Book Review: “Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking” by D. Q. McInerney

BeingLogicalThumbby Timothy Lane
Being Logical (Random House, 2004) by D. Q. McInerney, at the time a professor of logic and philosophy, is a general guide to logical reasoning and civil discourse. The author studies how to avoid bad arguments, for example by listening (or reading) carefully to what someone else is saying and getting the facts straight (the first of 10 general rules in the first part, which covers “preparing the mind for logic”). The second part looks at basic principles, dealing with subjects such as generalizations and categorical statements, the importance of defining terms, and analyzing causes that lead to events.

In part 3 the author gets into the language of logic. This includes the making of syllogisms and using conditional arguments. This section includes a lot of difficult language for the layman, but it also gives basic guidelines for how to use formal logic.

A good recent example of flawed logic can be seen in Elizabeth Warren’s argument that she considered herself an Indian because of a picture of her “mamaw” (having grown up with frequent visits to relatives in rural Kentucky, I must say it’s nice hearing such usages from a Massachusetts senator) showing her high cheekbones. According to Warren’s grandfather, all Indians had high cheekbones, and so Warren’s grandmother and mother (though by her own admission, not Warren herself). It shouldn’t have taken any knowledge of formal logic to realize that if all Indians have high cheekbones, Warren (who doesn’t) isn’t an Indian (and thus shouldn’t have claimed to be one in seeking college employment).

But the argument never made sense to begin with. Formed into a syllogism, we would have, “If a person is an Indian, that person has high cheekbones.” If we know that a person really is an Indian, then we could predict that the person has high cheekbones. If we know that a person doesn’t have high cheekbones, then we could conclude that the person isn’t an Indian. But if a person has high cheekbones, who knows? There could be some other explanation.

Part 4 covers “sources of illogical thinking.” Mostly these are attitudes such as skepticism or cynicism that have their place but can be taken too far. The author also covers “evasive agnosticism,” narrow-mindedness, and emotional disputation. A good rational, civil argument isn’t a quarrel; when emotional commitments come in, that changes. All told, the author lists 9 different sources of illogic.

The last part lists 28 logical fallacies (which people who’ve read enough of my blogs elsewhere may have encountered on occasion). Some of these deal with errors in formal logic, and others deal with well-known fallacies such as begging the question (fallacy 5), the straw man argument (fallacy 7), the ad hominem argument (fallacy 11), the red herring (fallacy 19), and special pleading (fallacy 25).

In addition, there are such fallacies as “laughter as diversionary tactic” (fallacy 20), which I suspect most active bloggers will have encountered numerous times. Some are given as guides, such as “consider more than the source” (fallacy 15). This last fallacy includes the “argument from authority,” but also the reflexive rejection of a known poor source. Thus, if one considers Barack Obama a pathological liar (as I do), then one is entitled to be skeptical of what he says, but such justified mistrust doesn’t actually disprove his argument.

This no doubt would be a hard book to locate, and it isn’t always easy for the layman to read. But McInerney does provide a useful guide to good thinking as applied to the discussion of political (or other) issues. • (4676 views)

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7 Responses to Book Review: “Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking” by D. Q. McInerney

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Note, I’m not sure what name he wanted to post under so I’m just using initials for now.

    That sounds like an interesting book, although you do mention it’s a challenging read. I want to know about “evasive agnosticism.” I think I suffer from that.

    As for Elizabeth Warren, I doubt that there were any fallacies involved. I think she thought that identifying as a Native American would give her “street cred.” I don’t mean that she totally made it up. Maybe her mamaw said that to her. But it was used (without any known factual basis) because it was politically useful to do so, and probably not because she made a logical error. Her logic actually turned out to be impeccable….until she was outed as a fraud.

    I’m of the mind that we are WAAAAY overdue for realizing that it’s a pretty nasty thing to be acting like a kinda-sorta Nazi and identifying supposedly advanced or desirable attributes based upon race. That this culture has dumbed itself and its morality down to see this as harmless is neither here nor there. Some of this stuff differs very little in kind on racial superiority theories of the Nazis.

    But now our culture (oddly) rewards people based on the color of the skin or their ethnicity. And rather than doing so because of a Master Race status, it’s now done in terms of Victim Race status.

    Good review, T.L. One thing our culture needs (me included) are lessons on critical thinking. I disagree with some of what are being called fallacies — or, really, their importance — but I think it’s good to be aware of this stuff. But things such as “narrow-minded” are often in the eye of the beholder. To a global warming alarmist, I am “narrow-minded” because I don’t believe their Chicken Little BS. Etc.

    And I don’t think good arguments necessarily go by the wayside just because a little emotion enters the picture. A little passion is often a good thing.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I generally use the full name. I edit a science fiction fanzine (where items like this appear), so there’s no need to hide my identity. I figure that either the NSA knows all about me, or they’ve concluded they don’t need to. (I don’t know which would be worse).
      McInerney sees evasive agnosticism as being, in effect, a determination not to make judgments or express opinions by claiming lack of knowledge. Obviously, agnosticism is reasonable in religion (and any other transcendental subjects), and in real world issues we will often lack the knowledge to make proper judgments. The evasive agnostic doesn’t want to make judgments and therefore wants to claim ignorance.
      I would agree that Elizabeth Warren claimed Indian ancestry so that she could benefit from diversity programs. But I also think the argument she used was one she genuinely believed to be valid, and I also note that no one in the synoptic media ever seemed to notice the flaws in her argument.
      As an addendum, I note that you managed to get a copy of the cover for the review icon. Very impressive; I wouldn’t have known it was available anywhere on the Internet.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Thanks, Timothy. You wouldn’t believe the confusion I often have to deal with. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for each and every article that is submitted. But sometimes they get submitted without the name to be used. And I can tell you that it gets complicated trying to keep the screen names with the real names and remembering who is incognito and who isn’t. But when in doubt, I won’t post someone’s real name. Glad we got that figured out.

        If you edit a science fiction fanzine, let me know if that’s something I can help advertise here (for free, of course). Is it a paper one or online? I love sci-fi so that would be another labor of love.

        Thanks for the explanation of evasive agnosticism. Now that I hear it, that makes sense.

        But I also think the argument she used was one she genuinely believed to be valid…

        TetVet had promised to review a book that he was reading called “Righteous Mind.” I read some reviews on it as Amazon and it sounded like an interesting book. One of the things said about it (and a phenomenon I have often noted) is that the “rational” mind isn’t necessarily so rational. What if often is is the part we use to craftily justify (to others or to ourselves) decisions that we have already made.

        I could’t agree more. But I don’t mean to say that the rational mind can’t be used for other things. But I think that’s a big one. So in regards to Elizabeth Warren, I think it’s very easy to get these cases where she wanted to believe that she was part Native American, and so the full “rational” processes of her mind kicked in, if only to convince herself of it.

        Regarding the graphic for the book cover, follow that link in the very first words of your review. They have that book for sale at….and even have it in Kindle format.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Funny you should mention the Haidt book. There was an article in The Week a year ago excerpted from it, and in the upcoming (eventually) issue of my fanzine I discuss some of the points, particularly the interesting fact that whereas conservatives and moderates can understand liberals, the reverse is not true. It fits in very well with the Hawkins article I mentioned as well.
          As for my fanzine (FOSFAX) being a labor of love, that’s certainly true — and not just for us, but for the friend who currently is the primary bankroll for its publication.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Timothy, I somewhat vowed to myself to allow StubbornThings to evolve somewhat organically even while hoping to hold it in a consistent direction (and not let it, say, become either a RINO haven or Paulbot hangout).

            I’m a big fan of sci-fi and find that “Progressive” politics and sci-fi are one and the same. Neither is particularly constrained to reality. Both often involved various Utopias or Dystopias. Wasn’t Ayn Rand a wonderful example of how the two could blend?

            I think I found information for FOSFAX online. Let me know if that isn’t you.

            If you’d like to share a couple of your sci-fi reviews, please do so. And I’ll include a link to your FOSFAX website and info on how to subscribe to your newsletter at the end of your articles. If these articles/reviews are fairly good, and you can do them often enough (once every two weeks?), I’d create another section for them (a menu item at the top of the site saying “Sci-Fi”).

            By the way, I used to read a lot of Ben Bova stuff. That website has some old info, and may not be yours, but it mentions Ben Bova’s “Venus.” Is that any good are far as you know?

            • Timothy Lane says:

              That’s us, but it’s old information. For one thing, we now receive mail at our own house instead of a post office box. Venus would have been reviewed by a friend, though I probably have a copy around here since I do sometimes read Bova. The issue we’re currently working on is 218.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Best of luck on your Fanzine. And if you send me a sci-fi review or other material, I’ll post it here as a way to advertise your fanzine. Or just give me the basic info on how to subscribe and such and I’ll put up a free advertisement for you in the right sidebar of this site.

                Me and some friends a LONG time ago put together a comics newsletter. It was a rather good newsletter, but it was more of a lark than a serious effort at a commercial enterprise. But it was certainly a lot of fun.

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