? I ask because I routinely see people writing into you... but if it's on your front page or in your profile, it's not obvious to me.

Sorry for the inappropriate place, but I don't know where else to post.
Dean Dad can you get some willing volunteer to update your blog technology? I really want to be able to share this on twitter and facebook - as this idea is important.

(Would also be good to be able to move between full posts.)

TB is probably not quite old enough to make the changes yet, but it would be great if we can spread your influence more widely by sharing things easily on twitter, facebook etc, as this, and other posts, deserves to be shared.

BODD has hit the nail on the head here - it's a profound observation about human behaviour, and how direct assault doesn't work. To change we must first feel safe.
This owes a tip of the hat to the origin of the word, Dr. Seuss's Bartholemew and the Oobleck

There's also the problem that people tend to mythologize things to fit compelling narratives - people believe what they want to believe, which may or may not correspond with objective reality. Sometimes our mythologizing is harmless (like the myth of Scottish tartans, invented by an 18th century Quaker fabric manufacturer and so compelling that the Scots clans themselves immediately adopted them and believed they always had) and sometimes it's more pernicious (like the mythologizing of the 1950s as some sort of moral golden age that every other generation should be forced to conform to). But basically, if the myth fits what someone really wants to believe, no amount of explaining will dislodge the visceral response.
Cornstarch, not cornmeal!
Rosie--I thought it was cornstarch as well!

JSeliger--It's at the very top, in his description of himself and the blog (under the title).
One tiny quibble...I don't think "Obama is not a citizen" or "The Clintons had Vince Foster murdered" count as dog whistles, which are codes that the average person doesn't recognize. Tim Noah discussed the dog whistle in a Slate piece about why the Dred Scot Supreme Court case is a dog whistle for abortion foes. When the average person hears "Dred Scot", she thinks, if anything, about slavery. Turning to oblecs, howeever, when the average person hears "Obama is not an American Citizen", she thinks about...well, Obama not being a citizen! Sure, it's rhetorically inflamatory, ("us-vs.-the-alien") and meant to send a specific signal, but it's pretty straightforward nevertheless. Link to Slate piece on dog whistles: http://www.slate.com/id/2108083/
"Is there a more elegant phrase to describe oblecs?"

I know one: religion.

All religions started by being made up by someone, someone who knew it was not true but used their assertions to gain power over others. Over time, though, people came to believe them to be true.
There's good political science and psychology research on this one. Start here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/14/AR2008091402375.html . The basic idea is that our minds are jury-rigged products of evolution in which social forces have strong influence, and that the semi-implicit model of "reason" that pointy-headed academics and liberals like us bring to these discussions is misapplied (to ourselves as well as our Fox News watching friends).
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