Explanations have Consequences

You have told or been told a white lie at some point. Often it goes unnoticed. But on occasion it grows. It happens because explanations have consequences. You tell the lie: “I couldn’t get milk because the store was closed.” The listener finds a consequence that doesn’t match your explanation: “But I just spoke to Becky who said she’d just got back from the store.” So you figure out an explanation that matches all the data: “I went to the other store, because it was near the gas station, and I was low.” But no deal: “Low? I filled the car on Monday.” Another explanation for even more data: “I had to drive back out of state on Tuesday when I did that delivery, because there was a part missing.” And so on.

Eventually this exchange ends in one of three ways: either the explainer can’t think of further explanations (and they usually go personal: “I can’t believe you don’t trust me!”) or the listener can’t think of further consequences to check and believes the story, or the listener gets bored with the game and moves to discount the explanation (“Okay, fine, whatever you say.”).

The same three things happen with any bad explanation, including explanations in scholarship. The first two are the best ways to end, of course. Either in the acceptance of a new explanation, or its rejection: agreed on by both parties. But often you get the third: eventually the reasons get stretched thinner and thinner until the scholar (or the academy generally) will say the equivalent of “Whatever”. This is the source of the myth among creationists, for example, that biologists have no refutation of their argument. It is true, they don’t. There’s always a further even more far-fetched explanation around the corner for any new bit of data. Eventually all scholars give up on these debates. All explainers think they’ve won. And they are all disappointed (or turn to conspiracy theories) when they find they are just being ignored.


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7 responses to “Explanations have Consequences

  1. Ian

    If you’re following along in context with the comments on this blog, then I want to make it very clear that this post isn’t supposed to be a direct response to imarriedaxtian’s comments on the Early Church History post. The last section (about ‘white lies’) doesn’t match the way the discussion has gone there, imo.

    I posted this because Sabio’s question about Mythicists got me thinking about creationism again, which reminded me I had most of this post in my drafts.

  2. imarriedaxtian

    You mean I sounded like a creationist? 😦

  3. Ian

    No, not to me 🙂

    It was triggered by Sabio’s comment. Hence my comment above. I figured it had the scope to offend, and I wanted to reassure you the offence wasn’t meant.

  4. imarriedaxtian

    whew! gulped imarriedaxtian, wiping sweat from forehead and stashing away his hara-kiri knife

  5. Very nice
    A psychological analogy to the perils of scholarship.

    They say that the more learning they have the more convoluted their own self-deception. I believe this. And you have illustrated it.

  6. Ian


    Quite often when I’m listening to or reading something I get the sense that I’m being fed post-hoc rationalisation. I think we all (me very much included) fall into the trap of believing that reasons are important for their own sake. And so we invent reasons to fit something we already know.

    As opposed to having the reasons first, and having those find out new stuff.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who’s a marketing whiz. I have to come to accept that his discipline is very much post-hoc. The client wants to hear reasons, but the skilled marketer works on insights and sensitivity. So all reasons end up being post-hoc. I find it difficult not to call BS. But if I did, I would miss the point.

    I’m sure there’s a correlation with religion there, but I haven’t thought about it in depth in those terms.

  7. Post-hoc rationalization is what I am tempted to do on many of my experiences. But as my ideas change and my rationalizations adjust, I begin to trust reason far less. See my last post on Astral Projection if you have a moment.

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