Moll Flanders and the Gettier problem

Moll Flanders is an early 18th-century novel written by Daniel Defoe. Moll is a fictional character whose famous conundrum is her discovery that she has accidentally married her own biological brother.

The “Gettier problem” is an epistemological question raised by Edmund Gettier in a 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, in which he questioned a traditional definition of knowledge—a justified true belief—as insufficient. Gettier died earlier this year in 2021. I have described the philosophical problem in a separate article. To present it generally: Gettier pointed out that, when we have reason to believe a certain proposition, sometimes we formulate a vague statement about it, and the vague statement may well turn out to be true, but for a different reason than we originally assumed. For example, if I say, “Don’t worry about the utility bill on the table; it’ll be affordable, and it isn’t due until the end of the month,” and I say this because I am thinking about the electric bill, whereas the utility bill on the table is actually the phone bill, then arguably my statement about the utility bill on the table is not an example of my own “knowledge.” My statement, which was justified for the electric bill, might also be true for the phone bill: that bill, too, is affordable and isn’t due until the end of the month, and therefore we don’t need to worry about the bill. But I was “correct” only due to a happy coincidence. Although I presented a justified true belief, something went awry in my justification, and therefore I didn’t know what I was talking about. This distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge feels intuitive. But why? By what definition of knowledge can I be described as not having known? This is the Gettier problem. It is a problem for the definition of knowledge.

In this blog post, I propose that Moll Flanders suffers the Gettier problem.

Moll’s problem

In Defoe’s 1722 novel, the narrator, Moll, is born to an inmate of London’s Newgate Prison. Moll grows up not knowing her biological mother. Raised by someone else, she is poor and becomes a household servant. Eventually, Moll begins to enjoy a fairly happy life with her third husband. She is pregnant with her third child by him when she realizes that her husband’s mother is her own long-lost biological mother. Moll has, therefore, married her own brother.

This is how Moll tells her story. For emphasis, I have put the family terms mother-in-law, mother, daughter, husband, brother in bold type. At the end, I have also emphasized Moll’s insistence that this is a new discovery for her: she had “known nothing” of her husband’s preexisting family relationship to her.

“We lived here all together, my mother-in-law, at my entreaty, continuing in the house, for she was too kind a mother to be parted with; my husband likewise continued the same as at first, and I thought myself the happiest creature alive, when an odd and surprising event put an end to all that felicity in a moment, and rendered my condition the most uncomfortable, if not the most miserable, in the world.

My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman—I may call her old woman, for her son was above thirty…

…with a great deal of good-humoured confidence she told me she was one of the second sort of inhabitants [of Newgate] herself.

my mother, smiling, said, ‘You need not think a thing strange, daughter…’

Here she went on with her own story so long, and in so particular a manner, that I began to be very uneasy; but coming to one particular that required telling her name, I thought I should have sunk down in the place.

…this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.

I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it.

—Daniel Defoe, ‘Moll Flanders’

It seems that Moll frets that her marriage may be invalid. Her marriage is, she says, a “crime.” She acknowledges that she is committing “open avowed incest and whoredom” despite maintaining “the appearance of an honest wife.” In Moll’s estimation, it isn’t possible for the same woman to have biologically mothered both Moll and Moll’s husband; the same woman can’t be her “mother” and “mother-in-law.” She means this at least legally, as she eventually tells her husband that she is “not your lawful wife” and their children are “not legal children.” If this woman indeed gave birth to a girl and a boy, a subsequent “marriage” between those two siblings would be invalid and no marriage at all. She may mean it religiously and in a broader ontological way, too.

Here is the situation, quite simply:

Before the big revelation, Moll and her mother-in-law sometimes call each other “mother” and “daughter.” These are terms of endearment, and they are also, in a sense, true, since to be a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law is to be a specific type of mother or daughter. Thus, for Moll to say “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman” is a justified true belief.

After the revelation that her mother-in-law is the same person who gave birth to her, Moll reflects that “this was certainly no more or less than my own mother.” This relationship of “mother” takes on new meaning. Though it did not bother her before, it bothers her now. She insists: “I had known nothing of it.”

In other words, when Moll says, “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman,” implying but crucially omitting the detail of “mother-in-law,” she did not know what she was talking about. The woman is not Moll’s mother-in-law, because Moll’s marriage is invalid. The woman is only Moll’s mother. Moll’s original statement remains true only if we shift the meaning of the phrase “my mother” and alter the reasoning behind its use.

Moll’s justified true belief wasn’t knowledge. This is the Gettier problem.

How much effort should you expend debunking a conspiracy theory?

When someone gives you obvious misinformation, you are in a no-win situation.

You need to reject the information as false and possibly harmful. You need to tell the person you aren’t interested in joining their cult. You may feel ethically obligated to try to persuade that person, too, to abandon their idea, just as they believe it is important to persuade you to adopt it.

The problem is that, if it is even possible for you to demonstrate the nonsense and persuade the person to take another path, you’ll be working on that a very long time. Your day (and possibly your week or month) will be significantly disrupted. If the claim is something like “Aliens killed Julius Caesar,” how would you begin to explain why you don’t believe that? And why would you pause your important business to do so? On the other hand, if you blow it off and keep walking, the conspiracy theorist will believe they have “won.” It may not matter if they are pleased with themselves, but it does matter if they are emboldened to continue to misinform others. If their theory is harmful (racist, anti-science, etc.), this may be an undesirable outcome. if you have a real opportunity to educate them, you may want to seize it, difficult and annoying though this task may be.

Lily Simpson compares this interaction with misinformation to a farmer’s confrontation with a plague of locusts. You want to combat the locusts, but stomping one at a time is a losing strategy. The misinformer can pump out strings of nonsense words much faster than you can search and grab onto reality anchors.

Understanding the opponent

When Menachem Kaiser traveled to Poland to investigate the property that his grandfather had lost during World War II, he spoke to the treasure hunters of Nazi-era relics, and his initial inclination was to be quietly polite toward these people who were telling him about supposed Nazi time machines.

“Even to justify why I wan’t taking them seriously is in effect to take them seriously; I did believe and still do believe that it is a valid position not to engage the crazy. What would be the purpose? To methodically demonstrate the dubiousness of Nazi time travel? The conclusions we would eventually reach are the conclusions we have immediately reached.”

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder, Chapter 8

Not a single falsehood, but a structure of falsehoods

But here’s another level of the risk posed by nonsense ideas. A conspiracy theory is not a single, small piece of misinformation. When nurtured, it develops into a whole worldview.

Last year, I blogged for Episyllogism about this point, which a recent UCLA study had explored. Kaiser also mentions the general idea in Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.

It turns out, Kaiser says, that Project Riese, which he was investigating, “is the epicenter, the catalyst, the cauldron for all sorts of fantastic, absurd, lunatic beliefs about the Nazis. Pull on any thread and very quickly you get to ancient civilizations; aliens; ancient alien civilizations; UFOs; Roswell…” These are not “standalone delusions,” but rather “systems of beliefs.” For example, if you believe the Nazis developed antigravity, eventually you have to assert a supporting worldview; for example, you might say that, since that time, world powers have concealed the Nazis’ scientific breakthrough and have successfully taught everyone (including today’s scientists) a fake version of physics. A conspiracy theory framework usually features “a special blend of skepticism and unskepticism, of irrationality and hyperrationality.”

These are not ‘standalone delusions,’ but rather ‘systems of beliefs.’

Though Kaiser’s first inclination was to dismiss the conspiracy theories as nonsense, he decided to research them to understand them better. When he learned, for example, that the false belief in “Die Glocke, the Nazis’ bell-shaped device that could manipulate time and gravity” was promoted by Igor Witkowski, he decided to speak to Witkowski to learn more. The people who say they believe these things “aren’t trolling”; in Kaiser’s assessment, they really believe.

And yet. And yet. He circled back to his starting point.

“To indulge the theories, even via mockery, is to grant them a power,” he concludes. This is a problem with Nazi-related conspiracy theories especially because they tend to be antisemitic: at least by downplaying the moral weight of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, if not by going further and suggesting that the Jews were responsible for secret cabals and cover-ups. Sometimes what is most needed is not to explore the illogic of the conspiracy theory but rather to object to it on ethical grounds. It would be “much more fun,” Kaiser says, “to discuss Nazi flying saucers. But there is a cost to laughing at what should be condemned.”

Condemning misinformation implies that you are asking the misinformer to stop speaking that way.

An expressivist theory of ethical disagreement

In Fall 2001, at Brown University, for a philosophy course taught by James Dreier, I wrote a short paper about expressivism. In metaethics, “expressivism” is a theory that maintains that ethical pronouncements express attitudes, not facts. For many people, the expressivist theory is counterintuitive because ethical discourse does appear to make truth claims.

Allan Gibbard defended expressivism in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Harvard University Press, 1990, especially Chapter 5, “Normative Logic”), and Dreier reformulated, generalized, and expanded Gibbard’s theory to account for why people often speak of normative judgments as true or false (“Transforming Expressivism,” Nous, 1999).

In my own analysis at the time, I thought special attention should be paid to the moment at which norms are mapped onto propositions. The content of the specific norms and propositions would determine, in my view at the time, whether the Gibbard/Dreier theory could properly be called “expressivist.”

Transforming expressivism: Worlds in which a statement is true

If I say to you, “For goodness sake! Don’t do X. That’s terrible!,” what information am I giving you? Gibbard’s answer: The content of my statement is the set of factual-normative worlds in which my statement is true.


w1: the world in which John is a priest
n1: a complete set of norms according to which it is wrong for priests to drink

In the factual-normative world <w1, n1>, it is wrong for John to drink. There are other possible factual-normative worlds, too, in which it is (or would be) wrong for John to drink. The set of these worlds, according to Gibbard, is the content of the statement “It is wrong for John to drink.”


Sodium chloride is the chemical name for table salt. You know this—if you had forgotten, I just reminded you of it—but imagine someone who does not know it or has forgotten it. They might be alarmed at the idea of putting “sodium chloride” on the table although they accept the norm of using “salt.” Since the terms represent the same substance, these normative judgments are always contradictory. Expressivism, when using “possible world” semantics, fails to account for the contradictory judgments of “don’t eat it” and “eat it.” (The expressivist, for their part, probably doesn’t believe that their ethical expressions are propositions at all and thus does not believe that their expressions can contradict each other.)

To account for the apparent contradiction, Dreier wanted to reorganize Gibbard’s sets of possible worlds (which, again, are the contents of normative statements) into subsets based on a shared norm. The contents of normative statements are “incomplete propositions” or “propositional functions” that can be true or false relative to a set of norms. The statement It is right/wrong to do X is true or false depending on what else is true or false. The set of norms maps itself to some other more detailed proposition that can be more simply true or false.

Indexical theory

The statement “Megan ought to fight” sounds normative. According to indexical theory, as Gibbard pointed out, it really means that a certain set of norms requires Megan to fight. It’s basically descriptive, although it becomes normative insofar as it implies that you endorse the norm you describe.

There are, of course, other sets of norms that do not require Megan to fight. So indexical theory can account for moral disagreement. Conversational context often assumes or creates a shared normative system, relative to which normative propositions can be true or false. When I wrote my paper, I suggested other possibilities for explaining disagreement. The normative statement could express additional information like “we have reason to adopt or obey that set of norms” or “we act as if that set of norms were true.” This is information about which people can disagree.

Indexical theory is a type of cognitivism. However, Dreier thought indexical theory was, on the whole, similar to a noncognitivist expressivist theory (i.e. one in which ethical expressions represent noncognitive attitudes rather than propositions).

My suggestion

Suppose we focus on the speaker’s attitudes rather than their beliefs about external facts. Using a previous example, when an expressivist says “it is wrong to put sodium chloride on beans and right to put salt on beans,” their own ignorance of chemical labels explains why they hold this self-contradictory belief, and this factual ignorance determines their attitude.

In my paper, I pointed out that it is reasonable not to ingest chemicals labeled with unrecognized names. If you don’t recognize the term “sodium chloride,” you inhabit a factual-normative world in which it can, for you, simultaneously be wrong to put one mysterious substance on food (when you don’t recognize the label “sodium chloride”) and right to put another substance on food (when you recognize the label “salt”). This has to do with knowledge, intent, and caution. We are speaking of someone’s feelings and attitudes, not objectively describing chemicals. There is no contradiction.

I suggested another example with a more obviously ethical application: deciding to donate to charity. An individual donor has different knowledge and comfort levels about how different charities operate. One might propose that it can be right or wrong to donate to a specific charity depending on the donor’s knowledge and feelings about that charity; this is not a contradiction of the form donate and don’t donate.

Am I using an expressivist-compatible propositional theory to explain normative logic (as Dreier suggested), or am I ditching propositional theory altogether and claiming that ethical statements shouldn’t be considered as propositions at all? I left that question open in my short class paper 20 years ago. Perhaps someone today has an idea of where to take this.

What would it take for someone to decide to get the COVID vaccine?

When we are speakers, we may ask: How can I present my argument in a better way? Other times, as seekers, we need to ask what we can do to search, listen, and judge correctly.

A focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump-Republicans

In mid-March 2021, Frank Luntz and Brian C. Castrucci held a focus group by videoconference with “19 vaccine-hesitant Trump Republicans” from “diverse economic backgrounds.” In the United States, fewer than half of white Republicans have already gotten the vaccine or told pollsters that they definitely will accept the vaccine when it is offered to them, so these “vaccine-hesitant” people are representative of a large demographic within the Republican Party. Luntz and Castrucci wanted to know what “ideas and messages” could possibly persuade these people to be vaccinated.

All participants agreed that the virus was real. To the extent that they were disposed to listen to anyone’s advice about vaccination, they said they’d rather take medical advice than ex-president Trump’s advice. Yet they didn’t understand why scientific predictions and recommendations had changed over time, and they felt that competing or changing information caused them to doubt the importance of vaccines.

Furthermore, they had a number of other beliefs that dampened their interest in vaccines. Some had been previously diagnosed with COVID and believed that they were already immune and did not need to be vaccinated. Others were unafraid of the illness or were more afraid of the vaccine (which they called “experimental,” “rushed” and “unproven”), or felt that there would not be sufficient immediate payoff for taking the vaccine (as social distancing restrictions would likely remain in place for a long time in any case). Another complained of “opportunistic politicians” for whom the vaccine was a tool in a mysterious plot for the “manipulation” and “socialization of society.” One said that lockdowns were a method of political “control.”

The group participants needed information and comprehension

The group members were missing basic information. They needed to hear that the vaccine was developed according to existing technologies; that the trials involved an unusually large sample size; that the Trump administration deliberately lifted regulatory requirements to speed up approval; that the vaccine has never killed anyone; that no one who has been vaccinated has gone on to die of COVID-19, either; that almost all doctors are vaccinated when they have the opportunity. Once they absorbed these facts, they were more open-minded toward the vaccine.

Of course people “do not want to be ridiculed, embarrassed or told that their thinking is ‘Neanderthal,’” as Luntz and Castrucci wrote for the Washington Post. As in any dialogue, the discussion needs to focus on the issue and not the person, and people won’t remain in the discussion unless they are treated gently and kindly.

But also: This group was designed within the boundaries of a political affinity

Luntz and Castrucci said everyone in their focus group was “eager to hear the facts.” They described these facts as “apolitical notions” that swayed the participants’ opinions. However, while the facts may have been apolitical, the group dynamics surely were not. They didn’t point this out in their Washington Post article. I am pointing it out.

The focus group itself was a political affinity group. All 19 participants (the subjects, that is) were Trump-Republicans, and we might expect that they were more open-minded and trusting with each other than they would have been in a more politically diverse group, especially given their beliefs that Democratic politicians seek to manipulate and control Americans through COVID policy. It so happens that the focus group was co-led by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden, as well as four prominent Republican politicians, two of whom also happen to be physicians. The focus group participants enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak directly to these people. I don’t think we can assume that they would have been as receptive to physicians’ messages if the physicians had not so thoroughly embodied the imprimatur of Republican leadership. “If we had that kind of time and space with all vaccine-hesitant Americans, we would surely be able to move the needle,” Luntz and Castrucci wrote. Of course. And obviously it’s not possible. Congressional Republicans, governors, and national medical leaders can’t hold the hands of every American in a two-hour personal conversation to catch them up on a year’s worth of news they’ve been choosing every day not to read or listen to.

In other words, for all that the cultural right mocks the desire for “safe spaces” that reduce the likelihood that one’s identity will be challenged, this focus group was the epitome of a “safe space.” And it was only within such a safe space that the group leaders were able to begin to break through a year’s worth of science denial and epidemiologically bad behavior.

People need to take responsibility for their own information diet

Near end of the Washington Post article, this statement was notable to me: one focus group participant expressed interest in more data, while another just needed to hear a single emotionally affecting story.

The latter is a known phenomenon to storytellers, psychologists, and marketing experts everywhere. People generally do respond better to a story. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” the proverb goes.

As for the former phenomenon, the person who craved more information: There are, of course, always people who say they want the statistics and who might really be equipped to begin to make sense of those large numbers. If they are academically interested, or if their intellect gravitates them more toward the logical than the emotional, that is fine.

But what I can’t quite wrap my head around is that these people were speaking in March 2021 rather than March 2020. Now that nearly 3 million people have died worldwide, a half-million of those close to home in the US, with many more people having been seriously sickened from the same disease, we do have the answers. The emotion is there. The logic is there. The answers have been available, and they have been communicated. We don’t need more data before we can decide. We don’t need more people to tell their tales of woe. The right decision is clear, and the right action should follow as a consequence: We need everyone to wear a mask, socially distance, and get a vaccine.

Of course, data can always be corrected and enhanced, and storytelling can always be improved. This is part of maintaining good communication. But the audience also needs to work on reading and listening.

Often the audience isn’t paying attention. It does not help to wield that observation as a deliberate insult, nor to say it quite so directly to someone’s face, as it will be received as an insult. But it is nonetheless true. Scientists and communication professionals have been talking. An important piece of the question is who is listening. If someone doesn’t make an effort to seek good information, pay attention to what they find, and critically evaluate it, they won’t have the knowledge they claim to want. If someone wants epidemiologically correct information, they need to listen to epidemiologists. If a politician whose primary raison d’être is being a racist troll has taken up a media campaign telling people not to worry about a potentially fatal, highly contagious disease, the public needs to assume that the politician is not speaking in good faith, unfollow them on Twitter, and not vote for them again. If the audience isn’t getting what they want from their television series, they need to try a different one. They can’t just sit and complain and blame their own ignorance on the series’ director. For the first week, yes, it’s the television’s fault; for an entire year, no. They are choosing to watch the confusing material. They need to change their own behavior.

Considering the supply-and-demand of good information in the Information Age, the deficit is surely not in the supply. The supply is high-quantity, and people need to learn to weed out the low-quality material. People need to learn to curate what they’re taking in. If someone has had a poor “information diet” for the past year—whether by overconsumption of bad material festering in a terrible corner of the information ecosystem, or by neglecting to read or listen to anything at all—it is their responsibility to change the channel. Ultimately, no one can do it for them.

There are a number of “how-to” books on critical thinking. They come in different flavors: everything from making sound philosophical arguments, to listening to scientists, to escaping cults. A very recent title is Behind the Scoop: Why You Should Think and Act Like a Journalist by the journalist Johannes Koch. It is accessibly written, a manageable length, and it reminds people that they are empowered to clean up their own information diet. It is also a book that you might plausibly give to someone else since it covers other topics, too, beyond just boosting your critical thinking habits.

I can empathize with someone who is wrong, but they are still wrong

I can muster empathy, to a limited extent, for people who are vaccine-hesitant. The part I can potentially empathize with is their general feeling of alienation from some aspect of the modern world—science, politics, culture—or their anxiety that someone is trying to hurt them. I may disapprove of their reason for feeling alienated or anxious, yet, in a far broader sense, I too am a human who knows what alienation and anxiety are. If they say they’re “scared and outraged,” I hear that and I know roughly what they mean.

However: Even if I manage to empathize with them as people and understand that they are having feelings, that doesn’t mean I can tolerate their error. In this particular case, factually, they are simply wrong. We’re all factually wrong about something now and then. Sometimes it’s a tiny detail that can be glossed over. The COVID vaccine is a particularly grave matter, and it is important that we arrive at a general agreement on the indispensability of this virus-fighting tool and that we perform the necessary act of solidarity; otherwise, we will never reach herd immunity from the COVID disease.

I don’t need to actively, directly, personally insult individuals who are vaccine-hesitant. At the same time, when someone holds a dangerously false belief, it’s necessary to be blunt (either with them or about them). They need to begin listening to the general agreement of the scientific and medical community. There is just no way around that outcome. Unfortunately, not everyone has an invitation to a focus group in which they get to have a two-hour personal conversation with the former director of the U.S. CDC, so they need to find another pathway through roughly the same information that will lead them to the same conclusion.

If I were to make (in this context, anyway) too many suggestions about how to think critically, it would sound patronizing. Anyway, I’m neither a scientist nor a science communicator. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how to make a choice about a vaccine. People know how make good decisions about the health of themselves and others. They just need to do it. Critical thinking is a choice about who to trust, what to care about, and when to put the time in. Now is a good time.

[Image of COVID vaccine by Reckmann Tim from Pixabay]

‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’ sees hope for conspiracy theorists

Mick West’s 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole promotes respectful dialogue with your friends and acquaintances who might happen to be in the grips of a conspiracy theory. People sucked into communities that promote elaborate false beliefs may “get out much quicker if they are helped by a friend,” West says.

The psychological need for a ‘conspiracy theory’

A conspiracy theory is a false set of ideas, but it may seem appealing for various reasons. It may relieve the stress of unanswered questions; it may make a person feel clever or important because it tells them that they have privileged information or a higher state of awareness; or it may take hold in their lack of education or their extreme political beliefs.

Current events tend to breed strange stories to “explain” new developments. West classifies the subtypes of event-based conspiracy theories “in increasing order of implausibility”: (1) The conspirators didn’t cause the event but are pleased that it happened and will exploit it for their own ends. (2) The conspirators were aware that something would happen and they allowed it to happen. (3) The conspirators took action to cause the event. (4) The media has faked the entire event, and anyone supposedly affected is an actor. (This four-part classification feels almost theological to me—as if it were a parallel to types of theodicy?)

West discusses four specific conspiracy theories in detail: chemtrails; the notion that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition; the suspicion that various violent incidents (like mass shootings) are “staged” as “false flags” to place blame on one’s enemies; and the claim that the Earth is flat.

How to intervene

Some conspiracy theories can be burst by focusing on a single salient feature. So, for example, an early timestamp on a breaking-news tweet might seem to indicate that an action was somehow known before it happened or was said to have happened, but a person won’t draw this conclusion if they’re aware that a tweet’s timestamp displays differently in different timezones. Or a person might be startled to hear of the toxic content of everything that surrounds them, until they learn that basically all chemicals have “chemical safety data sheets” because anything can be toxic depending on the amount and concentration.

Each conspiracy theorist typically has a “line of demarcation” between what they think is sensible skepticism and what goes too far for their tastes. “Be clear,” West counsels, “that you are not trying to lump them in with people on the other side of their line. Tell them (honestly) that it’s good that they haven’t been sucked deeper in,” and do so in a way that doesn’t mock them. Question “the aspects of their belief that are very close to the line,” and ask them whether the authority figures in this community meet their standards of reasonableness.

Some people may, as West puts it, be “simply unaware” of the “conventional explanation” for why the world works a certain way. If they are provided with the accurate explanation in a digestible format, they may readily embrace it.

Normal recommendations for civil dialogue apply in these situations, including the recognition that you won’t be able to convince or change everyone.

Mick West. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. New York: Skyhorse, 2018.

Exploring the shadows in Plato’s Cave: ‘Tricks of Light’ by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Detail from the book cover of Tricks of Light. Hands cast shadow rabbits over the face of a real fox.

How do we know what we know? When will we be sure? Thaddeus Rutkowski’s Tricks of Light (2020) explores these questions in poetry.

There are a number of themes in this book, which contains over 80 poems. One theme is human connection. Rutkowski admits to not having many social needs, though he finds it important to keep friendships alive so they don’t dissolve into memories (“Drifting Apart”). He describes becoming an empty nester and having no need to fill the space with a pet (“Empty Nest”) and of sometimes wanting to get away from even himself (“Being Alone”). He leans into the subtle distinction of accepting a hug or reciprocating it (“Personal Space”). An animal, too, he notes, reacts to the way it is held (“Holding the Chicken”).

Some poems describe a sense of otherness, as when he is asked if his dental work was done in another country (“Foreign Fillings”), or no one has heard of his small hometown (“Where I’m From”), or other people of color don’t seem to accept him (“Nothing in Common”), or he’s asked to perform a domestic task on the Jewish Sabbath (“God Will See”). In our lives, more generally, we encounter so many situations in which the conflicting expectations of two people are juxtaposed, and this type of situation, too, is brought up. Who’s encroached on whose lane: the motorist or the bicyclist (“Close Call”)? Who’s suffering culture shock: the tourists or the locals (“In the Valley”)? For that matter, how do we even know when we are inhabiting our own words and not merely someone else’s interpretation of them (“Owning My Speech”), especially when a word like “afraid” cannot encompass everything we feel (“Compulsion”)?

Loss is a common theme in literature. Words, after all, are shortcuts to recall what we’ve once known. But loss is even more primal than language, as even a turtle wordlessly remembers her eggs that were taken (“Brief Life”). Almost anything can remind us of a loss, big or small. When we break a glass, we are upset not so much about the glass but about being reminded of something else that has broken (“Glass and Tears”); similarly, the name “mourning dove” is assigned because the bird’s call is a sad sound to our ears, though the bird itself is not sad (“Farmers and Dove”). Such illusory losses can be confusing, and we may have to wait for an answer. Like fishermen, often we don’t know whether we have caught something or nothing at the end of our lines (“Man Fishing”).

Tricks of Light includes musings on money. Rutkowski keeps track of his own pennies and spends them on candy, yet he won’t bend to pick up a penny, an act that somehow feels different to him (“Pennies”). He is willing to give away money, but he recognizes that someone must first give him money before he can pass it on to someone else, as money flows in a circuit (“When Will I Get Something to Give?”).

And, yes, there are mysteries and tricks: of sound (“Seal Sounds,” “Noise to My Ears,” “Beef Brisket”), of light (“The Speck,” “Lights in Darkness,” “Moon and Airplane”), and of velocity (“View from a Bridge”). Sometimes we simply do not know whether we are looking at a snail or a wad of gum until we lean in closer (“Mimicry”). This kind of sensory illusion gives the book its title. But the idea of “tricks of light” is also, I think, a more general commentary on knowledge. A great deal of what we think we know, whether from direct experience or otherwise, is illusion—shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave.

Understanding our being in terms of our place: Poems in ‘Rift Zone’ and ‘Last West’

“What is being?” Philosophers often ask this, but when the proposed answers are shrouded in jargon, the effort may cloud more than it reveals.

We already know in our bones what being is because we are. “To be” is to exist in a place, to grow, to break off, to feel how this ties you to what has come before and what is still to come. That’s why I often turn to poetry. It’s both sensory and intellectual. It awakens the personal core to new ideas, or to old ideas perceived from new angles, and it freshens the question of Being with a sense of immediacy.

An old-fashioned car in the California desert. Black-and-white photo. Image from Tess Taylor's poetry book Last West.
Detail of a photo in Tess Taylor’s Last West.

Tess Taylor’s new poetry collection Rift Zone is titled after California’s geological fault lines. “Continents are milk skin / floating on cocoa,” she writes. (“Preface: Pocket Geology”) Next, she homes in on “a radiolarian outcrop / of Jurassic limestone” near where the Golden Gate Bridge is today, where one may find “Hidden in a cave, Ohlone petroglyphs,” the site of a town eventually populated with a “bowling alley, Wild West Gun Shop.” (“Song with Schist & County Line”)

Taylor remembers girls who, in high school,

Decorated each other in white reindeer lichen.
Recited the Tao Te Ching. Had sex on a cliff.
Reindeer lichen was the revolution.
Our new breasts in rain were revolution.

“Berkeley in the Nineties”

This immediacy and specificity is where we affirm and cannot argue against our being. These experiences are as far from illusion as we can get. What algorithm today can give us wild horses, “the rippling ponies / that roamed outside Fremont?” (“Train Through Colma”)

As a poetry collection, Rift Zone is split by personal markers of threat and survival: the killing of a classmate, a husband’s illness, the environmental risks inherent in homeownership, the protection of a newborn, an organized hate group…an elk skeleton. “Now ferns glisten, redwoods blacken. / Now cold buckeye seed & lemons come.” What of these redwoods? They measure the passage of time; they undeniably exist. “Each ring is still a living record; / a transitive, ongoing, / giant conjugate for being…” (“California Suites”)

We are tied to the place where we live, this place of “Blackberry, wild plum, all overhung” (“Song with Wild Plum & Thorn”) and also to other continents from where our ancestors came. “Our gravestones are signposts to everywhere: / Yun, Kobayashi, Menendez, Revere.” (“Song with Poppies & Reverie”) To be finally buried in one place forever is also to open up an imagined everywhere. “Our life is splattered star.” (“Song in Which We Yet Sidestep Disaster”)

Book cover: Rift Zone by Tess Taylor
Rift Zone by Tess Taylor

Another recent book of Taylor’s, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, is also rooted in California. It celebrates Dorothea Lange’s 1930s cross-country travel out West. After choosing to stay in California, Lange photographed migrant workers during the Depression and, later, she documented the internment of Japanese Americans. What Lange saw then is juxtaposed with what Taylor sees today.

It is a story of the “industrial almond fields” and the people who are “unhoused, / unsheltered also migrant / also escaping fleeing / or being moved along—” They work with the “hard rhythmic toss of kale; / & row by thorny row”. The detention facility for immigrants is “Surrounded by at least three gates. Four levels of barbed wire.” This, too, is a question of being; after all, it’s about what it means to “get treated as real people”.

When you live beside train tracks
you pause so much between the trains

it changes how you think.

In Inyo County, there are “mineral mountains / goldenrod & rabbitbrush. / Burnished creosote rusts away for miles—” Any of this natural landscape may be photographed, but “what does it mean to photograph home?”

Book cover: Last West by Tess Taylor
Last West by Tess Taylor

Part of poetry’s power lies in how it raises the question of being, reminds us that there are many words with which to describe our being, and helps us to feel our existence and thereby assures us that we are here right now.

When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”