Comment of the Day: “Rationalization List Update: 29 (a). The Gruber Variation and 47. Contrived Consent, or ‘The Rapist’s Defense'”

Magician, hoax-exposer, historian, truth-seeker James Randi

Magician, hoax-exposer, historian, truth-seeker James Randi

Alexander Cheezem weighed in with a wonderful expansion on The Gruber Variation (and its parent, Rationalization #29,  The Altruistic Switcheroo). It speaks for itself: the gist involves the situations when deception really does have  beneficial results for the deceived,  intended by the deceiver—in which case, the claim that an otherwise unethical act was “for his own good” mean that the act not have been unethical, and thus the claim is not rationalization, but truth.

One immediate result of Alexander’s comment is that I’m editing the text in #29. I wrote:

It is true that misfortune carries many life lessons, that what doesn’t kill us often makes us stronger, and that what hurts today may be the source of valuable wisdom and perspective later, but it really takes a lot of gall to cheat, lie to, steal from or otherwise harm someone and claim it will be a good thing in the long term. Yet an amazingly large number of people possess this much gall, because the Altruistic Switcheroo is very common, especially among parents who want to convince themselves that bad parenting is really the opposite. A marker for this rationalization is the statement, “You’ll thank me some day”—the specious theory of the sadistic parent who named his son “Sue” in the famous Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash. No, he won’t.

“A Boy Named Sue” is a lousy example. It is true that the singer ends the song by saying he isn’t thankful, and I don’t blame him, but the father’s theory was borne out: the name did make his son tougher. There’s nothing in the lyrics to suggest that he name choice was sadistic, and if the only rationale for the song was what the father claimed it was, it’s no rationalization. Oh, it was cruel, irresponsible and unfair—and stupid— but the father did name the boy “Sue” for his own good. (The fact that his cruel tactic worked still doesn’t make it right: that would be 3. Consequentialism, or  “It Worked Out for the Best.”

I’ll end the passage before the dash.

Here is Alexander’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Rationalization List Update: 29 (a). The Gruber Variation and 47. Contrived Consent, or ‘The Rapist’s Defense'”:

Interesting additions, but I think that the Gruber Variation needs a bit of a caveat in nuance regarding its description: it needs to be distinguished from both legitimate teaching techniques which involve parallels and certain grey areas.

To handle the last first, I’ll just give a few examples, starting with Project Alpha ( ) and the Sokal Hoax ( ). Both involved presenting people who were supposed to safeguard against deception with a hoax in order to expose the holes in said safeguards. Both involved rationales which closely paralleled the Gruber Variation in several respects, and were criticized for actually following that sort of logic (I disagree, although I do think that both were ethically “grey”).

We can also bring up the Carlos hoax ( see , , and the article starting on p. 28 of for details), which was, in essence, an attempt to demonstrate the fake and predatory nature of “channeling” scams by creating a (intentionally) fake channeler who would “come out” as fake, exposing the techniques used and casting doubt on the other scammers who were infesting Australia at the time.

On the other hand, there are legitimate teaching techniques which involve factors which would otherwise be unethical (usually deception) in order to teach a lesson. The most famous user of this sort of teaching technique is, of course, James Randi (who was also involved in both the Carlos Hoax and Project Alpha, above).

Of course, when Randi does it, he lets you know that he’s deceiving you, and many deceptions are revealed moments later (my personal favorite involves him taking off his glasses and pushing his thumbs through to reveal the absence of lenses). Others are revealed as tricks without actually disclosing the mechanisms involved.

A friend of mine who’s a middle-school science teacher follows a similar method: he’ll teach basic critical thinking by assigning students a report on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus or the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, giving them a list of sources designed to make the topic seem real (the former is a Photoshop hoax; the latter is the chemical name for water). If the student goes beyond those sources, of course, the deception will be quickly revealed… but he’s found that the students rarely bother to (or think to, for that matter). He reveals the truth, of course, when the reports are due… usually to the shock of the classroom.

Often, he finds that his students are shocked by the very notion of a hoax… or by the idea that they can’t trust information they find on random websites online.

He uses similar methods throughout the year, teaching students the importance of things like critical thinking and the scientific method by repeatedly tricking them and either revealing the trick or challenging them to figure it out.

I mention this to contrast it with the Gruber Variation (and the Altruistic Switcharoo in general): This sort of teaching method is rather transparently genuinely for the student’s benefit. The question becomes, accordingly, what’s the difference?

Well, first off, my friend isn’t really advancing a political agenda with his methods (except, perhaps, indirectly). More, the “payoff”, to his goals, occurs not with the deception, but with the reveal (unlike in the case of Gruber, where the reveal detracts from or is irrelevant to his agenda, depending on how you look at things). My friend isn’t really profiting from deceiving his students: he’s profiting from learning how he deceived them and how to expose such hoaxes.

Or, in other words, he’s not using it as a rationalization. The “for their own good” part is, simply put, actually true.

On the other hand, he’s still manipulating, deceiving, and tricking his students (to give them valuable life experiences in as controlled a manner as possible and to teach them important lessons about critical thinking), in a manner justified by their presumed mental inadequacy (or, more specifically, naivete and lack of said education), for their own good (“good” here being the learning of said lessons).

So, to go back to the point of all of this, I think we can learn a good bit about this sort of unethical (and ethical!) conduct by contrasting the two types of circumstances… perhaps even form some rule-of-thumb rules and heuristics.

A few to start off with?

  • Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will avoid it unless the deception is inherently necessary to their goals — and not just to bypass legitimate opposition or to defraud.
  • Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will almost universally be planning to reveal the deception from the beginning of the deception.
  • Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will generally arrange things in such a way that their goals are accomplished by the revealing of the deception rather than the deception itself.
  • Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will generally avoid substantially profiting from the deception or using it to advance their goals prior to revealing the deception (the “substantially” being necessary because of things like classroom engagement and media attention).
  • Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will take what steps are possible, to the maximum extent possible, to mitigate any harms which can potentially be caused by the deception.

And that, I think, is as good a starting point as any.


5 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Rationalization List Update: 29 (a). The Gruber Variation and 47. Contrived Consent, or ‘The Rapist’s Defense'”

  1. As I recall, the end product of the “Sue” situation was father and son “a-kickin’ and a-gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer”. I’ve seen real thing, often enough! The political analogy, however, may be no less climatic. The Gruber Effect shows no sign of going away. Just the opposite, in fact. Americans are angry at being played for fools by arrogant academic demagogues.

  2. I am envious of Alexander’s teacher friend.

    A few years ago, when I was training groups of new crisis line volunteers to handle emotional support for a national HIV information line, I saw the hoax-for-your-own-good method as the best way to correct much of the myth, stigma, fear, misinformation and downright lies that troubled most of our callers. That these were equally troublesome to the volunteers (many of whom had no consciousness of being troubled by the egregious nonsense) had been borne out by previous years of true/false fact-tests on similar groups. The problem with such tests is that the group then wanted to discuss (read “argue”) each of the explanations. Which was to be expected when the majority ranked themselves “very knowledgeable” to start with.
    I devised a research project to be completed a week before class to answer some common caller questions and concerns sourced from any or all of eight websites listed as “high on Google.” [I didn’t lie: they were all top-o-the-page if you asked the wrong question or the right one in the wrong way, just as ordinary, health- or sex-scared people do.] These were either uselessly outdated and potentially dangerous as information: 33 year old medical “facts” on AIDS (not HIV, and only theory at the time); denialists; racist/sexist/homophobic bias “proved” by guess what? impossible statistics, or else confusing, mealy-mouthed, contradictory, and massive websites that a spider would get lost in (which unfortunately continues to describe all three dot govs).
    As it turned out, no one searched independently, though I had given that as an option, including one volunteer with HIV (20 years married to another HIV+ person with two HIV- teens born to them) who regularly used one of the best sites but who told me later that the ones on the test list “looked more serious even if they weren’t very um accessible” And a post-graduate psych intern who was ready to accept the “viability” of the most irrational statements.

    The check-and-balance trick was that the trainees had been told that they would be receiving a manual by email as soon as their test was sent in, and that they could check the answers there, and thus know 50% of their grade ahead of time [that one was a lie — there are no grades for trainees, only evauations]. That was the incentive to find the answers before class so that we could get on with the myriad of other concerns.
    It worked (I confess: no justification). The first sentence on the quiz-insert pages admitted there was no grading but that it would be advisable to read the “correct answers” anyway. They did.
    The Answers themselves, given up front, were in-brief samples of the correct information in straightforward language, offering updated referrals to solid websites or local resources or callbacks. All of them contradicted what the sites on the quiz-list had said. Or garbled, or invented. For the first time, there was a training group that got to spend all of their time being trained, bringing out their own personalities and ways of expressing themselves, practicing anxiety reduction, connecting with 12 year olds and nonagenarians, [fill in all other demographics you can think of in this space], learning more about testing, transmission, symptoms, treatment, lifespan, disclosure, etc., giving them the supreme confidence and skill to master the fine art of explaining to the mom from Florida — Quiz Question #3, the only one I remember both websites for — why a mosquito is not a flying hypodermic needle
    (interminable ultimately non-answer: and then
    (short, clear, up-front answer for most callers, first paragraph:

    I was called to account by the organization director at the end of the training session and told they would no longer require my services in that capacity … though they would be happy to continue using the manual which I was free to update whenever blahblahblah … because I had criticized, however deservedly, the “official” authorities (aids, cdc, and/or nih dots). Which might be construed by someone as being “political” and thus verboten under their Ethics Policy.

    Apparently, it is unethical to criticize the government or any information they put out. It also explains why I don’t have any Ka-boom! about the ACA. I do so hate being unethical.

  3. It is easy to tell the difference. When this is ethically being used as a teaching technique, an individual is REWARDED for discovering the deception. When it is being unethically used, an individual is punished or dismissed if they discover the deception.

    • That’s right, Michael, I read the original post too — without moving my lips, by golly!

      … Mine contains the core of a (possible) addition to Jack’s Rationalization List. I had to spend a bit more time thinking about it. This one is the ultimate denial, beyond excuses and justifications: dismissal of subject.

      long, un-catchy title: Well, My Definition of Ethics is Just Different From Yours.

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