The Annoying 70th Rationalization: The Idiot’s Proof, or “Some Say…”


There I was, half-asleep, drinking my second cup of double caffeine coffee, considering how I had already missed the window for Saturday blog posts (if at least two posts aren’t up by 12:30 pm., the day’s traffic will be pathetic), and watching the Smithsonian’s educational and attractive “Aerial America” series, where a staid narrator waxes on abut various locales as a we see them from a lying camera above. (Did YOU know that “penitentiary” is a word devised by William Penn, who designed Pennsylvania prisons to cause criminals to be penitent (by making them spend their sentences in solitary confinement? I didn’t, and now I feel really stupid.)

Suddenly, as the airplane flew low over Central Park in Manhattan, I heard the narrator proclaim, “Some say that more gunpowder was used to make the ponds and landscapes in Central Park than was used during the Battle of Gettysburg.”

ARRGH! THAT again!

And there it was.

This rationalization for spreading falsehoods and misinformation is a staple of today’s untrustworthy and propaganda-spreading journalism, and needs to be wiped off the face of the Earth, or at least from sea to shining sea. Rationalizations are lies we tell ourselves to justify or excuse unethical conduct, and this is a prime example…yet somehow, it is a prime example that your friendly neighborhood ethicist managed to miss for eleven years, perhaps for the same reason he never connected the dots and realized that penitentiary was derived from penitent.

Who cares what “some people “ say? What should what “some people” say have any persuasive value at all? Why is it worth mentioning? “Some people” say and even believe ridiculous things. That’s not authority, it’s not evidence, it’s not even interesting. Yet the fact that “some people” have registered completely unsubstantiated assertions, poorly constructed opinions and utter nonsense as truth is constantly held up as an excuse to further pollute the public consciousness with dubious information.

Of course, much of the time, especially when The Idiot’s Proof is offered by journalists, pundits and politicians, “some say” really means “I say, but I don’t have the guts to say it directly.”

I HATE this rationalization. Some say it may be the worst of them all.

I’ll add a more professional and sober version of the description of #70 to the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations Lists when I calm down.

Update: I did.

27 thoughts on “The Annoying 70th Rationalization: The Idiot’s Proof, or “Some Say…”

  1. I don’t believe that William Penn devised the word, he (and other Quakers) used it as part of their campaign for prison reform. They wanted to change it from punishment only to a system of reformation.

        • Fun baseball fact: Every other team that has come back from a 3-0 deficit to force a game 7 — has gone on to win the ALCS and then the World Series.

          You could look it up!

            • Yes, of course it was. But I, and other Astros fans, were having lots of fun watching that run and, last night, they nearly pulled it off. Sadly it was not be be — wait ’til next year!

              As well, like the Miami Dolphins of old, I reckon the 2004 Red Sox can pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate their record not being broken.

  2. The Quakers’ influence on Corrections was profound; before the introduction of the “penitentiary” idea, jails and prisons were for warehousing of criminals, with little thought to their health and safety and no regard for their rehabilitation. Their idea of holding all or most prisoners in strict solitary confinement didn’t work out as it was learned that isolation takes a big mental toll on many of people so confined. Those restrictions were softened although some elements of the “Pennsylvania System” of prison management remained in effect for decades until largely replaced by the “Auburn System” (structured activities, many rules, enforced silence, prisoners moving in lockstep, stereotypical striped uniforms, etc.) was introduced in the 1920s in New York state. (Things I learned in National Institute of Corrections Jail Administration School.)

  3. The definition for this rationalization better be pretty specific. Like many rationalizations, it is not always used as one.

    Case in point: the instance that set you off is probably not a rationalization per se. It is kind of a meaningless comparison. I expect that there is no definite agreement how much gunpowder was used either in Gettysburg or Central Park. But, it is a way to give people a touchstone. It is not meant to deceive; it is meant to elucidate. However, it is probably not one particular person propounding that theory so as to say, “Historian X says….”

    What “some say” may be meaningless, but it appears that the contours of the rationalization is that when it is used to deceive.

    (Gosh, even there, it does not seem like a rationalization so much as it is a cover for a lie. It is itself the unethical conduct, not the manner of rationalizing it.)


    • Valid particulars all. When used as a rationalization, it falsely justifies a claim, assertion or allegation that should not be made, but is being stated as fact. That “some say” such a statement isn’t support, but it pretends to be support. In this it is akin to #1, “Everybody does it.”

  4. “Some say…” is just a brief way of saying “I’ve heard something, but can’t be bothered to remember where I heard it or even if I remember it right. My vagueness about the statement’s origins means that there’s no way I should be held accountable if it turns out that I’m spreading lies or nonsense.”

  5. “Some say” is a good way to begin a story, but not to begin a statement of fact. You have to be more specific with who the “some” are.

    • I understand, but do you always have to be specific?

      For example, you have the stupid theory about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Many people have said many different things about this stupid controversy. We don’t care about the people saying things; we care about who they are.

      Less silly controversy: who was Jack the Ripper. The theory as to his identity is more interesting than the person propounding it, especially as it is a long-standing mystery with many proponents for numerous theories.

      An even better example: theories about the disappearance of the Roanoke colony.


      • “there is a theory” or “there are theories that” do not assert that the theory or theories are valid—they have to stand on their own. That’s fair. “Some say” is an appeal to an imaginary authority. There is a material difference between “some guy in a padded cell says” and “Stephen J. Gould says.”

  6. OOOO….while not a rationalization, this made me immediately think of the xkcd cartoon and I wonder if these are somehow the inverse of each other or kissing cousins on the illogic chart or something:

  7. Some say he has a penchant for putting whipped cream and chocolate chips on his circuit boards…some say he went to school with the illegitimate son of Grace Jones and Rick Moranis. All we know is…we call him the Stig.

    I couldn’t resist.

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