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The Logic Fallacy of CBI Agent Tammy Lee’s “Second-Version-More-Horrible-It-Must-Be-True”

The favorite theory of the legions following the Chris Watts case [and the YouTuber Armchair Detective] firmly believe 1) Chris Watts killed his children one in front of the other after a failed first attempt 2) had an accessory help him commit triple murder and 3) his accessory knew his wife was pregnant all along and didn’t really care.

It’s the favorite theory for a simple reason – it’s shocking. Because it’s shocking, it must be true, right?

Wrong. The Vang Gogh myth is an excellent reality in check in this regard. The favorite theory of the legions of art fans following the life and times of one of the world’s most popular [and expensive] artists [and the Van Gogh Museum] firmly believe 1) Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear 2) was mad and 3) committed suicide.

It’s the favorite theory for a simple reason – it’s shocking, and people like to be shocked. They want to be titillitated. In a world that operates on hyperbole and rewards exaggeration, it’s no surprise that no one really cares about the facts or the evidence. They want the version that suits their own depraved sensibilities best.

But what happens when we challenge the popular mythology? What happens when one goes to some effort to check the facts, verify the information and make sure? Well, history tends to be rewritten, even in a case like Vincent van Gogh where that history is over 100 years old.

Take the trait that Van Gogh is most famous for around the world – the mad artist. The most basic thing everyone believes isn’t even true.

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This assessment isn’t just one random publication, or written by a single reporter in some arbitrary journal. It made world headlines at the time. The time being September 2016 when the Van Gogh museum invited around 30 international medical experts, professors and art historians to settle the issue definitively, once and for all. Guess what? They couldn’t. They couldn’t offer a modern diagnosis, and instead offered something more “prosaic” – they sort of deconstructed the original diagnosis, which was this:

…temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion….

And essentially replaced it with this:

…temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion….

In other words, they agreed that all of Van Gogh’s symptoms couldn’t really be explained by a disorder or a disease, but it could be explained by a drinking problem. Lousy huh? Instead of a mad artist he was simply an occasionally drunk artist.

Even so, despite this unshocking [and thus unsatisfying assessment] by the medical luminaries, the Van Gogh museum who’d hosted the symposium went ahead with their exhibition eponymously titled On the Verge of Insanity. Everyone loved it.


What lesson do we learn from this? We see that human nature isn’t a reliable conduit for truth. Human nature is prone to projection and transference. Our truth tends to be self-justifying. So where can one turn for a neutral view of the truth, if not to one another, if not to the media, if not to experts, skilled lie detectors in law enforcement, historians and – oftetimes – even medical professionals?

Turn to True Crime Rocket Science – the most credible and authentic voice in true crime.

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  1. Sylvester

    What happen to our system of beliefs when we find out Van Gogh neither cut off his own ear, nor shot himself in the stomach? What happens to the “mad” (but brilliant) artist theory then? Why is it so difficult for people to suspend belief. We have to be certain, at all times, even when we aren’t. Why does it matter (except if he was murdered, then it matters very much). Does it make Van Gogh’s paintings more interesting – to believe he was a mad artist who shot himself? Or does that story make his paintings more valuable now. We can apply the same example to Chris Watts and title the story “the myth of the happy family.” Or the myth of the mistress-accomplice – or the myth of the third confession. If it is spoken, then so shall it be believed.

    And as an aside, as a young adult I studied Van Gogh and other artists. I thought at the time his paintings don’t look like someone who was mad, at all. But take a look at Edvard Munch, famed Norweigan Expressionist artist close to the same time period. His paintings were given names like “Anxiety”, “Vampire (I and II)”, “Separation” and of course “The Scream.” He was suffering from mental illness, and a belief that he inherited his illness. He too did a painting called “Starry Night in 1893” that is nothing like Van Gogh’s starry night. It’s dark, I don’t see any stars really, and it’s a reflection of Munch’s dark thoughts.

  2. Sylvester

    Why do you think it is Theo couldn’t sell his brother’s paintings? Was he preoccupied with other things and just didn’t promote them – some art agent.

    In the case of Clyfford Still he sealed his work up in his tiny house for 30 years. There were literally hundreds of rolled up paintings crammed everywhere. But Still had specific rules about how he wished his art to be displayed, sold, appreciated. He is depicted or represented in the film “Hannah and Her Sisters”, Woody Allen, as the artist Frederick played by Max Von Sydow. Very very uptight! Gotta love him though, and I do. Still felt his art was about life and death, and should be viewed as such.

  3. Sylvester

    It’s been a long time since I read “Dear Theo” (letters from Van Gogh to his brother Theo) but I did read it, cover to cover, and I don’t recall thinking that Van Gogh was in any way mad or impaired. I thought he was lonely, and that his relationship with Gauguin was unhealthy. I’m sure Van Gogh was quite excited Gauguin was coming to live with him – two artists, side by side, painting, discussing art. He may have also thought he could learn from the more successful artist, and that Gauguin’s attitude of not caring so much might rub off on him, sort of steel his resolve to not let the opinions of the world get to him. But I believe that all changed when Gauguin saw that Van Gogh was perhaps more talented than he, and he became jealous of Van Gogh. Meanwhile Van Gogh may have thought that he could bond with Gauguin if he became his drinking buddy, and visited the brothels with him. Gauguin would use this, and the idea that Van Gogh was lonely and needed Gauguin’s friendship. Perhaps Van Gogh stood his ground, realized he could not be something he wasn’t, and so Gauguin not only painted an unflattering picture of him, but left him, and knew Van Gogh would blame himself for cutting his own ear off.

  4. haliehill

    Americans have suffered from a rush to judgment problem for decades. No reflection required. Hurry and have an opinion, convert thought to opinion and then action even if the action is merely posting on social media. Social media makes it worse. Every day we see hundreds of ill thought out memes and are expected Ted to like it dislike them in seconds because another is right behind.
    Imagine if you were a doctor with fifty patients in a row every day. Forget any thoughtful consideration – Get to the Diagnosis and the prescription. Looking at an organic reason why someone behaves as they do should be the first thing ruled out for unwanted behavior before slapping a facile but titillating label on it.
    When a child acts out the pediatrician- if she is any good, Checks to see if he or she has an ear infection or an allergy etc, then perhaps a situation or life change that is driving the behavior. You then work on that.
    Think slowly, then act – it is the opposite of what we do today.
    People are complicated. The heart is a dark forest. People are part of social groups. The connections between us and the world outside us, whether it is nuclear family or broader/ church family, political bent, etc – is interconnected. The world today is much bigger and the connections are wider and more influential than they have ever been since the dawn of the Information Age. People respond to their environment but we only have so much bandwidth.
    The world has changed more quickly than our bodies and minds. But we still feel the need to respond – and respond in emergency mode. And then fit the rest of the pieces in – throwing out that those that don’t fit our cognitive bias.
    The world does not hold still for us and until we can hold still for it we are doomed to play whack-a-mole with each stimulus that rushes at us, fitting pieces swiftly but inexpertly into place. With the resulting chaos – moths to the flame.

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