It’s All Spock’s Fault

37 MinutesAs you have probably heard, last week the Chicago Tribune published an obituary for facts. The obituary offered this post-mortem from Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University:

“There was an erosion of any kind of collective sense of what’s true or how you would go about verifying any truth claims,” Poovey said. “Opinion has become the new truth. And many people who already have opinions see in the ‘news’ an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact.”

The real cause of death, however, was not revealed in the obituary. As revealed here on Channel 37 for the first time, the truth is this: fact was subjected to logic deprivation.

Logic is defined as the study of valid reasoning, as established by valid argument. Facts — whether physical, philosophical, legal, mathematical, or otherwise — are basically the agreed-upon results of valid arguments. Logic is, in essence, the umbilical cord that keeps facts fed and nurtured. If no one can agree on what’s a fact anymore, then it’s probably because people don’t know how to use logic to determine a fact in the first place. No logic, no facts.


"Who, me?"

Before I proceed any further, a disclaimer: I am a lifelong Star Trek fan. So it pains me to say that I think the origins of the current Logic Gap can be traced to everyone’s favorite science fiction alien, Mister Spock. Let’s face it, when most people hear the word “logic,” they think of the pointy-eared, blue-shirted science officer from the Enterprise. Not Aristotle, who invented it. Not Bacon, or Frege, or Russell, who refined it.

Let’s look at a couple of the popular misconceptions about logic that have permeated our cultural consciousness since the advent of Star Trek:

  • To be logical is to be unemotional. Vulcans eschewed emotion for logic, thereby establishing them in our minds as polar opposites. But there’s really nothing about logical argument that requires the practitioner to be devoid of excitement, passion, anger, or sadness. The validity of an argument can be compromised by emotion if the practitioner lets the emotion introduce a flaw into his or her argument, but that’s not the same thing.
  • Spock’s logic counterbalanced Kirk’s intuitive nature and McCoy’s emotional sentiments. Actually, Kirk and McCoy were incredibly logical people. Kirk is the guy who talked at least two computers and a robot (Landru, the M-5, and Nomad) into self-destructing by using irrefutably logical arguments. I mean, to convince a computer to blow itself up takes big logical cojones. And McCoy is an excellent diagnostician (you have to be, to figure out which alien disease is afflicting this week’s poor redshirt). Diagnostics is a logical process. Both Kirk and McCoy were known for their emotionality, and yet they routinely pulled off logic that rivaled what Spock was reputed to be able to accomplish. (See previous point.)


"My God, you're right!"

In today’s popular sentiment, we’ve taken “calm” to be the same thing as “logical.” We don’t test the argument; we test the demeanor of the person making the argument. It’s an old trick of rhetoric to get your debate opponent to become emotional. But the reason for doing that used to be to try to them off their argument. Now, it’s to demonstrate the invalidity of their argument because the person is emotional.

We can and should take comfort from the fact (*ahem*) that facts aren’t really dead where it truly matters — facts and the logic that feeds them are still very much alive and well in the law, science, mathematics, and medicine. But in the popular culture, there are a lot of people out there who are making persuasive arguments that they claim are logical and rational, but which aren’t being tested on the merits. We need to be doing a lot more of that.

xkcd - Wikipedian protester

Logic is the art of verifiable argument -- the key word being "verifiable."

Fact isn’t quite dead yet. We need to resuscitate the art of skilled logical argument in daily life if we want to survive as a society.

It’s only logical.

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