Continued from Gremlins of Belief

I knew a goth girl in college. She identified as Wiccan, which basically means she worshipped “The Goddess,” nature. She had grown up a Jehovah’s Witness, and when she left her parents’ house, she saw the error of their beliefs, and she became Wiccan.

There is a mirror image version of the Gremlin Fallacy.

Instead of continuing to believe something that’s been fundamentally subverted by new information, you stop believing in something in favor of a different thing that does not fundamentally subvert the original belief.

You thought you killed the gremlin, but you actually gave it a new, secret life.

Parent tries to force rebellious teen to worship God A. Teen reacts by declaring her devotion to God B.

This act of rebellion implicitly accepts and legitimizes the premise of worshipping God A because the rebellion isn’t categorically different. It’s only qualitatively different. “Being Christian is stupid! I don’t worship God! I worship Satan!” You’re doing it wrong.

Consider a debate about the ethics of marriage: should a man be allowed to marry a 12 year old girl? Or should he wait to marry a girl who is at least 18 years old?

If you get into a discussion about age of consent and brain development, you’re already lost.

By having that conversation you’re implicitly accepting premises like:

  • Marriage makes sense.
  • Men have the final power over who they marry, even if we think their choice is unethical.

The second one might not make sense to you. Put another way: If a US Senator says he’s going to pass a bill that ends welfare and repurposes that money to fund full time strippers for every Senator, then we’d be mad and say he is doing the wrong thing. If I, Pete Michaud, wanted to pass the same bill, I’d be detained by the Secret Service for trespassing. See the difference?


It’s called “Framing” in marketing and politics. Do you use Dove or Oil of Olay? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Do you Vote or Not? Meaningless choices that legitimize each other.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
~David Foster Wallace

When it’s used to give small children a sense of control (“Do you want to take a nap in your bed or Mommy’s bed?”), the trick is maybe justifiable. But it’s used by culture and media to make you impotent and powerless in the same way a toddler is powerless to skip his nap. It’s used to keep you debating about peoples’ genitalia while important things are happening unnoticed.

It’s insidious because there’s never a prompt to consider it. In fact it’s often presented in such a way as to prevent you from considering it.

At least the gremlin fallacy presents you with information that you are primed to evaluate. The only question is whether you evaluate it correctly.

Zombie Gremlins are tougher to root out. Are you gay or straight? Do you want to marry me or someone else?

You have to use your creativity to subvert the basic assumptions of the question, and develop answers other than ones presented to you.



One technique is something I call the “Or…” technique. If you’re presented with an option, just add “or…” to the end:

“Do you want to marry me or someone else or…

That will get you at least considering the context of the question since you’ll be developing other options.

Concept or Reality

The stronger technique is to find the subject of the question— eg. sexual orientation, or marriage, or political affiliation—and simply identify if the thing exists in reality, or only in our heads. If an alien asked you what something was, could you point at it? Could you measure it? Or would you have to explain it in terms of ideas about how people relate to each other?

There’s no marriage atom, or political affiliation phenotype.

If it’s just a concept, then the premise of the question is suspect. Concepts aren’t questions of fact, they are always question of value, of utility: is this concept useful to me, or not? Does it harm me in some way? Is the idea of marriage useful? Helpful?

Once you start asking a question like that, you’re on the right track. Coming to a satisfying answer is another matter, and depends on how smart you are and how honest with yourself you are.

Maybe the best you can do is throw temper tantrum, but at least you’re not a toddler being duped into a nap anymore.

Continue to Part 3: Man Over Gremlins →