You might remember a few weeks ago, I wrote that I wished I learned more about logic at school, particularly applying logic to prose arguments about complex and messy topics.

I've actually done a little bit of reading in this area, particularly Straight and Crooked Thinkingby Robert Thouless, which is a top notch book on the subject, filled with lots of examples.

You can walk away from a book like that feeling fully armed to face the mountebanks, quacks, hucksters and purveyors of snake oil who are out there trying to prey on your gullibility with beguiling words and smooth ways. Or perhaps with your newly sharpened logical razor, you will make better decisions, using the powers of science and reason to solve all of the problems that face you. Just like Doctor Who.

I certainly felt that way. Sadly, I didn't live up to my visions of logical glory. Stephen Bond has written a great piece about this focusing on the moral side of things. I'd like to take a look at some of the pragmatic failure modes, focusing on three ways I've screwed up by being too zealous with my baloney detection kit.

Awkward silence

Once I became conscious of all of the ways I could be wrong, suddenly it became very hard to say anything at all.

Was I really sure that the thing I was saying was true? How did I know? Did I use emotional language to make my point? Was I implying that a thing was true of all people when it was really only true of some?

Much easier to say nothing at all.

Maybe that's fine. I talk too much anyway, and it's probably good to have something to staunch the flow.

On the other hand, in some kinds of discussions – "crucial" confrontations, design critiques, brainstorming – what most parties want isn't perfectly formed logical assertions, but simply to get everyone's thoughts and questions on the table.

Selective application

It turns out I'm not great at tearing my own treasured beliefs to shreds. All of these logical tools are so much easier for me to apply when it's about something I already disagree with.

So if someone posts a thing about how shared mutable state is great, or how we should rewrite a functioning piece of software in a different language, or why we should kick out all of the immigrants, I whip out my baloney detection kit and point out their invalid sampling, their circular arguments, their appeals to moderation (also a fallacy!), their arguments of the beard and have at them. It's great fun. I doubt it actually helps anyone, least of all me.

This is double-edged suck. Not only do I miss the opportunity to learn from people who disagree with me, but I also miss the chance to gain a deeper understanding of the basis of my own opinions. If a belief is worth holding, it ought to be able to withstand a bit of rigorous scrutiny.

Colossal prat

Finally, rather than being a champion of enlightenment, I found it way too easy to end up being a colossal prat.

So often, people are just trying to express a half-formed idea and want their interlocutors to help it grow into something solid. Sometimes, they just want to have a conversation.

I know this is really obvious to most of you, but sometimes I do forget. The other day, we were talking on IRC about how so much software sucks. Onei person chimed in, saying "it's kind of silly to be angry for expecting too much".

Gasp! He uttered a tautology! Of course it's silly to be angry for expecting too much, that's precisely what "too much" means. Strictly speaking the sentence adds nothing to the conversation.

And yet, I knew what he meant. He meant that our expectations were too high and we should lower them and be happier, gentler people. But rather than agreeing or disagreeing with his actual point, I decided to put on my Logic Pants and point out his mistake.

Happily, he seemed to take it gracefully and his follow-up rephrasing carried genuine content. I still felt like a prat though.


I'm not trying to excuse sloppy thinking, nor do I want to set up a false dichotomy between "logical" and "useful". However, sometimes I can get more done, contribute more effectively and learn better from others when I relax the rigour a little. And that's not unreasonable, is it?

This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy project, a collaboration between myself and Bice Dibley. He chooses next week's word.