Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book 11: It really made me think about how I really think.

When I was a junior in college I took a Logic class. I really liked it, even if it was on a level of abstraction that I have trouble dealing with -- not quite as abstract as pure math, but getting there.

Not much in life is logical, really, and not much of what people think is logical, either, in the purest sense of the word.  Logic is the philosophical study of valid reasoning, and almost nobody engages in valid reasoning about anything, it seems sometimes. We engage in reasoning all the time, but whether the way we do so is actually logical is open to question.

I don't often get a chance to think in such abstract ideas, anymore. That's one of the few good things about college life: the time and ability to think and engage in abstractions. As a lawyer, I argue all the time, but it's rarely about abstract notions; lawsuits are glued to the concrete: they are made up of people who did things, and the facts of a lawsuit matter as much as, if not far more than, the rules by which the lawsuit is governed. And then, when I do get a chance to discuss abstract concepts and how they relate to a given situation, the result is almost always disappointing. When people grapple with abstract concepts applied to real life, we muck it up and take away the clean symbolism that I loved so much about logic, the if this then that type of reasoning.

I deal with this every day in court -- I have to argue for judges to make rulings in vague areas of law with little guidance; much of what I practice is relatively obscure, little-used laws and regulations, and even more of it deals with ambiguous, hard-to-define concepts: equity, unconscionability, public policy. I spent a few hours the other day helping write a brief on whether a laptop is a place -- such that a person could expect privacy in it.

Real life is Silly Putty, bendy and stretchy and picking up things it glances up against; logic is a clean white piece of paper under a glass case.  So it's nice sometimes to step away from arguing what a place might be in the law, and just think about how we argue.

An Illustrated Book Of Bad Arguments let me do just that over the past day and a half. This book was a Valentine's gift from Sweetie; I took (most of) the day off from work on Friday to celebrate an early Valentine's, as spending time together is a lot easier when the boys are in school. We saw Deadpool and ate burgers for lunch and hung out a bit and then went out for dinner that night; we were going to go someplace fancy but by the time we got there, the wait was an hour, so we went to Perkins. I wholeheartedly support any restaurant that serves breakfast around the clock.)(The Perkins is pretty near our house and we go there most of the few times we go out to eat.  Sweetie likes to go there, she says, "because it's never very busy." I like to point out that the very reason she likes it is why it might not be there forever.)

The book itself is very short, but packs a lot of thinking into it. I read it in bits and pieces over the whole day, because each page is worth thinking about for a while, to see if I do these things and to recognize them in others.  The book sets out various ways that people engage in bad -- i.e., illogical, invalid -- arguments, with each example written in just a few paragraphs and in language that's easy to understand.

Then there are illustrations that help drive home the point of each invalid type of argument.

Some of the invalid arguments I was already familiar with: straw man and slippery slope are things that come up in my practice a lot -- many times my opponents argue that a court doing whatever it is I ask them to do would present a slippery slope, an argument I hate; the essence of the slippery slope argument is that one thing leads to another and another and that there will be no stopping if you let the first event happen. I think that's silly, and frequently am critical of courts or legislators that engage in such argument.  The fact that men can marry other men does not automatically mean that we will allow men to marry their endtables; society has had the ability to put on the brakes in numerous tricky areas.

Straw men are harder to spot and thus more effective: take an argument that sounds similar to what your opponent is suggesting, but which is ridiculous, and then defeat that ridiculous argument. So when I argue that, say, a car dealer should pay damages for defrauding my client, my opponent is likely to say something like So any car dealer who says anything about the merits of the car is going to get sued? That's a ridiculous argument, and not one I made. Of course it would be absurd to sue every salesman who in any way pointed out a merit of the thing he was selling. But that's not what I was arguing; I was saying that this salesman who said this, false thing, should pay damages.  It's hard to argue that someone who lied shouldn't be sued, but far easier to argue that it's not fair to sue everyone who says anything.

Other arguments I hadn't thought about but recognized them once I'd read. My favorite was the No True Scotsman -- the act of redefining your group once an example has invalidated your thesis.  No lawyer would ever make outrageous statements to the press about a case before trial. "That guy said his client is so innocent that Jesus is his character witness." No ETHICAL lawyer would... etc.  People do that all the time -- especially with the that's the exception that proves the rule argument, where someone confronted with an example of something that contradicts what they've just said simply says oh well that contradiction proves my point.

(In reality, the exception proves the rule actually means that if there is an exception that exists, then the corresponding rule must also exist. So if you see a sign that says "Swimming on this beach is allowed from 10 to 2," you might infer that there is a rule against swimming elsewhere, or at other times: the exception to the unknown rule helps show that a rule exists.)

Some of the examples helped back up a few pet peeves of mine -- take the Fermi Paradox, an argument that drives me batty. The Fermi Paradox says that based on what we know about the universe, there should be many stars out there with intelligent life orbiting them; since we have never seen such signs, Fermi said, a paradox exists: The universe should be teeming with intelligent life, but appears not to be.

That argument is so specious it makes my teeth hurt, and An Illustrated Book Of Bad Arguments helps show, logically, why it's so bad.  The Fermi Paradox uses an Appeal To Ignorance, suggesting that the lack of proof something doesn't exist is proof that the thing does exist .  Since there is no proof, Fermi said, that other stars don't easily form life-supporting planets, they must exist. But an absence of proof cannot form proof itself.

The argument is also a Hasty Generalization: such a logical flaw occurs when you take evidence from limited sources and apply it to a larger group: Everyone on the bus thinks Trump is a bonehead, so he's got no chance of getting elected.  In Fermi's case, he had as a sample the extremely miniscule ability we've had to survey only a tiny portion of space, as well as our still-very-limited knowledge of how life can form and exhibit intelligence; he also is aware of only one type of lifeform that has demonstrated a capacity for, and willingness to, communicate with other planets; but from that one sample he concludes that all other intelligent life in the universe must want to explore space and communicate with other lifeforms. Consider how rare it is that an organism wants to voluntarily interact with another species on our planet -- do wild animals frequently come up to your door to ask your opinion on things? Why would you assume that all organisms want to act like humans?

That's the kind of thing reading this book does: it gives you a greater understanding of the sorts of underlying metalaws that make up our society; learning how to argue (or how not to, in this case) helps you understand the structure of a discussion, and more critically appraise it. I plan on keeping the book on my desk and re-reading it frequently.

You can actually read the entire book online for free here if you'd like. 

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