Dr Duncan James > Living with Logic

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“If you are about to say a conclusion, instead share one of the reasons. Someone can agree or disagree with your conclusion. However they will probably agree with your reason (as long as it is personal to you and not stated as a universal truth). They might then share something. As the conversation flows you might or might not start discussing conclusions. Logic can be avoided in casual conversation!”

Dr Duncan James (simply explaining how to avoid most of the issues he raises below)

Living with Logic

An article about my experiences with logic in everyday social interactions.

“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 cult of ignorance... 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’.”

Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980) (I have snipped out the phrase that limited the application to the United States.)

“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.


Is logic in fact not a trait that comes naturally to humans?

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.

The Human Population Coping with Their Illogicality

I have observed clumsy attempts by the human population to cope with their illogical ways of behaving! There are also ways to use it for personal gain!

A popular thing to say at the moment (early 21st century) is "in my opinion" (link to a 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 to me like poor use of the phrase as this person is just saying what they like and not a universal truth and I think they could more clearly say something like "I do not like the taste of bread"; "in my opinion 2 + 2 = 4" also seems to be bad use of the phrase as it is a fundamental truth (where linear maths applies) that can be proven. I'm not convinced that "in my opinion" is ever a good thing to say because I prefer to be part of the collective human opinion-forming based on hundreds of years of careful research rather than simply form my own opinion in isolation.

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.

My Life with Logic

For reasons, perhaps mainly to do with the chance makeup of my genetic code, the issue of logic is a big one for me in my life.

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 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 societal-level approach to conversation and analysis that does not match the logical approach favoured in, for example, scientific social groups.

"If you're the smartest person in the room, then maybe you'd benefit personally from being in a different room.”

I think this is generally known and not attributable to one person?

“I find it so frustrating when ‘experts’ wow their listeners with lots of technical jargon. I find it even more frustrating when the listeners blindly accept this expertise. I personally like to call the ‘expert’ out on it and ask them to explain what they mean in plain English.”

Dr Duncan James

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. An online article that I particularly like 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 is: "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."

Ultimately I find it difficult to deal with illogicality in others. They seem to like to hear you agree with them and then it is possible to simply move on with your life. This seems like a good approach. I sometimes find this very difficult as it simply grates with me (the best way I can explain it is that it sort of gives me a headache) to agree with something that is illogical.

When I was a lot younger I used to 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." (a, b and c would be specific examples and I'm just being vague to avoid getting bogged down.) 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 and mainly involve staying quiet!

Possible Social Rules

I think there are some ways we could fix some of these issues.

There is a social rule that I wish existed: If someone starts getting argumentative or if someone starts "obfuscating" (talking in vague or contradictory or somehow else unclear ways to make the listener confused, not necessarily with malice nor intent) or "scattering" (endlessly bringing new things into the conversation so that they cannot be pinned down, not necessarily with malice nor intent) (see also the "moving the goal post" logical fallacy) then the listeners can simply invoke the "explain your position" rule. The discussion would now pause until the person who was speaking is happy their position has been accurately described by the listeners. I think this would solve so many problems.

Similar to the "explain your position" rule, I wish that we could also agree to pause discussions that are simply trying to work something out and come back to them a few days later by which time perhaps one or more of us will have had time to look it up and see if a university researcher somewhere has spent decades answering it already.

Logical Rules

Many others have written comprehensive lists of logical rules such as on Wikipedia and Owen William's website. So I won't repeat the same thing here. But I will list some of my pet peeves!

"Wiggle words" such as "offensive", "rude" and "disrespectful". I am not certain if this is a logical rule but it feels like one to me. I like to imagine wiggle words flying through the air between a speaker and a listener with a wiggling motion. I do not think these wiggle words are legitimate. I think they merely summarise the emotional reaction of the speaker. And no more. One illustrative example I really like (based on a true story) is of someone at Auschwitz taking a selfie and smiling. Suppose this hit the news and suppose people were outraged at the "disrespect" being shown. This really happened. Now, I think that without tracking down the person and doing extensive investigation it is difficult to know exactly what happened but if I am reading the news I like to look for more in depth coverage. In a well-sourced article that I read about this, it was revealed that the person in question was a direct descendent of someone killed at Auschwitz and that the visit was a meaningful and emotional time for them when they discovered about the bravery their ancestors and that this created many emotions including pride and happiness. I think the ability of someone who is so close to that tragedy to connect with their ancestors in a positive way is fantastic. I think the reaction of the media misrepresented what happened. I could go on for days listing examples. But this feels like a particularly powerful one. I do not like "wiggle words".

Proving a negative can be very difficult. I therefore find it very frustrating when someone declares something and (overtly or more usually by implication) challenges me to either disprove them or therefore agree with them! Arggghhhh! Want to claim something? Then it is up to you to prove it! Depending on your exact interpretation of negative, positive, prove, and so on there will be exceptions to this but even if it is an exception you need to acknowledge that it is an unusual position and then show why what you are talking about is an exception to the rule.

Argument avalanches. I try to avoid discussing anything significant with people who like to list multiple reasons. I find it tiresome. They often seem to think that because the list is long the argument is better. Whether they are correct or not this seems wrong to me in most cases (although sometimes if it is a very grey area I can understand that you need a compelling weight or reasons to make it the "least-worst" choice). And from the days when I had not learnt to avoid arguments like this I remember that people guilty of this would often ignore any successful disproofs of items on their list and simply keep producing more list items: Meaning that if I had not found a way to escape then years later we could still be on the bus working through the list. Daft!

Explanation is not equivalent to excuse. Wow, this has followed me around my entire life. Someone says something interesting. They say it to make conversation and share something of interest to them. Perhaps the thing they share is an outrageous example of selfishness or some other negative thing. I believe it is socially acceptable (and even socially expected) to then share something from your own thoughts in return. I have always been fascinated by the idea that anything bad must fundamentally have an explanation and so I often have something interesting to say that is a form of explanation of how that might have happened. And wow, they often then rail at me saying I shouldn't make excuses. What?!? I wasn't. Oh well. I usually find it impossible to escape from this misunderstanding. I remember a friend on Facebook specifically asked for help with possible counter-arguments to a talk he was going to give. I helped out by role-playing an opponent. I happened to strongly agree with my friend which is why I took time out to help him. I then proceeded to get incredible hate from people who didn't understand the nuance that I was helping a friend prepare for a debate: despite the fact I kept spelling this out. I ended up losing a number of friends, one of whom I had felt very close to. Crazy!

The weighting effect. (I first read about this in Jonah Lehrer's book "The Decisive Moment". Jonah Lehrer uses the example of two groups of students being asked to choose their favourite poster (from a Monet landscape, a van Gogh painting or purple lilies and 3 humorous cat posters). One group were just asked to rate each poster from 1 to 9. The second group had to answer a questionnaire about each poster that asked for reasons they liked/disliked them. At the end of the experiment, each of the subjects took their favourite poster home. 95% of the non-thinkers chose the Monet. Only about 50% of the thinkers did (the vast majority of the rest of the thinkers chose the cat posters).

A few weeks later a follow-up asked how happy they were with their choices. 73% of the cat poster choosers regretted their decision. All the Monet choosers were happy. Wow! Thinking made the decision worse! What is going on?! It is often called the "weighting effect"... once extra factors are considered, these are generally less obvious and therefore less important... but we mistakenly give these extra factors too much weight compared to the first things we thought of.

A fun example from the book was the claim that: experts are generally worse than "dart-throwing chimps" at predicting political events... it is felt by scientists that this is likely to be another symptom of the over-thinking problem.

In terms of actions you can take in everyday life, it is suggested in the book that it is a good idea to collect data to help make a decision but not to then then think about it too much... just go for it!

Being a pedant. Oh please. If someone uses a word in a way that does not fit the definition your remember from a dictionary give them a break! And if someone says something in a full sentence, as you start questioning them put pauses in your speech to give them chances to clarify anything they might have said misleadingly. This is one of my pet peeves and also known as literalism or hypercorrection.

Analogy is not equivalency. Wow this is frustrating sometimes. I barely ever use analogies now partly because they are so often misunderstood but also because I have found that I almost always fare better digging deeper into the specific example. Anyway. The frustration comes from people who say things like "how dare you say I am acting like a lawyer". At that point I know almost all hope is lost and they will probably never understand what I meant. My theory about this relates to my general theory about people being very illogical: they simply do not converse in a logical way and have spent their entire life picking out meaning in others from occasional words and implied meaning and there is no reason they will suddenly change a habit of a lifetime and start interpretting what you are saying logically.

The parable of the broken window. This is described on Wikipedia where the idea that war is good because it promotes economic growth is also discussed.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Hanlan's Razor is described on Wikipedia. This is a pet peeve of mine particularly as I suspect most people have been falsely accused like this in the past and so it surprises me (or rather it doesn't as I'm used to such illogical behaviour in humans) that they then accuse others.

Denying the antecedent. I think this is a relatively technical logical fallacy. As usual Wikipedia is a good place to read about it. I see this error slip into people's thinking in many different ways and I wonder if the primary reason is that people do not listen to the grammatical "mortar" around the more easily-understood "bricks" that are nouns and phrases: This means the subtlety of why different things are being introduced to a discussion are lost. I personally find this frustrating and it significantly reduces my enjoyment of everyday conversation.

Moving the goal posts. I think this is both a logical fallacy and also just a side-effect of the awkwardness of having really precise conversations. Wikipedia has a good article on this. I know I am often guilty of realising partway through a debate that I've not stated my position very well: I do not think of this as "moving the goal posts". And with other people who do it I often think it is accidental and may just show that they are not very precise in their thinking in their heads. I always try to avoid assuming malice and suspect that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is often the explanation: people are overextending themselves and so not being very clear.

I think that survivor bias (Wikipedia) in combination with anecdotal evidence (Wikipedia) is an incredibly powerful problem in human understanding.

Spurious correlations are covered with some fun examples on Tyler Vigen's website.

I like Kim Stanley Robinson's interpretation of acquiescence bias (Wikipedia page on this) in his book Aurora where he uses it to show how you should be willing to question the start of a conversation. I enjoyed this book and one of the characters was known to question things this way. For example, the character might say "let's not immediately try a software fix perhaps the bigger-picture means we don't want to fix this because there are some useful outcomes".

Is Consciousness in Humans Universal?

We evolved and is there actually any evolutionary benefit? Even if there is the benefit might be had from only some of us developing it. And even if there isn't it might still have arisen by chance in some or all of us.

I feel I have to credit this idea to Todd E. Feinberg, writing in "What We Believe But Cannot Prove". However, it is also something I am really interested in and have developed strong ideas about/evidence of myself. Todd E. Feinberg suggests that we cannot know if other people are actually conscious: they may just be mimicking the behaviour that a conscious person exhibits. So we only know for sure that we are conscious. He also points out that if you accept this idea it makes it possible that an AI machine that we think to be conscious might just be a clever reconstruction of conscious-like behaviour.

I want to immediately return to the idea of: we cannot know if other people are actually conscious. I would extend this and say that (if one is interested) one could question if it is true for oneself. Also, beware that others might vigorously and convincingly claim to be conscious but that it does not automatically make it true.

I have noticed that a number of people never seem to come up with original ideas and that if I watch them very carefully their behaviour seems to follow a few, simple rules. This, plus evidence from my one-on-one teaching makes me question the assumption that all humans are conscious/self-aware.

A related, and fun idea, is that if consciousness is a result of the large processing power of the human brain then it should be theoretically possible to build a really large cog-driven machine that is conscious. A crazy idea that I love!

The Group Knows

I originally read about this in from James Surowiecki's book "The Wisdom of Crowds".

In 1906, British scientist Francis Galton went to a country fair. He spotted a "guess the weight of an ox" competition. After the fair was over, he took the tickets from the organisers and did some statistical testing. The average of all the guesses was 1,197 pounds and the actual weight was 1,198 pounds. The group knew.

This is an anecdote but it has been shown to be generally true. The guesses tend to cancel out and the little bits of experience and skill from within the group escape the cancelling and make the average accurate. This turns out to be a way of answering very obscure or difficult questions based on very little information.

Note, dependency can make the crowd wrong. Share/commodity prices often go too high because (in simple terms) "I know I'm paying too much but some fool out there will take them off my hands for more".

Systematic and well-done misinformation will also make a crowd wrong. Experiments have shown that if the leader says, say, "remember to consider how much air is in the top of the jar" when counting beans in a jar... this will make the crowd less intelligent. So, misinformation can be very subtle.

Plus, of course, humans have evolved to have internal biases or behaviours that can skew the answer. However, I love this theory and I like that it can help to make individuals more humble compared to the group. However, I think the key counter-argument to this is that (for example in the case of racism) there are evolutionary reasons for some errors in thinking which can cause the group to be wrong.

Continuity of Consciousness

Or: Do we die every night?

I think this is fascinating. I like to bring it up in conversation although I am often disappointed that people do not understand it. Some people claim it is "ridiculous" but I strongly suspect they do not understand it as it feels like a genuine question to me.

This is also known as the teleporter problem from Star Trek. I also think this is the best starting point for the debate. In Star Trek you are destroyed and recreated in the new place in identical form. (This is the "in universe explanation" used by Star Trek to explain teleportation.) It can be nice to pause here and let people discuss it. OK, now to extend the debate, suppose that instead of being destroyed straight away you are destroyed, say, one day later. Suddenly it doesn't feel quite the same to a lot of people! I personally needed this extra step to really click with the concept.

In conclusion, a lot of our characteristics are evolved. Much like I do not see an inherent evolutionary argument for why all humans should be conscious. Much like I do not see an inherent evolutionary argument for why all humans should be logical. I also do not see an inherent evolutionary argument for why all humans should have continuity of consciousness. I love this debate and I am also a little freaked out by it!

High Functioning Interacting with Logic

If you are high-functioning then the problems of logic in society can be exacerbated.

This topic of logic and everyday life is an issue for high functioning autistic people (link to autism website) for whom the illogical nature of everyday life can be very confusing. If you are interested in the high intelligence aspect of this I strongly recommend an article by John Simonds (link to external website) which provokes an interesting series of comments which give relevant experiences from others and also show how some misunderstand the topic as well. An article I really like by James Williams (who has an autism website) is Six Principles Of Autistic Interaction which I strongly recommend if you want some interesting thoughts on autism and social interactions.

I think that for anyone who is high-functioning the Prime Directive from Star Trek has interesting parallels for everyday life. I have many times had personal experience of being in a group who are trying to work something out. I may immediately know the answer but for one or more social reasons I may stay silent and let them work it out. A typical example for me is being out hiking: A combination of experience, spatial awareness and perhaps other things means I can usually work out where I am on a map in a couple of seconds: I find a typical group might take two minutes to work out the same thing. I have learnt to stay quiet unless asked very directly because variously: People seem to like to work it out themselves; People seem to distrust my conclusion because it seems to have taken too short a time to work out; People get triggered by someone else knowing too much. I consider this to be very close to the philosophy behind the Prime Directive and that it applies in an incredible number of social situations. Sometimes people who have not known me for long are puzzled by my silence if for some reason it later turns out I knew: People who know me well usually realise that my silence means I know the answer but that I'm keeping quiet for social reasons.

In the early days of developing this technique (of staying quiet) I found that people often deduce from my silence (or lack of input to the thinking process) that I don't understand so proceed to explain it to me or painstakingly explain their reasoning. So I have evolved my approach to fake slowly understand something at the typical rate they are (by chipping in with the odd comment) to avoid the additional pain!

“Human civilisation is so powerful now. Therefore inaction is often a form of action. In fact, I would propose that the stronger statement is also true: Therefore inaction is always a form of action.”

Dr Duncan James

“I don't care what your thoughts on eating animals are. I care about what the animals' thoughts on being eaten are.”

unknown (and maybe just something many people say?)

“It's best not to vote so you can watch the whole thing for the &%$***£ circus it is. I don't vote, I've never voted... I don't even really read the newspapers any more; I just lie to myself and cut out the middle man. I don't think we live in a democracy... we're not offered a meaningful choice in the election and I know it's a taboo thing to say ‘don't vote’ but all we're doing is rubber-stamping a rat fight, a system that doesn't give us a choice.”

Frankie Boyle (speaking on his Election Autopsy program from 2015) (I'm not sure I'm in full agreement with this but the general sentiment definitely bothers me and I think the emotionally-charged way some people defend the position that ‘everyone should vote’ makes discussion on this topic difficult.)

“There is a huge overlap between the people who support the death penalty, but have huge mistrust in the government.”


“Can vegans eat meat? If you do not believe in the principle of taxation can you therefore choose to not pay tax? Possibly you answered no and yes in that order (possibly not). Regardless, there would seem to be a grey area for many situations where philosophically it is not clear yes or no answer. I think many arguments stem from an inability to understand that this grey area exists.”

Dr Duncan James

“If you don't work against confirmation bias, confirmation bias will work against you.”

This seems to be a common phrase to me. I'm not aware of any attribution.

“There is an evolutionary benefit to being racist or using other forms of profiling or discrimination. It can be a time-efficient approach that is not always correct but often is, for example all tigers are probably dangerous. In modern society this inaccurate approach is no longer a good compromise and should be avoided.”

An explanation from evolutionary science.

“‘Expert intuition’ is an expert's sense that something is not right. If a person has relevant, expert knowledge then their intuition has lots of examples to draw on. (Of course, over-confident people with poor-quality experiences/knowledge will likely have poor-quality intuition.)”

I do not know a good source for this but have heard others quote Gladwell's book "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking".

“Who is happiest? the silver or the bronze medal winner? Amazingly the bronze medal winner! The silver medal winner thinks ‘oh no, I could have won’, while the bronze medal winner thinks ‘wow, I did really well because I almost didn't get a medal at all’”

Barry Schwartz writing in "The Paradox of Choice" (perhaps this is an example of "framing")

Did you get this far? You are welcome to contact me with your thoughts as I like to think of this as a living article and I also enjoy discussing this issue.