Many People Say

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“To many, Beethoven’s most famous work is a symbol of exclusion and elitism in classical music.”

How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music” (Vox)

TRUMP: There are a lot of people think that masks are not good.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Who are those people?

TRUMP: I’ll tell you who those people are … waiters. They come over and they serve you, and they have a mask. They’re playing with the mask, so the mask is over, and they’re touching it, and then they’re touching the plate. That can’t be good.

The concept of a mask is good, but it also does … you’re constantly touching it, you’re touching your face, you’re touching plates. There are people that don’t think masks are good.

“Trump’s ABC News town hall: Full transcript”

If you ever want a textbook example of what “begging the question” really means (because it doesn’t mean what you think it does), here you go:

We ask how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping — everything we love to hate about classical music today. How did the meaning of this symphony get so twisted?

How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music” (Vox)

“Begging the question” is the most commonly misused rhetorical phrase in the English-speaking world. It does NOT mean asking for an underlying question, and anytime I hear someone say, “Well that begs the question, why does blah blah blah?”, I die a little inside.

Begging the question is the assertion of a made-up premise that validates the “question” you then proceed to ask and answer.

So when Vox writes an insane article answering the question “How did the meaning of this symphony get so twisted?”, they first claim by assertion that, in fact, the meaning of Beethoven’s Fifth has been twisted. THAT is begging the question.

The go-to move by sophist demagogues like Vox and Trump to support a made-up premise is to claim that “many people” are asserting this made-up premise.

Why do they do this? Because it works.

Why does it work? Because common knowledge game. Because of the power of the crowd watching the crowd.

Claiming that “many people” believe that Beethoven’s Fifth is a symbol of exclusion is the verbal equivalent of a sitcom laugh track. In both cases, it’s the creation of an artificial audience for the real-life audience to observe, an artificial audience that cues the real-life audience to accept the made-up assertion. In the case of a sitcom, the made-up assertion might be that Joey and Chandler’s hijinks with Monica and Rachel are funny. In the case of modern politics, the made-up assertion might be that wearing masks is bad for you. The process to get you to laugh/believe is exactly the same.

Seriously, try to watch Friends without a laugh track (do a quick Google search, there are a lot of these, like here). What you thought was a funny show becomes … definitely NOT funny and more than a little frightening.

Now try to read a Trump tweet or a Vox article and substitute “I think” for “many people are saying”. What you thought was a somewhat-questionable-but-okay-I guess statement becomes … definitely NOT okay and more than a little frightening.

If there’s one thing you get from Epsilon Theory, it’s this: we human beings are biologically hard-wired to respond positively to a positively-responding crowd, and every high-functioning sociopath in Washington and Wall Street and Hollywood and Silicon Valley and every other concentration of political or economic power both knows our biological weakness and uses this biological weakness against us.

Once you start looking for these artificial audiences with their artificial cues, you will see them everywhere.

This is Fiat World, where the self-serving opinions and made-up assertions of the powerful are presented to us as fact, where “many people say” that we must vote for ridiculous candidates to be a good Republican or a good Democrat, where “many people say” that we must buy ridiculous securities to be a good investor, where “many people say” that we must borrow ridiculous sums to be a good parent or a good spouse or a good American.

How do we escape Fiat World? We can’t. Sorry.

How do we survive Fiat World? Clear eyes to see their sophistry. Full hearts to reject it.

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.

PS. Facebook delenda est.


  1. I’m going to pose the argument that gets tossed at me every time I become a grammar or word definition scold: if, overtime, a new definition or usage becomes common, is it wrong anymore or isn’t that how languages evolve? To wit, doesn’t the new usage/definition become the de facto and, hence, correct one?

    For example and drawing from one of my pet peeves, something either is or is not “unique” (one of a kind), it either is or isn’t; something can’t be “more” or “less unique.” But I’ve been told that “unique’s” definition is evolving to mean rare or special so something now can be “somewhat unique.” Blah.

    Maybe, I guess. So Ben, what do you think of this applying to your view of what “begging the question means.” Hence, if enough people believe the “new” definition and use it that way; does that, in fact, become the phrase’s new meaning? I don’t love that argument, but think it might be the winning one. Thoughts?

    Oh, and yes, our world is made up of these false arguments by highly functioning sociopaths (love that phrase Ben). Trump does it; Obama was a master of it. Obama would first frame an argument against his position in a way that would fail completely when he, then, followed up with his counter argument. Once you saw that he (like Trump with his version) did it all the time, it would drive you crazy.

  2. One of the most pernicious places “many people” is manifested is Google. Most people searching for terms in their field of expertise have seen this, since SEO can be won with money. Just cements all kinds of bullshit into place.

  3. Promise me, Ben, that you and Randy will never use a laugh track on ET Live!

  4. This is similar to the idea of preference falsification - that people will say that they believe the group believes, not what they actually believe, in order to fit in with the group.

  5. The subconscious impact of the crowd, even an artificial one, is scary. When the NBA came back, I really tried to like it, but I just couldn’t get into it. I have watched hundreds of hours of live basketball in gyms with little or no crowd, so I didn’t think it was about the crowd. But now that they are playing crowd noise and generic home team PA, I’m back in. We humans are much more easily manipulated than we like to think.

  6. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Rusty is willing to die on the hill of rejecting the Oxford comma. I’m willing to die on the hill of begging the question. I think we’re all willing to die on the hill of unique!

  7. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Absolutely right.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:


  9. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Yep. It’s crazy how impactful even an artificial crowd can be.

  10. It’s not hard-wiring (brain structure). It’s software (social conditioning).

    The knowledge that politicians and others have is of how we’re socially conditioned, not how we’re wired.

    If it were hard-wiring, knowledge of its existence wouldn’t help us to avoid it.

  11. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I will not reject the possibility of dramatic background music or foleyed in sound effects, however.

  12. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    I don’t understand the argument you are making. I am not sure how much of the human experience is conscious, intentional striving against pattern-recognition and other biological predispositions ill-suited to a modern world, but in my experience I have found it is easily half or more.

  13. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    We are, biologically speaking, a eusocial animal - like termites, ants and bees. One of the hardwired characteristics of these species is that we are incredibly sensitive to intraspecies communications … we literally swim in a sea of - not pheromones or chemical transmitters of information - but words and linguistic transmitters of information. Yes, there is definitely a social conditioning aspect to the human animal, but our biological evolution is an inescapable part of this. If you haven’t already, gotta read EO Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth”.

  14. But the Oxford comma is so critical…

  15. This format–find a few random people who are critiquing/discussing/arguing a specific thing–and then write an article extrapolating out that behavior as an accurate representation of the larger “many people” group is very popular. This happens constantly on Film Twitter and the adjacent publications that work off of that content.

    “Alt-Right Trolls are Angry About Women in Movie X” is a common construct. Then when you read the article it turns out that three dudes, who between them have 29 followers, tweeted some ridiculous criticism of some part of a movie or its cast or whatever. Rather than just accepting that there are some lonely people who like to say nasty things anonymously they go ahead and publish this big to-do about how it’s a Very Serious Problem. From there the comments on the article will flesh out a number of arguments, most of which veer wildly off topic yet nonetheless stoke further controversy, thus feeding the content machine for the next outrage cycle. When you hear someone use the “many people are saying” format–be it Vox, Trump, Vice, Slate, et al–just be aware that you’re hearing the perspective of the firefighter who in his spare time is an arsonist.

  16. Seems like this could also be viewed as another version of the utilitarian argument with the indistinguishable “many people” being supplied as proof of common good.

    Anybody recall John Stewart’s sign off?

    8/6/15 - A long,long time ago in a galaxy far,far away (sigh).

  17. I disagree. If you read “Influence” by Robert Cialdini, he pulls back the curtain on many social conditioning tools that are effective for influencing people. Knowing about these tools and being able to identify them helps me reduce the impact they have on me. My experience with the crowd, laugh tracks, etc, is that it is happening at a much more base level. Most importantly, I have very little ability to separate the impact of the crowd from the performance itself. The crowd and the performance effectively become one experience. That’s hard-wiring if you ask me.

  18. Thanks, Ben. I’ll read Wilson. “The Social Construction of Reality” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967) is worth your time, if you haven’t encountered it already.

    Here’s the stumper: How can we overcome biology with clear eyes and full hearts? Let’s say wire A is connected to terminal B in our brains. And that we’d prefer that wire A be connected to terminal C. (I know, this is crude, but stay with me.)

    How does knowledge of this, given that we can’t change hard wiring, do anything other than make us skeptical of all knowledge claims? How does it do anything but tell us that the brain, as currently wired, is flawed?

  19. Hi, Rusty… Let me clarify…

    The suggestion has been made here that we can control our own thinking. The idea is that we can use clear eyes and full hearts (independent thought) to overcome and resist the messages we receive from some others.

    But, if our reaction to the messages that we receive from others is due to the brain’s hard wiring (biology), then how can it be overcome or resisted without changing that hard wiring? And we can’t change the hard wiring, right? So how do we resist these communications from others?

  20. Avatar for Milko Milko says:

    Who’s Randy (or randy, since we are playing with words here)?

  21. Avatar for 010101 010101 says:

    The intent of the words is important. When you want to communicate a truth and the counterparty understands you, the exact language is less important than its beauty.
    If the intent is to deceive and manipulate the actions of the audience, then the language must be carefully chosen.

  22. Avatar for O.P.A O.P.A says:

    Thanks for you comment, jb, I find it thought provoking.

    As Flat Arthur says, knowledge of the phenomenon helps us free ourselves from its influence, which I think is a big part of ET.

    As to why it does so, in spite of our hardwiring, I would refer to books such as “Blink” and “Thinking: Fast and Slow”.

    Our hardwiring (or instincts, or nature, if you prefer) predisposes us to certain responses, makes certain reactions come more easily, but does not force such reactions.

    We can adapt (neuroplasticity) With awareness and training/practice (or nurture, if you will), we can overcome many biological reactions.

    Hunger drives us to eat, but we can choose to starve ourselves or indulge it.

    For older sayings on essentially the same thing, perhaps look into Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truths; or various Hindu stories about Parush/prakriti/satvi/Bodhi. Even Christianity on Original Sin and Forgiveness - change from our base hard wiring is not easy by any means; it is possible. And from that, I draw hope for myself and Humanity.

  23. Google “The wrap up smear”

    As Ben would say they are not even trying anymore.

  24. How about “she’s a little pregnant”? Kind of like honesty, you either are or you aren’t.

  25. Fantastic! Point well made.

  26. Good ones.

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum


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