Pop Culture’s IQ: The Downward Spiral

It’s not the billboard-sized issues of our day—WMD’s, Intelligent Design, Reality TV, or Sarah Palin and death panels—that point to the dumbing down of popular (and political) culture. To someone whose earliest memories include “Who Shot J.R.?” or Willie Horton or Madonna, all this may seem perfectly ordinary. Whether it’s pet rocks of the ’70s or today’s zhu zhu pets, popular culture just keeps humming along.

But when you take a longer view (OK, when you get older), you start to notice that the curve slopes down—especially when pop culture icons make a come-back after decades of obscurity. When they reappear, that is, they’re often dumbed down.

Data point one: LPs are back, and not just with purist audiophiles who know that playing records sounds a lot better than playing CDs or MP3s. (See “Vinyl Records and Turntables Are Gaining Sales”, Patrick McGeehan, The New York Times 6 December 2009).

LPs are back in mainstream pop culture. But there’s a difference.

Compare the liner notes from a current release with a dust jacket from the ’50s or’60s. What’s missing is all the technical information that routinely appeared on the back cover. The prize goes to the Everest label which released classical recordings complete with descriptions of the recording setup (“…the output of the console was fed into the new Ampex 300 self-synch stereo recorders on half inch tape…”). But nearly all LPs made in that era mention the new “full frequency” recordings they contain, and many refer to the equalization curve you should select on your hi-fi’s preamp. “For best results,” says the back of Modern Jazz Quartet’s No Sun in Venice (Atlantic 1284), “observe the new R.I.A.A. high frequency roll-off characteristic with a 500 cycle crossover.”

Yes, but classical and jazz albums, you say, were marketed not to the masses but to bachelors with college degrees, sports cars, and money—as in, “Hey, Beautiful. Why don’t you come up and hear my new full-frequency recordings?” But the point remains that in order to know what “full-frequency” or “equalization curve” mean, you have to understand some basics about the physics of sound. Even the lowest-brow dime-store album I can put my hands on, Morales’ Latin Dance Time, from the heart of the ’60s Latin dance craze, assumes that its audience understands the connection. “Say ‘Bravo’ to our engineers,” the cover copy reads in large print, “who have developed this ‘Full Frequency Sound Stereo’. Pay particular attention to the clarity of the high notes and the complete two-channel stereo separation…”

Another data point is the movie Julie & Julia, in which Meryl Streep’s Julia Child struggles to learn french cooking. She survives insults and humiliation, sex discrimination, and countless fallen souffles before she produces her 1961 classic, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Two years later, Child became the host of television’s The French Chef, a show that set the mold for other shows and eventually the entire Food TV network. What’s missing today, however, is the sophistication and intelligence about food, its history, and its chemistry, that Child taught to her viewers.

So consider this scene (and imagine Rod Serling just said that): It’s 1963. Proto-food TV junkies are in the den taking notes as Julia bakes bread and explains the biochemistry of yeast fermentation. Music buffs are down in the rec room experimenting with equalization curves on the hi-fi preamp to see which brings out the full-frequency spectrum in the latest album by The Modern Jazz Quartet. It’s hard to imagine this today and marketing departments know it. References to physics, chemistry, and the hard work required to understand what it is we’re buying, or baking, have been gradually eclipsed and replaced by convenience, simplicity, instant gratification, lower prices, and (obviously) sex.

One pop-culture icon saw this coming back in the early ’90s. According to the late comedian Bill Hicks, marketers and advertisers are to blame. (See the YouTube video, “Bill Hicks on Marketing”) And Hicks may have been right, for marketing and advertising departments craft the public face of consumer goods; they are to blame, as he puts it, for “filling the world with bile and garbage.”

But I won’t join Hick’s call for mass suicide on Madison Avenue. The difference between causation and correlation is as big as the difference between Julia Child’s professorial style (catch the video,

“The French Chef (1971): Spinach Twins” on PBS.org ) and Rachael Ray’s semi-pornographic money shots (“Tasting Rachel Ray” on YouTube). Were he still alive, I’d recommend that he read Robert Arp and Dennis Milarker’s contribution to Legend of Zelda and Philosophy, where Arp and Milarker show that you don’t even have to break away from gaming culture to take a refresher course in critical thinking.

Adapted from “Legend and Logic: Critical Thinking in the Gaming and Real Worlds”, by Robert Arp and Dennis Milarker, in Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am, Open Court Publishing Company, 2009.

The goal for any rational creature—Ganon or gaming geek—isn’t simply to form arguments. We need to form good arguments, and we need to evaluate the arguments of others. In both the deductive and inductive realms, there are good and bad arguments. In either realm, a good argument has to meet two conditions: the conclusion must logically follow from the premises, and all of the premises must be true. If either one of these conditions (or both) is missing, then the argument should be rejected.

In the deductive realm, the term valid argument is reserved for an argument where a conclusion does, in fact, follow from premises (and invalid argument if the conclusion does not follow). When an argument is valid and all the premises are true, the argument is a good, sound argument. The conclusion, then, is without a doubt, absolutely, positively true. In the inductive realm, the term strong argument is reserved for an argument where a conclusion likely will follow from premises (and weak argument if the conclusion likely does not follow). When an argument is strong and all the premises are true, the argument is a good, cogent The conclusion most likely or probably is true. Absolute truth and probable truth are good things, so sound arguments and cogent arguments are, by definition, good arguments in the deductive and inductive realms, respectively.

As critically thinking creatures, we must always go through the two-step procedure of checking our own arguments—and the arguments of others—to see if: (1) the conclusion follows from the premises (Is the argument deductively valid or inductively strong?); and (2) all of the premises are true (Have you provided evidence to show the premises to be true?). If the argument fails to meet either (1) or (2) or both, then we should reject it, thereby rejecting the person’s conclusion as either absolutely false or probably false.

Farore, Four Swords, and Fallacies

Checking to see if conclusions follow from premises and if premises are true can be very difficult. In the gaming and real worlds, there are times when characters and people try to convince us of the truth of their statements in order to deceive us, sell us something, beckon us into their lair, get us to vote for them, become part of their group, or share their ideology. Further, characters and people try to convince us that a conclusion follows from a premise or premises when, in fact, it does not, kind of like what Rob has done with his “all gamers are geeks” bit of bad reasoning (rest assured, he doesn’t think this way anymore).

A fallacy occurs when we incorrectly or inappropriately draw a conclusion from a reason or reasons that don’t support the conclusion. In fact, fallacies are so frequent and common that logicians have names for different types of fallacies.

A common fallacy is hasty generalization. In a hasty generalization, a person incorrectly draws a conclusion about characteristics of a whole group based upon premises concerning characteristics of a small sample of the group. When we conclude, “They’re all like that” in talking about anything—gamers, goddesses, liberals, philosophers, cars—based upon a small sample of the group we’re talking about, we commit a hasty generalization. There’s usually no way definitely to conclude something about the characteristics of an entire group since we have no knowledge of the entire group. It may be that the next member of the group we encounter turns out to have different characteristics from members of the group we know thus far. Any form of stereotyping and prejudice, by definition, involves a hasty generalization. Consider the way Rob hastily generalizes that all gamers are geeks… Tsk, tsk.

Another fallacy that people commit regularly is an argument from inappropriate authority. This occurs when we draw a conclusion from premises based upon an illegitimate, non-credible, non-qualified, or inappropriate authority figure. We have to be careful about which “authority” we trust. It would seem that, for example, people who give advice about Zelda gaming strategies at the LegendofZelda.com or Zelda Universe websites likely would be more trustworthy than, say, Joe Schmo at Wikipedia or Gary Gamer in his latest blog entry. The best way to avoid this fallacy altogether is to become an authority concerning some matter yourself by getting all of the relevant facts, understanding the issues, doing research, checking and double-checking your sources, dialoguing with people, having your ideas challenged, defending your position, being open to revising your position, and the like. If you want to avoid fallacious reasoning concerning the Zelda series, then you should become an expert on it. But since we can’t become authorities on everything, we need to rely upon others. Just be careful that “the others” you rely upon are credible.

A false dilemma is the fallacy of concluding something based upon premises that include only two options, when, in fact, there are three or more options. Rob actually fell victim to this kind of bad reasoning when he was trying to play Space Invaders on his original Atari system “back in the day” (yep, he’s a bit of an old bastard). The game would not start, the screen was fuzzy, and Rob reasoned like this:

Premise 1: The problem with the game not starting is either that the cartridge is not pushed in all the way (first option) or the Atari system is not plugged into the TV (second option).

Premise 2: I checked and the Atari system is plugged into the TV.

Conclusion: Therefore, the cartridge is not pushed in all the way.

So, guess what Rob did next? He tried to push the cartridge in all the way. Nothing. Still a fuzzy screen. Why? Because Rob committed the false dilemma fallacy. He incorrectly thought there were only two options (cartridge not pushed in or system not plugged in) when, in fact, there was a third option that he had not considered, namely that the TV was on Channel 4 when it should have been on Channel 3! So, he fallaciously drew the conclusion that the cartridge was not pushed in all the way—and that this mishap is what accounted for the fuzzy screen—when, in fact, there was a third option he had not considered. This is another Pitfall you should avoid whether it’s Burger Time, or you’re on an Asteroid, or you’re chasing a Centipede, or you’re in the Pole Position, or you’re Mr. Do himself. (See, gamers aren’t the only geeks.)

Another common fallacy is ad hominem. In this fallacy, one inappropriately concludes that a person’s statements or arguments are not worth listening to or their conclusion is false because of premises that deal with an attack on the actions, personality, or ideology of the person putting forward the statement or argument. Ad hominem is Latin for ‘to the man’. In other words, instead of focusing on the person’s issue, statements, or argument, one attacks the person. This strategy is used when we try to discredit a person’s argument by discrediting the person. But notice, the person and the person’s arguments are two distinct things—to attack one isn’t necessarily to attack another.

If Gamer Gary claims that playing games for so many hours in a day is addictive and wants to tell you why it is so, and he has a joystick in his hand when he is telling you this, you cannot conclude automatically that what he has to say is worthless or false. You could accuse Gary of being a hypocrite, but you cannot conclude that what he is saying is worthless or false without first hearing his argument!

The slippery slope is another fallacy often utilized regularly by people in their bad thinking. This fallacy happens when one inappropriately concludes that a chain of events, ideas, or beliefs will follow from some initial event, idea, or belief and, thus, we should reject the initial event, idea, or belief. It is as if there is an unavoidable “slippery” slope that you’re on, and there is no way to avoid sliding down it. Consider this all-too-real-sounding made-up slippery slope: “If we allow games like Doom, Grand Theft Auto, or Hitman to be mass produced, then they’ll corrupt my kid, then they’ll corrupt your kid, then they’ll corrupt all of our kids, then games like these will crop up all over the world, then more and more kids will be corrupted, then all of the gaming world will be corrupted, then the corrupt gaming producers will corrupt other areas of our life, etc., etc., etc. So, we must not allow Doom, Grand Theft Auto, or Hitman to be mass produced; otherwise, it will lead to all of these other corruptions!!!” We can see the slippery slope here. It doesn’t follow that corrupt gaming producers will corrupt other areas of our life. All of a sudden we’re at the bottom of the slope! What in Nayru’s name just happened!

Robert Arp is a Research Associate through the National Center for Biomedical Ontology in Buffalo. Dennis Millarker is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.