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The imagination gap, part 2

Wed 12 Dec 2018 by mskala Tags used: , , ,

This is the second part of a three-part series on the cognitive deficit in hypothetical thinking: some people seem unable to handle thinking about a difference between what is real and what is imagined. In the first part, I discussed this deficit as an abstraction. In this second part, I'll look at some legal and political examples.

Read part 1 here.

Amateur lawyers and inclusion

Some people believe legal theories constructed by amateurs, either themselves or others within a semi-underground community, that cause them to reject the jurisdiction of courts and the authority of the government to do things like impose taxes. These theories are diverse and often bizarre. For instance, one strain centres on the idea that banknotes are debts of the national central bank each secured by a specific asset, namely the physical body of one citizen. There are secret files connecting the serial number of each banknote with the birth certificate number of the citizen whose body secures that banknote. Therefore, each citizen has a secret account in the national bank, containing all the money from the securitization of that citizen's body. Those with the proper secret knowledge can extract the money from their accounts by writing documents with unusual ritualistic wording ("sight draft," "accept for value," and so on), and such documents may be used to pay debts.

People who believe this sort of thing are often called "tax protesters" because one conclusion frequently drawn from their theories is that they aren't required to pay income tax. Some of their arguments are specific to income tax. For instance, in the USA, there is a whole family of amateur legal theories centred on attempts to prove that the Sixteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, authorizing a Federal income tax "without apportionment among the several States," is not valid for some reason. However, I think there may be some selection bias involved in classifying the phenomenon as being about income tax. Many people may believe wacky legal theories that are not about taxes at all. We are just more likely to hear about these theories if the believers end up in court, and the ones who decide not to pay taxes are more likely to be taken to court for it than the ones who act upon other conclusions.

Whatever we call it, this phenomenon seems to be most frequent in the USA and Canada, much rarer elsewhere. I don't have recent, accurate statistics, but my impression is that the phenomenon particularly aimed at income tax peaked in the 2000s. I think the rise of the Internet made it easier for these people to organize in groups and disseminate their ideas, but within the last ten years it has faded and become submerged in other red pill movements that may be focused less specifically on legal theory, let alone income tax. There is unquestionable overlap between tax protest and libertarian ideology. The idea that there can be no legal obligation other than a contract is common in tax-protester theories, and derives from libertarianism; and individualist groups like "Freemen On The Land" and "Posse Comitatus" are often tax protesters on the side.

All that stuff is fascinating, but I don't plan to write much more about the general phenomenon here. I recommend reading the 188-page reasons for decision of Justice Rooke of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta in Meads v. Meads, 2012 ABQB 571. He goes in detail through the tactics, history, motivations, and legal status of what he calls "OPCA litigants" (for "Organized Pseudolegal Commercial Argument"). That name may partly come from trying not to limit the discussion to income tax; as I said myself, the pattern commonly called "tax protest" seems to be bigger than income tax even if its consequences that come before the courts seem frequently to be related to income tax. The underlying case of Meads v. Meads was in fact a divorce case. The reasons for decision contain many interesting points, and I recommend again that you should read the whole thing as a generally interesting document, but in the present article I want to highlight just one thing mentioned almost in passing in the reasons: the following point from paragraph 271. All the internal notes, formatting, and citations are from the court document.

[271] Another Admiralty Law based argument illustrates how the word "includes" seems to baffle OPCA litigants. I have personally received a "foisted unilateral agreement" (see below) that explains that "Canada" is restricted to the oceans that surround the landmass and its internal waters. The writer explains the basis of this argument is the Interpretation Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-21, s. 35(1), which reads in part:

35. (1) In every enactment,


"Canada", for greater certainty, includes the internal waters of Canada and the territorial sea of Canada ... [Emphasis added.]

Rooke says the word "includes" seems to baffle some litigants. That comment jumped out at me when I first read this document back in 2012, and it stuck in my mind and still seems like the most important thing in the 188 pages. It's a pattern I've noticed frequently myself when nonprofessionals interpret law, and it looks like the same effect I've noticed with my Web log entries too, as described in Part 1: a general pattern illustrated by specific examples will be given the interpretation that no other examples exist.

Whenever legal language says that some thing "includes" one or more other things, some amateur lawyers will say the thing includes only the mentioned examples and nothing else. The Interpretation Act says Canada includes water. It only mentions water and not land, so the land I'm sitting on as I write this in Toronto, is not actually part of Canada. Is that just a malicious attempt to waste a court's time? I think there are people who sincerely believe it.

Daniel B. Evans, in the Tax Protester FAQ, also highlights the specific point of tax protesters interpreting "includes" as not including anything not mentioned. For instance, there is apparently a section in the US tax code (3401(c)) saying the set of employees subject to income tax includes government employees; and one of the standard tax protester arguments is that because of that, only government employees have to pay income tax. Note the possible connection to the frequent claim of even moderate right-wingers that public-sector jobs are not real jobs and should not be counted in employment statistics. Someone who believes that may be especially eager to believe employees of the government are also in a special class by being the only taxable employees. A similar argument holds that only the city of Washington, D.C. counts as the United States, because there's a sentence in a statute somewhere saying the United States "includes" Washington and not also mentioning the rest of the country. That follows the same pattern as the argument that Canada contains no land.

There is no reason for this specific confusion to be unique to tax protesters, and I think it isn't. Throughout my time as a student, at Camosun College, the University of Victoria, and the University of Waterloo, I was involved in clubs and student government. That's a pursuit in which non-lawyers often end up trying to interpret laws and legal wording. Throughout this career I regularly witnessed the tax protester type of reasoning applied in practice, and the claim that "includes" includes nothing except specifically listed examples was an old favourite. With the anime club, for instance, we would have endless arguments about copyright and other legal and policy issues related to having public performances of fan-translated Japanese television shows. Someone would dig up a section of the Copyright Act, or from the University's own policy manual, where it said that forbidden activities "include" such-and-such things, and then the claim would be that we didn't have to worry about breaking the rule because what we wanted to do was not one of the specific examples on the list. I think some of these people sincerely believed what they were saying and were not just trying to use it as a pretext for ignoring rules.

When I wrote in 2007 about the Terrible Secret of Livejournal, I said that the material accepted by fan communities in that time and place included copyright violations and child pornography and that the audience for it included women as well as men. Oh, boy. I spent the rest of the episode dealing with certain members of the community who read that, and reported it to each other with over-the-top commentary, as my having said all fan material consisted entirely of copyright-violating child pornography consumed only by women. Nothing I could ever say would make it sink in that I meant inclusion without limitation. There were plenty more cases of includes-with-examples wording being claimed not to include anything else but the examples, in the amateur legal theories these people put forward for why their kiddie porn was actually legal after all. Child pornography also raises a different question of hypotheticality which I'll discuss in Part 3.

So confusion over "includes" is not limited to income tax cases nor to the "real" court system. It's not only used by persons who are obvious cranks in other ways. It's often but not only deployed by the right-wingers (tax protesters being uniformly right-wing), bearing in mind that everybody in Livejournal fandom and student government during my generation was politically left of centre. It's not only something they learn by reading tax protester literature. The misinterpretation of the word "includes" as denoting an exclusive list seems to be just a naturally occurring reaction of some non-lawyers when confronted by legal writing.

But it also isn't just that specific word. It happened with my Web log even on occasions when I was careful to avoid the word "includes" and to spell out that my lists of examples were not exhaustive. Amateur lawyers struggle with the general concept of inclusion without limitation, even when inclusion without limitation is conveyed by other words than "include." The problem is not solved by switching to a different word or citing the dictionary definition of "includes." Laws, regulations, and other writings that contain examples illustrating general concepts are still misunderstood in the same way, as not including anything not listed, regardless of the specific words used. The concept itself is the problem.

Evans comments that a "surprisingly large number of tax protester arguments" hinge on misunderstanding the word "includes." Rooke talks about litigants "baffled" by this word. I myself have achieved a state of disbelief when confronted by participants in student groups who spouted nonsense based on not understanding inclusion without limitation, in apparent sincerity. As persons capable of "as if" thinking we look upon persons who make this mistake as if they are aliens beamed in from orbit. To a normally functioning mind, the concept of inclusion without limitation is so simple and straightforward that the eventuality of someone not understanding inclusion without limitation as a fully general concept is strange. And yet, such people clearly do exist, and they exist in significant numbers. Maybe the explanation is that they do not have normally functioning minds: they have a cognitive deficit.

If so, it seems like the same cognitive deficit I have described elsewhere in this series of postings. It's a deficit in cognition of hypotheticals. Any time a set or category is illustrated by things it "includes," with or without that word, a demand is placed on the reader to conceive of the hypothetical other examples not listed. If the reader has a cognitive deficit with respect to all hypothetical things in general, what happens? Maybe that reader rejects any distinction between the set and the list of examples, thinks the examples are the only ones that exist, and acts accordingly. A widespread general deficit in hypothetical cognition provides an explanation for the otherwise hard to explain inability of some amateur lawyers to comprehend inclusion without limitation.

As a possible future direction of thought: what is the intersection of this issue with recent use of the word "inclusion" to describe giving special status to identity groups of human beings in an enterprise? If someone were unable to comprehend the possibility of any identity group being "included" unless explicitly named on a list somewhere, to what policies would that belief lead?


Here's a very famous quote from one of our deep thinkers.

And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything. [source]

Cats and kittens, I give you the President of the United States. Let's break that quote down.

He said "they let you do it." There is no ambiguity. This quote is describing consensual activity.

He said "you." He didn't say "I." It's worth mentioning that this is pretty clearly the generic "you" referring to an unspecified hypothetical person, not the usual second-person pronoun referring to the specific person he was talking to at the time. (See my earlier article on how words that are spelled and pronounced the same can have importantly different meanings depending on how they're used.) If speaking in a more formal register of English, he might have said that "one can do anything." But even if one wants to ignore that point and interpret this word in this quote as the plain second person pronoun referring to a specific real person, the word "you" is not the same word as "I"; at most it could have referred to Billy Bush, to whom he was speaking, not to Donald Trump himself.

He said "can." Few words place a sentence more firmly in the realm of the hypothetical than this one. Talking about what "you can do" is different from talking about what "I do." So, beyond question, this quote is hypothetical. Other things said in the same conversation may have been less so, but there's no doubt about the hypothetical status of "Grab 'em by the pussy."

The very first reporting on what's now called "the Access Hollywood tape" captured some of these distinctions, and included other parts of the tape - for instance, a segment in which Trump talked about not having sex with a married woman because she apparently did not consent, respect for consent being a fundamental value and assumption. David Fahrenthold's piece in the Washington Post is this kind of coverage, pretty much just reporting what each person had said without adding much interpretation. The New York Times and the other usual suspects printed similar reports. Fahrenthold quotes the important "they let you do it" clause in the first paragraph of his story.

Donald Trump bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation caught on a hot microphone, saying that "when you're a star, they let you do it," according to a video obtained by The Washington Post. [source]

But then we all lost our shit! Everybody forgot about everything on that tape except just five words. Those five words became the headline, and most of the story.

Headline on Vox article by Libby Nelson: "Grab 'em by the pussy": how Trump talked about women in private is horrifying [source]

All the qualifiers and context were trimmed off, or better yet, inverted. The quote about an hypothetical unspecified person being able to grab an hypothetical consenting woman by the pussy was transformed, perhaps by a deficit in magical thinking, into what was reported as a factual statement about Donald Trump himself assaulting unconsenting women in real life. "You can" was reported as if it were "I do." Groping was reported as "sexual assault," a more general term that does include groping (see my comments about inclusion without limitation) but more typically refers to full-on rape. And these changes had consequences beyond just being fake news, as Republicans lined up to condemn the statement Trump never made.

Jethro Nededog, Business Insider, emphasis mine: Trump also bragged that he could grope women and kiss them without consent because of his celebrity status. [source]

Jerry Iannelli, Miami New Times: When the Washington Post initially published the now-infamous tape last week of Trump bragging about kissing women and grabbing them "by the pussy" without their consent, Rubio called Trump's remarks "vulgar, egregious, and impossible to justify." [source]

John McCain, quoted in Newsweek: "But Donald Trump's behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy." [source]

Editorials, commentaries, and even the actions of his colleagues in the Republican Party were exactly as if he had said something completely different from what was on the tape. If the distortion was not malicious, then it seems those making comments simply could not comprehend the difference between the real and the hypothetical, between what Trump had really said and what they wanted him to have said. Could this be a cognitive deficit?

Hadley Freeman, The Guardian: Trump proved that boasting about sexually assaulting women, far from ruining a man's career, can boost it[.] [source]

Emily Crockett, Vox again: Let's be clear: "Sexual assault" is absolutely the right way to describe what Trump says on those tapes. It's possible that Trump was boasting to Billy Bush in 2005 about something that didn't happen, but when Trump claims he "can do anything" to women because he's a star, including "grab 'em by the pussy," he is describing sexual assault. That is what you call it when someone grabs a woman and touches her genitals without her consent. [source]

There's a grudging nod in that last one that it's "possible" the pussy grab was not an actual incident, but even then the writer frames it as a lie instead an hypothetical - just as if she doesn't see a difference between those two things. And the explicit statement in the Trump quote that the speaker is describing a consensual as well as hypothetical encounter, is simply denied. Vox and the Guardian say he said the opposite of what he said.

No time for conspiracies

So, Donald Trump said something, and it was treated exactly as if he had said something else. Why?

It would be easy to cook up a theory of a global conspiracy of all the news media to make Trump look bad, and some of his supporters no doubt believe such a conspiracy exists and maybe the man even believes it himself. But if everybody were going to collude to make him look bad, why not just make up a fake quote in which he says what we all want him to have said? Such a thing would be hard to disprove. Why say he said something, but include in the article a quote in which he did not say that? Wouldn't everybody notice? Why didn't everybody notice?

It wouldn't even need to be faked. There are real quotes that would much better support the claim that Donald Trump bragged about groping, or otherwise assaulting or harassing, unconsenting women. He made a lot of "I" statements not qualified by "can" in other parts of that very same tape. Someone who wanted to build the case could easily do so, just not with that particular quote. The pussy grab line is one of the most innocuous things he said. So it'd be easy to accuse me of cherry-picking the few sentences for my example that make him sound least horrible.

But it wasn't my idea to pick that particular quote. That quote, just as I quoted it without any less-hypothetical "I" statements, is the one conventionally presented as the highlight of the transcript. "Grab 'em by the pussy" is the headline we all remember. Why choose this weak quote in particular as the star evidence of Trump's "misogyny" when it is lousy evidence that falls apart upon scrutiny, and better evidence is also available?

One interesting reason someone might choose, out of the entire transcript, to emphasize the quote that least supports the claim "Donald Trump grabs unconsenting women by the pussy in real life," is that whoever makes such a choice thereby demonstrates their own stumbling eagerness to believe the claim. Scott Alexander wrote about this effect in The Toxoplasma of Rage: "If you want to signal how strongly you believe in taking victims seriously, you talk about it in the context of the least credible case you can find." Or, as I might rephrase it to use lower-stakes concepts than his example of false rape accusations: if you want to show you're law-abiding, you do it by objecting to jaywalking, not by objecting to murder. Signalling your opinions works best in weak cases where your opinions are more daring.

Anybody can be angry about things Donald Trump has really done. Almost anybody can be angry about things he only said he did. But if you want to prove that you really really hate him, more than the rest of us do? Maybe you also have to be angry about things he did not say he did. Caring about what Trump says a hypothetical "you" "can" do to women who do not exist, is a better demonstration of how deeply you care than caring about what he says he has done himself in real life with women who do exist.

Although it's appealing as an explanation of some behaviour, I think that the "choosing a weak example to signal strong conviction" line of thinking is not the best explanation for the general reaction to the "grab 'em by the pussy" quote. For one thing, I don't believe that anti-Trump bias in the media covers such a large fraction of media outlets, nor is as extreme in the places where it exists, as universal adoption of the "choosing a weak example" strategy would imply. Note the less distorted early reports of the tape story: the distortion ramped up quickly, but only when the meta-commentary kicked in. It didn't start out with outright falsehoods as a conspiracy-organized campaign might have, and many of the media channels publishing inaccurate interpretations of the quote are not obviously anti-Trump.

While gathering references for this article, I noticed that disproportionately many of the hits on my Web searches for G.E.B.T.P. headlines ended up being Vox articles. It's by no means only Vox making a big deal of this quote, putting it in headlines, and interpreting it as if it were real. Those things were common practice throughout the media. But Vox led the charge, and Vox on its own wouldn't make for much of a conspiracy.

And as I said before, a true conspiracy would just fabricate quotes outright. I prefer the hypothesis that what happened here was a sincere attempt at reporting what those doing the reporting perceived as fact: they really thought that he said "I do," despite their also quoting the exact words "you can," and the reason they thought this was because they were unable to comprehend the difference between "you can" and "I do" in general.

If and only if one sees, acknowledges, and comprehends absolutely no difference between real and hypothetical things; if one treats the words "you can" as being exactly the same as "I do," so that every statement about an hypothetical person is really about oneself and vice versa; then and only then "You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy." is the worst thing Donald Trump said on the Access Hollywood tape, and much worse than other statements he made about milder (but real) things he attributed to himself rather than to an hypothetical "you." Then and only then this particular quote could be evidence that he routinely grabs unconsenting women by the pussy in real life, it'd be truthful to report it as such, and the pussy-grab sentence (instead of anything that really happened) would be the important thing to report. I think that's how the headline came to be. The commentators didn't understand that there's a difference between real and hypothetically described events; or at best, they thought such a difference was not meaningful to their audiences.

A mental blind spot. To paraphrase Hanlon's Razor, never ascribe to conspiracy that which can adequately be explained by a widespread cognitive deficit.

I don't want to belabour Donald Trump, but this kind of confusion seems to affect those commenting on him especially frequently. Any time he says anything hypothetical, it'll be treated as if it were real when it gets reported. Here's another example. After the Trump administration imposed high import tariffs that would make it unprofitable for Ford hatchbacks made in China to be imported to the USA, Ford cancelled its plans to do so.

Donald Trump, internal quotes and citation his: "Ford has abruptly killed a plan to sell a Chinese-made small vehicle in the U.S. because of the prospect of higher U.S, Tariffs." CNBC. This is just the beginning. The car can now be BUILT IN THE U.S.A. and Ford will pay no tariffs! [source]

Mike Levine, Ford North America Product Communications Manager: It would not be profitable to build the Focus Active in the U.S. given an expected annual sales volume of fewer than 50,000 units and its competitive segment. [source]

Global News Canada headline: Ford says it won't move hatchback production to the U.S., contradicting Trump [source]

See what happened there? Trump said that Ford can make the vehicle in the USA. Levine reiterated the earlier statement of his employers that they won't make the vehicle in the USA, giving some indication of why not, and notwithstanding the promised favourable tariff treatment. Note that although Levine was writing in support of a factual situation (Ford's cancellation of the import plan), what he actually wrote was just as hypothetical as Trump's comment - Levine writes about how it would be unprofitable in the hypothetical case of not cancelling the plan. Those two parties are clear with themselves and each other on what's real and what's imagined. But Global reported this as Ford "contradicting" Trump. The word "won't" is not a contradiction of "can." These two words refer to different worlds. Ford's cancellation of planned imports from China to the USA is the real world; Trump's comment was about the hypothetical possibility of their doing production in the USA. It's only a contradiction to someone who sees no difference between "can" and "will."

One of the favourite insults for Donald Trump is that he is "childish." But is having an operational knowledge of the difference between reality and imagination more or less childish than confusing the two?

One other thought: if we searched our society for someone likely to have the greatest proficiency at identifying and making effective use of fine distinctions among reality, hypothetical reality, fantasy, fiction, and so forth, what would be the job title of such a person? Maybe "reality TV star."

Go to Part 3

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You had me on Part 1. Part 2... though. I don't think you'll like what I have to say. Not after the section of part one about criticisms of your examples when really you want to focus on the general concept.

There are conspiracies. And there are conspiracy nuts. And there are people who narrowly define things in such a way that it violates common sense. Those follow from Part 1. However the other examples that you have provided can be explained not as any of that, but as simple motivated self interest.

For example, I remember protests against the Olympic Games in BC. People protesting were forced to remove the BC Olympic logo that was part of their protest from their windows. The official reason stated by enforcement officers- Copyright Law. This was absurd. Clearly beyond the scope of Copyright law. Except the people who's goal was to silence protest could (and did) get away with it. In one sense it could be called a "conspiracy" as it was an illegal act involving multiple people. A more accurate description is that they could get away with it, so they did.

Similarly there were protests against the G20 summit in Toronto. The actions of the police went beyond their legal authority in a clearly defined space and measuring of meters kind of way. Again the goal was to silence protest. Again they knew could (and did) get away with it. Again this could be called a "conspiracy" and again a more accurate description is that people could get away with it, so they did.

I use those examples not because they are protests nor because I'm against government in some way. I use them only as a contrast to the masses ignorant of the law. Those examples were decisions made by law enforcement officials, practicing lawyers and career politicians (politicians who are often members of the other two categories). In short, they know better. What they did was not a cognitive deficit in hypothetical thinking. It was the use of extra-legal force because they could. The "legal interpretation" was just a tangential justification for an outcome they wanted.

Then there is the historical use of EULAs. They had absolutely no legal merit in the 80s and early 90s. Zero. They were a joke.
Microsoft was the pioneer for changing them into something else. Without any laws being passed EULAs became more accepted. And now they are commonly accepted by both people and courts. What happened there? It wasn't mass insanity. Nor were Microsoft's lawyers in the 80s delusional. They had an interpretation goal and worked towards collective acceptance of it. Same thing happened way back when (1800s? before 1950? I forget) with the definition of a corporation. A corporation was NOT a legal entity years ago. A fringe US court precedent (very similar to Citizen's United in the USA) moved the definition. Now we can't imagine a time where it wasn't true.

The examples are just humans being humans. And humans attempting to get a leg up on other humans. This behavior can be explained through power and power plays. (Excluding fringe elements like Canada doesn't include Toronto- which is in line with Part 1.) It does not need to be a global conspiracy for a headline to be constructed around the word "pussy". Nor is advocating for a certain interpretation of law need be a form cognitive deficit. It can just be people exerting their will on the world in a collective way that benefits themselves.

Another explanation is that reasonable people can disagree. There are Supreme Court of Canada rulings that I think are stupid insanity without legal merit. In a "what the hell were they thinking?!" kind of reaction. The dissenting opinion makes complete sense to me though. Even if I cannot understand it, I have to accept that it has merit. After all, the majority has the correct interpretation by very definition. Maybe it is a failing on my part to understand? I submit that could have been the case with your University clubs. Perhaps instead of a cognitive deficit in hypothetical thinking, they simply had a (correct or incorrect) different interpretation than you did. Perhaps they had a specific case precedent in mind but never verbalized.

Fun fact: In Roe v Wade, a US Supreme Court Justice (in the minority opinion) argued that 1)All US citizens are the property of the US government. 2)That two US citizens having a child are licensing the uterus from the US government. O.o... What kind of twisted legal logic is that? Was he insane? Or was he working backwards from the ruling he wanted his fellow judges to accept and twisting anything he could to get there? I say it was the last one. He only had to convince 4 individuals and then that nonsense would have been factually true.

Note I believe your general concept has merit. However I believe the examples in part 2 undermine it. They need to be more rigorous. Perhaps something more confined to individual thinking rather than group? IDK. For example my mother is incapable of putting herself in someone else's shoes if she feels their concern is silly. Like with phobias. If someone is scared of plastic spiders she'll go out of her way to trigger that person's phobia only because she thinks it is silly. Not funny, but that the actual phobia lacks merit. It is not a lack of empathy per se. As she can respect a phobia of real spiders. It is a lack of empathy with anything she cannot conceptually grasp and applies broadly in her life.

BTW the legal word you are looking for is "exhaustive" when it comes to "includes" in regards to defined vs undefined lists. The law is generally pretty good about using "exhaustive" when it applies.
Steve - 2018-12-14 18:17
Thanks for thinking about it carefully. As I said to youzicha's comment on part 1, being able to think about hypotheticals does not mean a person can't still be simply wrong. It's certainly not a recipe for automatically getting the right answers to questions. However, I think the ability to comprehend hypotheticality is a *necessary* condition for thinking clearly about a lot of important issues, even if it isn't *sufficient*. Anybody inclined to get the wrong answers for other reasons certainly isn't going to have their thinking improved by also not understanding the difference between what's real and what's imagined.

Can the failure of amateur lawyers to understand the word "includes" be explained by some means other than an organic deficit in hypothetical thinking? Sure. Most examples I am grouping into this phenomenon can - individually - be explained by other means too. For amateur legal reasoning in particular, you seem to be suggesting that many people might be capable of understanding what the word "includes" means, but they are more or less deliberately not using that ability, so that they can argue to a desired conclusion. Call it motivated reasoning, bad faith, wishful thinking, tactical disingenuity, or what you like. I'm sure that happens sometimes. *Real* lawyers are expected to do something like that as part of their jobs. My claim in this series, which I grant will be almost impossible to prove conclusively, is that it's not always a deliberate choice. I think some people really *can't* understand this kind of abstraction. Some people don't understand "includes," or believe Donald Trump said "I do" when the tape recorded "you can," because of cognitive limitations. One reason I think this is that many of them seem so sincere about it. But maybe they're just good at fooling me. If it is a cognitive deficit, the fact is worth knowing because it has consequences: it means that people shouldn't be blamed for doing it, and that we probably won't be able to talk them out of it just by making a more convincing argument.

The legal-reasoning example is not the strongest one and it's one I wasn't sure I should include. It's something that has been on my list to write about for a while, but it possibly could have been better spun off into a separate posting instead of being directly presented as part of the hypothetical-deficit series. One reason I wanted to include it here, though, is because I wanted to avoid any implication that the deficit in hypothetical thinking is limited to the left side of the current culture war. Some of my other examples, if considered in isolation, might support a claim that it's only the left wing who make this mistake. I don't believe that is the case; I want to make clear that the right does it too, and it's bigger than the culture war; and I don't want to give anyone who might be on the left an excuse to dismiss my writings as "partisan." Tax protesters are a good example of right-wingers in particular who can't handle the boundary between reality and make-believe.
Matt - 2018-12-15 10:07
"As a possible future direction of thought: what is the intersection of this issue with recent use of the word 'inclusion' to describe giving special status to identity groups of human beings in an enterprise? If someone were unable to comprehend the possibility of any identity group being 'included' unless explicitly named on a list somewhere, to what policies would that belief lead?"

Is this how we end up with acronyms like LGBTQIAAP? Because trying to define a group as "including [list of specific examples] invariably leads to someone not on that list saying they've been excluded, and the addition of one more letter?
Ian - 2019-01-23 11:07
Yes, it sure looks that way...
Matt - 2019-01-23 11:21
I must say I really am not a fan of this one like I was the other two. You ask why they would not fabricate quotes, when everyone who pays any attention to the despicable state of media bias already knows the answer: the media doesn't like to outright lie, no matter how dishonest they otherwise get, and instances of it actually happening are retracted and punished. I like to think it's because the people on the other end despise lies on a fundamental level, view lying as debasing themselves for clicks, and just creatively rationalize why that doesn't apply to merely raping the truth. If you are more cynical than I am, which is very, you might instead assume it's because concrete lies are way easier to build a defamation suit on. Either way, it happens and it's going to continue to happen.

Secondly, there is a Blue bias in the media, there has been for a while, and while it's stronger in some areas than others, it's practically unshakable. Scott Alexander's *Neutral vs Conservative: The Eternal Struggle* goes into more detail on this. This previously manifested as the paper being grating, but then Trump arrived, who was every single thing the Blue Brahmins that run the media hate: right wing, and the bad variety of right wing not smart enough to keep his trap shut about Blue-hated policies outside of closed doors; low class, and the bad kind of low class with wrestling and McDonalds and making everything yuge and ostentatious; brash and boorish in the most anti-intellectual way you can think of. I really do think you misattribute the journalists as engaging in *performative* hatred - they truly, genuinely hated him, and they wrote the most slanted things they could possibly get away with in their otherwise respected publications because they truly wanted to damage him, and if slanted garbage is written elsewhere then your piece can be even more slanted than that because you can just cite them, interpret it in good faith, and slant what they just said all over again.

Finally, nobody who reads this garbage knows the real story. The whole reason they read the paper is so they can get the real story, and they will believe whatever they read is the real story. A theory of why this garbage gets written that assumes it's all for performative reasons has to say who the performance is *for*. You can't say garbage has more performative value to the people reading it if they don't actually know it's garbage and never learn that it was. And performing for your peers isn't necessary outside of closed doors; you're only ever in danger when you commit actual wrong-think, otherwise the group stays tight-knit.

This is three years old so maybe this is all more obvious in hindsight. But as one of the targets, it *is* kind of obvious.
Adam - 2021-11-16 22:02
This article is not about Donald Trump; this article is about the widespread inability to comprehend hypotheticals.
Matt - 2021-11-17 07:22
I think another Donald Trump story proves you wrong thinking he was misquoted due to your hypothesis that people can't imagine hypotheticals.

"There were many fine people on many sides" was reported like him saying white supremacists were very fine people, but the very next words out of his mouth were "and I don't mean white supremacists, I condemn white supremacists completely"

The writers claiming that he said white supremacists are very fine people knew they were lying or had a reckless disregard for the truth by reporting the polar opposite of what was said. Today, many of those same outlets are breathlessly explaining that 7% inflation is actually a good thing. It's clear to me that they are either willfully peddling propaganda or are in an overwhelmingly powerful echo chamber. They got their sound bite, to hell with the truth.
Jay - 2022-01-18 09:52

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