Applied Logic

March 20th, 2013  |  Published in commentary, logic

Earlier this month, a bit of a kerfuffle broke out between Representative Ed Orcutt and the Washington state bicycle community. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the linked article, and I suggest you read it, but what I want to talk about is logic.

Logic is the study of the connections between things, and is often not taught explicitly until college (although Geometry class might cover it). In short, logic is the difference between being told “one one two” and “one plus one equals two”. The first example is just a bunch of numbers, the second is a logical statement. Simple, right? Not exactly. The thing about logic is that it is not about whether or not the individual elements are true, but whether the connections between them make sense. Take, for example: “All pigs are green. I am a pig. Therefore I am green.” On the face of it, this argument is wacky, but the logic works out, if all pigs are green and I am one of them, then I must be green, too, right? The connections between these false statements make sense even if the content being connected is factually incorrect.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And this guy thinks this green pig nonsense is more likely to make me study logic? Maybe he is a green pig.” I’m glad you’re thinking critically about what I’m saying, but I have a point, so bear with me.

When someone makes an argument, it can be approached in many ways. I would argue that there are three basic approaches, and I will focus on those: emotional, fact based, and logic based. The emotional approach is basically evaluating an argument based on how it makes you feel, and many arguments count on this, which is why so many politicians try to induce fear or anger when they speak. Unfortunately, it is wide open to manipulation, as it makes you want to just react, rather than thinking about it. Fact based evaluation is what you most likely did when you first read the green pig argument. You most likely rejected it based on the fact that you had never seen a green pig, and that it would be very difficult for me to type this with cloven hooves instead of fingers. Logical evaluation is the analysis of connections, which entails ignoring whether or not the statements in an argument are true and instead assessing whether or not they necessarily lead to the conclusion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the use of one of these over all others, but rather that you should expand your evaluative toolbox and use whichever method or combination of methods is most appropriate. If something feels wrong emotionally, then there is a good chance that something is wrong with it. If you don’t have the right facts, you can be convinced that I am a green pig. If you don’t have good logic, you can be led to bogus conclusions from accurate facts.

You might be thinking that in this networked age, where an unprecedented amount of information is available, we should just be able to fact check everything. Yes and no. We can fact check a lot of things, but the truth of the matter is that when someone is trying to convince us of something, there is a good chance that we simply will not have time to check all of their assertions, and even if we did have the time to do that, we probably would not want to. And so we might just have to rely on logic. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, true assertions can lead to false conclusions if they are not linked logically, and Rep. Orcutt’s argument is a perfect example of this.

Here is an excerpt from his email (the whole thing is available in the linked post):

Also, you claim that it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike. But if I am not mistaken, a cyclists (sic) has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.

And here is a breakdown of his argument:

  1. Cyclists have increased heart rate and respiration.
  2. Increased heart rate and respiration result in increased CO2 output.
  3. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and a pollutant.
  4. Therefore, cyclists are polluting when they ride.

This is a solid argument. The facts check out and the logic is sound. The problem comes in when you look at the claim that he is attempting to disprove: “it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike.” On the face of it, this looks fine, if we define environmentally friendly to mean “not harmful to the environment” in an absolute sense. Unfortunately there is context. The assertion that he was responding to was: “Additionally, bicyclists produce fewer emissions and reduce healthcare costs through increased physical fitness.” (full text of original email, if you’re curious). To rephrase, skipping the bit about healthcare, “Bicycles produce fewer emissions than cars.” Which brings us to the wonderful world of logical fallacies.

There are forms of arguments that are always invalid. One of the most common is the straw man. In a straw man, a person is confronted with an argument. Instead of attacking that argument, they create a weaker argument (a straw man, if you will) and attack that instead. For example, it is much easier to attack the argument that bicycles cause no pollution than the argument that bicycles cause less pollution than cars. Rep. Orcutt never said anything about the original argument, but tried to trick us into believing that he had. His argument makes no sense and can be safely ignored.

Whew. That may seem like a lot of work to go through simply to call bullshit on a politician for acting like a politician, but once you get used to thinking like this, you will read a paragraph like that and immediately realize that there is no connection between what he is saying and what he wants you to think he is saying, no fact checking required.

On a final note, Rep. Orcutt did issue an apology, saying that the issue of bicycles not being zero-carbon “was not a point worthy of even mentioning” and went on to sound like a much more reasonable person. Nonetheless, the fact remains that he used a straw man in dealing with a constituent. Either he did so knowingly, which is a form of dishonesty, or unknowingly, in which case I would question his competence as political representative.

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