Some Thoughts on Thinking

Recently, I have been re-reading the Name of the Wind book series. In the first book the main character has to sit for oral exams as part of his admission to the University. It's a great scene. He's on stage in a pool of light and Professors are asking him questions rapid fire. One asks the prospective student to name the nine prime fallacies. These are the nine main errors in thinking. He rattles them off like this, "Simplification, Generalization, Circularity, Reduction, Analogy, False Causality, Semantism, Irrelevancy..." and pauses. He can't remember the name of the last one. Now I suspect that the author may have intended to list something like "Omission" and was making a joke.

So this passage has made me think a bit about thinking errors. We have done foster care for kids, some of whom have had mental or emotional handicaps. We've also had 6 teenagers of our own. And this too has got me thinking about errors in thinking. Thinking errors are the common man's equivalent of logical fallacies.

I went looking for some documentation of the 9 prime fallacies. It seemed like something you might learn at a University. I pulled out the text book for my Critical Thinking class at the University and it turns out there are 9 fallacies. However, Socrates named 13. A cool website I found had 24. Indeed there are many logical fallacies, many ways to err in your thinking. Some are well known and well studied. For example using a presumed deficiency of your opponent to conclude that his argument is incorrect is called classically "ad hominem". Building a weak example of the other side of an argument so that it can be effectively torn down is called the "Straw Man". Some errors of thinking can be innocent mistakes, such as Composition / Division, which assumes that if something is true for part, it is true for all; and some may be more malicious, for example Manipulating Emotions.

Not long ago there was a cable TV program that featured the entertainers and magicians Penn Jillette and Teller presumably taking on popular misconceptions and showing, indeed proving, how wrong they are. The first episode that I happened upon was one in which they showed the errors of conspiracy theories. They took on the JFK assassination, the September 11 attacks being a government plot and the presumably faked moon landings. Future shows went on to address other, more socially controversial subjects such as Walmart, Gun Control, Religion, Teen Sex.

Now I happen to believe, that people who think that the JFK assassination, 9/11 government plots and faked moon landings are conspiracies, are kooks, so when I saw Penn and Teller take these on, I liked it. I even thought it was good entertainment.

Still, I like to think that I saw they were using some of the same errors in thinking, debunking the conspiracy theories as the advocates were using to support them, before Penn and Teller took on view points opposing ones that I happen to advocate. However this may not be the case. I first noticed that the experts who were in favor of Penn and Teller's view point were shown commenting in their offices, behind a desk or with paneling and books in the background. Experts commenting on the opposing view points were shown at home. Perhaps feeding their fish or with an unfortunately divisive piece of personal art on the wall behind them.

When the opposing view point used an anecdotal example or incomplete analogy to show their side, it was christened "unscientific". Penn and Teller were candid, admitting when they used an unscientific method in illustrating their point, however this was justified, apparently, by their need to be amusing. Some actual science was presented but it was generally one sided. If Jillette didn't use one of the common logical fallacies he would eventually resort to simple ridicule, calling "Bullshit", which was indeed the name of the show, perhaps subtly appropriately so. It may or may not have been good entertainment but it wasn't good science and it wasn't correct thinking.

I mentioned earlier teenagers at my house. There are a couple errors in thinking to which teenagers seem to be particularly attracted. Bandwagon is a thinking error where the popularity of a point of view is used as a argument for its validity. This may not be surprising, as young people are at the same time trying to find themselves and fit in with others. Another thinking error common to adolescents is sometimes called "tu quoque" which basically asserts that because you are imperfect, your reasoning is imperfect. This takes the form of: "you probably stayed out late when you were young, therefore you have no right to tell me I can't stay out late," or the unfortunate but still wrong thought: "because you are old (which indeed I am) there's no way you could know what I'm going through."

Currently my favorite logical fallacy, is the Fallacy Fallacy. The Fallacy Fallacy maintains that just because an idea is poorly argued or that a fallacy was used in its defense, doesn't necessarily mean that the idea is false. It is wonderfully circular (not to be confused with Circularity, that being yet another logical fallacy). The idea of the Fallacy Fallacy is that there are errors in thinking, everywhere. Even the quest to discover thinking errors must be analyzed to be be sure that its reasoning is sound.

When I indicate my favorite fallacy, it's merely to show the intricacy of some thinking errors. I don't mean that it is my favorite fallacy to use. But, neither do I intend to imply that I am free of thinking errors. In my work I am often asked to verify long lists of calculations or to present a reasoned argument which relates evidence and conclusions. Some of the time I am checking others' thinking or thought processes. Some of the time I am checking my own. Part of this is why I spend time thinking about thinking. And, I've been doing this long enough to know that even I, myself, am subject to thinking errors. Note that Penn and Teller's logical fallacies were not apparent to me as long as they were arguing consistent with my point of view.

Occasionally, I come across someone who seems to believe that admitting to an error or acknowledging a logical fallacy of their own, is some sort of weakness or opens them to liability. Perhaps this is a result of an overly litigious society. I can't say for sure about liability, but knowing about, admitting and changing thinking errors, in the long run, can only be an asset.

I say, that if you encounter a person who claims they don't commit logical fallacies, or one who can never be shown that their thinking is in error; do not debate this person. Oh, you might debate with them, but understand, that no matter how much hope is in your heart, you will never get any traction. Some, apparent, self definition of "intellectual" seems to insist that because they, themselves own the argument it must not be wrong. This being, yes you guessed it, a logical fallacy (could be one of several, argumentum ad verecundiam comes to mind). It's as if, by exhibiting no weakness of error, they have become something other than human.

Understanding your own thinking weaknesses can lead to more clarity of thought and more correct thinking. Understanding errors of logic in others, may help avert disaster. When I discovered that I would be required to pass a Critical Thinking course in college, I may have been disappointed that I would have to apply myself in course work other than my major, but I was not particularly surprised. Indeed, it makes complete sense that general processes of thought be considered before indulging in specific academic endeavors. And critical thinking, I suppose, applies far beyond school subjects only, and to many more people than just students. Thinking itself, being a very human activity, ought to be considered by humans.