QUOD ERROR DEMONSTRANDUM


by: Steve Mirsky Dec. 2003

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN


Sometimes Logic Itself can be the Flaw in the Ointment.


Observation followed by deduction is accepted standard practice in science. But it’s not foolproof, because, as has often been noted, fools can be so ingenious. Small children, though no fools, can likewise be exceptionally clever. I was recently reminded just how nimble their little minds can be when I listened to an old episode of the excellent radio program This American Life. The show in question (see www.thislife.org, June 22, 2001) was entitled “Kid Logic” and dealt with what happens when the scientific method is employed by those whose hands aren’t quite big enough to hold it.


For example, a woman named Rebecca recalled a conversation with her friend Rachel from when they were both little kids. Rachel told her that she had lost a tooth and, following the usual procedure, put it under her pillow. She happened to wake up while the tooth was being exchanged for money and saw exactly who was making the switch: her father.


Now, to the adult mind the logical conclusion is (probably) that parents are behind the mysterious appearance of sub-pillow cash and that credit goes to the tooth fairy. But Rachel’s conclusion was that her father was the tooth fairy. And her pal Rebecca, hearing the facts of the case, thus firmly believed that the tooth fairy was a guy named Ronnie Loeberfeld.


Later in the same show, an interviewer asked children what they thought the tooth fairy does with all those teeth. A boy came up with one molar solution, conjecturing that the tooth fairy builds entire tooth houses. The interviewer then asked why the tooth fair wouldn’t simply make a house out of bricks. To which a kid responded: “Because no one doesn’t have brick teeth.” Feel free to take a second to get your wind back.


Kid logic, of course, isn’t limited to kids. Adults can be just as guilty of not so much leaping as tunneling to conclusions. For example, the New Haven Register reported in Sept ember, 2003, the story of one James Perry, who had per-petrated an identity theft, one of the fastest-growing crimes in America. The appar -ently logical conclusion reached by Perry was along the lines of “I’m such a loser that anybody’s identity has to be better than mine.” Wrong.


Perry, who wanted a Connecticut driver’s license despite his four drunk-driving arrests, allegedly stole the identity of one Robert Kowalski. Perry as Kowalski got the driver’s license and some credit cards and seemed to have achieved his desire to eat, drink and be not Perry.


How then did Perry wind up desperately trying to convince the authorities that he in fact was not Robert Kowalski? Well, Perry got himself arrested for disorderly con-duct, and all his identification had him being Kowalski. The police were happy to get their hands on Kowalski, what with him being a convicted sex offender who had failed to register in Connecticut in accordance with state law. Perry ultimately diskowalskified himself and now faces only his own tribulations and possible trials.



Also in September another misnamed perpetrator was in the news in New England. Little Joe, a 300-pound adolescent gorilla at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, escaped. He was found two hours later, near a football stadium, which could have been a fantastic hiding place for a large, hairy, grunting primate. Anyway, this same Little Joe had gotten loose before, just a month earlier. The poor logic employed by zoo officials was that the gorilla, having demonstrated the ability to negotiate a moat and a wall, would be stopped by the addition of an electrified wire that supplies a painful, but not injurious, shock. Little Joe, previously nicknamed “The Scientist,” either figured out a way to disable the electricity or used the oldest trick in the book to deal with pain, namely, not minding. He’s now back in custody, where he probably faces a brighter future than either Perry or Kowalski. Perhaps he’d find it tougher to bust out of one of those tooth houses.

www.sciam.com



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