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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Fundamentals

February 17th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

In 2008, the US economy crashed, bringing much of the world economy with it. The bulk of the crash was blamed on the housing markets, but really, it was about concentration of wealth. If incomes for the majority of the population remain stagnant for thirty years, but the median cost of a house increased tenfold and health care costs have gone through the roof, then is it any surprise that the economy crashed?

What is worrying is that nothing fundamental has changed about our economy. There are no new safeguards for consumers and wealth is still percolating to the top. Still people are starting to talk about recovery. But a recovery based on what? The idea that things will get better without some sort of fundamental change is naive at best. If you want to see what it looks like when you try to force things to get better without actually fixing the problem, I suggest you look towards Greece.

I don’t like it, but the more I pay attention to the news, the more I think that John Robb may be right, perhaps we are turning into a hollow state, after all. If you’r wondering what all of this has to do with writing, this is the sort of thing that is on my mind when I write things like Uprising and Soapbox (which I will start adding to again later in the month).

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Now I Need to Read His Books

May 18th, 2008  |  Published in News, Publishing, SciFi, Society, writing

CNN has an interesting interview with Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series of books.  I have personally wondered about a post-scarcity world for some time (I am a socialist, after all), and someone who associates himself with Ken MacLeod sounds like a good place to start.  In any case, go read it, its short and good, I will get back to writing.

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Power

May 14th, 2008  |  Published in Misc, Society, writing

I remember being young (no older than eleven, as my parents’ divorce was still in court) and wondering what power was.  I was thinking about it in a purely one-on-one sense, if someone told me to do something, what was it that made me do it?  This led to the question of whether someone could force you to do something.  I didn’t have an answer for it then, but while I was reading an article about the lies that we tell our children (which is a good read, by the way), something clicked.  No matter the situation, power is an agreement.  Whenever someone (or a group) instructs you to do something either directly or indirectly, you have a choice.

The parties in the agreement are not always equal, for example when the government tells you to pay your taxes, you can refuse, but you will probably go to prison.  The natural reasoning that comes out of this is that society is held together by a bunch of agreements, a sort of social fabric.  This in turn brings up several issues.  First, our society is much more stable than, say Roman society, with relatively few coups and such.  My only thought is that perhaps as society is more complex than it was then, that the social fabric is more resilient than it was back then (or possibly that the coups are simply more subtle).  The second is that there must be a limit to the resiliency of the social fabric.  For example, with measures such as the PATRIOT Act, the agreement between the government and it’s constituents has been severely altered.  The government has removed it’s responsibilities to its citizens while doing nothing to relieve citizens’ responsibilities.

The theme of power and responsibility is one that I am quite fascinated with, and that I have started to explore in Uprising, but it feels good to make it explicit.  For those of you who are more familiar with the philosophical canon than I am, I apologize for going over topics that have doubtlessly been covered at great depth by better minds than mine.

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More New Media

May 6th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, News, Publishing, Reviews

I should also mention that Cory Doctorow released his new novel, Little Brother, recently.  I had the good fortune to read an early draft, and it was simply fantastic.  I won’t go into too much detail, but basically the plot revolves around a hacker kid who is treated poorly (read: realistically) by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco.  Everything is based on current tech (like a nearer-future Doktor Sleepless), lending it a feel of future history.  If that isn’t enough, its available under a Creative Commons license, which means that you can download it in its entirety (the site also has instructions on how to do a bunch of the stuff in the book).  So go on and give it a read, you won’t regret it.

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New Uprising Segment

April 24th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, News, Publishing, SciFi, Stories, writing

I just posted a new Segment for Uprising, so go check it out

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Headline

April 21st, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Flash Fiction, novel, Society, Stories, Uncategorized, Uprising, writing

“Holy shit! Get up Ethan, you’ve got to check this out!”

For a moment, Ethan thought that the voice belonged to Holly, but then it all came back to him and he had to fight to keep from crying. Holly was dead, killed in the massacre. Other than that, all he knew was that his head felt like it had something tunneling through it and that it was way too fucking bright. If anything, he wished the headache was worse, anything would have been better than thinking about her.

Read the rest of this entry »

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