“Some dogs are black. My dog is black. My dog is some dog!” This absurd bit of reasoning (in form of a “syllogism”) was adduced by one of my school friends to show how words can be manipulated to get a false result. But don’t take this example of absurdity too lightly. Illogic is abroad in the land, although maybe not to the extent shown in a Glasberger “motivational” cartoon in which a penguin says, “Penguins are black and white. Some old TV shows are black and white. Therefore some penguins are old TV shows.” (This poster is entitled “Logic. A systematic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence.”)
Suppose you were to hear that “Some people are too lazy to work. People getting welfare don’t have to work. People on welfare are just lazy!” Would you buy this “reasoning,” or would you recognize that the conclusion doesn’t follow, and that the speaker is just upset because he thinks his hard-earned tax money is being wasted on ne’er-do-wells? The first two statements don’t logically support the third, since there could be (and clearly are) many welfare recipients who are eager to work. Or how about “Once we legalize gay marriage, the human race will come to an end!”
Aristotle was the first person to set rules for extracting truth from facts. His efforts have evolved through the work of many brilliant scholars ever since, and many complicated analytical systems of logic created. Logic was one of the “trivium,” the three fundamentals of a Greek classical education, together with grammar and rhetoric, often defined simply as “the art of thinking.” “The whole goal,” suggests Wikipedia, “is to train the student’s mind not only to grasp information, but to find the analytical connections between seemingly different facts/ideas, to find out why something is true, or why something else is false (in short, reasons for a fact).” Few things can be more important today than logical thought and action.
In college I took a course in Logic, in which (so far as I can recall from a long time ago) we studied it in various forms, including one form of symbolic logic, which confers an ability by using a sort of mathematical format to analyze language and to see what various statements really mean and imply. To give you the smallest example from a complex system, one would use the expression “p → q” to express the idea that if p were true, q would have to be true. “If Socrates is a man [p], then Socrates is a mortal [q].” (A syllogism puts this a little more clearly: All men are mortals. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is a mortal.) While most of us don’t care about Socrates, we do seek something called “truth.” Finding it (or even defining it) can be exceedingly difficult.
(N. B. Texas Republicans do not seem to favor a quest for truth, since their platform opposed the teaching of “critical thinking,” which would “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority!”) “The answer [to the question why] we do not teach logic in the modern school,” says one worried commentator, “[is that] as a culture, we are not as interested in teaching people how to think as we are in telling people what to think.”
Luckily, you don’t need to know formal rules of logic if you listen carefully, and keep your own emotions out of the argument. It is, of course, key to know the words you hear and use, and to take nothing for granted,— especially from a politician or someone who wants to sell you something. Here are a few of many possible reasoning fallacies:
1) The law of the excluded middle: “You are either for me or against me.” “America—Love It or Leave It.” Not true, there is a middle position. You don’t have to be forced to the extremes, as we see happening in our political system today.
2) Post hoc. Because event B happened after event A, it doesn’t mean it was caused by it. Be careful who you blame.
3) Check the premises. If everything someone says to you is based on their conviction that the world is flat, they will often have the wrong answer no matter how logically their argument is structured.
4) Your prejudices. Don’t allow your prejudices in favor of or against something to keep you from taking a hard look at it.
5) Misleading ambiguity. Remember the angry mate’s entry in the ship’s log: “The Captain was not drunk tonight?” A true statement—he was never drunk, but look at the implication!
6) Ad hominem arguments. “That’s Obama’s idea? Then it can’t be any good.”
7) Embedded “facts” you don’t get a chance to disprove: “When did you stop beating your wife?”
We often think we are being logical, but many studies have shown that we are all quite susceptible to making or missing illogic. So be careful! Remember Mr. Spock’s warning: “But Captain, that is not logical.”
If you wish to follow up, Jonathan Wells, Jon3sticks@gmail.com, will, upon request, refer you to an excellent book about logic.