Dr Duncan James > Critical Thinking and Waffly Ramblings > Logic

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Logic and Humans

"Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference."

Mark Twain

"Don't argue with idiots because they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."

Greg King

"You can not reason a person out of a belief they did not reason themselves into."

Common wisdom often attributed to Ben Goldacre

"I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig, you get dirty; and besides, the pig likes it."

George Bernard Shaw

"The only person more foolish than a person who thinks they know everything, is the person who tries to argue with them."


"Arguing with an idiot is like playing chess with a pigeon: they'll just crap on the board and strut around like they've won."


"There is a sense in which our concepts can never be 'wrong', as they are just a reflection of our own level of understanding at that time."

I believe that instead of debating our conclusions we should enjoy learning about our different assumptions in a constructive way.

It is possible that logical people in the human race are outliers. This is my personal experience. I often find life very confusing as I try to process what people are saying in a literal and logical way. However, this is often not what is intended and does not work. Some of my reflections on life deal with this.

In my science, maths and teaching I try to be very logical. I find that my customers and students generally like me to be as logical and clear as possible. In contrast, I find that in everyday conversation being logical is not a good approach: instead my personal experience is that conversations follow other rules. For me, personally, this is often frustrating as I love analysing and enjoy learning in a structured way about the world. The field of philosophy covers this topic with a good starting point being the wikipedia page about informal logic. A popular thing to say at the moment (early 21st century) is "in my opinion" (link to wikipedia page) which is another interesting starting point to start studying the logic of everyday conversation. To use two examples; "in my opinion bread does not taste very nice" seems like good use of the phrase as this person is just expressing an opinion about their taste preferences; "in my opinion 2 + 2 = 5" is more of an issue as many would say this is from the realm of facts and not opinions.

A "social grouping" that I have seen encourage logical thinking in everyday interactions is the "skeptic" or "skeptical" community. I'm going to add some links here soon!

I think that dating advice for men has interesting things to say on the topic of logical/illogical conversation. Often this advice is, arguably very cynically, about manipulating a conversation to be as good as possible for the target female. So some men have created effective systems that they use to artificially create a seemingly-natural conversation. I don't like this as it feels to me like it is treating women as a commodity and is dishonest. I remember learning about this when I was younger and did not use it for dating but it did help me deal better with everyday conversation. I think the results of analyses like these are interesting and fit with my observations that the people are generally not logical and do not expect logical conversation. An example webpage dealing with this is http://www.rsdnation.com/node/507867.

So, you can probably see this has been a big issue for me in my life and sometimes I have really struggled with it. The one thing I still find difficult is when people spend time in a conversation trying to understand something using scientific-type thinking or using logical processing of information. I regularly find that during the discussion there are errors in logic. Also, scientific assumptions often seem to be used that do not reflect generally-accepted consensus (where a consensus exists obviously). I find it difficult to get involved in these conversations. So, I find myself standing back and just listening: which is fine and is my coping strategy but I feel I often miss out on aspects of friendship that seem important to others. I see parallels between this and an interesting philosophical issue: when to interfere and when to leave things alone. A related blog post on this topic that I like is To Debate or not to Debate by Andrew Weil. Another related article is Thinking Style and Paranormal Belief on the neurologica blog that looks at the idea that some people are wired to think intuitively making the recourse to logic when talking with some people literally a waste of time.

The typical logical errors I see include:- Simply forgetting something that they said earlier and contradicting it; Using two underlying assumptions to create an argument that are mutually exclusive; Eliminating something from the discussion and then later introducing something that is so closely related to the thing that was eliminated that it is effectively a contradiction. If you are with me and a serious conversation is happening and I am being jokey it is probably because I am noticing lots of logical errors and rather than get engaged with it I am trying to stay involved socially by making the odd joke. I have an idea forming that I'd like to do a short video series or write a short book on this topic: when I'm not super-busy with my existing three publication projects I might do this. If anyone else wants to get involved feel free to contact me.

I see the reporting of news by news outlets as related to this topic. I do not always observe a logical thoroughness in reporting. I wonder if this might reflect a society-level approach to conversation and analysis that does not match the logical approach I have discussed above.

Clearly this issue is dealt with differently by different people. Helpfully for those of us interested in reading of other's experiences this includes writing about it on the internet. I nice online article with more personal experiences on it is: How do I get out of an argument with an irrational person.. This article shows how different people cope with this issue.

An interesting comment from under this article: "Writer David Mamet's Rabbi spoke to this; He said that the only way two people can have genuine, honest debate is if both parties are able to state their opponents position in such a way that their opponent will answer back 'Yes, that is what I believe'. Only then can real debate begin. Otherwise its just an argument.

So I've taken the good Rabbi's advice. When confronted with an argument from someone I actually care to debate with, I tell them that we go no further until they state my position in such a way as I agree that that is indeed my position, then I state theirs and if there isn't mutual agreement the argument is over, we either talk about something else or we part company. Most often the argument ends right there.

And that's the real problem in our culture, people don't debate any more, they just argue ... their arguments are often built on straw men and composed of talking points and slogans and executed with the intellectual honesty of two third graders yelling at each other on the playground."

Another comment I like is: "What a silly game, the only way to win is not to play." And someone emphatically replied to this: "This times 1-bazillion. Many discussions are unfortunately based on straw man assumptions about one's opponent's position. If two people are not starting from a position of mutually accepted truth, the discussion will go nowhere. Furthermore, some people try to shoot down one part of an argument and claim victory, ignoring other salient points that may be more difficult to refute.

Personally, I've had success in starting with some minor flaws in my OWN thesis, which I then explain away, point-by-point. This shows I am not only aware of the shortcomings of my argument, but that I have, in fact, given them some thought and have come away with my opinion intact.

It is also important to ask yourself, "is it possible, however remote, that there exists an argument that can change my mind?" If the answer is no, then full stop. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. If you cannot envision your mind ever being changed, then debate is useless and an utter waste of everybody's time."

A snippet from another comment that I liked: "If we still haven't reached equal ground, I stop the conversation and ask them to start over with whatever they were upset about, maybe I missed something, then we try to figure it out."

When I was a lot younger I used listen carefully to conversations and then after a few minutes chip in with: "the differences in your underlying assumptions seems to be (a), (b) and (c) which explains your inability to agree." This did not tend to go down well. I found some people did not understand what I was saying and thought I was being patronising or rude. Others were fully aware of the differences but were enjoying the debate and did not like me interfering. My strategies for dealing with situations like this are now more subtle and varied!

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