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The Power and Joy of Rationalization

By       Message Daniel Geery     Permalink

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Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, I cannot conceive what survival value might be attached to rationalization, since it appears to be nothing less than a mental aberration, a detachment from reality that serves no discernable purpose. But rationalization is clearly with us in a very big way. Indeed, it seems to account for much of the so-called "thinking" we're forced to endure these days, from the rewrite of the Iraq war and the denial of global warming, to suicide bombers headed for heaven, to the "creation of reality" by Bush and Rove, and even to "the final days," which we're told are being "proven now" by world events.

Just how the process of rationalization works is nicely exemplified in the following short story, written by Dr. Harriet Hall, and appearing in the May/June 2006 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. I reprint it here with Dr. Hall's permission, along with a link below to the real life event (wherein she tried to teach pigs to sing!), which set her to composing this fable.

Is the Tooth Fairy Real?

Harriet told her little brother Dan that there was no Tooth Fairy; it was their parents who put the money under the pillow.

Dan refused to believe Harriet. He knew there was a Tooth Fairy. Every time he put a tooth under his pillow, there was money there the next morning. And all his friends said the Tooth Fairy brought them money too. And it couldn't be Mom and Dad because he'd wake up if they came in the room and lifted his pillow. Anyway, Mom and Dad said there was a Tooth Fairy, and they wouldn't lie.

Harriet asked him how he thought the Tooth Fairy found out about lost teeth, how she got into the house, where she got the money from, and what she did with the teeth. Dan said he didn't know, but wasn't it a wonderful mystery? Harriet pointed out that older kids all eventually stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy. Dan said that only proved that the Tooth Fairy would only bring money to those who still believed in her.

Harriet got several neighborhood kids to help test whether the Tooth Fairy would appear if the parents didn't know a tooth had been lost. It turned out that every time the parents knew about the tooth, there would be money under the pillow the next morning, and every time the parents didn't know about the tooth, there would be no money. Dan said the Tooth Fairy was just refusing to cooperate in those cases, because she wouldn't bring money if she knew she was being tested.

Harriet got out her Junior Detective kit and dusted Dan's Tooth Fairy money for fingerprints. Sure enough, she found their parents' fingerprints on it. Dan said that didn't prove anything, because there are lots of ways the Tooth Fairy could get hold of money the parents had previously touched. Or she could have magically put the evidence there to confuse us. And of course, the Tooth Fairy wouldn't leave any fingerprints of her own because she was magical.

The next time Dan lost a tooth, Harriet spread flour on the floor, and the next morning, she showed Dan their parents' footprints between the door and the head of his bed. He said that didn't prove anything-his parents had probably just checked on him, and the Tooth Fairy had come later. There were no Tooth Fairy footprints, because fairies don't leave footprints.

The next time Dan lost a tooth, Harriet set up a video camera in Dan's room and caught their parents in the act. (For those readers with dirty minds, I mean the act of removing the tooth and putting money under the pillow.) Dan told her that didn't prove a thing. Maybe the Tooth Fairy wouldn't appear when a camera was present. Maybe she is a shape-shifter who made herself look like their parents on videotape. Maybe she asked Mom and Dad to do the job for her just this once.

Harriet led Dan into their parents' bedroom, opened a dresser drawer, and showed him a box containing all of Harriet's and Dan's baby teeth neatly labeled and dated. She said that was proof their parents were taking the teeth and leaving the money. Dan said it was no such thing; the Tooth Fairy probably passed the teeth on to parents for keepsakes, or maybe she sold teeth to parents to raise the money she put under the pillows. Hey, yeah, that would explain the fingerprints!

Harriet and Dan confronted their parents, who admitted they had been taking the teeth and leaving the money under the pillow. Dan said either they were lying before or they're lying now, and they're probably lying now. Why trust what anyone says? He was just going to ignore everything except what he knew: the tooth-under-the-pillow thing worked. The Tooth Fairy was real.

Harriet screamed in frustration and tore all her hair out. She left it under her pillow. It was still there in the morning.

Teaching Pigs to Sing


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In my run for U.S. Senate against Utah's Orrin Hatch, I posted many progressive ideas and principles that I internalized over the years. I'm leaving that site up indefinitely, since it describes what I believe most members of our species truly (more...)

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