In more than a decade of writing posts here you've had numerous opportunities to hear me state that if I could change one thing about this country, I would require every voting adult to take and pass a course in basic logic.
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Nothing terribly advanced or difficult, but a course with actual rigor. All that "rigor" means here is that one could not fluke or finagle one's way into passing; it would be necessary to understand the material.

Think of how much more palatable our society would be with even a small increase in the percentage of the population capable of making logical arguments and identifying illogical ones. Again, I'm not talking about creating a nation of formal logicians here – just people who could look at statements to the effect of, "Autism is usually diagnosed after children are vaccinated, therefore autism is caused by vaccination" and think, "Hmm, that is not a valid conclusion."

I should temper my earlier criticism of the Bill Nye-Creation Museum spectacle posing as a "debate" earlier this year. I still contend that it was ineffective at doing much beyond allowing "Intelligent Design" mouthbreathers to pretend that they are worth taking seriously. However, the debate and some of the absolutely cringe-inducing responses like the "Questions from Creationists" meme gave me some useful insight into the problems with the way people in this country reason. This has nothing to do with logical fallacies, although there are plenty of those to go around. The problem is that millions of Americans do not understand even the most basic components of reasoning.

Start from the very beginning: deduction and induction. Four centuries after Bacon and Descartes, it still hasn't sunk in. This is deduction:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Mormons don't drink alcohol
= Bob doesn't drink alcohol

Deduction is painfully simple, yet we can't seem to get it. For the conclusion to be valid, both premises have to be true. Lots of people skip that part. The premises and conclusion are not transitive, either:

:Bob is a Mormon
:Bob doesn't drink alcohol
= Mormons don't drink alcohol

See, that doesn't work at all. That's an attempt to turn deduction (from the general to the specific) into induction (from the specific to the general). Induction is even more difficult for Americans to grasp because by its nature it can never produce 100% certain conclusions. In the above example, the conclusion is in fact true. However, the two premises do not provide sufficient evidence to support the conclusion; we don't know that Mormons don't drink simply because Bob is one and he doesn't drink. If we had never heard of Mormonism before and knew nothing about it, that inductive conclusion would be tenuous at best.

That is not to say that inductive reasoning is always so flimsy – and this is where the skepticism about evolution ("It's just a theory!") comes into play. An inductive conclusion can be useful even when it is "only" 99.
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99% supporting. For example, "Every fish lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water" is inductive but highly reliable.
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It's possible, theoretically, that the next species of fish will be different from every other. It sure isn't likely, though. Similarly, "My window is broken and my valuables are gone; therefore my house was burglarized" is pretty darn reliable. I mean, it's possible that there is some other explanation (Aliens vaporized my property and then a random person threw a rock through the window on the same day) but it certainly is not a likely or even plausible one.

And the problem here as it relates specifically to Evolution is that it is an inductive conclusion.
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It is very, very reliable but we can't replicate human evolution in a lab or show a video of it happening. That some alternative explanation like creationism can be proposed and cannot be refuted with 100% certainty is all the ammo that creationists need. They demand that evolution is 100% reliable to be treated as the truth while of course believing in God and whatnot without being able to construct an inductive argument that can get within spitting distance of reliability.

That's what so many people fail to understand: that plenty of valid, reliable conclusions are less than 100% reliable because it is not possible for inductive arguments to be 100% reliable. And whenever it suits their biases and personal beliefs, people tend to demand 100% reliability from conclusions they choose not to believe before lowering the bar to about an inch off the ground for whatever tortured nonsense they are motivated to believe. That's how evolution or climate change are Just a Theory while supply side economics and the existence of god are ironclad facts.

60 thoughts on “FATALLY FLAWED”

  • It wouldn't work, though. The problem of stupid voters isn't that they're constitutionally stupid—not that they are genetically incapable of being any smarter—but that give themselves permission to act stupidly. Call it intellectual laziness, call it cognitive bias, call it lousy heuristics—whatever the inputs and mechanics actually are, the result is the logic behind thoughts like, "Democrats are the part of big government, so this health care plan authored by the Heritage Foundation as a reason we don't need single payer is a first step toward socialism." Was it Upton Sinclair or Sinclair Lewis[fn1] who remarked on the difficulty of making a man understand a thing when his salary depends on him not understanding it? As much as for his salary, that works for the psychological comfort of political consistency.

    fn1: Or maybe it was Lewis Carroll? or Carroll O'Connor? then again, maybe it was Kate Upton…

  • I agree with Pat, logic education wouldn't help much. Trial lawyers are well trained in the structure of logical arguments, and they often use that training to blithely argue that black is white and up is down. Theologians are also trained in logical debate, and have been known to move from highly dubious starting premises to utterly insane conclusions. I suppose making public debate less egregiously stupid would be an improvement, but a higher class of bullshit is still bullshit.

  • Same thing goes when arguing with 9-11 truthers. I have to be able to answer every question they have, they don't have to answer any questions about their theory. When you press them, they fall back on "I'm just asking questions!"

  • So out of curiosity:

    Is the exact number of stars in the entire universe an even number?
    a) yes
    b) no
    c) unknown

    If A, prove it.
    If B, prove it.

    If C, then does that automatically follow that the exact number of stars is an odd number?

    No it doesn't. Therefore the intellectually honest answer is still C, unknown. Or in the case of a creating god, agnosticism.

    When it comes to climate change, I tell them that they must be very bad capitalists. Anyone who has any sense can see the business opportunities in selling solar panels. Isn't it, that if someone wants to buy it, sell it to them. I don't see how they can find selling solar panels more morally reprehensible than selling slot machines or cigarettes.

  • I would refer you to Schumpeter . . . people just can't be brought up the ladder when it comes to these things. Even intelligent people, highly trained in their own fields, can say the most ignorant things when it comes to things like politics and evolution (which is a politicized topic). Paraphrasing, but folks will say things about politics on a level that they would be embarrassed to say in their field of expertise. This is one of the most distressing truths about the world.

  • I might suggest a preliminary class in objective vs. subjective differentiation before we even get to logic per se. Americans in particular have been indoctrinated into the cozy egalitarianism of "Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion" school of reality; it's what turns the wheels of commerce and makes everyone feel good while the ship is sinking. All reality becomes a matter not of objective fact or even thought but FEELING, a self-consultation with one's unexamined psychic comfort that permits final verdicts without so much as a single recital of reasons.

    I grew up with a mother* whose basis for belief in God was on a par with her opposition to interracial dating. Both were based on "feeling"; no further discussion was possible.

    *of Southern extraction

  • @John Danley: the right-wing news sources have carefully cultivated in their followers a belligerent ignorance.

  • I think what this country needs is a mandatory high school class in how to read propaganda. Americans may be the most propagandized people on the planet.

  • Death Panel Truck says:

    And then there are Jack Mormons, who drink alcohol and caffeinated soft drinks, and enjoy their morning cups of coffee while smoking Marlboros. They subscribe to the basic tenets of the religion and show up for church now and then, but they don't take it too seriously. They're the fun Mormons. I knew a few of them while growing up in eastern Washington.

  • There's a huge literature that demonstrates how easily people who'd probably score well on tests of logic fail to demonstrate it. Physicists are no better at using disconfirmatory information or consistently following well supported decision rules than people with fairly ordinary backgrounds. The best and brightest got us into the Vietnam War and academic journals are filled with tripe based on deductive reasoning. Technocrats gave us horrible urban renewal projects and an intellectual elite bequeathed things like Prohibition. All you need is a little history to see what "logic' will get you.

  • Edward – Right you are!

    It reminds me of a passage from a Heinlein juvenile – "Space Cadet" (I read a lot of Heinlein in Jr. High). If I recall correctly they had a course called "Doubt" where every assumption was questioned. I recall little of the passage except a reference to questioning both "love of mother" and "mother love".

    I have discussions with my reasonably intelligent nephew all the time in which I ask, "So you did your own research (fluoridated water as mind control for example) on this, right?" The answer comes back no or if research was done it was from links provided by the propagandist.

    I like the idea of a course that focused on propaganda as well. A big part is not even a cursory mathematical analysis it's just the need to recognize certain verbiage such as "Value", "Most", "You and I both know …", "They say…", etc.

  • This comes up in the gun control debate often. Pro-gun people like to tell me "Even if you ban guns, criminals will still get guns and people will still get shot." They demand some kind of 100% guarantee that thorough gun control will mean no one will ever get shot again, and because I am a reasonable person I of course can't promise that. However, their solution–"arm more people, shoot back at the bad guys!"–is absolutely fraught with risk. You could accidentally shoot bystanders, you could accidentally shoot a family member you mistake for an intruder, your kid could get hold of the gun, you name it. But they're willing to live with THAT risk, apparently. Never gotten a good explanation as to why gun control is held to such a higher standard.

  • A required course in logic would help, maybe. Most folks here in small town AZ need it. Everyone at work (cement mine) quit talking to me long ago, I would point out their illogic and it angered them but didn't change their minds. They spout tea party talking points at each other, it's part of being in the club. Nice enough folks, but willfully ignorant.

    But actually I wanted to relate an old saying about Mormons, (I was one, long ago): If you invite one Mormon to go fishing with you, he'll drink all your beer. Always invite two, 'cause then neither will drink any.

  • Davis X. Machina says:

    I think what this country needs is a mandatory high school class in how to read propaganda.

    It's trying. The much-derided — and often justly so — Common Core standards are shot through with the realization that this is vitally necessary.

  • People aren't stupid, not like that. They use one kind of reasoning to figure out whether their house was burglarized, and another kind for figuring out how many stars are in the universe, never realizing that we live in just one world.

    Now, it's worthwhile to teach people how to explicitly use the kind of reasoning their intuitions do implicitly, and to use that reasoning everywhere. But the problem is hardly ever that people are stupid.

    Davis X. Machina: The much-derided — and often justly so — Common Core standards are shot through with the realization that this is vitally necessary.

    I'm curious about this; where can I read more?

  • I have to admit, I still have problems with inductive reasoning and logic. As in, I don't really understand what it is. It took me about six months of independent study to figure out what 'key' meant (the musical concept, not the physical object). And I'm generally perceived as a relatively intelligent person.

  • Carl, it's interesting that you say that, because as a pro-gun type I notice a lot of the opposite–my position that the availability of firearms is not the causal factor in violent crime is held to strict and disbelieving scrutiny, but statements which treat gun control's effectiveness as a foregone and inarguable conclusion are accepted with little to no comment. I suspect it tends to vary based on the majority view wherever you're arguing.

  • > Never gotten a good explanation as to why gun control is held to such a higher standard.


  • @Xynzee

    You're making a false analogy that reinforces the fallacy that Ed was talking about. You chose a proposition, "the number of stars in the universe is even", that you can't reason about inductively, since each new bit of information you get will cause the conclusion to flip. Most propositions don't have that property. With evolution, maybe you have some bombshell information that comes out of nowhere and invalidates the conclusion that every other piece of information has been consistent with. But that's not the nature of the information that you have: what you have is a steady trickle of information that reinforces the theory.

    You're also setting up a false dichotomy. You're saying that either you believe the truth of one alternative with absolutely, unbreakable, eternal certainty, or you have to be completely on the fence about it. In reality, there's plenty of in between for most meaningful questions. Most atheists believe that "there's no evidence for god existing, therefore I see no reason to believe that god exists", rather than "there's rock-solid iron-clad conclusive evidence that god doesn't exist".

    In the case of the star question, the dichotomy is more or less valid. Which reinforces my point that it's a shitty example that doesn't give you any insight into logical reasoning about realistic theories.

  • @ Edward & DaveDell: Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" was mandatory reading for us, not in high school but in freshman English in college. But it's not all that difficult to read, and would make sense at the high school level.

    Wonder if Ed assigns it.

    Inclusion of a study of that Republican strategist who invented expressions like "enhanced interrogation" and "right to life" and, I think, "death panels" might be fun for kids. ("Let's play EUPHEMISM!") and then include "Happy Meal" and "pre-emptive war" etc. etc. I think they could get into it.

  • If you read Karl Popper's work it's an interesting case study in how far you can push deductive reasoning before you stop making any sense. Essentially he committed himself fairly early on to the idea that inductive reasoning is an invalid way to draw any sort of conclusion. So he came up with falsificationism: the idea that you come up with a hypothesis, draw deductive conclusions from it, test those conclusions, and if they turn out to be false, throw out the hypothesis and come up with a new one. Great.

    Except if you don't believe in any sort of inductive reasoning, it turns out that you also can't believe that those hypotheses you're coming up with have any power to actually predict anything. So there's a bunch of rambling in Popper's work trying to work around with the fact all these hypotheses he's coming up with are useless. Use the laws of thermodynamics to build a car engine? Well it's better than using a falsified theory, but the laws of thermodynamics have no predictive power so you'd be making a mistake in claiming that you know that the engine will work.

    It turns out that falsification is a pretty powerful and useful concept, but Popper philosophically painted himself into a corner, in a kind of hilarious way.

  • Nick,
    It depends rather heavily on what we mean by gun control, but fewer armed Americans=fewer shootings is a simple proposition on the level of the broken windows and missing stuff equaling burglary. Any specific gun control measure can be judged against whether it would actually be effective at reducing the number of armed Americans, but the basic proposition is just favorable to the anti-gun side. As a practical matter there's a thousand bazillion caveats to that and that's where the real debate is.

  • Unless basic sense is taught as well, all the logic classes in the world won't overcome the emotions that drive people's illogical thinking and behavior. And there's no way to teach sense, unfortunately.

    Even people who "know better" — intelligent people, learned people — make stupid choices based on romantic love, religious faith, sexual attraction, and other potent drivers over which logic has a lack of reliable influence.

    And this can be a very good thing. Values-based gestures of generosity and sharing, solidarity in the fight against oppression, the use of power to help others rather than solely serve the self — these are all things that a lot of people think are stupid because it's "not logical" to work toward amassing wealth only to give it away, etc. So logic can be used for bad ends too, and therefore is not the key to everything coming out okay.

    Again, I love logic. But any values / emotions / fears / hopes (and the choices made in their service) can be described in logic terms, and once that happens, people feel justified imposing their emotional decisions on others. Logic and the lack of it isn't the problem when people put their faith in a poorly edited fanfic anthology such as the Bible rather than in science — they understand neither and simply choose whatever is more comforting.

  • "For the conclusion to be valid, both premises have to be true."

    / wortless pedant mode ON

    Conclusions cant be valid or invalid. Arguments are valid or invalid.
    Arguments may be perfectly valid if their premises are false. For an argument to be valid, the conclusion has to be true in every case that the premises are true.
    A valid argument with all true premises is a sound argument. For an argument to be sound, all the premises must be true.

  • A logic voting test would improve voting not at all.

    There's lots of literature to the effect that humans make decisions emotionally and morally but not logically. The EMOTIONAL center of our brains makes decisions. People whose emotional centers have been damaged are basically incapable of deciding anything – the literature includes cases where people will simply stare a closet of shirts for hours, because they cannot decide which to put on (since they have brain damage in the emotional center). Emotion gives us a gut feeling of good or bad that we use to make ALL decisions, and it is rarely overridden.

    If you honestly look at yourself, you didn't sit down and make a 10,000 line spreadsheet to decide between political candidates, comparing every one of their pluses and minuses and coming out with a numerical score for each. You heard a few things, some of it you found appealing and some you did not, and boom, your decision was made. It was an emotional decision not a logical one.

    All humans make all decisions like that. Once you understand this, your world will open up.

  • Chum, even then you have to qualify it as "Americans reasonably likely to use a firearm in a malicious or negligent manner," since by definition these are the only ones whose inability to obtain a firearm would impact crime or negligent injury, which makes the whole concept even more difficult to reduce to a statement as reasonable as "my window is broken and my stuff is missing, so I probably got robbed."

    In any case, I don't mean to debate gun control at this juncture; my point is more that it seemed like an interesting comment on the nature of echo chambers. Carl, a pro-gun control person, sees a lot of poor logic in the form of
    :City A has gun control
    :City A has shootings
    =Gun control is wholly ineffective

    Whereas I see a lot of poor logic in the form of
    :Country A has more gun control than the US
    :Country A has fewer shootings than the US
    =Gun control leads to fewer shootings

    Both are equally fallacious but tend only to be called out by their opponents, as we generally have a fair bit of tolerance for faulty logic when we agree with the conclusion.

  • Isaac Asmiov on creationists and evolution-as-theory: "Creationists make it sound as though a "theory" is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night."

    While looking that up I came across another quote which encapsulates Ed's point: "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

  • Or, we could just tattoo this on the back of everyone's hand, as a little reminder not to take one's mentation too seriously:

    Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof. –John Kenneth Galbraith

  • MS: If you honestly look at yourself, you didn't sit down and make a 10,000 line spreadsheet to decide between political candidates, comparing every one of their pluses and minuses and coming out with a numerical score for each.

    I used iSideWith in the last presidential election to select the candidate who best reflects my views or (if I lived in a swing state) the major-party candidate who reflects my views most closely.

    What, doesn't everyone do that?

  • @grendelkhan

    I would do that to, but it would always come out Democrat.

    Republicans want to actively kill me. (healthcare, destoy Social Security, bomb and piss off brown people, give black teenager every reason to believe all us old white guys are packing, etc).

    Democrats just want to neglect and ignore me.
    I'll take the latter.

  • @Devon You stole my comment! :-)

    But in all seriousness, I have to disagree about one thing in your comment: this is not a worthlessly pedantic thing to point out. If one is writing a post on how important it is to understand the fundamental concepts of logic and how easy these things really are to understand, one had better not produce fairly severe errors in explaining those concepts. And there's more of that in this post. For example, inductive arguments (again, as Devon said, arguments, not conclusions) can not be valid at all, they can only be cogent. Another problem is found in the characterization of the difference between deduction "from the general to the specific" and induction "from the specific to the general". It is simply not a characteristic of inductive arguments that they need to go from the specific to the general, the correct way to explain the difference lies simply in noting that in deduction, the conclusion is said to follow by necessity from the premises (if the argument is valid), and induction, the conclusion is said to be made probable by its premises (if the argument is cogent). I quickly googled for an explanation of this and found a link (http://philosophy.lander.edu/logic/ded_ind.html) which provides a simple explanation for why your characterization is wrong.

  • Americans are often so self-deprecating in these matters! I do not believe that Pakistanis, Germans or Japanese are, on average, that more rational, logical and educated than Americans although their particular (religious, economic, historical etc) foibles may vary from country to country. The difference I perceive between my home country (Germany) and Anglo-saxon countries (Britain, Canada, Australia, USA) is that the media landscape and politicians in the latter much more actively pander to the stupidity of a subset of the voters than those in the former. So where in one case you have a significant minority of backwards loons who are being laughed at or ignored, in the other you have media giving the loons airtime and politicians telling the loons, yes, all your delusions are correct, now please vote for me. The former keeps them quiet because they realize that their beliefs are not acceptable in polite society, the latter moves the Overton Window.

    Not sure where that difference comes from though. Perhaps it is because of who is running the newspapers and TV stations. Perhaps it is because of the uniquely Anglo-saxon single winner voting / two party system and its in-built lesser-of-two-evils logic; it may make it safe for politicians to assume that they will get the moderate votes anyway so that they can concentrate on mollifying the extremists. Or maybe a combination of both.

    As a systematic biologist I have to pick a nit: Fish are a poor example because of how we classify things today. If we use an ecological classification – fish are vertebrates living in water – then whales and dolphins are fish, and I hope most people know that that is wrong. If we use a phylogenetic classification as commonly accepted in contemporary systematic zoology, then all land vertebrates (including us humans) are a specialized sub-group of fish, because otherwise there is always a lineage of fish that is more closely related to humans than it is to any other fish. In other words, the next fish I will see after leaving my office lives on dry land, because it will be one of my colleagues.


    Both arguments are not equally fallacious. The first is using the perfect solution fallacy. The second is valid inductive reasoning as is constantly used by scientists. Hypothesis: Tighter gun control reduces shootings. How would I test if this hypothesis is wrong? By observing whether there is a significant difference in shootings between regions with varying degrees of gun control. No difference: hypothesis has to be rejected. Difference (in the right direction, of course): hypothesis can tentatively be accepted. No fallacy anywhere near it, unless you want to argue that all of empirical science is a fallacy.

  • Devon and Lehoo: Happy to see the philosophers set things straight! Logic is a branch of philosophy, after all.

  • Phoenician in a time of Romans says:

    I agree with Pat, logic education wouldn't help much.

    Indeed. The only way to teach people about motivated reasoning is to rub their noses in it painfully, and generally life itself has to inflict that lesson.

  • @Anthony

    First of all, thanks! Nice to be appreciated!

    Now it is my sad duty to set another fact straight, hopefully, it won't be perceived as snide or make me come off as a know-it-all. :-) It's not really correct to describe logic as a branch of philosophy. Historically, it arose from philosophy of course but then again, so did science. In any case, logic contains formal languages in which formal symbol manipulation can done to reveal the formal structure of arguments and to conduct formal proofs. If this is to count as philosophy, then we'd better include mathematics and theoretical computer science (among other fields) under that heading too. The typical way to view logic these days is either as a branch of mathematics, or as one of several formal sciences (where mathematics and theoretical computer science, among other fields, also belong beside logic). Then there are those who would like to place logic "at the bottom", as the foundation of mathematics. The prospects of this project are to complicated and time (as well as space) consuming to deal with here.

    Now there is also a field called philosophical logic, which studies those concepts which are both traditionally of interest to philosophers, and which have been formalized in the languages of logic. Concepts such as identity, existence, necessity, truth and perhaps others (depending on who you ask) belong here, but philosophical logic is rather to be viewed as a part of logic in which some questions classically of philosophical interest are studied formally, so it's not really proper to view this either as a branch of philosophy.

    There is, however, a branch of philosophy that studies logic. Namely, the philosophy of logic, but this does not mean that logic is a part of philosophy, just as the existence of the fields of the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of physics and the philosophy of biology does not mean that mathematics, physics and biology belong under the heading of philosophy. The philosophy of logic studies philosophical questions about logic, in philosophical questions can be posed about any subject without this meaning that the subject is to be viewed as part of philosophy (unless everything is to be part of philosophy).

    Sorry for the very long comment and sorry if I seem to be rebuking you after you gave praise to my previous comment, I just couldn't help but comment on this. :-)

  • And, going for the win, The Biggie:

    I'm a good person.
    I'm a Republican.
    Therefore all Republicans are good persons.

    Corollary: All Democrats are evil.

  • @anotherbozo,

    I also read that essay in college. I would like to see a textbook written by someone like retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern, Noam Chomsky, or a marketing person on propaganda. Would most Americans be able to recognize that Voice of American is propaganda, despite the fact that it is legally banned in this country? If I remember correctly, I once read that a study of the Washington Post found that 50% of its news articles were based on corporate press releases.

  • Alex SL: The second is a confusion of correlation and causation, one of the most prevalent fallacies in modern society. Yes, the difference in American and Country A's homicide rates could be due to gun control. Or it could be due to the drug war, our lack of a social safety net, our unwillingness to properly invest in education, our history of institutionalized racism on a scale not seen in most nations, etc. etc. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is invalid even if you agree with the conclusion.

  • @Tom:

    Exactly how is your position not a position of confirmation bias?

    I am an atheist
    I see no evidence of God
    Therefore everything just happened this way.

    Vs my:
    I am a theist
    I see evidence of God in all things
    Therefore God created* it.

    At no point has science disproven the existence of God. Nor has it proven God's existence.

    How is the conclusion that:
    Evolution proves absence of God.

    More valid than:
    Evolution proves that there's a guiding creating intelligence behind it.

    Quite frankly, how is your viscerally ensconced position of disbelief superior to my viscerally ensconced belief?

    As said by Grendelkhan upthread, there's different levels of logic being used by the two situations. No one** argues in base-10: 2+24
    In cosmology, logic is still applied. x+y+z=result. The outstanding factor is the unprovable bit. Just because one holds that the only logical explanation for something = being required to check one's brain at the door. So given what evidence we have, look around you see the cosmos, and read the Bible God takes the long view. So trillions of years is closer to the mark than thousands.

    From where I stand, you are rejecting available evidence. You choose not to believe, because not believing supports your position. By not believing you do not need to make the required changes that would be necessary to believe. And you could say the same of me.

    And so we go round and round and round. Just like the characters out of Pulp Fiction.

    *mechanics not important.
    **except for lawyers

  • No, it is not fallacious if we say that this correlation tentatively implies a causal relationship, and you are free to do a multivariate analysis that shows otherwise. It would only be a fallacy if it were treated as deductive proof of a causal relationship. This is why your two cases were not comparable.

    Thing is, one can always reject any relationship on principle with this argument. Smokers get significantly more lung cancer than non-smokers. But according to you, concluding a causal relationship from this is fallacious, right? The real underlying factor could be aliens, or earth rays, or spinach. Have you tested for that? No? THEN WE DON'T KNOW. So keep smoking those cigarettes, and make sure your children inhale the smoke second-hand, because otherwise the liberal tree-huggers win who want to take away your cigarettes because they hate freedom!

    Yeah, something here is off, but I don't believe that it is the science.

  • February 20th, 2014 at 5:01 am, Talisker Says wrote:
    "Trial lawyers are well trained in the structure of logical arguments, and they often use that training to blithely argue that black is white and up is down."

    Lawyers don't get that kind of training, and they don't, blithely or otherwise, make those kinds of ridiculous "arguments."

    As an undergraduate philosophy major, I worked for a professor grading logic homework. As a graduate student in philosophy, I took classes in modal logic and the history and philosophy of logic, and I taught classes in introductory logic in the university's evening extension division. So, I know the structure of logical arguments.

    Forsaking graduate philosophy for law school, I graduated with honors, was admitted to practice, and have tried cases to juries. So, I know how lawyers are trained, and how trial lawyers argue cases.

    Law students are trained to argue like lawyers, which involves some general principles. Many legal arguments are arguments from authority – "it's so because X says it's so [citation]" – and there are rank orders to legal authorities: constitutions trump statutes, which trump regulations; Federal Supreme Court cases trump Federal Circuit Court of Appeals cases, which trump Federal District Court cases. State courts have their own rankings.

    For legal arguments on particular subjects, there are particular rules, analogous to axioms or premises in a formal deductive argument – "No trust will fail for want of a trustee" or "a corporate owner's liability is limited to the owner's investment." But these sometimes change. For a long time, leases of real estate were essentially about the land, any any buildings on it were incidental; so, if a building wasn't fit to live in, the tenant owed the rent anyway; in legal terms, no "warranty of habitability" was implied in a lease. This rule persisted long after leases for residential property had become common, until a court overturned precedent and found that such a warranty was implied. The axiom changed.

    All of which is to say that "the structure of logical arguments" is not part of the training of lawyers, trial or otherwise. Nor could it be, really. The important thing about the structure of logical arguments is that the rules are truth-preserving. Starting with true premises and using the rules of inference, one will arrive at only true conclusions.

    But much of legal argument involves legal prescriptions – "all Xs must do Y" – or proscriptions – "No X may do Y" – which are neither true nor false because they are not describing the world, but rather attempting to order it. So, much of legal argument is argument by analogy – "my client is not an X because he's just like the defendant in Smith v. State, in which the defendant was found not to be an X." And analogies are, to put it mildly, not truth-preserving.

    Contrary to popular belief, trial lawyers do not spend much time in court making arguments. They periodically make arguments of law to the judge – "the rule regarding admission of medical records should be Rule 521a as interpreted in Acme v. Coyote." But lawyers don't argue with the members of the jury panel members during voire dire, and during examination or cross-examination, the lawyers may not argue with witnesses, which is subject to objection by opposing counsel.

    Only after the close of the evidence do trial lawyers make an argument to the jury, basically this one: "based on the evidence or lack thereof, you, the jury, should return a verdict in favor of my client."

    Trial lawyers don't argue "black is white," but rather "defendant's only evidence that the barn was black was the testimony of a nearsighted alcoholic who saw the barn only once, at 3 am on the moonless night when he was arrested for DUI. My client's evidence that the barn was white was the testimony of the man who painted it just 8 months before the incident in question, his business records showing that he used 25 gallons of Benjamin Moore 'Winter Snow,' and photographs of the barn."

  • Lehooo,

    You are correct. I was using the term "branch" loosely, mainly to point out here that if someone were to take the kind of course that Ed is talking about, in all likelihood that course would be offered by a philosophy department and taught by a philosopher. (That's how it ought to be, anyway, and I think in fact is the way it mostly is.)

  • Alex, the causal link between smoking and cancer has been proven. The gun link you're trying to make is more like:

    :This group of people lives in a trailer park
    :This group of people has a higher than average incidence of diabetes
    =Trailer parks cause diabetes.

  • Nick, can't say I disagree with you. There's so many "studies" regarding gun control or lack thereof, and so many people ready to denounce those studies, and so much cherry-picking going on, it's hard to believe much of anything.

  • Is it really that hard to understand? Empirical science doesn't prove anything. It doesn't prove the link between smoking and cancer either. It merely tests hypotheses and models until we can say that an idea has survived so many tests that it is beyond reasonable doubt – but always still tentative.

    That is why the observation that easy availability of guns is one of the most important factors in gun deaths is not comparable with the perfect solution fallacy. The first is a valid inductive argument about the shape of reality, the second is a deductive fallacious argument about what to do in the face of an undisputed reality (i.e. there will still be a few gun deaths even if guns were restricted to police and army).

    Category error. Seriously, this is not rocket science.

    (Note by the way also: one of the most important factors. Obviously this is a multi-variable issue, but I am fairly sure that those of your compatriots who argue for stricter gun laws are fully aware of that, that they do understand that hypothetically given the same number of guns per capita, Somalia would still have significantly more gun deaths than Denmark due to factors unrelated to gun control. But that does not make a difference if the argument is to reduce gun deaths by tweaking one particularly easily controlled variable in this equation, which is the availability of guns.)

  • I had intended to stay out of this, but frankly I'm finding Xynzee's intellectual dishonesty to be pretty repugnant.

    For starters, let's not forget what Xynzee actually said:

    "Therefore the intellectually honest answer is still C, unknown. Or in the case of a creating god, agnosticism."

    So Xynzee's "intellectually honest answer" – his ONLY intellectually honest answer- is AGNOSTICISM.

    Last I checked, Xynzee was not an agnostic. Xynzee, in fact, told me that he believes in the god of Leviticus, who ordered that people like me- queers- be rounded up and killed.

    Yep, that's honesty for you- a Christian arguing that the only reasonable conclusion is agnosticism.

    Don't even bother, Tom. Xynzee doesn't believe any of this- he's not an agnostic at all. He's just fucking with you.

    Xynzee's argument is painfully common among Christians. It can be summed up as follows:

    * Do you agree that Xynzee is *definitely* correct in saying that the universe was created by the murderously homophobic tribal deity of a tiny tribe of ancient barbarians? Then you're intellectually honest and open-minded.

    * Do you agree that Xynzee *might* be right that the universe was created by a bloodthirsty barbarian humbug? You are to be admired for your open mindedness.

    * But if you think Xynzee is *definitely wrong* to assert that the universe owes its existence to an anthopomorphic bugbear who is obsessed with fag-bashing…. then your opinions are obviously closed-minded and ignorant.

    Because remember, Xynzee deserves a medal for his open-mindedness and intellectual courage. As so many people like him have assured me over the years, the *real* bigots are those horrible queers, who don't appreciate how wonderful it is that Xynzee doesn't think God wants him to kill us *at this particular moment.*

    In fact, Xynzee is such a reasonable intellectual that he is completely unable to understand why queers like me don't embrace his petty, malevolent god. After all, killing me- back in the days of Leviticus- would have been a useful way to demonstrate how strict Yahweh's expectations are.

    "So given what evidence we have, look around you see the cosmos, and read the Bible"

    Oh, Jesus Fucking Christ. No. Fuck no. A thousand fucking times no.

    What's next? Are we going to tell Jews that they have an intellectual responsibility to look into Mein Kampf? That every Jew has a responsibility to diligenty investigate whether Hitler might have been right about them?

    I know Xynee loves his own crackpot bigotry, but I don't have the time to chase after the delusions of every crackpot bigot who says that the answer to "why does the universe exist?" is "murderous homophobia."

  • Alex, again, this is where my original point comes into play–your assumption that the legal availability of firearms to citizens without a criminal record is both "one of the most important factors" in crime and also an "easily controlled variable" is accepted without any sort of need for proof, but my stating the opposite is treated as false until proven true. Exactly what Ed's talking about in his post. Again, my point was not to debate the effectiveness of gun control–I'm sure we'll have a chance to do that sometime, and if not, you can always search for Ed's past posts on the subject–but to point out that people tend to ignore invalidities in arguments with which they agree, a point which you've proven handily.

  • Nick,

    Not sure who claimed that it is an important factor in "crime"; having guns available is an important factor in gun deaths, which range from mentally disturbed people gunning down a bunch of strangers to four year olds shooting their two year old siblings.

    And seriously, is it so hard to grasp that there is a relationship here? We have myriads of natural experiments for this, from areas and times where or when few to no guns were available to people. For example, how many toddlers were accidentally shot dead by their elder siblings in 10th century France? Take your time to figure that one out.

    You will obviously retort that there are other variables at play; for example, the parents could be sensible enough to lock the guns away, and society should simply miraculously identify all people who are prone to run amok and lock them away before they have done anything. Yep, this is a multi-dimensional issue. But these kinds of retorts merely demonstrate that you are fully equivalent to the people who claim that the connection between smoking and cancer is still up in the air because there are genetic and work-related and purely stochastic influences in cancer, or to those who claim that the connection between CO2 levels and global temperatures is still up in the air because sun spot activity also has an influence on the latter.

    However, you are clearly not going to accept this so there is little point in going on.

  • I was reading today's post by Prof Juan Cole. He talks about Godwins law, Ted Nugent and Nazis. Essentially he says you hold Nazi ideology (like Nugent), that is if you lift, use and believe language from America’s greatest enemy, (like Ted did) that it is not patriotism you speak of but treason.

    Cole also says that if republicans don't denounce Ted Nugent, who is the face of the republican party, for his treason, it means republicans tacitly approval of that treason. So here is my logic haiku:

    Today's republican cult is embodied by Ted Nugent.
    Ted Nugent is a neo-nazi.
    Republicans are neo-nazi!


  • Little late to the party, but just wanna point out that "Every fish lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water" is not inductive, it is deductive; if it is literally true that every fish lives in water, then it is necessarily true that the next fish, being a member of the set of "every fish," will live in water. I believe what you meant to say (and what is inductive) is "Every fish *so far discovered* lives in water, therefore the next fish discovered will live in water."

  • @Riccardo: I thought "I'm a Man cause I shoot pigs from the air" hadn't so much denounced his words, but is deferring to those who are more media savvy than he is.

  • Incidentally, Xynzee's "even or odd" argument is lifted from a recent interview with an apologeticist named Alvin Plantinga. Google it, and you'll find pages upon pages of people pointing out that Plantinga's argument is part of the rapidly accelerating death rattle of Christianity. Back in the days of John McDowell, apologetics was all about arguing for Christianity. Now the Christians are reduced to arguing for agnosticism.

    We're witnessing the transformation of apologetics from "rational people MUST believe in Jesus" to "please, please, don't give a shit… please? Not giving a shit is the only rational approach to Christianity, after all."

    But hey, it's not like Christianity *means* anything to these people. If it meant anything, they wouldn't equate the Almighty and Ever-Living LORD with irrelevant questions about meaningless counts of the cold, distant stars.

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