Tortucans and the Problem of Truthful Perception

January 11, 2010 | By | 16 Replies More

The actor Dan Blocker, who played Hoss on the old television show Bonanza, suffered through an incident once that is by turns charming and chilling.  He was at a public event, signing autographs, when an older lady came up to him and started complaining that the cook on the Ponderosa, Hop Sing, wasn’t feeding them right.

“When you get back there,” she insisted, “you tell you pa that you need to get someone who knows how to cook good American food, feed you all properly.”

Blocker, who by all accounts was the epitome of a gentleman, explained to her after a couple of minutes of this that there was no Ponderosa, that Bonanza was a tv show—fiction—and that he was just an actor playing a part.

“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently, “I know that.  But really you must tell Ben to fire that Chinaman and get a real cook before all you boys dry up and blow away.”

She was absolutely convinced of the reality of the Cartwrights, the “fact” of the Ponderosa, and the need to be concerned on their behalf, as if the events on the show were somehow as real as anything she encountered in her daily life.

Charming, yes, but chilling in the respect of encountering a rock hard, immovable assertion of the reality of something fabricated.  Made up.

One can dance around this in a variety of ways, philosophically speaking.  As a writer of fiction I object when critics assert that what I do is tell lies for a living.  “What you create is not true.”  In one sense, I must agree completely.  The events I depict in my stories have never, nor will likely ever, “happen” in so-called “real life.”  But there is another level in which the “fact” of the story is itself a reality—the story exists, the events depicted have an effect in the reader’s imagination, there is no contravention of consensual reality in the sense that the story replaces the actual world, and yet there is a substance to them (if I’ve done my job well enough) that is not so easily dismissed as a lie.  On yet another level, the question of truth comes into it in regards to the felicity of the essence of the story to what we might recognize as truthful observations, mainly about the human condition.  A piece of fiction can tell a truth—in fact, good fiction does exactly this by examining human nature under conditions where a revelation about how people are takes place.  We find ourselves responding to characters, in the course of reading fiction, as if they were, in some sense, real.

This is what Art does.  It reveals truth.  To do so, it need not exhibit an absolute correspondence to the given world.  Indeed, the distortions to be found in certain fiction work to focus our attention on a truth in a way we might not be able to see in the usual course of daily life.

But most of us recognize the line that divides living from nonliving experience.  We—most of us—know the Cartwrights don’t exist, that the Ponderosa is not a place we could go visit, and that Hoss, Adam, Little Joe, and Ben are not “real” people in the same way our next door neighbor is.  (We may know the Cartwrights better, more intimately, than that neighbor, but that’s another issue.)

The old lady confronting Dan Blocker had crossed the line somewhere and decided what she saw weekly on television was real.

Harmless, though.  Isn’t it?  What does it really matter if she spends her time imagining that one day she might get on a bus and travel to Virginia City, get off in the earthen main street, and take a wagon ride up to the Ponderosa to have dinner with the Cartwrights?  If this delusion gives her pleasure and enriches her life, wouldn’t it be cruel to disabuse her of it, shatter the illusion (assuming it could be shattered)?

Consider another example of exactly the same thing.

Image by Accent on Electic at Flickr

Image by Accent on Electic at Flickr

That the Nazis murdered six million Jews is a fabrication advocated by those bent on destroying Christian supremacy, white supremacy, and maintaining the power of the international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.

Extreme?  Is that really the same thing?

It is the assertion of a false point of view as reality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Veterans who liberated the death camps have from time to time been faced with Holocaust deniers who somehow manage to maintain their delusion regardless of eyewitness testimony.

It would seem evident that the same delusion process is at work.

One of the most dangerous aspects of this emerges in the realm of public discourse and decision making.  Quaint myths, false syllogisms, and assertions of personal belief in place of rational apprehension of reality all feed into the difficulty of conducting policy that effects all of us.  Of late, this is most evident in the debate over the place of religion in civic institutions.

Adults we consider to have the ability and responsibility to sift through the dross of problematic assertions and deal with contradictions.  Those who do, often are marginalized.  We don’t necessarily take special pains to debunk nonsense, rather we tend to ignore it and pay little attention to the purveyor of nonsense.

But this is a mistake.  Consider this:

The parent who scrawled this note on the bottom of the permission slip is indulging in the assertion of a delusion.  Let’s be frank, Young Earth Creationism is nonsense.  The weight of evidence against it is so vast that it seems incredible that anyone could maintain it.  One might, of course, ask what difference it makes.  Isn’t maintaining one’s own perspective on the universe the privilege of living in a free society?

As far as it goes, yes.  We as individuals may believe anything we want, play whatever games with our own majesterium we wish, amuse ourselves with the fanciful and fraudulent all day, week, or year.

As long as it causes no one else harm.

Here the child is being harmed.  And before anyone might ask whether or not some equivalency of delusional discourse might be at work—what makes the current paradigm any more privileged than the one the parent is asserting—it is that the real freedom being suppressed is the child’s right to free discovery.  We should all be allowed to make up our own mind.  Truth will win in the long run, but only if all avenues of inquiry and exploration are open.  The mind that believes the Holocaust was faked and that the Earth is only 6,000 years old tends also to seek to bar alternative views from free examination.  Hence, the child is being denied a field trip to the museum.  (If the parent really believed his or her version of reality was supportable, then such a trip should be seen as harmless.)

The question, though, is always Why do people think this way?

And, secondarily, is it only kooks, crackpots, and zealots who do?
Here is a lecture that addresses exactly that issue.

We can see by this that habit—if we can call it that—forms a kind of mental shortcut for us that we all use.  Understanding something is not the same as accepting it, and to be honest (by all means, let us be honest) we all rely on certain shortcuts in order to navigate our way through the complexities of the world.  We trust people.

True, we cultivate our sources, those of us who are not yearning for delusion, we find people, books, lectures, and so forth that we feel we can depend on.  The skeptical facility, so vital to an ability to comprehend the world and to accept changes is our perception of it—and our valuable ability to detect nonsense when it confronts us—relies on networks of synopses and sources constructed by people who, we believe, do understand what they’re talking about.

Most of us are more or less comfortable with the conditional nature of our understanding.  This is what the delusional examples I’ve mentioned most reject.  Their demand for some certainty transcends their ability to reason.

But we must remember that not all delusion is on That Side of the fence.  That often we find ourselves in company with people who agree with our hard-earned understanding—but for all the wrong reasons.


Category: Art, Communication, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (16)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: Here's a copy of the Sam Harris article mentioned by Jim Downard. It was published in the Annals of Neurology.

    And here's a written version of Downard's talk.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Whenever a phenomenon is unrelentingly pervasive, the question arises whether it is an adaptation rather than an aberration. In other words, is the phenomenon an evolved tendency that is (or was) helpful to the survival of the species? Or is it a dysfunction, something akin to a disease?

    I very much enjoyed Jim Downard's talk regarding tortuca–he makes plenty of good points. Still, the main question (for me) is not addressed in these talks: why is it, that people evolved to have this tendency to pull themselves out of their shells and avoid or deny obvious facts?

    I've often thought about this issue, because it seems to be at the heart of so much social strife and so many wasteful hours of conversation. I think the science is still incomplete, though fMRI studies mentioned by Downard point to a potential mechanism. But how and why did that mechanism come into existence?

    I know this is all speculation, but it seems to me that most of our struggles with people who "refuse to admit the obvious" have a powerful social component. Religions constitute social communities, and it appears that each set of religious dogma serves as a flag around which the religious followers lived there community-based lives. I would suggest, then, that people quite often insist on their tortucan beliefs because they are compelled to do so for deeply felt social reasons. There is no reason to think that our need to bond is not as deep as any other human need. Why bond over something foolish, though? Something such as the claim that Jesus walked on water? I think this goes back to the writings of Zahavi: in order to be reliable, signals need to be expensive. The willingness to stand up and espouse nonsense that has been given official approval by the group is inexpensive signal. It does damage to one's credibility (with regard to one's ability to accurately interpret the phenomenon of the world in accordance with the scientific method–which is simply a rigorous extension of common sense). But look what you get when you're willing to damage your knowledge-credibility: a group around you clearly sees that you are committed to that group. And consider also, many people in religious communities limit their nonsense to a particular time and place (within a church on Sunday). Once they are released back into the world after the church service, most believers don't see the need to spontaneously preach such religious fables.

    But oftentimes, a religious community wants to see an even more expensive signal of group commitment than Sundays-only-in-church. A way to really demonstrate group commitment is to take the message out into the street and to shred ones credibility in front of the entire secular world. There is no better way to demonstrate commitment to one's religious community!

    My suspicion, then, is that we are dealing with two evolutionarily-honed skill sets that sometimes work at cross purposes. We have a "reality skill set," because we need to be factually accurate, because this allows us to survive by identifying the things in the world, inventing tools, and planning for the future. On the other hand, we have a "social skill set" which often, but not always, runs parallel to the "reality skill set." These two skill sets sometimes collide, especially when the group perceives that there is a threat from the outside that causes the group to circle its way against and to require expensive (and therefore reliable) science of group commitment from its members. A classic threat from the outside would be some sort of outsider intending to harm the group or its members. This is why the threat of "terrorism" makes so many people cling strongly to their social groups, triggering increased religious commitment and nationalism. Other kinds of threats to work well too. For instance, the fear of death, struggles over resources with other groups, or "disgust" with the social practices of outsiders.

    My two cents.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I've noticed that there are many who take a stand on politically hot topics, based on "the peer-reviewed work of" someone we assume is a scientist. Personally, I find the peer-review process to be problematic in some cases.

    Peer-review is a process by which research documents are either accepted or rejected for publication. The idea behind peer review is to weed out junk science, but it sometimes fails to do so and it also sometimes suppresses good science that challenges the current view.

    The best verification for scientific research is reproducibility of results.

    I know of a case where a researcher submitted a research manuscript suggesting a viral pathology for a condition that his peers believed to be purely genetic. In spite of considerable data and evidence to support his findings, his paper was rejected and he was marginalized.

    Recently, research throughout the world is reproducing his work with the same results. It would appear that his peers were wrong.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    I think you may be on to something. Some people are more social than others. Many seem to have a very strong need to belong while others seem content with a small circle of friends. Perhaps this "Social Need", this validation of oneself through association determines if one is a skeptic or a believer, regardless of what the belief is.

  5. Nicklaus,

    I some cases, I suspect there is no Self to validate, that certain individuals take the substance of whatever group they belong as substitute for having any of their own, hence attacks of the group are attacks on them personally.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Despite overwhelming supporting evidence, wonderful new scientific explanations are sometimes rejected by experts who clearly should know better. Galileo and Darwin are only the most recognizable examples of many. The same thing happened to Alfred Wegener, the scientist who developed tectonic plate theory. In recent times, the same thing happened to the doctor who correctly announced that ulcers were caused by bacteria, and not stress). For many decades, it was medical fact that stress caused ulcers. In 1984, an Australian doctor named Barry Marshall suspected that the bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, was responsible for ulcers. Widely ridiculed. Desperate to prove his theory. He drank a beaker of the bacteria. Dr. Marshall subsequently developed an ulcer and began a revolution in our understanding and treatment of peptic ulcer disease.

    Thomas Kuhn has described this in terms of paradigm shifts. I would think that group dynamics dovetails well with Kuhn's explanation.

  7. Dan Klarmann says:

    Peer review does at least 3 things. It allows old, thoroughly discredited ideas presented as new discoveries to be revealed as such and ignored.

    It gives new ideas exposure to those who may be able to confirm them, even if they are initially rejected.

    It slows the flood of publication of frivolous denialism until some actual evidence is produced.

    As for ulcers, the bacterium is responsible for eating the stomach wall, but almost every case follows from stress induced digestive yeast infection that weakens the defenses to the (usually benign) bacterium. So what is the actual cause?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      My point regarding the Australian doctor is that when he suggested that bacteria could actually live in the stomach he was ridiculed and almost universally ostracized by highly educated doctors. Yet he was right that bacteria played an important role. Back then, the establishment scientists were "tortucans."

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    The peer review process gives an inertia-like property to the current paradigm. By that I mean it makes whatever the current generally accepted theory difficult to change.

    While this can be useful in fending off fringe pseudo-science, it can also be a problem when the reviewers are to narrowly focused on a specific theory. In some cases, a narrowly focused peer group can be easily manipulated for political purposes.

    For example, I have a 16 year old son with late-onset autistic spectrum disorder. I have been following autism research for 14 years (since my son was diagnosed, and for the last 8 years, most researchers in the US, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand seem convinced that the cause is purely genetic and are focused on the search for an autism gene.

    Researcher in France, Germany, Japan, and South America have been uncovering a complex pathology involving an autoimmune disorder which sometimes has a genetic component, but also involves certain viral agents. Even though parts of this pathology were known in the late 1990s, peer-reviewed journals tended to dismiss research along this line of inquiry. However, in the last three years, neuro-immunity has gained credibility in the US.

    One reason for this is that a large amount of medical research in the US, GB and Australia is funded by pharmaceutical companies.

    In general, the companies prefer funding research that can lead to new profitable products, and avoid funding research that doesn't promise a return on investment.

    As a result, the pool of experts from which are drawn the peer reviewers tend to be more aligned with the interests of the pharma industry.

    The problem here is that, while an auto-immunological cause for autism does not imply any vaccine as a possible cause, it certainly does not completely rule out vaccines.

    Rather than risk the (rather slim) chance that some cases of autism might be triggered by a vaccine, almost everyone involved with manufacturing, distributing, administering and promoting vaccines have adopted a "Don't go there" attitude. In spite of several published claims of finding an autism gene have hit the journals, the genes that are most commonly associated with autism are related to the expression of immune system components.

  9. Dan Klarmann says:

    The anitvaxxers are gaining momentum, and use any scrap of allegory to bolster their cause. Meanwhile, diseases that had been under control for several decades are now killing thousands every year in the first world due to vaccine aversion.

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    The denial of the risks of adverse vaccine reactions is just as Tortucan in nature as those who seek to completely abolish vaccines. Dr. V.K. Singh, who identified MBP antibodies in late-onset autistic cases suggested prevaccination screening for a family history of autoimmune disorders to identify those at risk, and providing an alternative vaccine regimen.

    Some facts about vaccines that should be taken into consideration:

    Good nutrition is needed. Vitamin deficiencies often contribute to an increased risk of adverse reactions to a vaccine. simply taking a daily multivitamin increase will safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

    Taking multiple vaccines at one session significantly increases the risk of of an adverse reaction.

    Vaccinations should not be administered if the patient is recovering from an illness. It can take two or three weeks for the immune system to recover after symptoms are gone.

    Even though the FDA and CDC know about these facts, they advocate a policy of as many as 9 vaccines per session for children (sometimes over 20 for adults traveling abroad), regardless of the individual's health or genetic predispositions. The number of required vaccines is continually growing as the pharma industry develops more vaccines.

    Many countries in the world have adopted a sane vaccine policy. In these places, monovalent vaccines are administered, one per session with several weeks between vaccines. Recent illness of any kind delay the next scheduled vaccine, and proper nutrition including daily vitamins isss encouraged.

    Offhandedly dismissing independently verified research as "antivaxer allegory" is a knee-jerk reaction that champions the idea that vaccines are perfectly safe, and is a closed-minded, tortucan view.

  11. James Downard says:

    In response to the matter of how we developed a non-tortucan approach, science and reason and all that, it wasn't easy! Sound reasoning is not a natural way to operate, but then neither is calculus or flying an airplane. But we have as a species a lot of non-turtucans, and even compartmentalized ones like Newton can revolutionize things almost in spite of themselves.

    I didn't delve too far in the lecture into the methodological principles of sound reasoning that have been developed and used so successfully, but those are the hard-won safeguards against tortucans running amok.

  12. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    I want to point out that believing in a scientific consensus without a full understanding of the science is every much as tortucan as believing in astrology.

    You have to be knowledgeable enough to be critical of your own beliefs.

    I have two sons. The oldest one, current 16 years old, was diagnosed with autism at 2. His first 18 months were marked by normal development, followed by 3 months of rapid regression.

    When he was diagnosed, I decided to do every thing I could to understand what was happening yo my son.Starting with some formal training in statistics. over the past 14 years, I've studied immunology, molecular biology, virology and neurology. so that I could understand the research into the pathology of autism.

    One thing I have gained is a thorough understanding of how vaccines work. I have also developed an understanging of vaccine policy.

    No vaccine is absolutely safe for everyone, There are a few people with adverse reactions

    that range from mild discomfort, to life threatening seizures, encephalitis, and autoimmune disorders.

    Vaccine policy is not based on individual risk, but on collective risk. If the probability of a severe adverse reaction is low, and the probability of averting a pandemic or epidemic is high, a vaccine is considered safe.

    For the good of the many, we can afford to sacrifice a few. However, whan a small hand full of vaccines demonstrate a tendency to greate sub-acute chronic infections, a wave of denial sets in. Pharma corps deny to protect their stock value. Medical professionals deny because they don't want to believe that their treatment could be causing harm.

    From denial comes the tortucan view. Put on the blinders, refuse to acknowledge the research. Dismiss it as irrelevant, or as bad science, Manipulate the statistics to make it look like it isn't happening. Boldly claim the problem is genetic then look for a gene to blame it on. but never, never admit to a mistake and work to make the vaccines safer.

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