I emphasize to every class I teach that the range of possible explanations for any phenomenon is far larger than the range of plausible explanations — and the range of plausible explanations is larger than the number of genuinely compelling explanations.
For example, in the early 19th century, human population began to soar upward at a sustained trend never before observed in history. One possible explanation for this faster population growth is that about 200 years ago people became more interested in sex. Having more sex, they had more children. Having more children means higher population. QED.
Of course, this possible explanation isn’t at all plausible, much less compelling. So we reject it outright.
The largeness of the range of possible explanations for observed phenomena is fertile ground not only for genuine disagreement among people of integrity, but also for people who aren’t so much seeking truth as they are seeking to score political points or moral-grandstanding points.
All sorts of examples come to mind. One is the insistence by many folks that today’s falling gasoline prices are caused by GOP-friendly oil producers who want to increase the chances that the GOP will keep control of Congress with the November elections.
Now I suppose that some people are so dim-witted as really to find merit in this explanation, but surely anyone with any sense at all dismisses this explanation as implausible in light of well-known facts about the world (for example, fewer hurricanes this year than predicted; an end, at least temporarily, to the war between Israel and Lebanon) sifted through even just an intuitive grasp of basic supply-and-demand analysis.
One of the silliest and, at the same time, potentially very divisive instances in which people (willfully?) adopt an implausible explanation for an observed phenomenon involves names for certain sports teams in the U.S.
There’s an on-going debate in Washington, D.C., over the name of that city’s professional (American) football team: The Washington Redskins. (The Washington Post wants the team’s name changed, arguing that it’s a racial slur that demeans Native Americans.)
Yes, a possible explanation for this team’s name is that it was adopted to insult Native Americans. But how plausible is this explanation? I find it ludicrous. Sports teams, and their fans, want names that make them proud. Can you imagine a sports team even (or especially!) in the early 20th century taking the nickname "Niggers" or "Kikes" or "Homos"? These are awful slurs, thankfully less commonly used today than in the past, aimed at dismissing and demeaning a group of people simply because they are black, Jewish, or homosexual.
If you can’t imagine (and I certainly can’t) any team owner 80 years ago saying, "Hey, you know what? Blacks are so looked down on, so much fun to spoof and make fun of and to demean with insulting names, that we’ll name our team the ‘Niggers.’ That’ll really bring in the fans!" — then why imagine that the name "Redskins" was adopted for a similar reason?
The far-more plausible explanation for the choice of the Redskins name was that it was believed that that name would be one that owners, players, and especially fans would take pride in.
Other facts support this more-plausible explanation. The Redskins’ emblem does not depict a weak or a stupid or a barbaric Native American.
More significantly, in my view, is the fact that other sports teams have names obviously designed to foster pride. Should ranch-hands today be insulted by the name of the Dallas Cowboys? Gold-miners insulted by the name of the San Francisco 49ers? Steelworkers insulted by the name of the Pittsburgh Steelers? Meatpackers insulted by the name of the Green Bay Packers? Texans insulted by the name of the Houston Texans? Northerners insulted by the name of the New York Yankees? Sailors insulted by the name of the Seattle Mariners? Greeks insulted by the name of the Michigan State Spartans? Descendants of 19th-century industrialists insulted by the name of the Vanderbilt Commodores?
Should I be insulted by the name of the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns?
Of course not. So to continue to insist that "Redskins" is insulting is either not to think about the issue sensibly or to be so intent on finding racism that you find it even when it doesn’t exist.