Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tragedy, judgment, and shades of gray

One of my many faults is that I seem to see everything in shades of gray.  In the realm of science, okay, a lot of that is pretty black and white; but when it comes to people, I always see actions as a web of causes, effects, qualifications, and mitigating circumstances.

I've been thinking about this because of a tragedy that struck in our little village this Wednesday.  An 18-year-old former student of mine, at a little past eleven in the morning, apparently assaulted his father and injured him badly enough that the father had to be airlifted to a hospital in Syracuse.  The last I checked, the father's condition had been upgraded from "critical" to "fair," but informed sources have said "he's not doing well," and one of them even used the dreaded words "brain damage."

The son is now being held in jail, has been charged with felony assault, had his bail set at $100,000, and is facing a possible sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

What I've noticed about this whole sad mess is how quick people are to rush to judgment.  I read the "comments" section under one of the articles that appeared in our local newspaper's website, and saw ones that said, "This kid is a vicious criminal and should rot in jail," "I know the son and he wouldn't do something like this without provocation," and more than one that referenced an allegation that the son was using drugs at the time and that the real criminal was the one who supplied him with the drugs.

I find it a little appalling that people are so willing to pass judgment on a situation while knowing almost nothing in the way of facts.  It is, apparently, nearly certain that the son was the one who committed the assault; while the media has used the word "alleged," I strongly got the impression that it was being used in its formal legal sense only.  However, why did he assault his father?  Honestly, at this point, no one knows, except the son himself and perhaps his legal counsel.  Anything we say about it is speculation, and I have no idea why someone would want to commit him/herself to a statement of judgment based upon speculation.

As far as blame... let's say that the claims of drug use are correct, and the kid was high as a kite at the time.  Does this diminish responsibility?  Or increase it, as he was committing one crime (using illegal drugs) while he committed another?  Does his supplier bear some of the guilt?  We are all so interconnected, and our actions have so many causes, that it seems to me to be nearly impossible to sort it all out.

All I can say is that when I think of the son, I remember, a quiet, gentle, soft-spoken boy, who had a ready smile and a quick wit.  He didn't focus very hard on school work, but he was unfailingly well-behaved and respectful in my class, and after taking my Critical Thinking class last year he came up and thanked me and said it was one of the most interesting classes he'd ever had.  I think of him sitting in a prison cell for perhaps the next two decades -- as if somehow that will rectify what he has done.  I think of his father's life, damaged perhaps beyond repair.  I think of his younger brother, who is mentally disabled, and who now has effectively lost two family members. 

It's a situation where everyone has lost, and at this point nothing we can do will make any of it better.

And I also think: I would make a terrible juror.  In all but a few, clear-cut cases, I would hate to be put in a position of passing judgment.  And I sometimes wish I did see actions in simpler terms.  It would make life a great deal easier.


  1. I'd make a terrible juror for the same reasons.
    I also turned down my one so-far summons to serve on a jury, citing(and having accepted as due reason to shirk my civic duty) my final exams for my degree.
    Sad stuff. And there are things we don't know about family circumstances that may have been factored in.

  2. A bit of querying was necessary in order to gather more than the purposefully vague blurb regarding the incident. It appears that the son stabbed the father in the chest.

    While the additional knowledge of using a potentially lethal weapon is foreboding, any drawn conclusion would, of course, be mere speculation.

    As far as the "shades of gray" (irrelevant of the specific situation above) ...
    You have probably noticed from my dearth of replies to your posts that I don't tend to cut people much slack.

    If someone was to do a study about people's willingness to imply naivety to other's actions, I think the results would be very interesting.

    Pretending to be unaware of one's actions or consequences is a scapegoat used ubiquitously in society, because it works... amazingly well. If we as a society stopped looking at woo-woos as idiots and instead thought of them as devious, we would try to stop them from being devious, instead of letting them continue to be stupid.

    I actually consider it to be the more optimistic approach, ironically. I believe that the average human is smarter than they are given credit for. I don't see stupidity, I see facades.

    From my perspective, David Icke knows there are no reptiles in the Moon. For me to believe that he believes there are, I would equally have to believe that he's an idiot.

    Our justice system is "innocent until proven guilty."
    My justice system is "smart until proven stupid."
    ...or "aware until proven ignorant."

    As for the situation above, would you be willing to provide an update when you know more? Knowing the whole situation allows it to be a parable.

  3. Maybe a more interesting experiment would be to take a sampling of people like Icke and hook them up to a polygraph and ask them questions about their beliefs.
    If you asked him "Are there reptiles inside the moon?"
    and he said "Yes." and the needle didn't budge, it might alter my perspectives about the power of confirmation bias and mental gymnastics.

    Guess it's for the best that I've never had a summons... sounds like I'd be a harsh juror.