Ill Logic

Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice

“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.

Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.

Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.

Read More »

Dressed to Impress

Contending with Sophistry in the Classroom

“So refined that only fools cannot perceive it,” the salesmen said of the emperor’s new clothing, in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of that name. Afraid to be thought a fool, the emperor smiled, nodded, and pretended to see it. So did those around him, driven by that same fear. From his advisors down to the townspeople, everyone pretended to perceive what wasn’t there. In love with the idea of his own imaginary attire, the emperor paraded through town—until one brazenly honest small child declared the truth: the emperor was naked.

In their pretentious use of language, too, people can be unwittingly naked, metaphorically speaking. For the purposes of this essay, let us define unnecessarily complex and unclear communication as sophistry in the broadest sense. How can we college educators avoid it? How can we encourage our students to do the same? And how should we respond when we encounter it?


The Philosopher as Brazen Child

The men of Athens (or, more precisely, a narrow majority of them) killed Socrates for making them feel like fools. By contrast, the philosopher’s competition, the Sophists, were wildly popular. Their secret? They didn’t care about the truth. They cared about winning arguments and being popular. Such things can be useful tools; but when they supplant the pursuit of truth, they can also serve as distractions or worse—as in the case of those sighing into the emperor’s ear, “Ah, yes! What beautiful seams and stitching!”


The Student as Sometime Sophist

The path of the Sophists is a temptation for a significant number of college students. In their writing and presentations, and even during some class discussions, a certain kind of student seems keener to sound impressive than to communicate clearly.

This baffled me at first. After all, according to Forbes, The Huffington Post, and numerous other cultural commentators, authenticity ranks among millennials’ most deeply held values. Few things could be less authentic than sophistry. For some millennials, projecting an image of authenticity matters more than actually being authentic. One must forgive certain cultural observers and advertisers for confusing the two. Counterfeits can be convincing.

Why do some students prefer to be impressive rather than clear? Perhaps it is human nature. The problem is at least as old as Socratic philosophy. We academics are often part of the problem. Countless journal articles and conference presentations are erudite to the point of being nearly incomprehensible, even for fellow insiders in a given field. It is easier to smile, nod, and not be thought a fool.

Why? Why do many of us and our subfields cultivate needlessly complicated ways of saying things, as if this were a virtue? Some of us like to sound impressive, even if it means excluding others from the conversation. Or, perhaps, for the very reason that this does, in fact, exclude some people from the conversation. Language is, after all, an exercise of power. Worse still, I fear that we academics often risk saying nothing in particular. In a culture where anti-intellectualism runs rampant, we often have ourselves to blame. (For a fuller discussion of this problem, see Steven Pinker, Eric Charles, Joshua Rothman, and others. A recent Economist article explores the linguistic dimension of such issues.)


Degrees of Sophistry

There are varying degrees of guilt when sophistry is at work. First-degree sophistry is a premeditated choice. By definition, liars know that they are lying. It can become a way of life. This was the case for the salesmen of the emperor’s new clothing in the fairy tale; or, if you prefer, the role of the fake Rolex salesman in the subway station. A variation of this, still very much premeditated, is that of the impressive person who speaks, indifferent to whether what they are saying is true or not, neither knowing nor caring, because truth is not the point. Educators must convince first-degree sophists that their path is less effective (i.e., not actually impressive) and less purposeful than the clear, straightforward articulation of one’s position, even if this involves frequently admitting the limits of one’s knowledge. Our task is to lead by example (saying “I don’t know!”) and to teach them that sophistry does not really work. At the very least, we must avoid rewarding such behavior.

Second-degree sophistry is a spontaneous action. Like first-degree sophists, the second-degree variety know what they are doing. But the distinction is that there is a greater chance that they regret their actions, once taken. One might spread it actively by perpetrating it or passively by permitting it. Many of the emperor’s advisors and the townspeople were examples of the latter. They knew, deep down, that he was naked, but they chose to act otherwise. Our task is to remind students why sophistry is wrong: it is intellectually dishonest. We must apologize when we fall into it ourselves. How tempting it is to say something impressive rather than something truly straightforward!

Third-degree sophistry is accidental. This is the intellectual equivalent of manslaughter. The perpetrators are not deliberately unclear and confusing. They believe that they are saying something meaningful. Perhaps they do know what they mean, but in some cases it appears that they don’t understand what they are saying. Such students find themselves in the position of the emperor. Rather than offer a blanket critique, I find it more effective to highlight specific, confusing phrases. “What did you mean by saying X?” I ask, to which most reply with one of two responses. In the case of, “I just meant to say [more conversational alternative],” I can reply, “Why didn’t you just say that?” Or, if a student responds with a shrug, we might best suggest omitting the passage in question.


Breaking with Socrates

In dealing with self-aware liars, carelessly inaccurate show-offs, and the incorrect but genuinely oblivious, we must take care. So worthy of emulation elsewhere, Socrates may fall short of what college students in any of those categories need.

Historically speaking, Socrates’ method was not merely the asking of questions in the pursuit of truth; it was the public exposing of intellectual fraud. Public figures deserve public scrutiny, but students deserve a gentler approach. Our reproaches should be gentle and clear, best delivered after class, in office hours, and in written comments. Socratic or not, anything less is bad pedagogy and likely to yield more resentment than results.

No one wants to feel foolish. No one wants to be exposed as a fraud. Yet this world needs more brazen innocents to embarrass the rest of us. How else can we learn to face the truth? We all require intellectual humility to accept such awkward moments with gratitude and grace. Otherwise, we risk falling in love with the praise of our peers and superiors, praise for substance that is merely imaginary.

The Journey vs. the Map

Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom

What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.

Read More »

A Light-Hearted Requiem for Old Europe

Reflections on The Grand Budapest Hotel

One must forgive some viewers for mistaking Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) for comedy. The film was billed as such. But, as in the case of its titular edifice and the rest of Anderson’s corpus, beneath a light-hearted veneer lurks deep melancholy. Ostensibly this is a caper about a hotel concierge dodging murder charges while chasing a vast fortune. At the same time, it is also a portrait of Old Europe—along with its Jewishness—in the midst of its dying. Beneath the film’s cartoonish frivolity lies that tragedy.

Read More »

The Minds of Others

Reading Advice for Extroverts

Have you ever wanted to read someone’s mind? That is the power of books. They invite us into the minds of others, to see the world through their eyes. The bookish among us know this. This essay is not for them. I have a friend who is a well-educated and thoughtful people person. He recently admitted to me that he has little desire to read—but he wants to want to read. This essay is for him and for those like him.

Read More »

The Winter of Our Salvation

The Kingdom of God vs. the American Dream

“You ought to be happy, healthy, fit, wealthy, comfortable, and popular. All you need is the right state of mind.” Substitute the phrase “God wants you to be” at the beginning of the message, and there you have the core message of not a few television preachers. The message runs deep in U.S. culture. It strikes at the heart of the latest iteration of the “American Dream.”

Physical and financial prosperity are not wrong, but they are spiritually perilous, for they distract from things that actually matter. The message of easy living has its appeal because it is exactly what many of us want to hear. It claims to offer empowerment to the powerless and wealth to the poor. Yet this is ultimately a false hope, for its focus is on the outwardly visible measures of Success, that falsest and most American of all the false gods.

Read More »

Perverse Incentives

What College Rankings Actually Do

American colleges and universities rise and fall based on their rising and falling in a handful of rankings. This is true to a significant extent in terms of their finances, reputations, and general welfare. Up and up or down and down, as goes its rank, so goes the university. U.S. News and World Report’s is the most influential. Forbes, The Princeton Review, and others offer alternatives with slightly different methodologies and surprisingly similar results. All purport to demonstrate which colleges and universities have the best academic programs. All of them fail to do so. By virtue of measuring many things unrelated to quality of education, they incentivize the diverting of resources away from educating students.

The established rankings show institutional wealth, both directly and indirectly. They also show an institution’s popularity, both among prospective students, enrolled students, and faculty at peer institutions. Many also emphasize how well their incoming students performed in high school, shown by grades and standardized test scores. The rankings show little else. But by providing the illusion of demonstrating educational quality, the rankings incentivize many things but not support for the actual quality of education at any given institution.

Read More »

Our Cross to Bear

Conclusions on Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 7 of 7)

We as a society are busy pointing out crises. Some pending disasters merely threaten to destroy individuals, while others threaten communities or even our species. Yet, we often seem disinclined to take action. The reasons include disagreements about which crises are real, which ones are critical, and how to best approach them. We should be not only resolving present crises but discerning their source and how to prevent future ones.

In the preceding weeks’ meditations on the nature of collective guilt and shared human responsibility, a number of general principles are evident.

Read More »

The Air We Breathe

The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)

The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.

As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.

Read More »