Print Story Subduction Phrases
Religion & Philosophy
By Alan Crowe (Sun Feb 04, 2007 at 05:00:17 AM EST) (all tags)

When we desire the psychological benefits of a false belief how may we obtain them? One way is to play "I'll believe if you'll believe". Another way is to use a clever, obfuscating phrase to push the doubts down into the subconscious. Provided we don't go digging the phrase allays our doubts and yields the full psychological benefits of the belief just as if it were true

It is in principle impossible to give a good example of a subduction phrase.

A good example is both short and clear. A subduction phrase is effective at obfuscating a vexed issue. An explanation will have to take its time untangling the muddle created by the subduction phrase. An expositor must chose between brief or being clear.

A good example should work with the reader's emotions; it is chosen so that the reader's attempt to understand is not an uphill struggle against what he desires. A subduction phrase is an artifact. It is constructed to obtain a psychological benefit. Explaining it away lets subconscious doubts rise into consciousness which deprives the reader of the pleasant benefit. To the extent that an example tackles a real subduction phrase, taken from the wild, it is an ill-chosen example that places in emotional blocks in the reader's path

Example one

I was prodded into thinking about this by "I believe in God". Allah will not let you in to Heaven for practising Christianity. You will not get a good re-incarnation by practising Islam. Jesus will have some tough things to say about your treatment of untouchables while you were a Hindu. If you take religion seriously you are playing Russian Roulette with 5 chambers loaded. "Why does God hide, leaving us to chose and leaving most of us to chose wrongly by lamely following our parents?" It is a tough question. Saying "I believe in God" muddles all the different religions together, dodging the question of what one actually believes. I wrote 2500 words about this on Saturday without getting to the point of clicking submit.

Example two

Can I come up with a less fraught example of a subduction phrase? How about

From each according to his ability
To each according to his need.
I think that is the classic because of the way it paralyses the intellect. There are all sorts of loose threads. Don't we need an incentive structure to draw out persons' potential. Aren't abilities more like seeds to be watered and cultivated than assets to be seized. Are luxuries necessary? If needs are narrow we say very little about a society above subsistence. If needs are broad we surrender ourselves to the adjudicators of need. Benjamin Franklin noted that a penny saved is a penny earned: the minimisation of need is a productive ability! The man of genius lives in a push world, not a pull world. His struggle is to give according to his ability in the face of others' reluctance to receive. And so on...

The slogan is also a classic because it is such a feel-good phrase. There are lots of loose threads but we are reluctant to tug on any of them. They all hurt. Whichever thread we tug we are unravelling our snug woolly jumper and exposing our back to the cruel lash of reality.

Example three

Risk factors

We all know that correlation does not imply causation, but how is science to progress? Let me quote Clark Glymour writing in the preface to Computation, Causation, & Discovery

Until very recently, these problems more of less neatly divided methodologists into a skeptical group who held that without randomized controlled experiments, reliable causal inference is impossible, period, end of story; and an optimistic group who held that either prior "theory" or various ad hoc search procedures can be used to discover causal relations from associations in nonexperimental data. (In contrast, perhaps sensitive to the difficulties, practitioners who have available only nonexperimental data often fudge the question of whether they are offering conclusions or hypotheses about associations or about causal structures, and equally fudge the question of what sorts of predictions their hypotheses entail. The language of science has changed to aid the ambiguity; thus conclusions of epidemiological studies are often stated, not in terms either of associations or of causes, but in terms of "risk factors," which sometimes mean one thing and sometimes the other.
We want the joy of getting to the bottom of things, but our nonexperimental data fall short of supporting causal inferences. We can enjoy the psychological benefits of feeling that we have penetrated deeply into the subject of our research by driving epistemological doubt from our conscious mind by sufficient repetition of the sacred mantra "risk factor".

Example four

People before Profit

When a businessman spends £100 on wood and £500 on a cabinet makers wages, and puts the resulting cabinet in his showroom at £800, what happens? Either if sells and he makes £200 profit or he marks it down to half price to be rid of it and takes a £200 loss. The venture is either a success and he repeats it, or a failure and he tries something else. When we say "people before profit" we are asking that the timber merchant get £150 for his wood, the cabinet maker get £600 for his labour, I still get my cabinet at a bargain price of £400, and the £350 loss is thrown into a littoral trench and subducted underneath the minds crust.

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