Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spot the logical fallacy, or why no one is trying to sacrifice your cat

(Image by Aaron Williams for Offworld Designs - www.offworlddesigns.com)

Because a fair number of people who read this blog are new to the more traditionally disturbing aspects of fandom, I’m going to weigh in on the latest iteration of an old idiocy.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard someone say, “Dungeons and Dragons is evil.”

Yep, the old chestnut is back. A recent article in the Boston Herald trumpeted that Amy Bishop, the professor accused of the recent shootings at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, met her husband in a D&D club in the 1980s. The article connected this to the case of Michael “Mucko” McDermott, the software engineer who killed seven coworkers at Wakefield Technologies in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 2000. Police seized two D&D manuals from McDermott’s home. (You can read the article at http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1233150.)

Now, before this blog entry becomes one long rant about the Evil Mainstream Media, I’m going to pause and point out that most of the people who bring you these stories—the reporters, editors, etc. who work the news beat—are not all that evil. They’re mostly intelligent, well-trained people doing their jobs as best they can, on starvation budgets, because they sincerely believe their work makes the world a better place. I spent my undergrad career in a prestigious journalism school; I learned the rules of the news game, I mostly agree with them, and I have great respect for the honest folk—many of them my friends—who bring you all the news that doesn’t show up in conspiracy theories or on TMZ.

That said, this particular story is a real turkey.

There’s an old logical maxim that tells us, “Correlation does not imply causality.” It means that just because you find two things in the same place, it doesn’t mean one of those things caused the other thing, or even that they have anything to do with each other. An example: I like eating tunafish sandwiches, and I occasionally walk around singing filk songs and annoying people, but that doesn’t mean cutting off my tunafish supply will stop the singing. (In fact, it will probably just make me sing about tunafish, so let’s not get crazy.) Consider: if Amy Bishop had met her husband in the chess club, there would be no story. So what is it about D&D that makes it a newsworthy aspect of a nasty workplace shooting?

Okay, for starters, there’s the packaging. D&D materials tend to show up in stores covered with, well, dungeons and dragons, along with wizards, warriors, and monsters of various kinds. Scantily clad females show up, too, and there’s a heck of a lot of violence and purported magical content. This is the box I’m talking about, mind you, not the game—the advertising, which is all most non-players see. By the standards of what I see at comic conventions and in specialty shops, D&D is positively tame. It is, in fact, old school. But I suppose it still looks a little scary to some Midwestern home-school parents, so the box will keep getting trotted out.

Then there’s the people who play D&D. Let’s be honest; a lot of them are nerds. Even now that nerds are some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet—heck, some of them are tastemakers—we nerds still seem to emit some pheromone that causes some non-nerds to want to give us atomic wedgies, and others to declare us irredeemably creepy. I’ve met many gamers who use gaming as a substitute for adequate social skills, and quite a few who don’t, but if you’re not paying attention, “can’t talk to a girl” looks an awful lot like “is headed for the nearest rooftop with a sniper rifle.” Remember that correlation-does-not-imply-causality thing? It’s handy to keep in mind when talking to nerds. About the only thing nerds have in common is that they spend a lot of time in their heads; what’s in there varies widely.

Finally, there’s that treasured stupidity, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Anyone here old enough to remember that? I recall being forced to sit through videos in school telling me that there were satanists in every city in America who wanted to sacrifice my cat to the dark goat-gods. Anything with a wizard on it might cause me to murder everyone I knew and send all my money to TSR (if true, can I hire TSR’s marketing department to promote Masks?). I have a private theory that, now that the kids who grew up during the Satanic Panic are out there in the workplace and blogosphere, it’s become a meme that some of us can’t shake. Some Baby Boomers will never stop singing the praises of Elvis and the Beatles, and the beginning of Gen-Y will always have a few people who are unaccountably weirded out by D&D. And goats, but that may just be me.

And so you get articles like the Boston Herald piece, which basically boils down to, “Hey, you remember that chick that allegedly shot some people? She plays D&D! See, she must be evil!” Bringing in the McDermott connection is an even lower blow—among other things, McDermott also claimed at trial that he believed he had been born without a soul but allowed to earn one by traveling back in time to kill Nazis. The prosecution, meanwhile, held that he’d shot his coworkers because his employer was garnishing his wages to pay back taxes. I’m going to apply Occam’s razor here and suggest that wage garnishment and flat-out delusion both make more likely motives for murder than a mind-altering D&D manual.

Now, I’m coming at this issue from the outside. I don’t play D&D, so if the gamers in my life really are sacrificing cats in the basement or plotting to slaughter their coworkers, I will be as surprised as anyone else and will gladly eat my share of crow. But as far as I can tell, all this kind of gaming fosters is social interaction (admittedly, with other gamers), creative problem-solving, and lots of incomprehensible petty arguments about something called a “plus three enchanted mace.” (The major reason I don’t play D&D myself is that I find such games too constricting—I make up entire universes on a regular basis, so any constructed alternative pales in comparison.)

So why am I spending so much digital ink on this question? Mostly because I’m bothered by how much the “D&D is evil” smacks of censorship. Somebody finds somebody else’s entertainment a little creepy, and tries to restrict access to it. But if a work of art—book, movie, game, interpretive dance, whatever—is really so dangerous, doesn’t trying to silence it give it power it shouldn’t have? Do we really have so little confidence in our own reason that we would close our eyes and plug our ears rather than confront something that should be refuted?

One of the most useful writing classes I ever took required the students to read Mein Kampf … and list all the logical fallacies. I loved the idea so much, and learned so well from it, that I kept the textbook and have taught that very lesson myself many times in my own classes. I’ve never produced any Nazis, but I’ve turned out a few strong logical thinkers. As I often point out, if what you believe is really true, it can survive an intellectual challenge—and if it’s not, maybe you shouldn’t be believing it anyway.

So I’m all for warning labels on discs and content ratings at the movies. Truth in advertising = win. I’m even for the right of parents to restrict children’s access to stuff they’re not yet ready to handle, although I think parents should think long and hard about what they want to restrict and why. And I think child pornographers should be shot, several times, somewhere painful, because freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to abuse kids. But when it comes to banning and burning art or entertainment, or trotting out hoary old fallacies about how the nerds in the basement are out to get you … it’s time to find a new boogeyman. Time to question the ideas that seem obvious, and get into the habit of thinking for ourselves rather than relying on decades-old urban legends—or even this blog entry. (Anyone who disagrees with me on any of this, feel free to post comments, and I’ll respond to all civil remarks.)

It’s things like this that make me aspire to be burned in effigy …

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