Friday, March 16, 2007

Why can't anyone think?

A co-worker who shall remain nameless, musing on the lack of reason in many a Web discussion, points to an engineer's blog post on logic and why most fellow humans don't use it.

The answers aren't bad. Any one could be fuel for a dissertation by some grad student. But I think two of the many good quotes sprinkled through the post come closer to the answer:

1. Steven Pinker: "One reason [why people often don't do so well at logic] is that logical words in everyday languages like English are ambiguous, often denoting several formal logical concepts. "

I love the Sting lyric "the gray sky, she angered to black" in The Wild Wild Sea. It's beautiful imagery. But it's totally illogical. The sky isn't a "she," it's incapable of feeling anger, and no one angers to anything. (If you see a co-worker angering to black, please call 911.) You have to deconstruct the lyric before you can discuss it logically, and what's the point in that?

2. William James: "A great many people think they're thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

That's brilliant. And it explains much of what I see on the Web. People aren't processing new bits of information to arrive at a conclusion. They're processing that information on a superficial level, then fitting it into an ideology.

It's tough to communicate with these people because they don't see the problem.

Example: The Washington Post ran a kind obit on one of its own, the sports editor for Post.com., portraying him as a sort of eccentric intellectual. Now read what some sort of media watchdog blogger wrote about it: "Looking at his picture and reading the obit we thought, this was a pretty good guy. We only wish there were more pretty good guys at places like the WaPost, which might prevent some pretty bad intentions."

Notice the assumption. This guy must be the exception. Not the rule. You can read down the left-hand column of the blog and see that we're dealing with someone who has some deeply ingrained impressions of journalists, perhaps extrapolating that we're all exactly as Dan Rather was for the last two decades of his career.

I can tell you that in 16 years in journalism, the eccentric intellectual is the most common personality type I've encountered. No. 2: The cynical blowhard. No. 3: The bureaucrat.

So what we have here is a false assumption. I think the reason that assumption is made -- as is often the case on the Web -- is that the blogger is an idealogue who doesn't realize that other people may not be idealogues. I could be countering a false assumption with another false assumption, but ... nah, you know I'm not, to paraphrase Don Henley.

The original post itself is precise and logical, as any good post on logic should be. He draws limits on logic, saying it's more important to understand what's logical and what isn't than to scribble some Boolean statements for every decision in life. ("Hmmmm, carnitas or barbacoa ....")

And yet the grammar and English-usage pedant in me trips over the line "That statement can be a bit confusion." Not that I can talk -- I almost titled this post "Why can't anyone thing?"

1 comment:

Lex said...

I just figured some people were neither able nor inclined to learn, and I set policy on them this past winter as part of a larger revision of the Blog on the Run ground rules.

All I can say is, I think this is what we have to see after 20 years of Republicans' trying to "improve" public eduation: rote memorization as the basis for test scores as the basis for money. No analysis allowed, and certainly no questioning of authority.

Just today, a mutual acquaintance of the pro-Bush persuasion e-mailed me the text of a recent speech by Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator with barely concealed delusions about winning the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. He likened the liberals who think Nancy Pelosi is playing it too safe on Iraq policy, and Cindy Sheehan as the leader of that particular group, unto Gandhi's insistence that Nazi German shouldn't be fought and yadda yadda yadda.

I patiently explained to our mutual acquaintance -- no, wait, that's not right; I sent him one snarky sentence -- saying that Thompson had drawn a horribly skewed analogy and that this was just one example illustrating the incontrovertible fact that Thompson is so dumb he needs watering twice a week.

Our mutual friend responded with a reply of his own, the substance of which I now forget but which ended with a question: "Why didn't you address X?"

My short, accurate answer was: "I did. Go back and look."

Good. God.

I'm already giving my kids logic lessons. They'll definitely need them, and God knows I ain't gonna live forever.