Loading the dice

"Julie (she’s open to spiritual stuff) and Kate (the cynical one) continue
their voyage of discovery through the world of the New Age. This month our
testing twosome try colourpuncture."
Spirit and Destiny magazine, February 2003

Imagine you’re a comedy writer and you want to send up New Age, alternative
medicine. "Colourpuncture" would be a stroke of comedic genius. But
too late – it’s already out there, and it’s for real.

According to the truly frightening Spirit and Destiny, colourpuncture
was devised by a German scientist, a claim which is typical of the New-Agers’
desire to have it both ways: it’s an alternative to mainstream medicine, so
not subject to the same principles and tests; but devised by a scientist, with
the implication that it has some credibility with the mainstream.

But I digress. This scientist "discovered that there was a connection
between the network of Chinese meridians in our bodies and the healing effect
of light-responsive colours." Well I can see one obvious connection – neither
really exists.

Spirit and Destiny ("for women who want the best possible future")
is full of this kind of nonsense. What makes it so scary is that it is a glossy
publication, sold in the High Street and aimed at the sort of women who buy
other general interest titles. It irritates me more than anything I’ve read
in a long time, so don’t be surprised to see it appear again in future columns.

Identifying a bad argumentative move in such a publication is a bit like trying
to identifying the problem areas in the diet and eating habits of the average
American: it’s so difficult to know where to begin. The extract I’ve selected
contains a good example of what I call "loading the dice". This is
when something is presented as if it were mere description when in fact it contains
one or more implied value judgments.

So, you notice that Julie is described as "open", which is generally
considered to be a good thing. This in itself implies that her counterpart,
Kate, has a closed mind, which is not something to be proud of. It gets worse
for Kate, however. She is not described as sceptical but "cynical".
This word clearly has negative connotations, especially when contrasted with
the virtue of openness. Note also that "open" implies an unbiased,
impartial attitude whereas "cynical" suggests prejudice against the
spiritual. This suggests Julie is a fair and impartial judge and Kate a biased
one, whereas in fact Julie is probably at least as biased in favour of the spiritual
as Kate is sceptical about it (assuming the two characters are even genuine).

So when Julie and Kate set about "testing" colourpuncture, the dice
had been loaded. Were Kate to report negatively, we would be able to dismiss
her views as those of a closed-minded sceptic. We can trust Julie, on the other
hand, if she gives a favourable verdict, since she’s open-minded and fair. And
what’s more, theirs is a "voyage of discovery", implying at the outset
that what is being "tested" is a wonderful world of wisdom and knowledge,
not a dubious sea of sloppy-minded rubbish.

As it happens, Kate ends up scoring colourpuncture even more highly than Julie!
It must be good to have persuaded such an old cynic as her. Not that she appears
to be a very hard-nosed sceptic. She is easily impressed by the therapist’s
own leaflet which claims "The effects are so well proven, that German
insurance companies will fund treatments." "Cynical" Kate doesn’t
even raise an eyebrow. Instead, she swoons, "Ahh, insurer backing and Teutonic
endorsement, that’s the kind of logic I like."

It looks probable, then, that the dice have been loaded in more ways than one
here. Loading by language is perhaps the least obvious. It’s something that
can happen a lot without our noticing. For example, cross-pollination of genetically-modified
and non-genetically modified crops is referred to by environmentalists as "genetic
pollution". Since "pollution" clearly has negative connotations,
this description makes the cross-pollination sound bad before any argument or
evidence is presented that it is bad. (Forgive the advertising break, but I
talk more about such examples involving environmentalism in my book Making

Sometimes such loading is hard to avoid. For example, in the Iraqi conflict,
such words as "liberation" and "occupation" carry evaluative
connotations. Yet it can be cumbersome and difficult to describe what has happened
and is happening in neutral language.

The idea then that we can purge all language of evaluative connotations and
thus not load the dice at all is unrealistic. What we can do is choose our words
carefully, try not to load the dice and be aware of the implied judgements in
the words we read and write. I’m sure that intelligent, open readers will agree
with me, but am prepared to take criticism from cynical or slow ones. That’s
only fair, after all.

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