[My brother-in-law, Jerry, commented on and criticized some aspects of my essay “Chopping Onions and Pragmatism” which is posted at http://www.massline.org/Philosophy/ScottH/ChoppingOnions.htm Below is his letter, and my response.]
-------------- Original message --------------
Very entertaining and as always very well written. I truly enjoyed it!
In the way of comment and rebuttal:
…could one make an argument for “common sense”?
…and a comparison of chopping onions and the Bush administrations war policies……a bit of a stretch and opportunistic in venting ones views.
Could there be an argument that scientific evidence is not reading and believing what you read on the internet that supports your view but instead to use evidence based scientific discovery…I’m not even so sure that a brief study or anecdotal review using double blind people cutting onions in a “still” room might suffice …and yes, perhaps with and without bread in their mouth.
Ah, but the point was about pragmatism wasn’t it? Oh well.
Date: April 16, 2007
Thanks for the comments!
Regarding “common sense”, I’m not exactly sure what your point is. It is true that most of the time while engaged in our daily activities we have to work according to “common sense”, and also that it is impossible to try to “think deeply” about every little common sense sort of thing we do. For example, we can’t spend a long time thinking about every single step we take; we’d never get anywhere! (This is part of the point being made by those who talk about “paralysis by over-analysis”.)
On the other hand, there are errors in what we call common sense too, and common sense has to change as science advances. At one time, the common sense view was that the world is flat. Especially where our “common sense” keeps getting us into trouble we have to start investigating matters more closely, and think about whether our old common sense in that sphere really makes sense.
In the case of chopping onions, as our knowledge of just what is causing the tear problem in the first place becomes deeper, our “common sense” about how to avoid that problem should also become more sophisticated.
>> ... and a comparison of chopping onions and the
The point I was trying to make is that not just in small tasks like chopping onions, but in all of our activities, most people are not trained to be skeptical nor to investigate the situation and think about it. They are thus easily led into error in politics, for example, especially by demagogues who claim to represent their interests. A thousand examples of this could be given, including Hitler’s leadership of the German nation into World War II for “Lebensraum” and the redress of supposed past injustices. These goals were actually in the interests of the capitalist ruling class of Germany, but not in the interests of most of the German people.
The example I chose in the essay, however, was the contemporary one of the current war in Iraq. In that case the American people were easily tricked into supporting the invasion and conquest of Iraq on the grounds that it was a means of preventing more 9/11 type attacks back home. In reality this is just the sort of imperialist activity that led to the 9/11 attack in the first place! (The primary demand of al Qaeda has always been that the U.S. military get out of the Middle East, and especially Saudi Arabia. For proof of this see, for example, the book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, by Robert Pape, a conservative professor at the University of Chicago.) Contrary to what the government and media led people to believe before the war, Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (though of course the U.S. itself has enormous quantities of them!), Iraq had no connection with al Qaeda (and in fact Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were bitter enemies), and invading and occupying Iraq has not helped lessen the terrorism problem. Quite the contrary! Most of this was known to even moderately informed people before the war, and many of us on the left in particular were proclaiming this at anti-war demos before the war even began. But a majority of the people in this country were easily fooled at that time, and were easily won to support Bush and the war. Of course now most Americans recognize that the invasion and war has been a disaster for the U.S. (though they are not much concerned about the vastly greater disaster it has been for the people of Iraq).
The broader point was to try to bring out how the same sort of pragmatism and lack of investigation and thought that leads to many small everyday problems also leads to far more serious problems when it comes to religion, politics, and other important matters. This is why the examples I gave of religion and politics were not extraneous to the essay, but actually integral to it. There was no “opportunism” in my bringing up these larger examples of the sort of problem that I was discussing; the real opportunism was in the demagogy of the Bush regime’s use of lying arguments in order to try to gain a tighter control of Mid-eastern oil.
>> Could there be an argument that scientific
Perhaps you are suggesting here that there was also “pragmatism” on my part in my citing of information from the Internet, on the grounds that there is a lot of false information floating around there. First of all, I fully agree that there is a lot of erroneous information on the Internet! I referred to some of what I take to be that false information out there in my essay, such as the claims that putting bread in the mouth, lighting a candle, etc., might be effective in stopping “onion tears”.
However, I think you may be rather unjustly implying that everything on the Internet is unreliable. That is just not true. The greatest source of both truth and falsehood in the world is now the Internet! The question, of course, is how to separate the two. My approach in my essay, and in researching it, was to be suspicious of mere claims, and to seek out reports of actual experiments and the currently accepted scientific explanation for how slicing onions leads to tears in the person’s eyes. In other words, it was not a question of my looking around the Internet for support for my existing ideas! That was not my approach at all. (And by the way, my pre-existing ideas on the topic themselves came from reading various science magazines over the years, especially Scientific American and Discover magazine. Except for a few small gaps in time, I’ve been reading Scientific American for almost 50 years now.)
Are you suggesting that what I described as the current scientific theory of “onion tears” is not really the current scientific theory? That is of course possible, but do you have any evidence to support that idea? My information came from a number of sites on the Internet (which I footnoted), one of which was a long direct quotation from an article on the topic in New Scientist magazine—which is a well-respected publication.
It is true, however, that reports (on the Internet or elsewhere) of tests of popular ideas about how to prevent onion tears have to be taken with a grain of salt. Experimenters can also fool themselves (though as a group they are probably much less likely to do so). Furthermore, you are right that none of the tests of various theories that I referred to in my essay were really as careful and scientific as one could ideally desire. I’m sure none of them used double-blind controls, for example, and probably not even “single-blind” controls. This would actually be fairly hard to do in the bread-in-mouth case, though not impossible. (The subject would know about the bread in his mouth, of course! Then a container possibly containing recently chopped onions would be put in front of the subject, but in a way such that neither the subject nor the experimenter would know at the time if it did contain onions. Then on top of this, the subject and the experimenter would have to have a separate air supply for breathing so that they could not tell simply from the smell whether onions were present.)
That is the sort of thing one would have to do to be really careful and fully scientific here! But, actually, I think the basic truth about a simple matter like this can be pretty reliably determined without going to all that fuss! Yes, people have a tendency to fool themselves about the correctness of their own theories, but in a case like this it usually comes about because there are multiple factors present that could affect the outcome. (Such as Mom putting bread in her mouth but also going outside.) The basic task in a simple experiment on something like this is to try to reduce such possibly relevant factors in each trial to just one.
If Mom stays inside next time, with the bread in her mouth, but with no other measures (such as open windows) taken to prevent the tears problem, and she still reports that chopping up a bunch of (normal) onions produced no tears, then I will agree that things need to be investigated further!
Philosophy Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG
Scott H.’s Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG
MASSLINE.ORG Home Page