Logic, thinking, and the named and unnamed logical fallacies.

Logic is a wonderful and necessary tool.   It is also desperately undervalued and misunderstood by way too many people, and occasionally rather abusively misused, which bothers me a great deal.

We all know about nonsense syllogisms, where you start with false assumptions and perfectly logically come to ridiculous conclusions. These make an appearance in pretty much every arena, however, with few people realising that the stated premises (on the given issue at the time) are false.  And, on a sort of a tangent, people are also very fond of saying things like “it’s only logical” about a conclusion they have reached, when what they really mean is “it makes sense to me because this fits perfectly with my preconceived biases and emotional investment in a certain worldview” — which is not the same thing as being logical, at all.

Real logic is a way of checking whether you are basing a conclusion on information which has been presented, or assumptions that you are supplying yourself. It is a way of fast-checking for internal inconsistencies which point to something being plainly incorrect. It is a necessary component of analysis, as well as lending itself to more rigorous thinking. Of course, in a culture with glorifies “feeling” as being the highest virtue and devalues rationality as something which somehow puts you out of touch with reality(!), a lot of people don’t appreciate this either. Which makes it easy for newspapers, snake-oil salesmen and politicians all to sell people on a lot of bullshit, frankly.

Feeling and instinct are exceptionally useful if that shadow in the bushes really IS a predator, and they are beyond a doubt important when considering things like, “do I really want to go on a date with this guy”, or “would I enjoy doing this for a living for years”; when it’s not an emergency avoidance of a predator, though, then we have room to think about things as well as just feel, and we should. I would just like to point out that the human brain generally makes up less than 3% of our mass, at most, but it takes about 25% of our body’s energy resources to run it. Evolutionarily speaking, we would not have developed this and we would not keep it if it didn’t give us an advantage; seems to me we ought to be using it.

So may I recommend, for all and sundry, a fast run-through of the most common logical fallacies. One of the best sites on the web for this is http://www.logicalfallacies.info/; it has a good run-down of everyone’s favourites from internet arguments. As an exercise, I would recommend going back over some of your own writing after reviewing these, as if you were disagreeing with yourself — make it a mental exercise of debate, play devil’s advocate against yourself — and seeing how many logical fallacies you, yourself have used that you didn’t spot or didn’t care about at the time, because you were making a case for something you were passionate about. (I try to do this on a regular basis. I would like to think it keeps me honest.)

As a follow-on from that, though, and perhaps on a slightly lighter note, I’ve spotted a couple of common failures of logic that I don’t know we necessarily have terms for. Can anyone enlighten me, do these have names yet?

  • “I don’t know, therefore no-one knows”, with the common variation of “I have never seen this information, therefore this information must not exist.” Based around the assumed impossibility that there is any knowledge out there that the speaker/writer doesn’t have.
  • “Since there are a lot of things that aren’t known about [x], nothing is known about [x].” It’s rarely stated as baldly as this, of course, but this is the general principle behind most arguments that [insert ludicrous statement about x here] could be true because science doesn’t know everything/has so many unanswered questions. The fallacy, of course, is in equating not knowing everything with not being able to eliminate anything, because even if we don’t know everything it’s generally safe to say we know some things. New “theories” must not only answer unanswered questions in order to have credibility, they must also fit with what we already know to be the case from observation.
  • …any others that people can think of?

This is my thought-exercise in favour of intelligence for today.

Why this blog name?

Why the blog name?

In no particular order:

– I identify strongly with felines (yeah, no kidding, right?), but small rodents are interesting little creatures. Oh, yes. I like them, too, at least more often than not.

– Like it or not, mice are also important model organisms in the lab. Yes, there are a number of model organisms, all of which are used to tell us important things about different aspects of biology. But mice are mammals, like us — and more than that, they are fast-breeding, small, tameable, easily-fed, easily-kept mammals which seem to have a high tolerance for inbreeding, and which are thus kept in huge numbers and have been bred and inbred into lines which are internally genetically identical to each other and different from the other lines in very specific ways, and which can then be used for all KINDS of cool (though not necessarily for the mice) experiments which tell us what part of the genome might do what.  And, rodents are our closest non-primate relatives (aside from flying lemurs and colugos, anyway).

– One of the ways in which the health and well-being of such mice is monitored is through the quality of their vocalisations.

– And, having said that, the fact that male mice not only squeak but sing little birdsong-like stanzas in order to attract females was a very recent discovery. For tens of thousands of years we have shared our living spaces (and all too reluctantly, our food) with mice, they have surrounded us, and yet this reality of our little mammal cousins remained entirely undetected because it, as with so much of the rest of the world, was outside the boundaries of what our raw senses could tell us. The discovery of mousesong had to wait on both advances of technology and a formal, systematic exploration of the world around us.

– Although in recent years my hearing has suffered (I believe I can only hear to about 19MHz now), in my twenties I could hear up to 22MHz+ and I honestly enjoyed being privy to the world of “ultrasound.” Most of the time, anyway.

– And having said all that, on a purely aesthetic level I really enjoy the idea of a bunch of little mousies twittering away like songbirds, singing “over here! Over here! Look at me!” And I relate that on a symbolic level to this being a blog…..even though my purpose here is not to attract a mate. Really. I got one of those, already.

– And as for “by moonlight”, well, I *AM* as nocturnal as I can get away with.

Here is what you need to know about me.

This matters to me:  whether or not I believe what is true.

People are generally very concerned that what they believe is true.* Unfortunately, in my experience this often manifests as, having “figured out” what is true, people then set out to prove that what they believe is true. Often this is by cherry-picking information which agrees with them, ignoring or discounting information which contradicts them, and by using rhetorical tricks to make it impossible for other people to disagree that [any given thing] is true. (As though, if you can only convince people, that makes the thing that you believe true. If only you can muster enough belief, you can surely bend reality to your will….) Sometimes this is a conscious process, such as in politics. Sometimes it’s not conscious at all and people really don’t think they’re doing this. Ideally, although one almost always starts with some view as to how things are, this view would be rationally altered in the light of supporting or contradicting evidence — a process of Bayesian reasoning. What I’ve just described, though, is called “motivated reasoning” — as Steve Hoffman once put it, “Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.”

I’m very wary of it. I don’t want to do this, myself — but I know how easy it is, how completely natural — humans do this, it’s quite probably our default form of reasoning and happens below the level of awareness. But I see and have seen it leading down blind alleys and into delusions. At its most benign, it’s still a good way to end up doing things wrong and dealing with reality ineffectually. There are so many easy cognitive biases, though; it often requires a counterintuitive way of thinking to avoid these, since these errors ARE a part of our intuition.

The overwhelming consensus of evidence is that there is an objective, physical reality, which exists entirely independently of me. I might not see all of it, know what all of it is, or understand it entirely, but it will still be what it is. It depends on my view, my understanding, or even my existence, not at all. It is inevitable that I should have beliefs about it based on what I *do* know. What concerns me is that my beliefs should conform to the actual reality as closely as possible.

…Even when I really don’t like it.

I have even occasionally been known to change my views when presented with convincing evidence. I hope I never lose that. I do have a stringent set of criteria for “convincing”, however. Personal anecdote pretty much never cuts it — and if you understand what you just read in this post, you’ll get why. Personal experience is always direct and immediate and convincing to the person who experienced it — but it is so easy for the brain to fool itself, or for us simply to make mistakes or mistaken attributions, that conglomerate experience tells me we need something externally verifiable.

Does that make me cold, passionless, unromantic? I’ve been accused of all of those. Unromantic I might own up to, but that is a longstanding thing; as for the rest, nope. It doesn’t. It does mean I want externally verifiable evidence, because I’m kind of hard-nosed that way. But it has nothing at all to do with my capacity to feel joy, love, pain, sorrow, rage or any other of those celebrations and woes of life.

And that is what you need to understand about me. Work with that, and we will get on fine.

*(I’ve met a few people who genuinely didn’t care whether what they believed was true or not, but these are rare. Some people profess not to care, but talk to them a while and you’ll see that really, they do.)