Logic 101 – Teachers

There is nothing that bothers me more than seeing bad arguments put forth by a group I want to be sympathetic to or for a position I support. If it can get worse it would be when the group, or person, making the argument should know better.  Unfortunately, for these very reasons, teachers drive me absolutely crazy.  Teachers are among the best educated people around.  Their main job is conveying ideas in a way that is understandable.  But, when it comes to identifying the problems in education, proposing solutions to those problems, and asking for better treatment, they do a terrible job of teaching, often because of a failure of logic.

One of the most common issues I see is the teachers are addicted to ad hominem attacks. Now, any student of logic should know that ad hominem is Latin for to the man. It is one of the most famous informal fallacies. It is when someone attacks the person making an argument rather than the argument itself. The fashionable target for these ad hominem attacks right now is Bill Gates. It’s also been used on George Bush, Michael Bloomberg, and many others.  Commonly, it is expressed something like, “Bill Gates is bad.  Concentrating on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is something Bill Gates supports.”  That may be a true statement, but it tells us exactly nothing about whether STEM is a good idea or not.  If a teacher thinks that focusing on STEM at the expense of other subjects is a bad idea, explain why.  Don’t drag Bill Gates into it.  This is also a bad rhetorical decision.  Bill Gates may be disliked in the education community, but for most of the rest of the world, he’s smart and successful and doesn’t have an obvious agenda other than helping others.  Aside from education reform, he tries to rid the world of malaria and get other rich people to donate their fortunes to charity.  Bashing Bill Gates might score points with the people who already agree, but it will not help to change anyone’s mind.

The law of non-contradiction is often ignored by teachers. In logic this can be expressed many different ways, but it boils down to A & -A is false or A & B and A & -B are incompatible statements. In regular English, it’s just saying that one thing cannot be both true and not true at the same time. This is most common with teachers in discussions of pay and assessment. When it comes to pay, teachers like to point out that they are vital to the educational process, that nothing makes as big an impact on students as their teachers. However, when it comes to assessment, teachers are quick to point out that they can’t be responsible for the bad students. The bad students are bad because of their socioeconomic backgrounds, lack of parental support, etc. Unfortunately, it can’t be both ways. Teachers can’t be the most important factor in the good students doing well, but a complete non-factor in the bad students doing badly.  In reality, there are a great many factors in whether students perform well or badly.  Teachers would be better off acknowledging that and not taking too much of the credit for successful students while accepting some of the blame for unsuccessful students.

False analogies are another problem in arguments about education.  It may seem obvious, but a false analogy is an argument from analogy that doesn’t work.  It could be because the two things being compared are not really alike or because they are alike, but not in relevant ways.  A famous example is that employees and nails are similar because they both have heads.  To get a nail to work, you need to whack it in the head.  Therefore, to get an employee to work, you need to whack her in the head.  Like the ad hominem, this is an informal fallacy.  It doesn’t tell us whether the conclusion is true or false.  There are two common areas where this comes into play.  The first is when someone says, “American schools need to be more like Finland’s schools (or Sweden or South Korea, etc.).”  The problem with this analogy is that the US is not much like these other places.  The entire country of Finland is kind of like a wealthy American suburb.  How many Finnish students have single parents working three jobs?  How many don’t know where their next meal is coming from?  The difference between Finnish education and American education is a huge difference in their overall societies.  If it is even possible to make the kind of societal changes that would turn America into Finland, education would take care of itself.  The other place you hear false analogies is in discussions of compensation.  It is often expressed as, “Actors and athletes make millions while teachers struggle.  Teachers contribute far more to society, so they should be paid better.”  There are two things wrong here.  The first is that teachers are comparing themselves to the outliers.  While it’s true that Tom Hanks makes millions, most actors, athletes, musicians, etc. really struggle and make far less than teachers.  The other problem is that the few who do get rich are not compensated based on their contributions to society.  They are compensated based on the fact that they have a very rare skill that people are willing to spend money on.  If people would pay to sit in a stadium and watch history lectures, teachers could be rich as well.

As I said at the beginning, I am mostly sympathetic towards the teachers.  I wish people were compensated based on their contributions rather than the whims of the market.  I wish every student could get a quality education and assessments were fair.  I wish teachers had more of a say in their curricula and monied interests had less.  But, repeating the same bad reasoning over and over isn’t going to help anything.  Parents sway elections, but they aren’t stupid.  Engage them with real arguments.  Let them know why it will help their children, and maybe things will finally improve.

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Logic 101 – Guns

This post is actually a little hard.  I say actually because it should be easy.  It should be easy because I have literally never seen a good argument against gun control.  But, that is what also makes it hard.  There are just so many bad arguments, I don’t even know where to begin.  And, let’s face it, this would run to about a million pages if I tried to tackle all of the bad arguments.

I mentioned that I have never run across a good argument against gun control.  I do realize that that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good argument.  It just means I haven’t seen it.  I didn’t mention this in my other logic posts, although it applies, but if you know a good argument, feel free to share it.

In fact, since I’ve never run across a good argument against gun control, and since the bad arguments have been covered in many other places, I’m going to focus on the premises.  I think with a little reflection, we can see that pro gun arguments fall into certain well documented fallacies.  They are slippery slopes (If you ban grenade launchers, of course it’s just a matter of time before you ban my antique musket.), appeals to tradition (Guns are a way of life.), appeals to authority (The Second Amendment, etc.), false analogies (Cars are more dangerous.), ad hominems (Nancy Pelosi is for gun control.), and non sequiturs (Hitler banned guns.).  There are others, but these are probably the most common ones you hear.

There are a few premises that I find fascinating because they are so nonsensical.  The first of those is, “If you ban guns, then only criminals will have guns.”  Sounds scary, right?  But, it makes no sense at all.  If they ban guns, they wouldn’t ban guns only from law abiding citizens.  They would ban guns.  It would be just as hard for criminals to get guns as it would be for everyone else.  I’m guessing that the people who make this argument are making an implicit connection to the drug trade.  Since drugs are illegal and people still use them, then if guns were illegal, people would still get them.  How would this work, though?  You can’t just grow a gun like marijuana.  You can’t cook a gun in your basement like crystal meth.  You need a factory or smith skills that go way beyond regular people.  So, will the angry guy in a fight run down to his local firearms manufacturer, break in, steal some guns, and return to the fight to shoot someone?  Will pimps start breaking into police stations to secure their guns to keep their prostitutes in line?  Will anyone break into an army base to steal their assault weapons?  I’m not saying that the mafia couldn’t find a way.  I’m saying that for any criminal outside of sophisticated organized crime rings it would be very difficult to get guns.  The meth head that knocks over a 7-11 for some cash would no longer have access to a gun.  The petty thief would no longer have access to guns.  If the only criminals with guns were organized crime, that’s not so bad.  Firstly, because organized crime is organized.  They are not partaking in random acts of violence.  And secondly, if the mob wants to get you, having a gun for self-defense isn’t going to help much anyway.

My guess is that people who believe this argument will point to the recent news about making guns with 3D printers.  Anyone can do it in their own home.  But, in order to make a gun with a 3D printer, you need the printer, the printing materials and plans.  There is no reason why a ban on guns couldn’t include a ban on 3D printer plans for making guns.  If you got fined or arrested for downloading plans and printing a gun, most people wouldn’t do it.  And that leads to the other problem with this type of argument.  The idea that since the law cannot be enforced perfectly, we should not have a law.  It is a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good.  Just because we can’t stop every person who uses child pornography, should we legalize child pornography?  Just because we can’t stop everyone from running red lights, should we get rid of red lights?  Of course some people will get away with doing illegal things.  That is no argument for keeping those things legal.  If we were to ban guns, far fewer people would have guns.  Far fewer bad guys would have guns.  The police and military would still have guns.  So, in fact, the good guys with guns would far outnumber the bad guys with guns.

Having said all of that, no one is suggesting a complete ban on guns.  That is another premise that drives me crazy.  All of the legislation that is being talked about is similar.  The legislation would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  And the legislation would prevent criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses from getting guns.  No one wants to ban hunting rifles or hand guns.  No one wants to prevent regular, mentally stable, law-abiding citizens from buying a gun.  No one wants to take away the guns that people already own.  There is no logical fallacy here.  This is a simple lie.  By inserting the lie that the government is trying to take our guns into the argument, the argument is invalidated.

Logic 101 – Marijuana

My logic 101 post got way more attention than I expected. Now I’m feeling a little pressure, but that’s probably a good thing. It will keep me from getting lazy. Since one of the commentors mentioned marijuana, that’s where I’ll start.

There are three types of argument that I consistently see and hear regarding legalizing marijuana.  The most common, as far as I can tell, is comparing marijuana with alcohol.  There are variations, but the basic argument runs like this:

P1. Alcohol is much worse that marijuana.

P2. Alcohol is legal.

Therefore

C. Marijuana should be legal.

There are two main problems with this argument.  The first is that the premises don’t lead to the conclusion.  You can just as easily read the premises and decide that alcohol should be made illegal.  There has to be a part of the argument that says that alcohol should be legal, and that is missing.  The second problem, is that it is a bad analogy.  Alcohol and marijuana do share some features.  However, those features are not really pertinent to their legality.  Alcohol has been an important part of our society for millennia in a way that marijuana is not.  Alcohol is present in our religious services, at our meals, at our celebrations, at our funerals, etc.  In our culture, marijuana is a recreational drug and that’s really about it.  Banning alcohol would be tantamount to asking people to change their entire way of life (whether or not that would be a good change is beside the point).  Marijuana just cannot be made legal on those grounds.

The second argument is usually stated something like this, “It’s natural, man.  It grows in the ground.”  That’s not really an argument, but applying the principle of charity, I think it goes something like this:

P1. Marijuana is natural.

P2. Natural things are good.

P3. Good things should not be illegal.

Therefore

C. Marijuana should not be illegal.

This is a perfectly valid argument, and therefore true if you accept the premises.  However, if you accept the premises, especially P2, you will run into a lot of problems.  There are many natural things that are not, in fact, good.  Small pox is natural, but you would have a hard time convincing anyone that they should try it.  There is a fairly convincing school of thought that says that rape, murder and war are natural, but that hardly makes them good.  So, the fact that marijuana is natural has no bearing on whether it should be legal.  If you want to use a variation on this argument, you need additional steps that show that marijuana is good.

The third common argument is that marijuana doesn’t cause any harm.  Basically, the argument goes like this:

P1. Marijuana does not harm other people.

P2. The government should not get involved in things that do not harm other people.

Therefore

C. The government should not be involved with marijuana.

Just like the second argument, this is a valid argument.  But, again, it is hard to accept the premises.  For P1, I can think of all kinds of ways marijuana can harm other people.  It can be a contributing factor  in car accidents, it can lead to work place accidents, it can lead to child neglect, etc.  I know that it does not necessarily lead to these things, but you cannot just make a statement that it doesn’t hurt anyone when there are plenty of examples of it hurting people.  And P2 also doesn’t stand up.  The government regulates all kinds of things that don’t harm other people.  I cannot just build any old addition on my house, even if I promise that I am not going to sell the house or if I promise that I will remove it before I sell the house.  I cannot drive without a seatbelt.  In many states I cannot ride a motorcycle without a helmet.  These are things that would only harm me, but the government prevents me from doing them.  This is a bit beyond this argument, but it can be argued that, living in a society, nothing can only harm me.  Or, to put it another way, anything that harms me necessarily harms others as well.  If I die in a car wreck, it necessarily burdens my family or the state to dispose of my remains.  If I lose my job because I got high, it necessarily burdens my family or the state because they won’t let me starve to death.

If you were to construct a good argument for legalizing marijuana, I believe that this third argument is the closest.  There are two ways it can be made better.  The first is to use a utilitarian argument and show that while marijuana does cause harm, the goods it provides outweigh those harms.  Or that the harms caused by the laws banning marijuana are greater than the harms of letting people use it (This is probably the way i would go).  I would imagine that this method of arguing is not often used because it requires real research which is time-consuming and expensive.  The second way should focus on the proper place of the state instead of focusing on harm.  How far into a person’s private life should the state’s coercive powers go?  I have not studied it, but I imagine this is not a common way of arguing it because it forces you to look beyond the issue at hand.  To really argue it right, you need a conception of society as a whole that allows for legal marijuana.  The libertarians do this.  Marijuana is not their cause, but it is a beneficiary of their cause.  I would imagine there are other possibilities, I just haven’t seen them

Logic 101

What do the teachers’ union, the gun lobby, the pro-marijuana activists, the anti-GMO activists, the anti-gay crusaders, and the anti-fracking activists have in common?  Apparently, none of them ever took, let alone passed, logic 101.  Now, that’s a pretty diverse group, and I am actually sympathetic to some of them.  But their arguments in support of their causes are consistently, astoundingly terrible.  Because I have a stab of annoyance every time I hear one of these bad arguments (especially from the people that I’m sympathetic to), I figured I’d use this space to vent that frustration.  My goal isn’t to support one side or the other, although my sympathies will often be obvious.  My goal is just to point out the flaws in reasoning and maybe even to suggest ways of making the arguments better.