Concepts Illuminate & Obscure Reality

There’s no alternative to using models to simplify reality. The world is far too complex to live without them. But if you use a false map of reality, you won’t get where you want to go.

Political scientists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt published a 2013 paper on the importance of theory in International Relations:

Leaving theory behind: Why simplistic hypothesis testing is bad for International Relations

Because the world is infinitely complex, we need mental maps to identify what is important in different domains of human activity. In particular, we need theories to identify the causal mechanisms that explain recurring behavior and how they relate to each other. Finally, well-crafted theories are essential for testing hypotheses properly; seemingly sophisticated tests that are not grounded in theory are likely to produce flawed results…

Regarding epistemology, we focus on so-called positivist approaches to doing IR. Accordingly, we do not discuss critical theory, interpretivism, hermeneutics, and some versions of constructivism…

Theories are simplified pictures of reality. They explain how the world works in particular domains. In William James’s famous phrase, the world around us is one of ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’: infinitely complex and difficult to comprehend. To make sense of it we need theories, which is to say we need to decide which factors matter most. This step requires us to leave many factors out because they are deemed less important for explaining the phenomena under study. By necessity, theories make the world comprehensible by zeroing in on the most important factors.

Theories, in other words, are like maps. Both aim to simplify a complex reality so we can grasp it better. A highway map of the United States, for example, might include major cities, roads, rivers, mountains, and lakes. But it would leave out many less prominent features, such as individual trees, buildings, or the rivets on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Like a theory, a map is an abridged version of reality. Unlike maps, however, theories provide a causal story. Specifically, a theory says that one or more factors can explain a particular phenomenon. Again, theories are built on simplifying assumptions about which factors matter the most for explaining how the world works. For example, realist theories generally hold that balance-of-power considerations can account for the outbreak of great-power wars and that domestic politics has less explanatory power. Many liberal theories, by contrast, argue the opposite.

The component parts of a theory are sometimes referred to as concepts or variables. A theory says how these key concepts are defined, which involves making assumptions about the key actors. Theories also identify how independent, intervening, and dependent variables fit together, which enables us to infer testable hypotheses (i.e. how the concepts are expected to covary). Most importantly, a theory explains why a particular hypothesis should be true, by identifying the causal mechanisms that produce the expected outcome(s). Those mechanisms — that are often unobservable — are supposed to reflect what is actually happening in the real world.

Theories provide general explanations, which means they apply across space and time. Social science theories are not universal, however; they apply only to particular realms of activity or to specific time periods. The scope of a theory can also vary significantly.

Grand theories such as realism or liberalism purport to explain broad patterns of state behavior, while so-called middle-range theories focus on more narrowly defined
phenomena like economic sanctions, coercion, and deterrence.

No social science theory explains every relevant case. There will always be a few cases that contradict even our best theories. The reason is simple: a factor omitted from a theory because it normally has little impact occasionally turns out to have significant influence in a particular instance. When this happens, the theory’s predictive power is reduced.

Theories vary enormously in their completeness and the care with which they are constructed. In a well-developed theory, the assumptions and key concepts are carefully defined, and clear and rigorous statements stipulate how those concepts relate to each other. The relevant causal mechanisms are well specified, as are the factors that are excluded from the theory. Well-developed theories are falsifiable and offer non-trivial explanations. Finally, such theories yield unambiguous predictions and specify their boundary conditions.

By contrast, casual or poorly developed theories, or what are sometimes called folk theories, are stated in a cursory way. Key concepts are not well defined and the relations between them — to include the causal mechanisms — are loosely specified. The domino theory, which was so influential during the Cold War, is a good example of a folk theory.

In an October 11, 2023 interview on the Hamas vs Israel conflict, geo-political analyst George Friedman said: “In intelligence, there’s constantly data flowing in. The data congeals into the concept. The concept in 1973 was that the Arabs would not attack except under certain special conditions. A similar thought was made here — that there was no force large enough to engage the Israeli army in a similar widespread thing. When you’re sitting there doing intelligence and you’re getting contradictory points, you’re human. The tendency is that the thing you believed is the truth of God and you start dismissing things like the idea that you might be wrong. What I think happened is that they were so deeply embedded in that there was no way this was happening that they demanded more intelligence, more intelligence, until by the time it happened, there was nothing they could do. This is not only an Israeli problem, this is the built-in problem of intelligence. How do you abandon basic things you believe to be true? It was the same mistake they made in 1973. The concept said there there was not going to be an attack even though reports came in that there was going to be one.”

I also like Peter Zeihan’s commentary released October 13: “You have this whole rainbow of whack job religious fundamentalist parties who are not good at what they do because they are coming from a stock of people who don’t value secular education at all… Forty percent of the Israeli government right now [are] people who are absolutely mind-numbingly incompetent but have firm ideas about how the world should work. They are the ones who will have to explain how they presided over the greatest intelligence debacle in the world over the last 50 years.”

These comments made me think about how we all have concepts that obscure more than they reveal reality.

One common concept people that people get wrong is — it won’t happen to me. There’s no inherent reason that bad things won’t happen to you. That’s magical thinking.

The world around us is usually a far more dangerous place than we think. To live in such reality is too painful, so we ignore it.

One concept I’ve consistently gotten wrong is the importance of religion in an increasingly secular world. I grew up as a Seventh-Day Adventist and I thought that anyone outside of the church was lost. That was not a concept that helped me thrive. Around 18, I became an atheist and I thought atheists were far smarter and more realistic than the religious. That was not a concept that worked for me. Then at age 22, I re-embraced God and converted to Judaism. For years, the main thing I wanted to talk about was ethical monotheism. This was not an approach to life that worked. Only in my 40s did I concede that because a secular society such as Japan was far more law-abiding than any Jewish or Christian one, it was hard to argue that belief in God was essential for creating a good community. Now I often use the concept of religion as a sub-set of culture, which is the creation of a particular people with a particular geography. From an empirical perspective, it seems like most of the time, a particular people with a religion have more in common with secular members of their people than they do with foreigners who share their religion. For example, Norwegian Christians, in many ways, seem to have more in common with secular Norwegians than they do with African Christians. Japanese Christians seem to have more in common in most things with secular Japanese than they do with Peruvian Christians.

I’ve gone through most of my life thinking that religious people are more likely to be moral than secular people. Now I have to concede that a person’s ability to bond has more predictive power about his decency than religiosity. An atheist who enjoys good relations with his friends and family is more likely to be decent than a religious person without bonds.

Another bogus concept I’ve had about life is the transcendent importance of sex. This has had such transfixing power over me at times that it has spoiled everything else in my life.

I spent much of my life thinking that women are lying cunts. This did not serve me.

I spent my life assuming that vegetarianism was the healthy way to go. As a result, I had poor health. In June of 2021, I started swallowing six beef organ capsules a day and my health problems disappeared.

I despised people I offended. I thought they were weak. I failed to recognize that they simply had a different hero system.

My lack of interest in hero systems different from my own has not served me.

I thought I could be tough on myself and easy on others, but I learned reluctantly that I tend to treat others the same way I treat myself (which, for much of my life, has been badly).

I failed to recognize the limits of my will power and how it consistently ran down through the day (except for brief bumps after eating). I failed to create a life that didn’t depend upon the considerable exercise of will (which I could not consistently muster).

Another bogus concept I’ve held about life is an exaggerated sense of my own talents. By desperately holding to this false concept, I pursued celebrity while failing to assemble the building blocks of a good life suited to my abilities such as finishing my university education, developing a profession such as law, marrying young and having children.

Thinking I could solve my problems on my own was another false concept.

My exaggerated sense of the importance of right-wing politics was another false concept. There’s nothing wrong with being right-wing, but I failed to recognize that our political predispositions are rooted in biology and early imprinting, and that what makes a particular politics adaptive depends upon circumstance.

I thought moral character was of the greatest importance. Then I read John M. Doris’s 2005 book, Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior, and recognized the transcendent power of situation.

For a walking talking thesaurus of false concepts about reality, one would have a hard time outdoing gurus such as Dennis Prager. Here are some examples:

* In his April 4, 2023 column, Dennis wrote: “Communism — or if you will, left-wing fascism and totalitarianism — is coming to America and Canada.” To begin with, there’s no such thing as left-wing fascism. Second, to call some of the freest and most prosperous nations that world has ever seen incipient communism is deluded.

* In 2009, Dennis developed the saying, “The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.” As a conservative, I love the saying. It feels profound. The problem is that there’s no evidence it is true. This is the stock in trade of the guru — to dole out sayings like this that feel profound but upon examination turn out to be bogus.

* Oct. 3, 2022, Dennis said to his Youtube cohost Julie Hartman: “Early on, I said to myself, wow, your instincts are identical to the Torah’s. And it blew my mind. My natural mode of thinking was the Torah’s mode of thinking. If you take those five books seriously, you will think clearly about everything.”

Anyone who thinks his instincts are identical to the Bible’s or to God’s is clearly deluded. Anyone who thinks that if you take a certain book seriously, you will then think clearly about everything is clearly deluded. The world is a complicated place. There is no magic key to unlocking reality.

Dennis: “I know it [Torah] is the answer to everything. That’s why it is frustrating that it is not out there more. This is the answer to evil. To unhappiness.”

Anyone who knows people who know Torah knows that Torah is not the answer to everything. Torah doesn’t make a bad man good. It doesn’t make a dishonest man honest. It doesn’t make an angry man kind. It doesn’t make an alcoholic sober. There are dozens of Orthodox communities in the world where the study of Torah is the number one value and no objective observer would say that these people have the answer to everything, including unhappiness.

* In May 2023, Dennis spoke at Robert Malone’s Wine Country Conversations event. Reading from presumably Prager’s own approved introduction to himself, a woman named Alexis says about Dennis: “He is considered one of the most influential thinkers, writers and speakers in America… He is an expert on communism, the Middle East and the left.” Anyone who believes that Dennis Prager has such expertise has a concept that blocks him from reality.

* On his February 10, 2011 show, Dennis said to Malcolm Gladwell: “At a very early age, I came to a conclusion I have never wavered from — the staggering exaggerated importance given to brains and raw intelligence. I realized in high school that the ones with the finest brains were often the most confused, the least capable of dealing with life kids in the grade.”

The closest we have to a magic key to reality is the predictive power of intelligence for large groups. They live longer, get better grades, create more, and make more money than the less intelligent. There’s no evidence that they are more maladapted to reality than normal people.

* Philosopher John Gray wrote Nov. 21, 2013 in The New Republic about Gladwell's book David and Goliath:

There is nothing remotely challenging, for most of Gladwell’s readers, in this story; it is the sort of uplift in which they already believe. The dominant narrative for the last three centuries has been one in which the power of elites and rulers is progressively overcome by the moral force of the common man and woman who sticks up for what is right. Far from being a forbidden truth, this is what everyone thinks. Here we can glimpse one of the secrets of Gladwell’s success. Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity…

Speaking to a time that prides itself on optimism and secretly suspects that nothing works, his books are analgesics for those who seek temporary relief from abiding anxiety. There is more of reality and wisdom in a Chinese fortune cookie than can be found anywhere in Gladwell’s pages. But then, it is not reality or wisdom that his readers are looking for.

This analysis also applies to Dennis Prager and his fans.

* July 21, 2015, Dennis Prager wrote a column about Obama’s Iran deal titled, “1938 and 2015: Only the Names Are Different.” If you want to understand Obama’s Iran deal, Prager’s Hitler analogy will block you from reality. John J. Mearsheimer’s perspective, by contrast, will open up that part of reality to you.

Here are some examples of Prager’s galaxy-brain claims:

* “I have been right on virtually every issue that I have differed with the majority on in my life.” (Dec. 12, 2022 show)

Is that true? Prager differed from the majority of experts with regard to Covid and he was consistently wrong.

Prager differs from the majority of experts in rejecting academic studies that do not comport with his common sense and I suspect he’s generally wrong here too.

According to the book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: “Contrary to Dennis Prager, psychological studies that overturn our common sense are sometimes right. Indeed, one of our primary goals in this book is to encourage you to mistrust your common sense when evaluating psychological claims. As a general rule, you should consult research evidence, not your intuitions, when deciding whether a scientific claim is correct. Research suggests that snap judgments are often helpful in sizing up people and in forecasting our likes and dislikes, but they can be wildly inaccurate when it comes to gauging the accuracy of psychological theories or assertions.”

* “I know from years of experience with home-schooled kids that overwhelmingly they turn out happier, finer, kinder and more intelligent…” (April 4, 2023)

Who needs studies when Prager knows!

* Prager’s entertaining of dubious voter fraud claims sets him apart from experts in the topic.

* Prager’s adoration of fellow gurus Dave Rubin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jordan Peterson sets him apart from those with expertise who look skeptically at these characters.

* “If truth is allowed out, there is no left.” (Dec. 12, 2022 show)

The left is an evolutionary adaptation to selection pressure, and like the right, it is still around because it has proved useful at times for transmitting genes.

* “I wanted the answers. I wasn’t given them. What is the Jewish role in the world? In 14 years in yeshiva, I never learned the Jewish role in the world.” (2010)

I suspect he was given answers but he didn’t like them because they failed to give him the starring role. If Jewish schools were doing a solid job, what need would there be for mavericks like Prager? If rabbis were doing a good job, where would he get his importance? For a guru to develop a large following, he must successfully discredit the establishment.

* “The great lack in young Americans’ lives is religion. It is the direct cause, not only cause, of all the depression, lost sense of identity…” (April 5, 2023)

I suspect the Japanese and the Europeans don’t suffer from the amount of depression and loss of identity that American youth are said to suffer from, despite these other nations being much more secular than America.

* “I have come to entertain the possibility of a devil. It has been so diabolic what I have experienced the past three years. It is hard to explain on rational grounds the madness that has taken over.” (March 27, 2023)

* “[Climate change] is the single best way for [Biden] and the left to overthrow Western civilization as we know it and destroy the economies of the Western world.” (April 14, 2023)

* “When the government tells businesses what to do, that is one of the true sign posts of incipient fascism.” (April 14, 2023)

Thousands of non-fascist governments have told businesses what to do. It’s hardly a sign of fascism. People with power usually tell people with less power what to do. That’s less a sign of fascism than a sign of humanity. As Thucydides put it: “The strong take what they want and the weak endure what they must.”

* “The left has been working to destroy this country for a century.” (Dec. 19, 2022)

* “Big lies inevitably lead to violence and can even destroy civilizations.” (Dec. 6, 2022)

* “The news media in the West pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does.” (July 14, 2017)

* “I think meat is the healthiest food there is. I got that from Jordan Peterson.” (Jan. 30, 2023)

Why would anyone take health advice from Jordan Peterson?

Jordan, by the way, got this idea from his daughter Mikhaila.

* June 19, 2023, Dennis said: “The left crushes everything it touches.”

Almost every institution in America is dominated by the left and yet they keep functioning well enough that the United States remains the most powerful country on earth.

The left dominates public education, and for all its flaws, American public education produces solid results.

* June 19, 2023, Dennis said: “There is no answer to what does the left stand for. It only stands against… All they want to do is destroy. The conservative wishes to conserve.”

The idea that the left doesn’t stand for anything is absurd. The Wikipedia entry on the left-right political spectrum noted:

The left wing is characterized by… “equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism” while the right wing is characterized by…”authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism”.

* Dennis decried affirmative action on his Youtube show June 19, 2023: “Society will suffer because merit will no longer be the reason for any position. It says to the ones who work hard, don’t bother working hard because we’re no longer choosing by merit. It says to the minority, there’s no reason to work hard, you’re going to get ahead just because of your gender or race.”

Selective affirmative action (and all affirmative action is selective) reduces but does not eliminate rewards for merit and hard work. There’s never been a society in history where merit was 100% determinative.

* Philosopher Paul Gottfried said about Dennis Jan. 28, 2020: “I think he’s an intellectual vulgarian of a kind I have rarely encountered in this world. He has said such ridiculous things about history, fascism, democracy and so forth that it is hard for me to bestow any respect on his intellectual accomplishments.”

Paul Gottfried wrote Dec. 17, 2017:

Right-wing Celebrities Play Fast and Loose With History

Forget Trump—Goldberg, Prager, and D’Souza muddle facts to sell books all the time.

Perhaps one of the most ludicrous examples of the conservative movement’s recent attempt at being sophisticated was an exchange of equally uninformed views by talk show host Dennis Prager and Dinesh D’Souza, on the subject of the fascist worldview. The question was whether one could prove that fascism was a leftist ideology by examining the thought of Mussolini’s court philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944). Gentile defined the “fascist idea” in his political writings while serving as minister of education in fascist Italy. He was also not incidentally one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; and in works like General Theory of the Spirit as Pure Act, adapts the thought of Hegel to his own theory of evolving national identity. It would be hard to summarize Gentile’s thought in a few pithy sentences; and, not surprisingly, the Canadian historian of philosophy H.S. Harris devotes a book of many hundreds of pages trying to explain his complex philosophical speculation.

Hey, but that’s no big deal for such priests of the GOP church as Prager and D’Souza. They zoom to the heart of Gentile’s neo-Hegelian worldview in thirty seconds and state with absolute certainty that he was a “leftist.” We have to assume that Prager, D’Souza and the rest of their crowd know this intuitively, inasmuch they give no indication of having ever read a word of Gentile’s thought, perhaps outside of a few phrases that they extracted from his Doctrine of Fascism. Their judgment also clashes with that of almost all scholars of Gentile’s work, from across the political spectrum, who view him, as I do in my study of fascism, as the most distinguished intellectual of the revolutionary right.

According to our two stars in what has been laughably named “Prager University,” Gentile proves that “fascism bears a deep kinship to today’s Left.” After all, “Democrat progressives, in full agreement with Gentile, love and push for a centralized state, which manifests itself in stuff like recent state expansion into the private sector.” Among the questions that are left begging are these: “Do the modern Left and Gentile agree on the purpose and functions of the state?” “Would Gentile and Mussolini, who glorified Roman manliness, have rallied to the present Left in its support of feminism and gay marriage?” Did Gentile back in the 1920s favor the kind of “the stuff’ the administrative state is pushing right now?” The answer to all these questions, which of course wouldn’t be acceptable at Prager University, is an emphatic “no.” Control of the national economy by the Italian fascist state, down until its German-puppet version was established as the Italian Social Republic in September 1943, was about the equivalent of that of New Deal America.

* Oct. 30, 2007, Dennis wrote about the threat of Islamo-Fascism

First, the term is not anti-Muslim. One may object to the term on factual grounds, i.e., one may claim that there are no fascistic behaviors among people acting in the name of Islam — but such a claim is a denial of the obvious.

So once one acknowledges the obvious, that there is fascistic behavior among a core of Muslims — specifically, a cult of violence and the wanton use of physical force to impose an ideology on others — the term "Islamo-Fascism" is entirely appropriate.

Second, the question then arises as to whether that term is anti-Muslim in that it besmirches the name of Islam and attempts to describe all Muslims as fascist. This objection, too, has a clear response.

The term no more implies all Muslims or Islam is fascistic than the term "German fascism" implied all Germans were fascists or "Italian fascism" or "Japanese fascism" implied that all Italians or all Japanese were fascists. Indeed, even religious groups have been labeled as fascist. During World War II, for example, Croatian Catholic fascists were called Catholic Fascists, and no one argued that the term was invalid because it purportedly labeled all Catholics or Catholicism fascist. When the left uses the term "American imperialism," are they implying that all Americans are imperialists? Then why does Islamo-Fascism label all Muslims?

Third, given the horrors being perpetrated by some Muslims in the name of Islam — from the genocide currently being practiced by the Islamic Republic of Sudan, to the mass murders of innocents in Iraq, Israel, America, Britain, Bali, Thailand, the Philippines and elsewhere — what term is more accurate than "Islamo-Fascism"? "Islamic totalitarianism"? "Jihadists"? "Bad Muslims"?

The left's organized crusade against Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week was simply the latest shame in the long and shameful history of the left's inability to confront those engaged in great evil — like the left's ferocious opposition during the Cold War to labeling communism as "totalitarian" or "evil" and its nearly universal condemnation of President Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

That Muslim student groups and other Muslim organizations joined with the left in the ad hominem condemnation of Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week was most unfortunate. Many Muslims know well that there is indeed such a thing as Islamo-Fascism, and they should be the first to join in fighting it. It is not those who use the term "Islamo-Fascism" who are sullying the name of Islam; it is the Islamo-Fascists.

Paul Gottfried wrote Nov. 21, 2007:

Although I admit to having given my vote last fall to Rick Santorum in his unsuccessful campaign to hold on to his U.S. Senate seat, I have been appalled by his recent harping on the menace of “Islamofascism.” Santorum has lent himself to a largely neoconservative-funded campaign, headed by journalist David Horowitz and Washington lobbyist Frank Gaffney, to make us aware, in Horowitz’s words, that “Islamofascism is the greatest danger America has ever faced.”

So pervasive is this danger that, according to Rick and his friends, they have had to organize on American college campuses a consciousness-raising-event, which started on Monday, called “Islamofascism Awareness Week.”

As a modern European historian, I am shocked by this silliness.

Fascism was a European movement of the interwar years, and one that came in a wide variety of forms. Almost all fascist movements were reactions to the spread of communism and to the threat that it posed to civil peace and existing property relations.

Most fascists took advantage of the weakness of liberal parliamentary institutions in their countries to draw support from a threatened middle class, and they sometimes (although not always) targeted as their enemies national minorities and particularly Jews.

Were it not for the Nazi variant of this once widespread central- and southern-European movement, no one would even recall the fascists, except as an historical footnote.

It was the viciousness and expansiveness of German Nazism, and Hitler’s particularly shocking brutality toward Jews, Poles and others whom he regarded as “subhuman, which has given the fascists a bad rap.

I doubt that Rick, David and New York celebrity Norman Podhoretz, who has just published an overwritten book on the subject, would be calling obnoxious Muslim fundamentalists a world “fascist” danger, were it not for the continued media and public preoccupation with Hitler’s crimes.

In today’s Europe, all self-important progressive forces call themselves “antifascist,” although it cannot be shown that what they oppose has anything to do with interwar European fascism.

If the public and the producers of the History Channel thought about the mass murders committed under communist tyrants as often as they do about Hitler’s killings, we would now be in the midst of “Islamocommunist Awareness Week.”

Needless to say, I would find such an event to be as ridiculous as what is now being scheduled in the name of American “antifascism.”

The problem with this misnaming of one’s enemies is that it creates inaccurate pictures of what is going on right now.

Bin Laden is not a stand-in for Benito Mussolini, or for Hitler. He is an international terrorist, who must be combated for the most part through coordinated police actions and the selective use of military forces…

More often than not, historical parallels, and particularly for people with obvious obsessions, are something we should not engage in.

When you read Prager and then you read a scholar like Paul Gottfried on the same topic, you regret the time you spent with the charming man.

* Dennis: “One of the deepest disappointments in my life has been Jews’ opposition to wars against evil. I had always assumed that, as the victims of so much evil throughout history, and as heirs to the great moral teachings of the Bible and Judaism, Jews, of all people, would support fighting on behalf of victims of the greatest evils.” (Oct. 14, 2014)

Most people, most of the time, are mostly interested in themselves.

* If America abandons Israel, “that is the end of America as we know it.” (May 27, 2023)

How many billions of dollars a year does the U.S. need to give Israel to sustain American as know it? The United States and Israel are nation-states that exist on planet earth. In some circumstances, the two countries have interests in common, and in other circumstances, they’re at odds.

What will determine the success of any particular nation-state? Events, my dear boy, events.

* July 26, 2022, Dennis wrote: "The average 12-year-old student at a yeshiva has more wisdom than almost any student at Harvard or most other universities."

The great thing about making wisdom claims is that they cannot be falsified. There's no objective test for wisdom.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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