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.