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The Tale of the Economics Professor

Submitted by Ken Watts on Wed, 03/25/2009 - 20:34

TODAY'S PROPAGANDA EMAIL is in the form of a story:

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism.

All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little.. The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F.

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed.

Could not be any simpler than that....

I love this one—particularly the final line. "Could not be any simpler..." is a fine capstone on an argument that's presented as a simple story, but is actually a very convoluted and complex system of assumptions, distortions, and manipulations.

So lets take it line by line.

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class.

  1. First, notice that the professor is not named, but the school is. This should make us a bit suspicious, since it lends an air of credibility without being traceable.
  2. Next, notice that this is a story-within-a-story. The author doesn't actually say that it happened. He, or she, says that the unnamed professor said that it happened.

    This is interesting for three reasons:
    1. It makes the story harder to debunk. It might be possible to prove that no professor at Texas Tech ever did this, but it's not possible to prove that no professor ever claimed they did.

      The effect of this is all in the subtext. You don't stop to think about it when you're just reading the email, but it's there to counter any doubts you might have along the way.
    2. It shifts the point of view. We now are in the position of hearing the professor's own testimony about the story.

      The interesting thing, of course, is that we aren't really—we're still just hearing what the unnamed author wants us to believe. So, by actually removing us one more step from the source (by telling us that the author didn't witness this personally) it creates the illusion that we've actually moved closer (to the teacher who did it).
    3. It uses a well-known hypnotic technique. By folding one story within another, it makes it hard for the reader to be clear on the context, which in turn makes the reader easier to lead.
  3. Finally, notice what the dramatic claim actually asks us to believe: that a teacher who never fails a student individually would actually contrive to fail an entire class.

    Because it isn't just a matter of circumstances leading a teacher to do something out of character.

    The story that follows is the story of a teacher who, because of a political disagreement with students, intentionally creates a situation that will lead to their failure.

This is typical, at one level or another, of many of these emails. It leaves the readers in a liminal state, halfway between truth and fiction, where they are more vulnerable to a misleading argument.

By accepting the story on face value, even while there is ample evidence for rejecting it out of hand, we are already colluding with the author in his deception.

To be continued...