Wednesday, 19 May 2010

On lazy thinking and errors of logic

Did you know that all Muslims are willing suicide bombers? Or that all brown eyed people are bank robbers? Bet you weren't aware that eating food guarantees death within one hundred and fifty years?

The above statements are all of course, ridiculously untrue or in the case of the final question, deceptive in its composition. You probably caught on immediately to all three fallacies because they are purposely outrageous. Yet, sadly, many equally ridiculous errors of logic exist in both British and Thai society and spread every day.

To use a topical example, the activities of the red shirt protesters in Thailand - whom I do not support - have met with a whole number of sweepingly ignorant remarks and media reporting in recent weeks. With the attempted assassination last night of General Sah Deang ("red commander" , someone whom I dislike and disagree with) a whole wave of ignorant remarks has spread throughout Thai Facebook groups.

Let's take a look at a typical quote doing the rounds:

"They [the red shirts] deserve it. They caused so many problems. They've used bombs themselves, they've caused great inconvenience to most people and they want to destroy the Emerald Buddha"

The prejudices and false understanding of the red shirt movement has already been dealt with by myself here: let's now take a look at some of the logical fallacies going on here.

The first, easiest to spot and yet most common error we see here is the fallacy of biased sampling in the idea that "the red shirts used bombs". This is a reference to sporadic grenade attacks on one Skytrain station and government building in Bangkok. In both cases, a maximum of two people carried out the attack and there is absolutely zero evidence suggesting red shirts did it.

But let's suppose red shirts were responsible for the attacks. The number of red shirt protesters could be estimated at, say, fifteen thousand people. So even if we imagine the four attackers were red shirts, that would account for a grand total of 0.0265 of the group. I imagine that's a similar or even smaller ratio than that of suicide bomber Muslims, criminal homosexuals or blue eyed rapists, but imagine the outcry if we tried to push any of those statements into popular thought.

So why do people think in such an erroneous way? In part, it is simply lazy thinking and received wisdom, but popular media must also take a large part of the blame. The more an incident - especially a violent or scary incident - is reported, the greater precedence it takes in our minds. Often that precedence is out of proportion with all risk. For example, during the bird flu scare, lots of Thais avoided eating chicken after about three farmers tragically died of the illness. I doubt many of those people avoided travelling by motorbike despite the three hundred or more equally tragic road deaths that month.

But other fallacies exist. The statement ( "they've caused so much disruption" ) also contains the old 'two wrongs make a right' argument that is so prevalent in Thailand these days. This argument is popular because it is basically an excuse to release the bad side that we all have inside us, that side that enjoys revenge and suffering on people with dislike. In short it says: "These people have done something to upset me, so it's OK for me to enjoy watching them suffer."

I fall for it as much as anyone else. The problem with this argument of course is that as well as losing its user any kind of moral high ground, it can work backwards. Pretty much any religious, ethnic or political group in any country can claim to have been wronged by any other at some point in time. Does that allow us to sit back and smirk when some form of revenge takes place? If we use the TWMAR argument, where does it ever stop?

The final sentence: "they wanted to destroy the Emerald Buddha" contains several errors in one short sentence. In fact, this was a total government fabrication reported widely in the media (which again demonstrates the power of the media to control our thinking). Why was this nonsense made up? The first reason is known as: "poisoning the wells".

"Poisoning the wells" is not the same as an ad-hominem attack (which this sentence also contains) because the idea of 'poisoning the well' is not only to discredit the target, but to ensure that any claim or intention stated by the target in future is considered false. In our example case, this works because the Emerald Buddha is a revered building in Thailand and any attack on it would imply terrorism and a hatred of the nation.

The final error I will point out here is the appeal to authority. In the case the authority is the DSI (Department of Special Investigation) who made the claim of the attempted attack on the Emerald Buddha by red shirts. The fallacy goes like this - the DSI are specialists on crime, the DSI make a statement about the red shirts planning crime, so the statement must be true.

OK let me indulge in one more observation. I don't know the name for this error, but it is clear: "Red shirts and yellow shirts are as bad as each other". In short, because they are both political, they are both brightly coloured and both protest. Ergo, they are equally evil. This error of thinking is so obvious when laid out that I surely don't need to explain the poor logic. Yet, we hear such comments every day.

Here's a few other random examples of errors in logic or judgment. In some cases I have given examples and explanations.

1) The appeal to force.

If you don't agree with me, something scary will happen.
"If we don't use ID cards in the UK, then we won't catch terrorists."

2) Euphemisms

In my personal experience, when right wing groups are involved in any kind of conflict, it is "imperialism" "right wing violence" etc. When leftists do it its is "direct action" , "protests" "conflicts with authority" etc.

This works because usage of certain vocabulary can greatly alter our judgment of a situation.

3) Argument to false authority

Do not confuse this with the "argument to authority" which concerns someone who actually has some specialised knowledge on the topic. The false authority does not, though may pretend otherwise.

The head of the IPCC says anthropogenic global warming is real so many people believe it to be so. But this man is a train engineer, why do we allow him to make such a decision for us?

4) Lying or false sources

"The Loch Ness monster is real. It says so on the webssite I read." (that I created myself).

"It's real, I read it on wikipedia."

5) Appeal to personal charm.

"Ahisit and Obama are both young, smart looking and good speakers. Therefore, they are the best people to run their respective countries."

6) Distraction or changing the subject.

Student A: "Did you steal that money from my desk?"

Student B: "You're just saying that because you failed your exam last week!"

7) Appeal by anecdote

A favourite of British politicians and used by all three candidates in the Prime Ministerial debates. Personal anecdotes are effective because they put a personal and often lucid slant on things that can make the argument seem more powerful than it really is.

"A lot of British people are very happy about the ID cards. Last week I met a lovely, sweet elderly lady living in a small cottage who told me she wanted an ID card because....."

In the example above, the little sweet old lady can make us forget that the vast majority of people believe ID cards are wrong.

8) Argument from selective or limited experience

"Most Thai women dress like bar girls. I spent a week on Nana Plaza and that was all I saw" (selective or biased experience)

"Polish people love tennis. I met two Poles last week who bought tickets for Wimbledon" (Limited experience)

9) Weasel wording

10) To be nominated by anyone who cares to do so!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Reflections on elections

So as the back-room bargaining continues, we can begin to reflect on the election of 2010. So much commentary has - and will continue to be -  poured onto the topic that I'd rather sum up my own views with a few bullet points:

1) One year ago David Cameron was the golden boy of UK politics. He was the next Tony Blair, leading the Conservatives to ridiculous leads in every opinion poll in every media channel. That the Conservatives failed to win a clear majority last week is an utter and abysmal failure on behalf of Cameron and his party. No matter how they dress it up, there is no other conclusion that can be made.

2) I worry about people in this country. How can we continue to vote for the two 'big' parties when it's so clear that they have no ideology,  no differences and in any case wield no real control over our laws?. What is the point in getting so excited about electing a government that has very little power left in the days of the EU?

3) Just weeks ago, Clegg and Cameron were slinging mud at each other in a desperate bid to finish first in the polls. Two weeks later, they are talking about running the country together. It's all about money and power.

4) Logically, the Lib Dems and Labour should have far more in common than the Tories and Lib Dems. The fact that the latter pair still want to work together should be all the wake up call Conservative voters need.

5) Is it time for proportional representation? UKIP polled over 900,000 votes yet none of those voters will be represented in parliament. The Green Party got around 200,000 votes and have an MP.

I still desperately hope Clegg will make a deal with Labour and that deal will involve a referendum on PR. (A referendum on our sovereignty is out of the question, I gather) I have zero faith in Labour and little in the Lib Dems but if the Tories get what they deserve - a fifth term as opposition - that fallout could finally finish them and allow a real party to take their place.

Whatever happens next, we face tough times with an inexperienced and unstable parliament at the helm. I wish them luck.