Friday, October 26, 2012

The Impostors of Reason

With its seven-inch wingspan, the owl butterfly is an impressive bug by any standard.  But what is really striking are its fake eyes.  It has eyespots on the underside of its wings, which mimic the eyes of an owl. Since owls prey on the birds that eat butterflies, the sight of those fake eyes is likely to give any would-be predator pause.  The butterfly is able to survive because the bird doesn't take the time to discover the deception. If the bird stopped and watched the butterfly for a while, it would realize how harmless it actually is. 

As for the owls it imitates, they have been symbols of wisdom and reason in western culture ever since the ancient Greeks associated them with Athena.  Owls actually aren't particularly wise or reasonable birds, but owls and reasoning do have one thing in common: they both have impostors.  The imposters of reason are things like anger, hard-heartedness, rudeness, and smugness.  People commonly mistake these things for rationality, when they're really nothing of the sort. They are impostors.  Like owl butterflies, they draw their power from shock and credulity. The more they're mistaken for the real thing, the more powerful they become.

In this post I want to continue my recent ramblings about thinking and reasoning. In my last post, I talked about what exactly I mean by those words, but here's a quick recap: When I talk about reason, rationality, or critical thinking, I'm talking about careful, skilled, honest thinking that's aimed at finding out what's really true, and what's really right.  This is different from the rationality of the economists, which is more about getting what you want than what is true or right.  The kind of rationality I'm talking about depends on evidence and arguments.  As I've mentioned in other posts, a real argument has a conclusion that's supported by premises.  If you just make a statement, that's not an argument, because you haven't offered any premises to support it.  An argument can be considered a strong one if three conditions are met: 1. The premises are true, or highly plausible.  2. All the relevant premises have been considered.  3. The conclusion follows logically from the premises.  If any of these conditions are violated, we've committed a fallacy of reasoning.

There are literally hundreds of logical fallacies, and I can't even begin to cover them in a blog post.  But what I want to talk about here is not any particular fallacy, but a slightly broader concept: fallacious styles of thinking or debate, which may incorporate several fallacies.  These styles are the impostors of reason, and they need to be exposed for what they really are.
  • Angry Blustering:  I'm always fascinated by people who think they can prove a point by raising their voice, as if how loud or angry they get has any bearing on whether they're right. If there is any relationship at all, it's a negative one.  If you're anything like me, the madder you get, the less reasonable you become.  It's hard to bluster and think at the same time.  The angry blustering style of debate can incorporate several kinds of fallacies.  The most common is the argument from outrage, which basically says, "Your point of view makes me really mad, therefore it's wrong."  Well, maybe it's wrong and maybe it's not, but that should be decided based on the evidence, not how emotional you are about the issue.  A related fallacy is the argument from personal incredulity: "I'm stunned that you could even suggest something so preposterous, therefore it isn't true".  Well, the idea that the Earth went around the Sun seemed preposterous once too, but that didn't mean it wasn't true.  The worst kind of fallacy associated with anger and blustering is the appeal to force: "I'm going to intimidate or threaten you, therefore I'm right."  This kind of thing is completely irrational and brutish, yet utterly commonplace.

  • Insults:  Insults are closely related to angry blustering, but they're not exactly the same, because you can insult someone without getting mad.  Insults are, of course, one the most common tactics in online comment threads.  If you make a claim, and I say, "You're a fool" (with the implied conclusion of "therefore you're wrong") I haven't made a valid argument.  I've committed the ad hominem fallacy: attacking the person making the claim instead of the claim itself.  An important point here is that this is a fallacy whether the personal attack is true or not.  Even if someone really is a fool, their intelligence or character doesn't necessarily determine whether their point is true or false.  If the village idiot walks up and says, "Six plus six is twelve", he's right, no matter how dumb he is.  Of course, if someone foolish or untrustworthy is making a claim, you may be justified treating that claim with suspicion, but the point is that their personal traits don't necessarily determine the truth of their arguments.  Only evidence and logic can determine that.  That means that if I want to have an honest debate, I have to focus on people's reasoning, not their personal traits.  Insults, then, aren't just rude--they're usually irrelevant to the argument at hand*, and therefore irrational.
  • Misrepresentation:  People are constantly distorting the beliefs of others, making them seem more foolish or sinister than they really are.  For example, I once heard somebody say, "For liberals, 'responsibility' is a dirty word."  Well, I'm fairly liberal, so let me, that word doesn't strike me as dirty at all.  In fact, I think responsibility is an excellent idea.  That statement was a misrepresentation, at least of me and most of the liberals I know.  I'm sure a lot of conservatives feel similarly misrepresented when a liberal says something like, "You're not voting for Obama because you're a racist".  They're thinking, "No I'm not!  I just don't agree with his policies."  There are a couple of big problems with this kind of misrepresentation:  1. It's just not true.  2. If you distort someone's beliefs, and then attack that distortion, that adds nothing to the debate--what matters is what they really think.  Claiming people think something they don't is both irrelevant and dishonest.  Yet it happens every day.  One of the most common varieties of misrepresentation is the straw man argument, where you invent a weakened version of an argument (a straw man) and then kick the stuffing out of it.  This may fool some people, but only the ones who can't tell owls from butterflies.
  • Callousness and Shock Tactics:  A while back I heard someone who was arguing against food stamps claim that he wouldn't have a problem walking past starving people on the street, because if they can't take car of themselves, they should be allowed to die.  He seemed to think his callousness was an indicator of the clarity of his thinking.  As far as I can tell, people who think this way reason that, "Being too soft-hearted and overly emotional can make people unreasonable, so if I'm cold-hearted and unemotional, that means I'm being reasonable."  A desire to shock may also be a factor.  Some people seem to think that if they say things that shocks others, that means they're thinking in an unencumbered way, and not influenced by the opinions of others.  But whether they're trying to be unemotional or just shocking (or if they are truly hard-hearted), what matters is how good their arguments are--not the extent to which they lack empathy or don't mind shocking people.  It's certainly true that strong emotions can impair reasoning (see "angry blustering" above), but "being logical" is not the same as "not caring about anything".  The relationship between emotion and reason is a fascinating one, and I'll probably write a big, wordy blog post about it sometime.  For now the point is that being callous and shocking is not the same as being reasonable.  Quite the opposite, in many cases.
  • Simplistic, Either/Or Thinking:  I've heard several people lately argue that any form of government which isn't absolutely capitalist must be socialist.  Therefore, if you believe in any redistribution of income at all, you are a socialist.  This kind of thinking ignores the empirical fact that there are plenty of shades of grey between pure capitalism and pure socialism--as demonstrated by many actual countries.  No country on earth is either all one or all the other.  The relationship between capitalism and socialism is more like a volume dial on a radio than an on/off switch.  There is a continuous range of settings, not just two.  You can debate where the setting should be, but you can't honestly claim there's no middle ground possible.  The same kind of thinking pops up when police and politicians talk about "good guys" and "bad guys".  Sure, some people are very good, and others are very bad, but most people are somewhere in the middle.  Even if we're dealing with true "bad guys", people do bad things for many different reasons, so it would probably be quite helpful to understand what motivates a given "bad guy".  A murderous religious extremist is very different from a sociopathic mob boss who's just in it for the money.  I think people mistake this kind of thinking for good reasoning because it seems to make things clear and simple.  Perhaps it does, but it does so at the expense of accuracy.  If the world is complex (and it is) then our explanations of it need to be complex enough to do it justice.  Of course some simplification is necessary, or we would never get anywhere.  But our concepts of reality have to be nuanced enough to get the job done.  As Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler".
  • Wit and Sarcasm:  In one of the presidential debates between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced.  Lincoln replied, "I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"  It was a brilliant comeback.  It's both witty and self-effacing.  It's the kind of thing that stops your opponent in his tracks and brings the audience to its feet.  But...what if Douglas had a point?**  As witty as Lincoln's response was, it didn't actually refute Douglas' charge.  It was nothing but an unusually very clever diversion, and it worked. There's an inevitable tension between humor and rationality, because humor depends on twisting logic and exaggerating reality.  I wouldn't want to live in a world without humor, but I have to admit that a witty comeback is a very different thing than an honest response.  The wittier person in a debate usually wins in the eyes of the audience, but that doesn't mean he's the one who's right.  Maybe audiences need to be a little more sophisticated?
  • Appeals to Tradition or Common Sense:  It's amazing how many people equate "common sense" with "thinking the way I grew up thinking".  Maybe the traditional way of thinking does make some sense--many traditions do.  But it doesn't necessarily make sense.  For thousands of years, it was taken for granted that the husband should be the boss in a household--hence the phrase, "Just who wears the pants around here?"  But does this tradition make any sense?  Most Americans these days would (I hope) say no, but the idea was once "common sense", and anyone who questioned it would have been accused of being irrational.  That's why I'm always very suspicious of appeals to common sense and tradition--who says those things make sense?  And if they really do, tell me the reasons why.  If a common sense notion really is sensible, or if a certain tradition is worth continuing, then it should be able stand up to scrutiny.
  • Certainty:  All the things I've been talking about so far are woefully common forms of irrationality.  We're all prone to hundreds of fallacies and cognitive biases, yet the world is full of people who just know they're right.  Except they don't--they feel very strongly that they're right, which is not the same as knowing they're right.  A feeling of certainty is no guarantee of actual certainty.  After all, people have been certain about all sorts of things that have turned out to be wrong.  In ancient Rome, for example, the Vestal Virgins were an order of women so devoted to the goddess Vesta that they spent their lives celibate, tending a sacred fire that was thought to be necessary for the continued existence of Rome.  They were SURE that Vesta was a powerful goddess--sure enough to devote their lives to her.  Does that mean Vesta exists?  No.  Certainty and reason are not the same thing. As fallible as the human mind is, perhaps the best way to be right is to constantly remind ourselves we could be wrong.  Once again, those beliefs that can survive our questioning are the ones that are worth having.  As soon as our beliefs harden and become unquestionable, we've stopped reasoning. Real reasoning is all about questioning; about asking, "Does it make sense to think this, and if so, why?"
I could go on talking about other attitudes that masquerade as rationality, but this post is long enough, and I seem to have failed at making it very funny (there's that logic/humor tension again--or at least that's my excuse).  I do want to make one final point, though.  None of the things I've talked about count as real rationality, any more than an owl butterfly is a real bird of prey.  But people think they are rational, and that's a problem.  Legions of people listen to the blustering shock-jocks on talk radio stations...and take them seriously!  The shock-jocks themselves may or may not think they are being rational, though I think some of them know how misleading they're being.  The problem is that their audience mistakes the impostors of reason for the real thing, and by doing so, they give those impostors power. They don't deserve it.  The impostors are, as Shakespeare so memorably put it, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".  They may put on a good show, but if we stop believing in them, their power will disappear.  If we can ever do that, we'll see that they were just butterflies all along.


Photo credits: 

Owl Butterflies by Edwin Dalorzo, Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike License

Elf Owl by Dominic Sherony, Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike License

* Ad hominem arguments aren't necessarily fallacies.  For example, if the issue being discussed is whether someone should be elected to office, then their personal traits are quite relevant.

** I don't know if Douglas had a point, or if Lincoln really had been two-faced. I'm glad he won the debate, actually, but the point is that Lincoln didn't really address Douglas' accusation.

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