Making Logic Sexy
Do you know what a bilabial oral plosive is? Say it out loud, quietly if you’re in company. Bilabial oral plosive. By-LAY-bee-ul. Oral plosive. If you didn’t know what it was before, chances are by now you probably want to.
Well, it’s actually a category of phoneme produced by expelling air forcefully through the mouth in a manner that involves both lips, such as a b or p sound. Not filthy in the slightest, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair few linguistics students had their interest in the subject piqued by rude-sounding terminology.
Compare this to logical fallacies, which have rubbish-sounding Latin names that aren’t even remotely suggestive. Do you know what post hoc ergo propter hoc is? There’s no reason why you should unless you’re a Roman Legionary, and a posh Roman Legionary at that. It’s a fallacy of circumstantial causality. “I went canoeing and the day after I was diagnosed with diabetes. Clearly canoes cause diabetes.” Event 1 preceeded Event 2, therefore Event 1 must have caused Event 2. It seems obviously fallacious in the context of that example, but it’s a very common cognitive error.
There’s something a bit worrying about this disparity. Unless you have some pressing need to apply a global set of pronunciation standards, you are never going to need to know what a bilabial oral plosive is. On the other hand, you’re probably going to assume false circumstantial causality at least a dozen times before the end of the day. Knowing what our phonemes are called will probably not help us talk better, but knowing the terminology for common mistakes our brains are prone to make will help us think better.
The world is a distressingly complex place for walking talking monkeys like you and me to make sense of, so instead our brains make as many assumptions about it as they think they can get away with. Most of these assumptions were fine 80,000 years ago, but in a world squeezed full of digital communication, evidence-based medicine, mass-transit, mechanised infrastructure, politics, economics, engineering, urbanised society and a dizzying crapload of other complicated phenomena, these assumptions are often very wrong. It’s when our brains inappropriately make these assumptions that fallacies creep in, like mischievous imps, to play cruel games with our ability to reason properly.
It’s not easy to make logic sexy. T’Pol from Star Trek: Enterprise was a good effort, but she ultimately spent far too much time rubbing herself with detox gel and not enough deconstructing the validity of a priori propositions. There are other angles we can approach it from, though. I can’t help but feel a lot of the PR problems encountered by reason and critical thinking stem from the use of so much Latin terminology. It makes the subject seem elitist, when at its heart it’s a set of ideas for addressing thinking problems endemic to the whole of humanity. We should be taught this stuff as children, but the way it’s packaged makes it inaccessible to anyone but enthusiasts, obnoxious internet users and aforementioned posh Roman Legionaries.
Maybe we can’t make logic sexy, but what if we can make it smutty? What if post hoc ergo propter hoc were known as the Massive Balls Fallacy, with an example about a man who erroneously thinks the use of heavy bowling balls improves his performance? We’d all remember that one, wouldn’t we? Let’s teach them as innocuous double-entendres to unsuspecting seven-year-olds, and as they grow up it’ll cement itself into their brains. Simple parables illustrating critical thinking will be immortalised into adulthood as knob gags and risqué puns, celebrated across all educational backgrounds for generations to come.
If I could go down in history for one thing, I think promoting the discipline of logical reasoning by teaching kids smutty playground rhymes would be my number one choice.