Grab a cup of coffee and let’s do some logic.
Most of us progressives know twaddle when we see it, but we need to get better at telling the rest of the world (people whose mental habits are, shall we say, less than rigorous) why their beliefs constitute twaddle. That’ll be about as easy as fixing all their teeth, what with the alt-right instinct to chew on Fox-News bile like heavenly, sweet tobacco and hock objective data like spent sputum. But we can’t just leave these people to gum their own ignorance; we have to try.
Here’s a short logic test we should administer to all Americans as a diagnostic measure:
Instructions: Identify in one sentence the fundamental weakness in each of the following constructs. Don’t cheat; only check the answer after you’ve tried on your own.
1. RULE ALL RATIONAL PEOPLE ACCEPT: Any economic policy that causes more people to buy more stuff should be adopted, because more people buying more stuff (that’s called demand) drives the economy. FACT: When we let people who are already filthy rich keep even more of their money with tax cuts that favor them, they jam that money into overseas bank accounts (where nobody can find or tax it) instead of using it to buy more stuff. CONCLUSION: We should give more tax breaks to people who are already filthy rich.
Answer: Giving more tax breaks to rich people makes no sense if they won’t spend it and we want to stimulate spending.
2. RULE ALL RATIONAL PEOPLE ACCEPT: When in the course of a debate about measurable phenomena, scientists reach a broad consensus about what is likely and what is not, we should, for purposes of formulating policy, treat the broad consensus as controlling and disregard dissenting outliers. FACT: As to global climate change, 97% or more of scientists agree that the planet is warming in part because of carbon emissions associated with human activity while less than 3% of scientists disagree. CONCLUSION: For purposes of formulating policy, we should disregard the opinion of more than 97% of scientists and treat the findings of fewer than 3% as controlling.
Answer: Since 97% agreement seems like a consensus and we’re supposed to treat a scientific consensus as the basis for policy, ignoring the 97% and listening to the 3% seems a bit, uhm, ignorant.
3. RULE ALL RATIONAL PEOPLE ACCEPT: If a country attacks the most fundamental democratic institutions undergirding our constitutional republic, we should respond in such a way as to ensure that it never happens again. FACT: Russia, at the direction of Vladimir Putin, hacked, meddled in, and influenced the 2016 presidential election. CONCLUSION: Putin is a strong leader, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to work more closely with him.
Answer: Since Russia attacked us and we’re supposed to be ensuring that a country that attacked us doesn’t attack us again, honoring and befriending that country seems counterproductive.
4. RULE ALL RATIONAL PEOPLE ACCEPT: It’s not fair or moral to pick on a person based on something that he or she cannot control; you’d have to be a real wanker to do that. FACT: Nobody consciously chooses a sexual orientation or gender identity that he or she knows is the subject of hostile majoritarian assumptions and mores. CONCLUSION: We should enact laws that target LGBTQ people for unfavorable and unequal treatment.
Answer: Since it’s not fair to target characteristics that somebody can’t control and sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be controlled, it’d be a real wanker who would target LGBTQ people just for sport.
Most of us could have passed that test. But how many of us can explain why? If we’re going to teach others what’s wrong with how they “reason,” we need to know what’s right about how we reason.
Here’s a brief discussion of right and wrong reasoning.
The Structure of Right Thinking
Right thinking has a concrete structure (a formula). In formal logic it’s called a deductive syllogism. Take this example, invented by Aristotle to illustrate:
- All people are mortal.
- Socrates is a person.
- So Socrates is mortal.
The first sentence is a guiding principle; every sane argument needs one. The second sentence is a specific and demonstrable fact; every sane argument needs this too. The third sentence is a conclusion. This is where most mindless (right-wing) arguments begin rather than end. But indeed, any valid argument needs a conclusion.
As you can see, the syllogism (the great formula for right thinking) has three sentences. Each sentence, in turn, has two parts, leaving us with six different parts (3 sentences x 2 parts each).
Let’s label the parts of the formula this way:
- 1 2
- 3 4
- 5 6
Critically, all rules or principles can be expressed as if-then propositions. And for formulaic purposes, you must phrase rules as if-then propositions. Remember that formulas have parts. If you’re not plugging the right values into the right parts, the formula won’t work. As an example, the rule above (All people are mortal) can be rephrased this way: If you are a person, then you are mortal.
So as to the first sentence of the syllogism, in position 1, state the if part of the rule (the requirements of the rule, if you will – I call this the trigger, because it triggers some result). In position 2, state the then part of the rule (the consequence of the requirement or requirements being met). So position 1 would say If you are a person, and position 2 would say then you are mortal.
Take some time to consider this structure. Rules (meaning general propositions that apply in all like cases) – or, more precisely, violations or compliance with rules – have consequences. Will you suffer damaged skin? Damaged skin is a consequence. You will suffer damaged skin if you spend too much time in the sun. So if you spend too much time in the sun, you will suffer damaged skin. That’s a rule – a principle – that is observable and predictable.
Life, in some respects, is the business of avoiding bad consequences by avoiding running afoul of observable and predictable guiding principles. Will you get fired? Yes, if you’re always late; yes, if you provoke the boss; yes, if you neglect your clients; yes, if you abuse coworkers, etc. These “ifs” provide myriad principles for our conduct as humans in society.
So these “ifs” are important. Not until we know the requirement that appertains to a situation can we predict a consequence.
To repeat, the second sentence of a syllogism is a specific and demonstrable statement of facts. This is not the place for conclusions or characterizations; it’s the place for facts. In position 3, introduce the person or entity to whom or which you are applying the rule. In position 4, state the facts – what exactly happened or what state of affairs existed. Obviously, the facts should be relevant to the rule you’re applying. So in the Socrates example, the 3 position would say Socrates and the 4 position would say is a person.
The third sentence is the conclusion. In position 5, place the person or entity about which you seek to conclude. In position 6, state the conclusion. When an argument is valid, the conclusion should come easily because there is only one sane way to conclude. For example, if we accept that all people are mortal and that Socrates is a person, then we have no choice but to accept that position 5 must say Socrates and position 6 must say is mortal. Critically, though, arguments are often less tidy.
The Three Ideas in a Syllogism
Notice that among the six parts, there are only three ideas, each of which repeats twice. Look again at this syllogism:
1 If you are a person, 2 then you are mortal.
3 Socrates 4 is a person.
5 So Socrates 6 is mortal.
The three ideas in the syllogism are A) person, B) mortal, and C) Socrates. This makes intuitive sense. The only way for an argument to be valid is for all its parts to match. If the facts don’t match the requirement of the rule or the person to whom you’re applying the facts doesn’t match the person about whom you’re trying to conclude or the rule’s legal consequence doesn’t match the conclusion, the whole formula comes unglued.
Here’s how the formula looks as far as matching parts. At position 1, idea A (person) appears for the first time. At position 2, idea B (mortal) appears for the first time. At position 3, idea C (Socrates) appears for the first time. At position 4, idea A (person) appears for the second time. At position 5, idea C (Socrates) appears for the second time. At position 6, idea B (mortal) appears for the second time. To simplify, position 1 matches position 4; position 2 matches position 6; and position 3 matches position 5. Put even more simply, 1=4, 2=6, and 3=5. So the three ideas occur in this pattern:
Conveniently, this is always the pattern of a valid argument. The A’s, B’s, and C’s must match, and they must appear in the same order as illustrated above. We will see that much human argumentation fails when tested against this structure.
Evaluate whether the following syllogisms represent valid arguments. For each syllogism, identify ideas A, B, and C and identify whether the A’s, B’s, and C’s match such that 1=4, 2=6, and 3=5.
Here’s an example:
- If a person is tall, then he or she has an advantage.
- Pat is 6-feet-3-inches in height.
- So Pat has an advantage.
In this syllogism, idea A is tall. B is advantage. C is Pat. So this would be a perfect argument:
A If tall, B then advantage.
C Pat A is tall.
C So Pat B has advantage.
But the syllogism, given the fact, not some characterization, actually says this:
A If tall, B then advantage.
C Pat A is 6’3”.
C So Pat B has advantage.
You might be tempted to say that this is a valid argument, but it is not. The B’s match and the C’s match. But the A’s don’t match at positions 1 and 4 (get used to this). One says tall and the other says 6-foot-3. To accept this as a valid argument, one must conclude that 6-foot-3 is tall. That may very well be, but you have to explain why or how before the reader or listener will accept the conclusion. It’s not a perfect argument yet.
Now try these:
1. The case of the noble liar.
- If a person does wrong, then she should be punished.
- Jenny lied and told her brother he looked handsome.
- So Jenny should be punished.
2.The case of the disordered president.
- If a person is a malignant narcissist, then he should not be president.
- Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist.
- So Donald Trump should not be president.
3.The case of the elective war (circa 2003).
- If a foreign leader poses an imminent threat to US security, then that leader must be removed.
- Saddam Hussein gassed his own people decades ago.
- So Saddam Hussein must be removed.
4. The case of the nervous target.
- If a grand jury is impaneled in a case, then somebody is in trouble.
- In the case of Trump-Russia collusion, a grand jury has been impaneled.
- So in the case of Trump-Russia collusion, somebody is in trouble.
5. The case of Trump’s obstruction.
- If a person corruptly tries to influence a pending federal proceeding, then he’s guilty of obstruction.
- Donald Trump fired James Comey to stop an FBI counter-intelligence investigation into his collusion with Russia.
- So Donald Trump is guilty of obstruction.
- This is an imperfect argument — unless you’re a hopeless moral absolutist. The issue is whether lying to make somebody feel better is wrong.
- This is a perfect (and I mean perfect) argument.
- Imperfect; the issue is whether a foreign leader who gassed his own people decades ago poses an imminent threat to the US.
- Imperfect; the issue is whether firing Comey to stop the FBI’s Russia probe constituted interference with a pending proceeding.
As you might imagine, that an argument is imperfect in its present form is not to say that it can’t be perfected. In fact, that’s what lawyers like Special Counsel Robert Mueller do for a living: they take seeming syllogistic mismatches and show that they are, in fact, matches.
They do that by using definitions, precedents, and common sense. For now, if you were able to identify the matches and mismatches in the exercises above, you are definitely not a right-wing conservative.
More to come.