Logic and Status

Across the Inlet on a Foggy Day
Across the Inlet on a Foggy Day

Back in 2016, I attracted a lot of negative attention at Google for being logical (I’m the “other named plaintiff” on the James Damore lawsuit). Google ought to want to hire talented engineers, people who are characterized by their ability to think analytically and logically, but instead they are focused on filling quotas of people who have the right genitalia and the right skin tone. It’s not logical.

Since this sort of thing happens to a lot of analytical thinkers, I’d like to offer my analysis of the situation. If you find yourself often bewildered by the way people respond when you explain why they are wrong, this is for you.

A few preliminaries are in order. First, the word “logic” is used with careless abandon in common speech and culture. Mr. Spock believed that having emotions is not logical. In fact, he seemed quite emotionally attached to the idea. Some people use “you aren’t being logical” as a sort of meaningless taunt; it’s the “Nyah! Nyah! You’re STUPID!” of the college educated. Those with graduate degrees and pretensions of being an intellectual often take this a step further, loading their rhetorical guns with the names of a few logical fallacies like the birdshot loaded in pistols for trick shooting. The would-be intellectuals blast away at any argument they don’t like, hoping to score a lucky hit with one of their pet fallacies.

On the more serious side, “logic” can refer to a field of mathematics that deals with propositions and inference, or it can refer to the less formal study of language, reasoning, and related issues, focusing on form rather than content. When I talk about logic here, I am referring, not to the theory, but to the practice of analyzing arguments and beliefs by breaking them down into “parts” where parts may include the form, the assumptions, or any other aspects that can be used to detect bad thinking.

This is important: logic is not a method of persuasion or a technique for creating good arguments; it is a way of detecting bad arguments. More precisely, logic is a set of tools used to ferret out and correct mistakes in reasoning.

When you use logic to criticize the argument of an analytical thinker, he will generally respond by trying to refine and clarify his argument, but not everyone is an analytical thinker and a lot of people just get mad and even try to intimidate the person who points out their errors.

To an analytical thinker, this hostile response is baffling. Do they think that by defending their argument in a loud voice with a red face, that makes it a better argument? Do they think that if no one points out the weaknesses of their argument, that it is not therefore weak? Or, could it be that they just don’t care about having strong arguments or that they don’t care about the truth? The answer, I’m sad to have to conclude, is the last: they don’t care about the truth. For many people, an argument is not a search for truth but a dominance display, a competition for social status.

I first gained an inkling of this unhappy fact when I was in college. At the time, I was a young, naive analytical thinker who assumed that everyone cared about the truth, and that disagreements were just due to people having different knowledge, different core beliefs, and different powers of reasoning. Then one day I was alerted to a problem in this theory while having a friendly argument with a classmate.

I had cornered my classmate into an untenable position—or so I thought—until he took the remarkable step of simply denying reality. He claimed that the world is simply what we want it to be. I was nonplussed at this obviously false statement. I said (this may date me a bit) “If you were a POW in Vietnam being tortured, do you really expect me to believe that the world would be as you want it to be?” He answered that he would not be there. He would be elsewhere.

I said, “So if you have that power, why aren’t you rich and living on a tropical Island with Raquel Welch?” He said that he was exactly where he wanted to be, sitting in the Computer Center, typing punch cards for his programming project, and having a philosophical conversation with me. Although flattered that he chose me over Raquel Welch (I certainly would have chosen otherwise) I continued to probe the depths of his delusions. His responses were always slippery and contrary to observed reality. He simply asserted that facts are other than they are and had no shame about it. It was hard for me to believe that he really believed what he was saying, but I couldn’t imagine any motivation behind such a transparent deception.

For years after that discussion I still clung to the naive belief that everyone argues in good faith because I just could not imagine a reason not to. I learned the mistake of this belief in a conversation with a friend who told me a story about an argument with his brother. The argument occurred when they were both young teenagers, and it was about some matter of popular trivia such as who played the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island. My friend, knowing that he was right, and determined to win the argument, had gone to the trouble of looking up the answer and showing it to his brother (this was a nontrivial task in the days before search engines). His brother responded to the proof by simply refusing to acknowledge it. He just said, “No, I’m right, you’re wrong”.

My friend, a keen if cynical observer of the human condition, told me, “I realized then that I couldn’t win. It didn’t matter that I was right and that I could prove I was right, if I couldn’t get my brother to admit I was right, I couldn’t win.”

Within this comment is the insight that arguments aren’t always about truth. Sometimes they are a competition; and people cheat in competitions.

In fact, back in Classical Greece, debate was not only a competition, it was a part of the Olympic Games. Two men would stand up before a rowdy sports crowd and take turns questioning each other about some point of religion, ethics, philosophy, or science (the Greeks didn’t really distinguish them). The goal was for the questioner to trap the one being questioned into contradicting himself or otherwise making a logical mistake, real or apparent. The crowd would cheer clever answers and jeer bad ones.

It didn’t matter if the one being questioned had been tricked into using the same word with two different meanings so that he merely appeared to contradict himself, he still lost. It was all about showing your cleverness, not about being right. One man of this period bragged that he had solid arguments for and against every position. A group of itinerant scholars called sophists is associated with this competitive approach to debate, although it seems to have been more widespread than just them.

Socrates became famous in part for opposing the sophists and arguing that the goal of a debate should be to seek the truth and not merely to win. Aristotle was following the tradition of Socrates when he laid out the first system of logic. A lot of his work on logic involves analysis of the various tactics that clever people use to win arguments without having the truth on their side.

More important than Socrates or Aristotle was Euclid, the man who with his work on geometry invented axiomatic mathematics. I suspect Euclid’s world-shaping invention was inspired by the desire to avoid wasting time in competitive debates. In the axiomatic method, you either accept the axioms and the rest follows, or you reject the axioms and we have nothing to discuss. Competitive debates can only occur at the level of the axioms, and if you make the axioms simple and direct enough, they typically aren’t interesting topics of debate (though ironically, one of Euclid’s axioms became the focus of a centuries-long debate).

In axiomatic mathematics, you replace competition with cooperation. A mathematical theory is cooperative in the sense that it is seldom a solo work. A mathematical theory is often an ongoing project that spans generations or even millennia.

The final step in my journey of discovery (so far) came just a few weeks ago when I read this article by Joe Katzman. In it, he explains that Leftist politics is used as a form of status signaling. I think this observation is critical to understanding what is going on today in Silicon Valley.

Modern engineers are intellectual descendants of Euclid rather than of sophists (or Aristotle). We use the axiomatic method when we can, and when it doesn’t apply or is too cumbersome, we use some close approximation. When no close approximation applies, we still try to analyze arguments into simpler parts and to be clear about our assumptions.

We don’t argue with each other primarily as a competition, but as a cooperative venture seeking out solutions that will benefit the enterprise. This is not to say that arguments are unrelated to status, but they aren’t status competitions in which the winner establishes higher status than the loser.

In part this is because many engineers are smarter and more knowledgeable than their boss (though not as many as think they are), so it is simply a fact of life that the higher status person is expected to defer at times to the one with lower status and greater knowledge. When a question comes up, you don’t ask the highest-status person in the room what to do, you ask the guy who is most familiar with the area in question.

I suppose you could view this as a form of situational status. Junior engineers certainly enjoy it when the meeting comes around to an area that they are expert in, causing everyone to look to them for advice, but no one is threatened by someone else’s knowledge. Quite the contrary: we senior engineers often advise junior engineers to become experts in some area that is important to the enterprise but that the senior engineers aren’t interested in. It is a way for junior engineers to gain status, but senior engineers are not threatened by it; we appreciate that they are relieving us of a task we didn’t want to take on.

This background and culture is part of why many of us engineering types find ourselves in a persistent state of bewilderment about our social interactions. We have no idea that by arguing with someone we are threatening the other person’s social status. Consequently, we have no idea why the other party reacts with hostility.