Logical advice about wrestling pigs

The maths text book I had when I was 14 had a cartoon and quotation at the beginning of every chapter. The one on the chapter about stats said

Politicians use statistics as a drunk uses a lamp-post, for support rather than illumination.

This is not just the fate of stats of course; many people misuse logic in the same way.  The confusing thing is that they don’t realise what they are doing is an abuse of logic.  Debates between thinkers and feelers or between sceptics and believers become tedious spirals of cross-purposes and often break down into insult and ad hominem attacks.  The only effective way to cut through this is to introduce cognitive dissonance and use the gap created to introduce some logic, which is what happens in the video below:

Logic is highly structured, it follows rules.  It is not metaphorical or allegorical and people whose minds work best with metaphor and allegory do not (can not?) follow a logical argument step by step to the inevitable conclusion. Instead they arrive at their conclusion intuitively and then seek out arguments that sound as if they justify and support it.  The arguments sound like logic, they use the same language and the same semantic structures as logic, but they are being used in fundamentally different ways.1

When these two approaches meet, you get an impasse.

Don’t wrestle with a pig, you get muddy and the pig enjoys it.

These arguments are un-winnable.  If someone validates their beliefs intuitively then they are  not going to accept the validity of a logical argument.  And vice versa.

What makes this situation even worse is the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Put very crudely, this is unconscious incompetence in action.  At the lower levels of incompetence, people do not even have the ability to recognise competence in others. Think of David Brent (anti-hero of ‘The Office’, played by Ricky Gervais).  He is so inept it is painful, but he doesn’t recognise his own ineptness and he doesn’t recognise the abilities of others who far outshine him.  Me too: for example I cannot play chess though I know the moves, and I wouldn’t recognise skillfull chess playing if I saw it, though at least I don’t think that I’m any sort of chess player.

Theramin Trees gives a neat summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect below, and I urge you to watch it:

The thing that I find really odd though, is not the persistent failure of the illogical to acknowledge a good argument when it’s presented.

No, what I find really odd is the persistent attempts to flog the dead horse by those who do understand logic.  If someone is not convinced the first time that you say “there’s no evidence base for homoeopathy” then they won’t be convinced the 30th time or the 300th time.  Simply doing the same thing again and again won’t work.

As I have said, what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance, which brings us back, as so often, to the power of finding the right question and asking it.


1:  I was going to link to the episode of Beyond Belief broadcast on 28th December about Angels, but for some reason it is not available.  It was even more barking than the rest of the series, which I rather like in an outside-the-comfort-zone sort of way.  The reason I like it is because I listen to so many Sceptical podcasts which lazily make a virtue of scorning believers, and this makes a refreshing change without proselytising on behalf of anyone’s specific imaginary friend.

Back to post.

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8 responses to “Logical advice about wrestling pigs

  1. “what does work is introducing cognitive dissonance”

    I dispute that most strongly. Examples such as the cute bespectacled chick at 4:10 are merely funny – when asked the legal/illegal question her response was rattlesnake fast, so fast you could practically see the instruction passing directly from ears to mouth without ever troubling the brain.

    But that last lady is one of the depressing ones. You can see her discomfort, her inability to deal with information she already has, but has simply failed to deal with (i.e. that she’s been on this crusade to get x made illegal for YEARS, but has never, ever thought about the appropriate punishment for the “crime” of x). But what you can also see, most depressingly, is her response to that discomfort – denial, and a retreat into a physical ritual she feels safe with. She simply closes down the interviewer and CROSSES herself. It may seem innocuous but to me that gesture is at least as worrying as a bearded brown man on a bus with a backpack muttering “Allah ul-akbar”. Those are the people who, if they’re not personally killing doctors in the name of the sanctity of life, are condoning and sheltering those who do.

    Cognitive dissonance “works”, if at all, only on the most superficial level of making people uncomfortable. It doesn’t do anything to change minds, unfortunately.

    Of course, Christians looking ridiculous and being made to feel visibly uncomfortable about their repellent attitudes never gets old as comedy, but don’t kid yourself that they’ll change.

    ————————
    I went to the Lake District yesterday, and caught the tail end of a programme about religion on a local radio station. Some Christian clergyman stated outright that the law should not interfere with people’s religious beliefs.

    That’s what he SAID. What he MEANT was, he didn’t want the law to interfere with his personal specific beliefs. I imagine he’s absolutely behind laws that outlaw polygamy, say, or open-air cremation, because they’d only apply to brown people and wouldn’t interfere with his ability to go on hating queers.

    What was depressing was that on a BBC programme, this view was not challenged or balanced AT ALL. I would personally like to apply a little cognitive dissonance to that man’s world-view.

  2. I like the idea of introducing cognitive dissonance. Well actually of demonstrating it, since it is there already. The anti-abortion video was great to watch. Of course, getting people with deeply held emotional (but irrational) beliefs to appreciate the cognitive dissonance is not easy and quite extreme consequences of their poor thinking-through are needed – as in the video.

    There is, as one might expect, a mirror to this. Totally rational thought without an underlying value system can also give rise to stupid and dangerous outcomes. Typically, this happens when officious officials are concerned only that no regulations have been breached. I have long known that doctors and nurses who do the same work get paid very differently, but I now work in a facility where doctors and nurses rooms are ventilated differently – because that is what the regulations require. (Nurses get more air-changes, in case you are interested). The extreme example was obviously Nazi Germany where genocide was legal so long as detailed regulations were followed.

    If the tree-huggers are to be reached by showing them the cognitive dissonance of their world view, then the bean-counters need to be shown the “emotional dissonance” of theirs. This, for example, is what “The boy in the striped pyjamas” book seeks to do. In medicine we try to do this by frequently asking ourselves: “How would I treat this patient if she was my mother, sister, or daughter?” At the same time as trying to practice evidence-based medicine.

    Each of us needs to use our head and our heart. Teams need members who prefer to use their heads and members who prefer to use their hearts; and they all need to appreciate the value of the others whose arguments they can barely understand.

  3. “they all need to appreciate the value of the others whose arguments they can barely understand”

    Isn’t it the job of the person who writes this blog to function as an interpreter between those two groups? 🙂

  4. >> Cognitive dissonance “works”, if at all, only on the most superficial level of making people uncomfortable. It doesn’t do anything to change minds, unfortunately.

    Not sure I agree with you SoRB. It’s the crack into which you insert the wedge. Kindly, nicely, caringly, but wedgily. It’s certainly one of the tools I used when I was consciously NLPing.

    >> I imagine he’s absolutely behind laws that outlaw polygamy, say, or open-air cremation, because they’d only apply to brown people and wouldn’t interfere with his ability to go on hating queers.

    You imagine.

    *shrug*

    Hi Daniel, and welcome to my blog.

    >> Nurses get more air-changes, in case you are interested

    I am fascinated. WHY? Please tell.

    >> the bean-counters need to be shown the “emotional dissonance” of theirs

    Indeed. There’s a theory that Thatcher’s implementation of motentarism was largely shaped by the autistic tendencies of Norman St John Stevas. I’ve no idea whether St John Stevas has Aspergers or Autism, but it’s a slick explanation for the bizzare logic behind the politics of the 1980s.

    >> Isn’t it the job of the person who writes this blog to function as an interpreter between those two groups?

    It is indeed, SoRB.

    Cheers both,

    Ben

  5. Offered as an suggestion for why nurses get more air-changes:

    They’re unionised, and they (in theory) strike.

  6. I read that as “They are un-ionised” SoRB!

    Well, the context made me do it.

    😀

  7. I initially misread “unionised” as “ionised”. It conjured up visions of highly attractive free radicals — if you will excuse the double meanings. No, it has nothing to do with unions — the BMA is after all one of the most powerful in the UK. Rather, the ventilation requirements are based on surgical practice. The more invasive the surgery, the tighter the regulation. Nurses dress wounds that potentially could become infected. Doctors are considered to do nothing more invasive than giving an injection. In reality there is much cross-over and the risk to the clinician from breathing in airborne pathogens from the patient seems not to be considered at all.

    I think the bottom line is that regulations are really good at preventing bad practice, but quite poor at defining good practice.

  8. >> if you will excuse the double meanings

    🙂 I delight in the double meanings Daniel

    >> I think the bottom line is that regulations are really good at preventing bad practice, but quite poor at defining good practice.

    Which brings us back to Modernising Medical Careers, and the whole competency vs excellence debate

    Interesting.

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