Million Dollar Girl
Version Date: October 11, 2008
“The world is awash in false, misleading, and manipulative information,” Professor Miller was saying. “Be cautious. Think first. Examine claims. Ask yourself not whether there is any reason to reject some story but why you should accept it in the first place. There is too much gullibility among you. You must begin to demand qualitative criteria for belief.” Miller liked the last phrase, so he wrote qualitative criteria on the board.
The theme of the week was information quality. The class that day covered urban legends. Miller had begun the class with a few short film clips showing reenactments of some of the better known ones, and then he talked about the general nature, sources, and persistence of such stories. The class discussed quite a number of legends, focusing on those commonly spread by email and by word of mouth. Professor Miller betrayed a tone of amused superiority as he mentioned $250 cookie recipes, free vacations for forwarding email, and lover’s lane killers with hooks for hands. He observed several students fidgeting uncomfortably as they heard him explode as fabrications or distortions many of these stories they had believed to be true. Some appeared still unconvinced by his explanations.
“So the prevalence of urban legends is a warning to all of you not to accept uncritically every piece of exciting information that comes your way,” he continued. Even before the success of his critical thinking book, Miller had developed the habit of using you when discussing deficiencies of reasoning rather than what many faculty consider a more engaging we. Instead of saying, “We all need to think more carefully,” he would say, “You all need to think more carefully,” because he, possibly unconsciously, excluded himself from the deficiency.
“As we have seen, there are no rings of kidney thieves, no mutant organisms masquerading as chickens, no flesh eating bacteria on bananas.” There was a note of frustrated insistence in Miller’s voice. He could sense the resistance. “And yet these idiotic tales persist. They cannot be killed. I mean, get a clue, people. Wanting a story to be true because you like it does not make it true.”
“But don’t most people believe what they want to believe?” David asked.
“Yes, and that’s just the problem. Too many people want to believe some pleasing delusion and reject the conclusions of reason. Of course, most people don’t even know what the conclusions of reason are because they don’t think well enough to reach any rational conclusions. Most people, I would say, do not think much at all.” Miller stopped the train before it ran off the bridge. He did not want to alienate his students by implying that they were all idiots. “I hope that this class will help you all to learn a little about thinking,” he added in a calmer tone. “Once you begin to examine claims and evidence and begin to challenge the information that’s thrown at you, you will begin to develop discernment, judgment.” Miller wrote discernment on the board and circled it twice.
During the course of the lecture, Miller had also jotted on the board the Web addresses of several sites that analyze and expose urban legends. He motioned to these jottings once more and encouraged the students to “check these out.”
“Look up your favorite legend and see what has been said about it. What does the actual research, the facts, the investigation reveal?”
“Is this a homework assignment?” someone asked.
“Do we need to turn something in?” asked another.
“No,” said Miller, now aware that virtually no one would look at any of the sites he had written down. “Your homework, in addition to the reading in the next chapter, is to write a 500-to-750-word essay on the value of reason in your own life.” Groans, expressions of surprise and dismay, and a “What?” or two bounced around the classroom. Even near the end of the hour, most of the students were suddenly paying attention.
“Say that again?”
“When is it due?”
“How many pages is 500 words?”
The questions arrived in a gang, muscling into each other.
“The essay is due a week from Monday,” Miller said over the minor din. “Typewritten—or rather, printed out—double-spaced. And please, people, put your name and a title on it.” Then he remembered that most in the class were sophomores. “And take your draft to the Writing Center and have them look at it. Don’t give me a piece of trash. Fix the spelling and grammar, and spend more than twenty minutes writing it.”
There were more questions, such as “What was the topic again?” and the like. The class broke up, and a dozen students began to make their way to the front for further clarification. The rest headed for the exits.
“Oh,” Miller said. “Gina Roper, I need to see you.” Gina included herself in the group heading toward the front.
Professor Miller answered the questions as clearly and patiently as he could, even though he felt some exasperation at times. A few students seemed to imply that such a paper would be impossible to write because they personally had no role for reason in their lives, viewing it as thought control. One, a budding postmodernist, said that reason was merely the political construct of an oppressive power structure, thus making the assignment an act of oppression. Besides, the student said, writing about the supposed role of reason would be merely a subjective exercise that could not be graded. The implication seemed to be that the student was fishing for a guaranteed A on whatever he turned in. Gina waited patiently though these discussions. Miller glanced over at her once or twice to be sure she was still there. She smiled when he did so.
At last the other students left, some feeling clearer about the assignment and some not. But at least they all left.
“Ah, yes, Gina,” Miller said at last, relaxing. Gina was a friendly, warm, attractive, seemingly open hearted girl. His first impressions of her had been well reinforced. He liked her. He thought she might like him, too, but he knew he had to be cautious. He had known many women students who were warm and friendly during a course, sometimes even affectionate, and then after the term was over, they acted as if they could not even remember who he was. Those, he believed, must be hoping for a sympathy grade. He wondered if Gina were different.
“Gina,” he said, “I’ve just checked the new roster and you are still not listed. You did enroll, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m just having trouble with the business office. Financial aid and how much I owe and all that. They won’t let me register officially until I come across with the cash or the right paperwork. Don’t worry; it’ll all work out.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Miller asked. He thought doing her a little favor might help him get closer to her.
“Nope. No worries. I’ve got it all under control.”
“Okay,” Miller said, a little disappointed.
“But that was really nice of you to ask me. You’re a very nice man. Handsome, too.”
There is a saying that words too foolish to be spoken are turned into lyrics and sung. So too, compliments too saccharine or cheesy to be uttered by ordinary people are put into the mouths of beautiful young women, where the sentiments are accepted at face value. Miller was flattered. Worse, he was encouraged to water and fertilize a budding scheme that had even now been planted in his mind.
Gina and Professor Miller remained talking in the room for some time, even after the important and useful topics were exhausted.
“I like this topic,” Markayla said to Amy as they left the building. “Reason is the cornerstone of the law. It is one of the principles of life, as well.”
“Yeah. I can use examples from my dad and how he taught me to think as a little kid. Remember that saying of his, ‘Our lives are told by our receipts’? Maybe I can work that in as an example of how reason helps us draw conclusions from evidence. If we think about it, that is, reason about it, everything we do tells a story. A story about us.”
“So, then, reason can tell us about ourselves? Hence, the value of reason for us? Brilliant, Amy.”
“Thanks. Or I might do something else. I don’t know yet. What about you?”
“Perhaps I will bring in my desire to be a lawyer. The ability to reason is important there.”
“Just as it is everywhere.”
“Of course. ‘Come, let us reason together, says the Lord.’”
“Better not quote that to Miller. I don’t think he would appreciate it.”
The two roommates, along with a few other students from the class, began their stroll down the concrete sidewalks, past the trees planted in the great lawns of the school, and toward the Cave, where they were getting into the habit of relaxing after each meeting of the critical thinking class. Today, however, Amy and Markayla did not go with the others to the coffee house. Markayla had decided that paying for the liquid advertised as coffee was an injustice. She would rather make her own coffee in her room or go off campus to a nearby coffee house that brewed something more to her liking.
The rest of the regulars went to the Cave not so much for the coffee as for the interaction. Especially today, they wanted to talk over the assignment for Miller’s class, to get ideas they might use. Thus, for awhile, the subject around the table after class was the paper.
“Miller seems to think reason is the be-all and end-all of existence.”
“I’ll bet he’s really into horror films.”
“Or slasher films.”
“Yeah. He likes showing those film clips of people panicking.”
“I wonder how reasonable he’d be during a tornado or an earthquake.”
“Well, I think he’s right that reason is important.”
“Personally, I think reason is overrated. Most people decide what they want to do first and then cook up some reasons to make it look respectable.”
“You’re supposed to reason from evidence to conclusion.”
“Yeah, but who does that? Don’t most people decide on something first and then prop the decision up with a few ex post facto reasons?”
“But that would be thinking backwards.”
“I didn’t say it was right. I’m just saying that most of us can make anything seem reasonable if we want to.”
“That’s rationalization, not reasoning.”
“There’s no difference anymore.”
“Professor Fulks says that the whole idea of reason is a leftover of the Eurocentric power structure which has been rejected by the postmodern world. Reason denies power and value to those cultures that don’t use it.”
“And Professor Linkrodt says that reason oppresses women.”
“Oh, come on.”
“What do you mean, ‘Oh, come on’? You can’t just dismiss important ideas.”
“No, we should reason about them, and then dismiss them.”
“Oh, ha ha.”
After awhile, the discussion turned to miscellaneous subjects. A popular subject for discussion among the students was whoever was not there at the time. Because only a few of the students in class were at the coffee shop, there were many possible topics.
“Did you see Gina today? Where did she get that outfit?”
“I thought she looked great.” David Simmons was on the edge of the group of girls who dominated most of the conversation. He had to jump in quickly.
“Well, a guy would. She was dressed totally tacky.”
“I don’t know. David has a point. I thought she was kind of stylish. She’s got great assets and doesn’t mind showing them off. What’s wrong with that?”
“She sits on the front row. I’ll bet Miller gets an eye full.”
“She advertises too much.”
“Yeah, well advertising works. I saw her talking to Jeremy Schneider the other day. He can have any girl on campus, but she got his attention.”
“No wonder Miller noticed.”
“You don’t have to guess where she’s going to hide her crib notes.”
“She does show off a lot of hardware,” David said.
“Hey, it’s her life. You guys are just jealous.”
“She’s just practicing some rational grade enhancement techniques. Everybody knows Miller likes the cute, flirty ones. Maybe he’ll give her a good grade.”
“Are you saying he grades on the curves?”
“Oh, that was bad. I thought puns that bad were illegal now.”
“Going back to the reason thing. How can we say Gina isn’t being reasonable if what she does helps her grade? I mean, that seems totally logical.”
“But that kind of thinking would justify anything. Why doesn’t she sleep with him for an A? Why don’t you?”
“From what I hear, you wouldn’t be the first.”
“Yeah, like, ‘Hey, Dr. Miller, let’s go back to your place and be reasonable about my grade.’”
“Shut up, you guys.”
As the only child of a Houston police detective, Amy had been taken under her father’s wing at a young age and shown how to think about the world. For her, it seemed to be a given that to open your eyes on the world is to look for meaning. Her father taught her that everything speaks not only of itself but of something else, something larger, more important, often more beautiful. The world, he had said, is filled with clues, signifiers of events, purposes, truths.
When she was still a little girl, he would point to something and ask her about it. He would pick up some grass clippings from the driveway and ask, “What do you think this is? Where could it have come from? The sky? How often do you see it? Do you see it before or after daddy mows the lawn? Where did daddy put the grass after he mowed the lawn?” At first, the little girl said she did not know; then she made something up. At last, she had seen her father empty the lawnmower, spilling a little grass on the driveway as he removed the mower bag, so she discovered the answer. Later, when he asked other questions she began trying to guess. But there were always more clues and more questions.
Eventually she began to analyze and infer fairly well. About this time, her father began asking for at least two possible explanations for the things he pointed out. “Why do you think that field caught on fire? What is the most reasonable explanation? Can you think of another? We need at least two different explanations so we can choose the better one.” He continued this informal training until Amy rebelled in junior high school. Detective Herbert had just gotten to the point where Amy was asked to generate questions (“What do we need to know in order to answer this question?”) when the adolescent rebellion set in and she no longer cared about her father’s lessons.
“No teenybopper cares where a trail of slime on the sidewalk came from,” she had told Markayla last year while remembering these events.
By her second year in high school, Amy had recovered her sanity to a sufficient degree to become interested once again in her father’s instruction and even more, in his work. He took her down to his office to show her his work habitat. On the wall was a framed photograph of the Titanic. Underneath the ship was the caption, “RMS Titanic, photographed April 16, 1912.” He asked Amy what she thought of the photograph.
“Grainy,” she said. “And it looks old.”
“Okay. Now suppose we add some background information to your observational knowledge. The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Now what do you think?”
“There’s something wrong. The caption says April 16. Is that a typo?”
“Suppose it isn’t.”
“Well, that can’t be. You said the ship sank the day before.”
“That’s right. And do you know that very few people have ever remarked that this photograph is impossible?”
“Maybe they don’t know when it sank.”
“That’s probably right. The more you know, the better you can see. A little knowledge and a little thought are all it takes to see through many deceits. But you have to want to get the knowledge. More people ask whether the photograph is a valuable antique than ask if it is a fake.”
“It looks real.”
“That’s just the point. The statement is a lie. And yet the photograph makes it seem true and real. You quite literally cannot always believe your eyes, at least not until your eyes are educated. And just trying to reason about it won’t be enough.”
Amy knew her father was trying to make the point, as subtly as he knew how, that she needed to get more education. She had wavered for awhile about going to college, and he was on a campaign to persuade her to go. He had never said that he wanted her to follow in his footsteps in detective work, but she sometimes thought that the idea lurked somewhere in the back of his comments.
During this time also, Amy began to ask her father about cases he had worked on. This curiosity fit in well when she and Markayla went away to the university, because it provided a topic of conversation for her and her father. Detective Herbert was generally a man of few words when the subject was chit chat. Even in a world of email and live chat, he preferred regular telephone conversations with his daughter. He wanted to hear her voice, hear her laugh, and discern her feelings. At first, the conversations had been somewhat awkward. After the hello and how are you, the discussion would stall unless Amy did the talking. She discovered that if she wanted to hear her father talk, she had to ask him questions. But questions about himself were always answered briefly.
“Hi, Seepy.” Seepy was Amy’s nickname from her toddlerhood, when she commonly told her father, “Daddy, I’m seepy,” meaning sleepy.
“How are you?”
“Um, how’s mom?”
“Oh, she’s fine, too.”
As a result, Amy developed a routine for their weekly telephone conversations. She always asked the “How are you?” questions, of course, and if she had news of her own to deliver, would do that also. Then, to hear her father talk, she always asked, “Catch any crooks today?” This was his cue to tell her about an arrest, or more commonly, an ongoing investigation. Get a man to talk about his work or what he knows well, and you can have a real conversation. Ask him how he feels, and he will say, “Fine,” even if he has to wince through the pain to do so.
This evening, when Amy asked her father if he had caught any crooks that day, he said, “Actually, yes.”
“Tell me all about it. And don’t leave out the details.”
“Well, we’ve got a case downtown where a guy has stolen the identity of another guy and is using the guy’s credit cards. Most of the fraudulent purchases have been made by mail order or over the phone, so our trail is pretty thin.”
“Didn’t the guy cancel his cards?”
“Well, sure, but the charges were made in a short period. But, as you say, the guy canceled his cards, and it turned out to be just before the crook charged a suit at Goldfarb’s. So the cashier got a confiscate message for the card and took it from the guy.”
“And so she arrested him?”
“No. In fact, she just let him leave. Store employees are not supposed to play cops and robbers. They don’t want to wake up dead the next morning.”
“What about store security?”
“Security arrived after the guy had flown. Mall security was called, but he was gone.”
“Did the cashier give a description?”
“No. She said she couldn’t remember what the guy looked like, other than to say that he was average height, average build, average looks, average everything. It’s the average folks that can get away with anything.”
“Oh, really?” Amy had always felt of herself as pretty average, sometimes more depressingly than others, so this comment interested her.
“And the real piece of bad luck was that there was no security video of the checkout process. We’re still looking into that, but either the camera was broken, not aimed right, or the video got lost or erased. We heard several excuses.”
“So do you think someone in the store is in on the crime? An inside job?”
“No. In fact, the security people have been more than helpful. They said, ‘Gosh, we’ve got sixteen other tapes that worked. Why not look at those and see if you can find anything?” A pause.
“Did you find anything?”
“Okay, so we watched a lot of hours of boring security video. You wouldn’t believe how many couples kiss in stores. We also found a couple of shoplifters doing that, by the way. So, we eliminated everyone of the wrong gender and age and race and focused on average guys who had been in the store within an hour of the attempted fraud. There were only three who came close to fitting the description. We chose one and traced him from camera to camera. Are you on the edge of your seat yet?”
“Daddy, unless you caught the guy, your job sounds really boring.”
“Thanks, Seepy. Well, the security video showed Mr. Likely walking through the store, browsing, looking at the merchandise. He examined some coats, then some art prints, then some housewares. Then Folio stopped the tape and said, ‘He picked up the vase.’”
“John Folio. He just left Homicide like me and has now joined me in Fraud.”
“So anyway, he said, ‘He picked up the vase,’ and we looked at him and he said, ‘Barehanded.’’’
“His fingerprints would be on the vase.”
“So we printed off the screen image to help us locate the merchandise, went onto the retail floor and did a little comparison. We found the vase section. There were only five that looked like the one he picked up. We dusted them all and got a whole lotta prints.” He stopped talking.
“And. Daddy. And.” Amy knew he was tweaking her.
“Oh. Well, we matched a thumb and index from the vase to the thumb and index on the credit card.”
“So you caught him?”
“Not quite. But now we know what he looks like. We have a photograph of his face and we can estimate height and weight from the video. We’ll get him.”
“That’s neat. And the moral of the story is?” Amy knew her father would give her an application, either in the form of a proverb or a general comment. She was betting on a proverb, perhaps one of his own, because she knew how much he loved them. But tonight she got both proverb and commentary.
“Well, the point is that everything we do leaves evidence. Without
knowing it, we leave a trail of artifacts behind us, generated by our
That’s what forensic evidence really is. As the Chinese say, ‘The only
way to keep something secret is not to do it.’”
Go on to Chapter 5
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