Logical Reasoning Is a Critical Skill

Originally titled 'Straight Thinking'

Sound reasoning is a skill. Training and practice are needed, but even a few lessons in logic can help.

“Robots are job-killers. They should be banned or taxed. I heard this from experts at the universities.” Such comments might make us smile if we weren’t hearing them from policy makers, influential public figures or fellow voters who clearly believe what they are saying and are likely to base decisions on these views. Often the wording is not so plain, but the underlying meaning is the same once the formal writing is analyzed and simplified. (An op-ed piece asserting this position in a widely read publication comes to mind.)

Of course, the effect of robotic applications in manufacturing, and automation in general, are urgent issues to discuss and debate. But that is not my point here. That basic logic seems to be missing in so many news headlines, tweeted pronouncements and reports on social media is the alarming fact I want to raise. My example above is just one that caught my attention recently.

I was fortunate. I had a smattering of logic as coursework with teachers in high school and college. I was particularly fascinated with examples of logical fallacies—false reasoning or faulty arguments—all of which can be classified and named. Being able to detect and identify fallacies has a dual purpose that seemed immensely valuable to me. One purpose is uncovering how someone’s thinking went wrong or finding the mental error that kept a person from sound conclusions. The other purpose is catching attempts to use tricks of language to mislead others.

Logic, I found, is a defense against these forms of deceit. I didn’t want to become a victim of my own invalid reasoning nor fall prey to crafty sales people, wily politicians or pompous professors. I regret now not having the opportunity to get thorough training in logic so that I could be adept at calling out fallacies when I encounter them and able to debunk them convincingly. Nevertheless, I did learn to be on the alert whenever strong claims or opinions are pressed upon me.

The opening statements about robots, for example, exhibit a number of common fallacies, including charged language (“job-killers”), hasty conclusion (“ban robots”) and appeal to authority (“university experts”), to name a few.

I try to make these habits my guide to better reasoning about controversial topics:

  • Think it through. Resist the tendency to agree or disagree based on an instant emotional response. Reread before you react.
  • Be wary. What are the speaker’s motives? What are your own prejudices or preconceived notions?
  • Be skeptical. Look for facts and evidence to support any claim. Question every source.
  • Be open-minded. Even scoundrels are capable of telling the truth.
  • Have a heart. Logic should be dispassionate, yet logical people need not be unsympathetic. Seek the truth with kindness.
  • Be humble. Never rule out the possibility that you’ve got it wrong or that the other side has it right. Ego and pride can block clear thinking.

There has been a lot of talk lately about “fake news.” We should worry as much about fake reasoning.

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