March 26, 2003: Letters
Letter Box Online
PAW welcomes letters. We may edit them for length,
accuracy, clarity, and civility.
I am surprised by the letter from David Dennison 42 (February 12) suggesting that the Princeton admission office require some minimum level of emotional stability in addition to other admission criteria. This absurd recommendation is not only politically incorrect, it is insensitive and lacks insight into the changing and growing needs of a student body must we all be reminded about the terrible incident with the young M.I.T. student who burned herself to death as a result of mental illness that was not properly treated?
Dana Satir 01
Perhaps applicants should be screened as well for family history of epilepsy, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, lest these future leaders find that these medical conditions, too, might impair their ability to cope in our changing world.
Or perhaps instead we should laud our current undergraduates, whose pressure for A.P. courses, grades, and near-full-time extracurricular activities dwarfs the standards to which we were held many decades ago. Perhaps we should be glad that neuroscientific research is demystifying the brains chemistry, and in doing so, is destigmatizing mental illness. Perhaps we should admire these new Princetonians willingness to confront these issues through counseling and medication. And perhaps we should be grateful for the universitys response and support.
David W. Budd 79
While it might be a more effective teaching strategy, the death of organic chemistry lectures instituted by Dr. Maitland Jones (Subject Matters, February 12) marks the loss of healthy guffaw fodder.
In the late 70s and early 80s my classmate William P. Cheshire 82 and I found it a stress-reliever to pay tribute to Dr. Kurt Mislow, our orgo hero, by wreaking an annual havoc upon his class for three years running. Among other things, we managed to commandeer the P.A. system, interrupt the lecture with prerecorded audio clips, including a taped Tigertone rendition of an original tune, Colored Chalk, and a flasher (wearing Mislows picture); one year we burst into the final exam in wild garb and did a rendition of Deliverance on banjo, guitar, and harmonica.
Tim Cripe 82
As a former eating club officer at Colonial Club, I have had direct experience with two different types of parties the normal nights where weak beer sloshed through the building, and those formal events where no alcohol was served (Notebook, March 12).
The interesting and surprising phenomenon, which apparently the police are not aware of, is that there was always an increase in the number of dangerously drunk students sent to the hospital on the no-alcohol nights.
When denied the ability to drink beer, students (even underage ones) consume alcohol on their own. And when the party place and the drinking place are separated by a 15-minute walk, students drink large amounts of hard liquor in order to remain drunk at the party.
College kids are going to drink. They are not going to play Scrabble all night. If they cant get free beer at the clubs, they will drink cheap vodka that a neighbor bought with his fake I.D. If that neighbors fake I.D. gets taken, then older brother from home will bring up 20 bottles.
So to the police, I say that in your zealous attempt to uphold what is indeed the law, you are actually putting more students in danger. When this policy does more harm than good, I hope you will be prepared to stop this undercover operation at the clubs.
Cameron Jones 01
I find it interesting and curious to read about a typical day in the life of Professor Anthony Grafton (Presidents Page, January 29). The article reminds me of the article on Princetons valedictorian (June 5, 2002). Professor Grafton works from 5:30 a.m. to midnight and appears almost constantly busy. Perhaps the faculty and the students are not so different in their work habits and mindsets?
Mike Spivey *01
What is going on? The February 12 PAW had only one page on athletics. Other issues have been sparse on current activities. You cannot really follow the Tigers except through the athletics department Web site. That is excellent and more than adequate, but with that kind of reporting why does PAW ignore the breadth of items you can reproduce from that source?
R. Wittreich 50
Kudos for moving the old bare listings of Princeton-authored books online and creating the new Reading Room pages with profiles and interviews.
A truly welcome change.
Brad Bradford 44
Stuart Professor of Psychology Philip Johnson-Laird responds to William H. Weigel 71 (Letters, March 12):
Heres a response to your worries about the waiters words (cover story, January 29). He says: You can have the fish, or else not both the soup and the salad. It follows, surprisingly, that you can have all three dishes. The source of the surprise is that we normally think about what is true but not about what is false.
How do individuals understand or else? Given the simple assertion: He ate the fish or else the meat, most people list two possibilities: Ate fish, ate meat.
So, you are right that the meaning of or else does not correspond to its inclusive meaning in logic, which is best paraphrased as: fish or meat, or both. In other words, people treat an assertion of the form: A or else B, to mean that in one possibility A is true (and B is false), and in the other possibility B is true (and A is false). Given a simple assertion based on not both, such as: You ate not both the soup and the meat, individuals allow that there are several possibilities, but that the assertion does rule out the case in which you ate both the soup and the meat.
We can put these two interpretations together to deal with what the waiter said: You can have the fish, or else not both the soup and the salad. Or else means that there are two cases to consider. In one, it is true that you can have the fish, and it is false that you cant have both the soup and the salad. If its false that you cant have both the soup and the salad, then it is true that you can have both of them. Hence, in this first case, you can indeed have the fish, the soup, and the salad. The second case allows for various other meals, which need not detain us here.
I hope that this account has convinced you that the analysis in PAW was correct.
You worry about the passage giving the answers to the problems. It argues that the sentence: You could have the fish or else not the meat, allows that you could have the fish and the meat. That claim is true. Fish or else not meat is compatible with two possibilities: In the first, you have fish and meat; in the second, you dont have fish and you dont have meat.
But, as you say, it would not be permitted for the diner to have fish and to have not-meat. So, here, again there is no disagreement between us.
Your final claim is that what is going on in these examples is not a failure to apply logic but a failure of language to be sufficiently precise, and that people are likely to recognize the confusion and potential logical inconsistency embedded in the waiters words. You may be right that people recognize the confusion in the waiters words. In many studies, however, we have found that people slip into error with the greatest of confidence. Consider problems of the following sort: You get a grade of zero if you miss a class without an excuse, or else you get the mean grade of your other classes if you have an excuse. You missed a class without an excuse. What follows?
Nearly everyone, experts and nonexperts alike, concludes that you get a grade of zero. And they are highly confident that they are right. They have succumbed to an illusion. Or else means that one of the assertions in the first sentence is false (and one of them is true). Suppose that it is false that you get a grade of zero if you miss a class without an excuse. In that case, even though you missed a class without an excuse, you need not get a grade of zero. Our propensity to neglect falsity here leads us to treat or else as though it meant and.
The moral of these studies is that when we think, we envisage possibilities and what is true in those possibilities. And so we get into trouble when it is crucial to think about what is false.