Have you heard about the brownies?

Posted in Society at 17:49 by RjZ

It’s just not the kind of thing you expect from Psych 101. We were still finding our seats when our professor began his lecture by asking a question: “Have you heard of the Logically Unverifiable Brownies?” He paused but no one answered, so he started again, “Hasn’t anyone heard of the Logically Unverifiable Brownies?” We shook our heads. “You know, Brownies, little brown chocolate squares?” We shrugged. “Well, these brownies are very important. They’re the reason things happen. The Logically Unverifiable Brownies make the sun come up in the morning, they are what causes us to fall in love, and they’re why roses are red and zebras have stripes.”

By now, our eyes are pretty wide as we stare back at our instructor. One of the students speaks the inner dialog that many are thinking, “exactly what kind of brownies are these and did you have any before class?” He shrugs off the laughter and continues, “The usual kind of brownies, but they are special. These are logically unverifiable. That means that, by definition, we can’t prove, or verify, their existence. They’re there alright, but to say we can prove that they’re around is as illogical, by definition, as saying A does not equal A or 2 + 2 = 5.”

“Just because you can’t prove that they’re around doesn’t mean they’re not the reason that food tastes good or stars don’t fall from the sky. I can’t believe you haven’t already heard of them!” he went on, still with a straight face. Another student spoke up “I’ve never seen them!” “Of course not,” he said “if you had seen them, that’d be proof of their existence and, these are logically unverifiable brownies. There can’t be any hard evidence that they exist.”

At this point, a few of us had caught on. Others were getting more and more frustrated with our crazy psych professor and beginning to curse general education classes. The conversation of just what brownies were and weren’t continued for the better part of a half hour until he finally started asking who believed that the brownies really exisited. When some students offered that they did not believe in them, he asked them to prove it! Of course, they could no easier prove the lack of existence of the brownies than he could the existence; after all, they’re logically unverifiable.

Finally, he released us: “Does it matter if the Logically Unverifiable Brownies exist or not? After all, they control everything in our lives.” The brownies may exist, they may control everything that happens around us, or they may be figment of my psych 101 professor’s imagination. We’ll never know–we can never know. “Anything that is logically unverifiable, beyond proof, beyond testing, beyond measurement of any kind is therefore meaningless,” he told us. It’s not that they do or don’t exist. If it makes us happy to go on thinking the brownies exist, he wouldn’t try to stop us, but it doesn’t matter either way. We can’t do anything with the knowledge that the Brownies keep airplanes in the air and kittens falling on their feet.

Anything that is logically unverifiable is therefore meaningless.

It’s one of the many lessons he taught us, albiet in a most peculiar way. Another one was that the number of street lamps in a city is directly proportional to the number of prostitutes. “Of course this makes sense, right? They lean on them.” So if the city council were to eliminate street lamps, they could reduce the number of prostitutes. The class, getting the hang of him by now objected and he stated:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Did all this have much to do with psychology? Perhaps. I don’t remember any psychology, but it was one of the best general education courses I had and one I am surprised is not taught as a requirement. The class was about critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t just common sense. We need tools to see when it’s reliable data or just damn lies and statistics. It’s all too easy for politicians, the media, advertisers and even our friends to manipulate our opinions with misleading ‘facts.’

Irrelavent considerations do not bear on the truth of a conclusion.

I suggest that, more than facts and figures, our education system would be best served by courses in critical thinking. Instead of teaching children what to think, we should teach them how to think, and perhaps most importantly, how to determine if what you’re being told is useful or not. Who is the speaker? What are they claiming? Are they professing authority on this topic? Should I believe anything I read in this blog?

With these tools children could begin to question their teachers and parents (which is probably why we don’t teach it) but they’d also grow to be able to question commercials and the goverment.

As Jefferson noted in that first letter to Madison: “And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government, or information to the people. This last is the most certain, and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Or, as in this Onion point and counterpoint: “A Well-Informed Populace Is Vital To The Operation Of A Democracy.”

It’s not my idea anyway. The brownies made me do it.

In case you didn’t have a crazy psych 101 professor, here’s a list of fallacies and explanations. They’re almost as much fun as taking his class was.


  1. aaron said,

    October 10, 2006 at 6:53

    Allow me to first congratulate you for your ablity to outhaggle the Vietnamese. Although I know you dealt more with their Hanoi cousins, I feel completely outclassed by the denizens of Ho Chi Minh.

    So to tie that thought together with the subject of your blog, what do you do when someone speaking a different language says something fallacious in the midst of a business deal. I encounter a lot of, “they wouldn’t have a shop if the quality wasn’t good.” or “Many Americans bought things here.” But I find it difficult to express just how meaningless what they say really is. Besides walking away of course.

  2. RjZ said,

    October 10, 2006 at 8:12

    Just as a note: I haven’t yet had the chance to outhaggle Vietnamese. I’ve not yet been there.

  3. aaron said,

    October 11, 2006 at 6:15

    I thought you went to Hanoi. Sorry, my misunderstanding

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