“The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled,” writes Alain de Botton, “but by whether it obeys the rules of logic.” Errors in logical reasoning are rampant. From political pundits to television documentary series, fallacies fester anywhere people have an outlet to communicate. Jamie Whyte’s goal is to expose readers to common errors in reasoning through Crimes Against Logic. “People may have become no worse at reasoning, but they now have so many more opportunities to show off how bad they are.” When the forum for discussion is open to everybody, people inevitably fall victim to bad reasoning. By highlighting common examples of bad logic Whyte clears the fog from the arena.
Everybody has an opinion. It’s a common retort, echoing Jeff Bridges character in The Big Lebowski: “Yeah, well, ya know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” But opinions are not immune from criticism, particularly when they’re unsound. Yet some passionate believers end debate by invoking the right to retain their opinion.They derail the initial question and fail at generating an adequate answer.
“If the opinions to which we were entitled might nevertheless be false, the entitlement cannot properly be invoked to settle a dispute. It adds no new information on the original matter; it does nothing that the opinion in question is true.”
Debates are ended by citing a right to an opinion, imposing a duty that all opinions ought to be respected. But if each person is entitled to their opinion then ridiculous consequences ensue. The heroin addicts is of the opinion that his veins won’t collapse, and the medical practitioner ought to respect his opinion. While the forum lurker believes the Illuminati orchestrate all world events. Some opinions may seem harmless but others can be deadly. Unfortunately, debaters invoking their right to an opinion are unlikely interested in truth. “If someone is interested in believing the truth, then she will not take the presentation of contrary evidence and argument as some kind of injury.” Many opinionated rabble-rousers are not concerned with truth, but prefer the familiarity of their opinion.
One of the worst logical offenses, common even with academics, is the inflation of language. Colorful words are employed for the sake of perceived erudition, rather than a necessity to communicate an idea—a common ploy to sell seminar seats and consulting advice to desperate companies. It’s a means to sell bullshit as defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. By substituting simple words with complex compounds, the perpetrator manipulates their audience.
“Perhaps the point of such language is not to communicate your ideas to the reader but simply to give an impression of being learned while saying almost nothing at all. Perhaps all this inscrutable verbosity is meant to shroud the banality of the ideas.”
“Such language abounds in business, politics, and academia—wherever people have an interest in sounding as though they are cleverer and more cram-packed with insight and good ideas than they really are.”
But complexity belies the emptiness of terminology such as “best-in-class peers” and “intellectual capital.” They are terms designed to sell an idea, to invoke the sense of intellectual superiority as a way of garnering trust. Complex lexicons in popular discourse are often indicators of poor reasoning.
Online forums are wonderful ways to encounter new ideas, but also serve as echo chambers where beliefs are reinforced by peers. Reminiscent of Emerson’s call to trust self-reliance, Whyte shows the fallacy of believing an idea to be true by its association with an in-group. Subscribing to an ideology abandons individual reasoning in favor of familiarity.
“Many hold political or religious opinions not because they have reason to think them true but just because they like the associations.”
“Why do they hold all these positions? Simply because that is the current lefty package—and aren’t all intelligent, concerned, young people at least a bit lefty?”
Dismissing viewpoints due to someone’s affiliation is rampant, and an easy way to cement ideologies and refute others without considering the notion at hand. Invoking the name of Hitler, or a terrible association, redirects a conversation. The notion is deeply troubling for truth, as truth is abandoned for a sense of inclusion.
Crimes Against Logic is brimming with everyday examples of logical fallacies, and serves as a practical guide to resisting the allure of bad reasoning. Compliment Whyte’s book with Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy.