Keeping Context Is the Best Vigilance

Monday, November 01, 2021

Parenting columnist Lenore Skenazy debunks annual scare-mongering about drug-laced Halloween candy in part as follows:

Image by Denny Müller, via Unsplash, license.
[I]f you like drugs enough to buy them, you probably don't want to give them away to someone who will not pay for them, will not appreciate them and most likely will not even be around when they ingest them, meaning you'll miss all the fun of watching them stare at their hand or dance for seven hours to EDM.
She goes on a bit about the sensational aspect about such reporting before adding:
Auburn[, Georgia's] Sergeant Marc Pharr told Fox that he didn't intend to give parents "candy anxiety," but really, that's all he's doing with warnings like, "If someone did want to be silly and have that thrown in a bag, they certainly could." Yup. And I could set my hair on fire, too. I could eat a live butterfly. I could put a rat in my purse and open it at the periodontist's office. Anyone COULD do anything.
If Skenazy wanted to make a larger point than to indicate how ridiculous these annual warnings are, she might urge parents to use their common sense, advice with which I suspect Ayn Rand would agree. Her greatest student, Leonard Peikoff once called common sense, "[A] simple and non-self-conscious use of logic."

But in addition, I suspect that the two philosophers might also blame the journalists for the epistemological sin of context-dropping and inviting their audience to do the same. As Peikoff puts it:
Whenever you tear an idea from its context and treat it as though it were a self-sufficient, independent item, you invalidate the thought process involved. If you omit the context, or even a crucial aspect of it, then no matter what you say it will not be valid...
Interestingly, when one follows the last link and reads more deeply about context-dropping, one might be puzzled: Peikoff is discussing an attempt to achieve or pretend to achieve a desired end by ignoring time range or the means of achieving that end. It behooves us to step back and remember what values are at stake here.

The people who give such outlandish warnings or heed them -- I never have and don't personally know anyone who has -- want to pretend to others or themselves to be concerned about the safety of children. And it is when Skenazy discusses how ridiculous it would be to try to act on some of these warnings that the point comes home:
[T]his kind of article is not journalism, it's horror story fan fiction disguised as a service piece, complete with tips, such as "Inspect commercially wrapped treats for signs of tampering, such as an unusual appearance or discoloration, tiny pinholes, or tears in wrappers."

Pinholes how tiny? Do we need an electron microscope? ...
A bonus for some will be that anyone who hears the advice and takes it uncritically will perhaps do some evasion of their own, trusting blind luck to protect their kids while feeling guilty for not staying up all night to go through all that candy -- or just keeping their kids home altogether.

I applaud Skenazy for casting the bright light of reason on these kinds of ridiculous claims. In the future, we should be suspicious of advice from anyone attempting to justify absurd rituals in the name of "safety" (for example) by conjuring emergencies out of thin air -- as will be apparent by considering exactly what it would take (and mean!) for their fantastic scenarios to actually manifest.

Children don't need just safety. They need fun and a chance to develop independence, too, for example. Zeroing in on "safety" and accepting any and every fantastic scenario some stranger might conjure up will achieve none of those things and, in fact, will almost certainly achieve their opposites in the long term.

Keeping context when hearing about alleged dangers and alleged advice are both a parent's first line of defense and the way forward towards actually achieving those ends. But the price is that it's not as simple as letting some journalist spoon-feed us horror tales and dumb advice we shouldn't waste our time with.

-- CAV

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