Weasels are not all bad!
November 25, 2009 6:52 AM   Subscribe

Will taking a logic class really help me in talking about things like socieconomic issues that are often emotionally charged?

For instance, I was recently discussing an article I had read about the disparity of grade school education between poor urban areas and more affluent suburban areas. One of the terms used was "income inequality", which is a term used to describe the difference in income between the poorest and wealthiest. I was told this was a "weasel word" - that inequality was a weasel word!!!

I was a bit flabbergasted. It's kind of obvious when two things aren't equal. In this instance, the difference between tax bases of schools meant that some schools had recess, art, well-paid teachers, new textbooks, and computers. And others have bathrooms that don't work, bad lunches, overcrowded classrooms etc.

I was then asked if it wasn't the responsiblity of the parents to make sure their children were educated. Everything I said that related to socioeconomic realities was disregarded as not based in reality.

These aren't idiotic people I'm dealing with. Some of them aren't necessarily conservative. But sometimes having conversations about "issues of the day", so to speak, is mind-boggling.

Is there a way to frame socioeconomic issues that doesn't come across as emotional and filled with "weasel words"?
posted by sio42 to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Will taking a logic class really help me in talking about things like socieconomic issues that are often emotionally charged?

Given the emotional nature of the way you phrase the rest of this question, no, it is not likely that taking a logic class will allow you to discuss socioeconomic issues dispassionately.

You seem to be conflating the desire to understand logic with the emotion you invest in something like, say, the educational outcomes of children from wealthy families as opposed to poor families.

If you can find a way to remove your emotional reaction from an argument you will find it much easier to parse the logical flaws of both your own and others' arguments.
posted by dfriedman at 6:56 AM on November 25, 2009

Taking a logic class will help you to understand which types of arguments are valid and which are not. It will not help with the fact that your friends are apparently douchebags who would rather belittle you than have a conversation with you.
posted by decathecting at 6:57 AM on November 25, 2009 [10 favorites]

It sounds like you were just arguing with someone more forceful than you.

What would really help (in this case) is really educating yourself about the issue so that you have sources to back you up. Logic and rhetoric won't help if you just don't understand what you're talking about. The problem with the American educational system debate is that no one has a definite answer. I can tell you this much, as someone who lives with a teacher in an underperforming public school: the underfunding and poor facilities are indeed an enormous part of the problem, and the "parents' responsibility" argument ignores the fact that impoverished parents have little choice in the hours and length of their workdays. Basically-- your instincts here are right (at least to a degree); you'd benefit more from deeper research than from learning formal arguments.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:01 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was told this was a "weasel word" - that inequality was a weasel word!!!

I was then asked if it wasn't the responsiblity of the parents to make sure their children were educated.

It's unlikely that anyone who says things like this in the context of a discussion about public education is interested in having a discussion in good faith. You seem to have a reasonable grasp of how a good faith debate ought to be structured; the solution is to seek out people who are interested in having one, and find something innocuous to talk about with everybody else.
posted by Kwine at 7:02 AM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

dfriedman - yes - i want to remove my emotional reaction. i guess i don't know how to see logical flaws, so i was hoping a logic class would help with that rather than just reading a book.

decathecting - i realize how my question may have portrayed those i have been interacting with. they are older than me and not douchebags. they just have a different worldview. i don't feel belittled, just flustred because i don't know how to argue well. they wouldn't care if i called them out on something, i think they would enjoy it. and i would feel more like i wasn't just saying "oh the children!"
posted by sio42 at 7:05 AM on November 25, 2009

If you really want to take a class, take rhetoric - you'll learn a bit of formal logic but mostly how to structure more persuasive arguments. The only other thing you can do is have more facts on your side, which means reading more.
posted by graymouser at 7:08 AM on November 25, 2009

As I say, if you are aware of your emotional reaction and can find a way to separate that from the argument presented to you, then a logic class will help.

But, given the way you posit the question that doesn't seem likely.

But I don't know you. Maybe you are self-aware enough to find a way to remove emotion.

Here's a good test. Find a proposition with which you disagree, such as "Poor families are to blame for their children's woeful academic performance" and then defend it in an essay. If you can defend a proposition with which you vehemently disagree then you are, by necessity, removing emotion from it and engaging solely with its logic.

Not many people will be able to do that.
posted by dfriedman at 7:09 AM on November 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

oinopaponton - i guess that's the other thing...i do read a lot on this. but how on earth do you remember exactly which article and author and journal it was without carrying around notecards? i am amazed at how some people can cite sources left and right.

kwine - i see your point - i guess i do enjoy having a conversation with someone who doesn't agree with me. the pub ed question doesn't have an easy answer (just like healthcare) so it's sometimes good to hear what other people think. but these things come up at gatherings and people know i'm interested and i would think it would be weird to be like, no i'd rather not discuss it.

i'd like to think i don't want conflicting things, but maybe i do. maybe everything sounds emotional to someone who is convinced that the issue is "emotional".
posted by sio42 at 7:10 AM on November 25, 2009

Actually, if your conversation-mates are older and more knowledgeable than you are, especially if they're aware that they have the upper hand in that way, I'd say it's even more likely that they're being jerks. Dismissing an argument because of the words someone used to describe it (instead of telling them why the argument is wrong or providing counterarguments) is not a good-faith method of arguing.

I should note that I'm probably one of the people who disagrees with you on this particular issue, and I agree that you probably are more emotionally invested in this issue than a lot of people are, which can make it harder to have an open conversation about it. But it's definitely not impossible to have a good debate about an issue you care deeply about, and your friends are creating a situation that makes that goal more difficult to reach.

I'd be happy to have a debate about it in MeMail or MetaTalk or wherever. And I do think that it would help you to read some more information on the topic from smart people on all sides of the arguments, just to understand what the various points of view are and the reasons people might believe them. But it drives me nuts when people refuse to engage with someone's arguments because they don't like the way those arguments are presented (especially when those people agree with me and, by being jerks, are missing opportunities to convince others that we're right).
posted by decathecting at 7:23 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

The only way to have a rational discussion is for all participants to be rational. If you are being rational and the people you're talking to aren't, you're eating soup with a fork.

In my experience, a conversation between a person being rational and a person not being rational rarely works. If you want to make it work -- and if "make it work" means getting all participants to be rational -- then you have to deal with the irrationality first, before making your argument.

In other words, you have to drop your argument and do whatever you can to get the other person into your rational frame of mind (and good luck with that!). Once he's there with you, you can pick up the rational fork again.

A logic class will help you explain and defend your ideas rationally -- meaning in a way that another person-who-is-being-rational will be forced to accept, assuming your argument is valid. If the person isn't being rational, logic is worthless.

A class will also help you pinpoint flaws in the other person's "logic." For instance, if he says, "I fucking KNOW I'm right, because three experts agree with me!" you can think, "Aha! He's appealing to authority!" But he's not really doing that. On the surface, his words are doing that, but he's not operating under a rational system. His real message is "Is so! Is SO! IS SO!" and you can't combat that with logic.

It will not help with the fact that your friends are apparently douchebags who would rather belittle you than have a conversation with you.

I've never met anyone completely rational or completely irrational. There's a spectrum and people tend to veer towards one side or the other. But even the most rational people can surprise you. They (myself included) will lose their ability to think logically under certain circumstances. Most people have at least one "Is so! Is SO! IS SO!"* topic. When you come up against that, you generally have two choices: you can cut your losses and agree to disagree, or you can jump into the emotional fray and have a good, old-fashion, playground venting session.

One final note: if you're constituted like me, applying logic will often make you see that both sides on an argument have value and that people are probably arguing because they haven't thought through some basic assumptions or are making false assumptions about the other side. You will then think you're in the perfect position to be the peacemaker. You can tell A what's right about B's argument and B what's right about A's argument.

The result will usually be that both A and B will get really pissed off at you.

When people are irrationally arguing, they don't WANT to reason their way out of it. The want to argue.

* When people start is-so-ing, it's often because their point of view is crucial to their survival (or lifestyle, ethical system, self-esteem or something equally important to them). When something is that important to someone, of course he's going to fight to maintain it. Know that this is what you're up against. You are not going to get the other person to be rational unless you deal with the survival issue. If you are able to pinpoint how your view threatens the other person, you MAY be able to move him into a rational mindset by first dispelling that threat.
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 AM on November 25, 2009 [8 favorites]

i don't have to reply right now, but will do so later, decatheting and grumblebee.

i think you both are seeing where i want to go with this.

posted by sio42 at 7:28 AM on November 25, 2009

A logic class won't really help. Formal logic is pretty much divorced from the real world. There's no way to get an emotional rise out of "if A and B then C not D."

However, a class that involves a significant amount of expository writing will help. Anything that forces you to consider and argue a point, support your position, and counter objections. Still, if you find yourself getting worked up when discussing issues of the day, you'll just need to get better at keeping cool. The only class that would get close to helping with that (that I can think of) would be acting..
posted by adamrice at 7:29 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Reading on a topic is not about being able to cite things off the top of your head to support what you already decided, it's about introducing yourself to enough different points of view that you can predict responses and not be shocked when you hear someone question you.

And please, do some research in finding INTELLIGENT people who happen to disagree with you, don't just assume that they're all taking their talking points from Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. At minimum, look into periodicals such as National Review, The Weekly Standard, or Reason.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:34 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Logic in the strict sense in which it's taught in a classroom is really not equivalent to logic in the broader sense of proceeding in a linear manner through a chain of reasoning. If someone makes irrelevant accusations, misconstrues your words uncharitably, refuses to respond to your point, etc., none of that is "illogical" in the sense of propositional logic. Here you get a decent overview of what propositional logic looks like. What you're talking about sounds more like willful obtuseness rather than strictly logical errors.

I found logic really interesting, but the class I took was rather worthless; I found you can learn basic logic in a few weeks just by working through a textbook. Quine wrote a logic textbook that's really enjoyable to read, called Elementary Logic, though nowadays his symbolism is very outdated. But no it won't help you with someone who just refuses to see your point.
posted by creasy boy at 7:35 AM on November 25, 2009

Seconding a rhetoric class (although I've never taken one).

I found logic interesting at the time but almost completely forgettable after the fact. As far as I'm concerned if you want to be better at dispassionate argument, you need to read and write as much as you can, as well as actively seek these conversations.

When someone tells you "that's kind of a weasel word," don't be afraid to directly challenge their statement. Don't get worked up about it, just point out how they are not really addressing your arguments. Go on the offensive and try not to let yourself be bullied.
posted by hamandcheese at 7:35 AM on November 25, 2009

Your colleague pulling this "weasel word" bullshit is reacting to your introduction of class into a discussion that is not explicitly about class, per se. Welcome to arguing with those older and (I'm assuming) wealthier than you are. It's a peculiar American taboo to talk about class and privilege- you'll hear claims that it's because here in America, there's just so much class mobility (which hasn't been true for decades, if ever); in reality, it's because it often reminds you of your personally culpability in the system.

The second aspect of his argument- that it is the responsibility of parents (as opposed to, I'm again assuming, The State) to educate their children is an assumption that I don't think you can win over. There's a lot of sociological writing from the early 20th century arguing both sides of this issue, but I don't think you can definitely point to research that "proves" either side.

Bottom line, I don't think that going to some kind of logic class will help you engage better with these folks. They're not necessarily using logical fallacies, nor do you need to engage in some kind of rhetorical jujitsu to gain the upper hand. Try accepting that their beliefs are simply grounded in principles other than your own and work from there. Ask questions. You may have an easier time discussing the implications of their assumptions than proving your own assumptions right.
posted by mkultra at 7:37 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

As an example of a logical error: If I say, "If it's raining I'll be carrying an umbrella", and then you see me with an umbrella and conclude that it's raining, that's not a logically sound conclusion. "If it's raining, I'll be carrying an umbrella" is not equivalent to "if I'm carrying an umbrella then it's raining." Though it's probably raining in that case, strictly speaking it doesn't follow from the premises.

People sometimes make this kind of logical error, but it happens a lot more often that they're just obtuse or disingenuous or ideologically blinded and it has nothing to do with logic.
posted by creasy boy at 7:41 AM on November 25, 2009

Sure, take a logic class. Perhaps consider taking a class on ethics, too. While neither of these things will necessarily help you win arguments, it will help you understand the different ethical systems through which these arguments are often developed and the flaws in the arguments of those arguing against you. In other words, it might not help you change other people's minds, but it probably will help you feel more secure in your own positions, assuming they're rationally and ethically developed in the first place.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:46 AM on November 25, 2009

Taking a formal logic class to improve how you argue is kind of like taking an algebra class to improve how you manage your money.
posted by hought20 at 7:46 AM on November 25, 2009 [7 favorites]

People sometimes make this kind of logical error, but it happens a lot more often that they're just obtuse or disingenuous or ideologically blinded and it has nothing to do with logic.

Actually, people's arguments on emotional topics are usually chock full of logical fallacies. A good logic class will give you at least a grounding in recognizing some of these.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:47 AM on November 25, 2009

I'm putting in my vote for a rhetoric class as well. Logic classes focus on formal logic rather than tracking conversational logic, which seems to be what you're looking for.

There's also the fact that, like a lot of people have pointed out, your classmates aren't necessarily rooting their own arguments in logic but their own preconceived beliefs of, in this case, sociological realities. A friend of mine sent me a link recently about belief vs. skepticism (in the context of scientific argument) that might have some relevance toward how to approach your classmates: http://www.csicop.org/si/show/why_bad_beliefs_dont_die/

So, the fact that you do approach your argument from a logical standpoint trumps the emotional weight of these issues (I'd be willing to bet that if you prodded them your less-emotional classmates would get just as flustered); and, since your classmates aren't necessarily placing a high priority on logic alone, really what you need is a way to persuade people. Rhetoric ahoy!
posted by foulowl at 7:47 AM on November 25, 2009

Just wanted to chime in to reinforce dfriedman's suggestion above-- practicing devil's-advocacy is an absolutely wonderful way to get past your own knee-jerk emotional reactions to an issue and make sure you're able to engage with other people's arguments clearly and cogently.

In this case, the fact that you didn't "get" the critique that the other side was making seems especially to point to your needing to engage more thoroughly with opposing viewpoints. The "weasel word" objection appears on the face of it to be an argument about premises-- "income inequality" is a weasel word insofar as it suggests that (a) people have no personal responsibility for their economic situation, and (b) all disparities in income are unfair and a social injustice, because we all know Inequality is Bad, mmmmkay.

Now, maybe these premises are right and maybe they're wrong, and maybe you do or don't believe them, but understanding your opponents' arguments more thoroughly would have allowed you at that point to say, "OK, maybe we need to take a step back and talk about each of our assumptions about income and personal responsibility here," instead of fuming and feeling mind-boggled. Once you've established that there's a disagreement about premises, it's completely pointless to go on arguing the wider issue-- what you need to do is go back to find the source of the disagreement and hammer that out before you can proceed. That's why I'd disagree with all the suggestions here about taking a rhetoric class to be able to produce more polished and attractive arguments: ultimately, the most beautiful and compelling speech in the world will be wasted if you're talking past, instead of to, your audience.
posted by Bardolph at 8:12 AM on November 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

You're assuming that discussing rationally and logically is the optimal solution to any disagreement.

Not everyone subscribes to this.

To some people, particularly ones without a high level of formal education, "logical discussion" is itself weaselly. It's weaselly because it's dispassionate. You can use logical arguments to put forth any viewpoint you like; a trained debater will usually win a logical argument against someone unfamiliar with the rules of debate, regardless of whether the position is right or not. In fact it's common for people with a "logical" brain to point out the flaws in another argument, whether they agree with it or not!

So, approaching an emotional subject with logic is equivalent to saying "I clearly see how important and emotionally charged this issue is to you. I don't care about the subject myself one whit, but I'm so invested in being right at all times that I'm willing to use tricky word-games to negate your feelings"

To conduct a disagreement with this kind of person, you do it on their terms. If you don't care much about the issue and they do, they win already and you shut up. That's the rules.
If you DO care about it, then you show that you care by illustrating your emotional involvement. You tell a story that illustrates your point and why this point is important to you. You allow the tone of your voice to show that it's important to you.

Then you and the other person silently assess who is the MOST emotionally involved with the issue, and that person wins the argument.

This approach to argument is fundamentally not-weaselly, because you're arguing from your heart, not your brain.

Amusingly, a logical person faced with this kind of argument is likely to think "Well, this person's argument can be ignored because they're clearly angry and not thinking clearly or logically. Besides, one anecdote is not data!". Whereas the emotional person faced with a logical argument thinks "Well, this person's argument can be ignored because it's clearly not important to them... it's just academic, and therefore not grounded in the real world at all".
posted by emilyw at 8:16 AM on November 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

Logic could be helpful for you, as others have said, in recognizing the logical fallacies of others. But if you really want to approach this subject from a calm, rational point of view, you need economics and sociology. Without those your aren't equipped to construct the arguments that a logic course will help you formulate.

The directions for Legos are only good if you've got the right Legos to build with...
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:42 AM on November 25, 2009

dfriedman - yes - i want to remove my emotional reaction. i guess i don't know how to see logical flaws, so i was hoping a logic class would help with that rather than just reading a book.

Logic is just a type of mathematics. It won't change your emotional reaction to actual things. And unfortunately most people are impervious to logical arguments anyway. Like your friend who said "Inequality" was a weasel word. That makes no sense, and even if it did it wouldn't make any difference in the underlying soundness of your position. (The point of a 'weasel word' is to minimize the negative aspects of your own position -- like saying 'pro choice' vs. 'pro life' rather then 'fetus killing' vs. 'forced pregnancy').

But the problem isn't the supposedly weasilyness of the word, they're just looking for an excuse to ignore what you say, or nitpick something small to avoid dealing with the central argument.

Logical argumentation can only work on people who actually want to find the correct answer and are willing to (and smart enough) to think things through.
posted by delmoi at 8:44 AM on November 25, 2009

Also, I would encourage you to go buy some books on different aspects of philosophy on Amazon, rather then taking a class right away. Bertrand Russell's the problems of philosophy is out of copyright and can be read online for free. It doesn't deal directly with logic too much but it's really interesting reading.

Anyway I've always found that on these topics adsorbing the information via reading works just as well as attending a class. If you're self motivated, you shouldn't have too much trouble learning on your own. You could do another ask me asking for specific books rather then asking whether or not you should take a class. (Also, some classes might not be as good as others, it could be hit or miss)
posted by delmoi at 8:51 AM on November 25, 2009

You can use logical arguments to put forth any viewpoint you like;

I really liked your response, and I favorited it. I know what you meant by the statement I quoted. However, you can't really use logic to put forth any viewpoint you like. Perhaps you can use the TOOLS of logic (possibly perverting them) or some rhetorical forms that look like logical arguments, but you can't use actual logic that way.

If you could, you could make two logically sound arguments, one proving that 1 + 1 = 2 and the other proving that 1 + 1 = 3. Since that's a contradiction, they can't both be true. There's FAULTY logic in at least one of the arguments.

All cows are white.
Daisy is a cow.
Therefore daisy is green

... is not logic. It's a series of statements in the form of a syllogism, but it's nonsense. It's faulty logic.

Rooting this to the OP's question: in the RARE event that two people are having a deeply rational argument with conflicting points of view, a logic class will give you the tools to find the fault in one (or both) of the views. But, like I said, such arguments are extremely rare.

A more interesting and troubling issue is this: it's not really the case that most people argue from a 100% rational or 100% emotional position. Most people argue using an ugly mixture of the two. THIS is what makes arguments so difficult to maneuver.

As a culture, we value both rationalism AND deep feeling. So emilyw is right, we tend to ignore the guy who is arguing like Mr. Spock. On the other hand, we also tend to ignore the person who is being overly emotional ("He's just upset right now.")

People who see themselves as rationalists don't like to admit that any part of their argument might be "tainted" by emotional irrationality. On the other hand, many of them don't want to be seen as dispassionate.

Meanwhile, emotional people want to be taken seriously, so they use rhetoric that sounds profoundly (or vaguely) logical when arguing.

It's very rare to hear an argument that's not a mess, IF you consider the goal of the argument to be expressing clear points of view and reaching a consensus (or at least an understanding) based on "just the facts, ma'am." (On the other hand, if you think the point of an argument is for everyone to get things off their chests, you'll be happier more often.)

Most arguments are really complicated, because both of these goals are present at once, including other goals, such one person wanting to impose his will on others or one person "just wanting to be heard" or wanting to save face. Often, a single arguer can have several of these goals at the same time. Often, people's goals shift during the course of an argument.

This is why we feel so pleased when, say, we read a thread about abortion (or whatever) on Metafilter where everyone stays calm, respectful and rational (though sometimes passionate). When such a thread appears, people say things like, "I was happily surprised..." This is because such discussions are not the norm.
posted by grumblebee at 9:06 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The most I've ever learned about SES and children are in educational statistics classes where we work with national datasets.
posted by k8t at 9:26 AM on November 25, 2009

grumblebee's got you on the right path. I'll say that a logic class would be useful in that it would prepare you for more advanced classes on motivation and persuasion.
posted by boo_radley at 9:28 AM on November 25, 2009

Well, the thing about debating people at a party or work or whatever is that it's not an Officially Sanctioned Match. There is no referee to yell "Point- white!" or "Low blow!" It's a streetfight, and anything goes. No one is obliged to respect the rules of logic or anything else. In my experience, the person who wins is simply the less polite person- because the person with the better sense of social graces will give in or back off before things get ugly. So, decide which person you want to be.

Re: the actual argument:

I was a bit flabbergasted. It's kind of obvious when two things aren't equal. In this instance, the difference between tax bases of schools meant that some schools had recess, art, well-paid teachers, new textbooks, and computers. And others have bathrooms that don't work, bad lunches, overcrowded classrooms etc.

I was then asked if it wasn't the responsiblity of the parents to make sure their children were educated.

What the guy did was to completely ignore your point and say something that is almost a non-sequitur. If we're talking about all parents in the world as a group, obviously some do a good job and some do a bad job.

But that's not what you were discussing. You were talking about whether the *opportunities* given to rich parents and children are equal to those given to poor parents and children. Whether any individual person behaves "responsibly" has no bearing at all on the larger sociological discussion.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:23 AM on November 25, 2009

A class titled "Logic" will probably be very abstract (all symbols, it will look like a math class). Does your school offer a class called something like "Critical Thinking"? This would probably be in the philosophy department, but could be in English. A course like this will be much more concerned with everyday arguments, forms of rhetoric like you're running into. If you aren't sure, you can drop by the philosophy department and ask a professor which courses they have that will meet your need.

Logic is a great class to take, absolutely. And taking any philosophy class will give you lots of practice in arguing for and against a position. But the specific thing you're asking about ("weasel words") would normally be in a Critical Thinking class.

Also "income inequality" is a precisely defined term, hardly a weasel word. Ask your friend why they think it's weaselly. People do have different -- unequal -- incomes. This can be measured. Where's the weaselling? Maybe they mean "that is an emotionally loaded term", but if they think you're trying to deliberately choose a loaded term then they have to supply you with their preferred "non-loaded" way to describe the difference in incomes.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:07 AM on November 25, 2009

What the guy did was to completely ignore your point and say something that is almost a non-sequitur.

This happens all the time, and it's important for us "rationalists" to realize that it's not always purposeful. It CAN be purposeful. A shitty conversational tactic is "changing the subject while pretending you're not changing the subject." But many people change the subject without trying to. It took me years to understand this, because for me it's as if there's a big sign in my head that says THE TOPIC OF THIS CONVERSATION IS...

There's a sort of mind -- and I've come to see that it's not an unintelligent mind (in fact, it's sometimes a mind that's smarter than mine) -- that works by association rather than by causation. For such a mind, ideas are not chained together by this-implies-that; they are chained together by this-makes-me-think-of-that. (Many people flip between both types of thinking, but in my experience, people are likely to be generally more associative or caustitive).

It is VERY difficult for these two types of minds to meet fruitfully in an argument!
posted by grumblebee at 11:08 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Inequality" is not a "weasel word". Weasel words are rhetorical tricks that try to back up your argument without the requisite proof. You're literally "sneaking in" a win on a point that has not been earned.

The prime example is "some say that...", without citing exactly who constitutes "some".

A characteristic of weasel words is that they're very easy to counter-argue. In the above example, simply ask who says what the arguer claims. If you're going to suggest that people hold an opinion, you should be prepared to point out who.

Inequality is very real. If he were to ask you what exactly was unequal, you can cite the obvious income differences between the people you are talking about, using what facts are at your disposal.

This isn't like Godwin's Law, where invoking the concept proves your point. The way to combat "weasel words" is to disprove them through better argument. Asserting that that's what they are in that manner makes the phrase "weasel word" itself a weasel word.
posted by Citrus at 11:13 AM on November 25, 2009

In answer to your question: it depends on the logic class. A strictly formal logic class (probably called something like "symbolic logic") probably won't help much. Read the course description and consider emailing the professor to ask about the class. For example, the class I'm teaching is called "Logic and Reasoning" (100 level). This is obviously a really broad title. All of them should cover the basics of deductive and inductive logic, but some are more mathematical about it, so look for one that suits your interests.

For the more general question of how to analyze arguments, and as a preview of what you (should/will) get in a critical thinking class here's a rough sketch of what I teach in my class.

What follows is a rough sketch of argument analysis. Some of the definitions or descriptions I'll give will be simplified, so if a seasoned logician should happen upon this thread, please don't hold that against me

Section 0 - 2 steps and Definitions
There are 2 basic steps in analyzing an argument:
1) If the premises are true, how likely is the conclusion (what's the probability that the conclusion is true)? This probability is called the inductive probability.
2) Are the premises true?

Valid argument: An argument with inductive probability of 100%
Invalid argument: An argument which is not valid
Sound argument: An argument which is valid and has all true premises
Strong argument: An argument with a high inductive probability (how how is a matter of some debate)
Good argument: One which is either valid or strong and has all true premises.

We can see that an invalid argument may still be a good argument. If an argument is invalid, we don't know if its conclusion is true or false, whatever the status of its premises. All we know (at that point) is that the premises being true doesn't guarantee that the conclusion is true.

Section 1 - Inductive Probability
Formal logic is important for (1) but it won't get you everything

Section 1.1 - Formal logic (really talking more about Deductive Logic here, but I think when people are talking about formal logic above, they're generally talking about formal deductive logic)
Formal logic will help with 1: it will help you identify valid arguments (where the inductive probability is 100%) and it will help you identify invalid arguments and find possible counter-examples (such as creasy boy's counter-example to the argument form known as affirming the consequent).

Formal logic is important as a foundation, but the truth is that how useful it is depends on your discipline. In a lot of fields, the argument structure (its form) is rather basic, but the premises are controversial.

Section 1.1.1 - Implied Premises
Here's one way I think formal logic is really important to argument analysis: It helps you identify supressed or implied premises. In the sort of informal debate you describe in your question, suprssed/implied premises happen all the time. An implied premise is one which is unstated but which is needed to make the argument valid (or at least strong). Let's take an example from your question (warning: in this example I'm might be assigning an uncharitable reading to your opponent so that I can make a point)*:

"I was then asked if it wasn't the responsiblity of the parents to make sure their children were educated." This is a premise: (a)it's the parents' responsibility to make sure their children are educated. I'm not sure what conclusion they had in mind, but let's assume that it was: Therefore, we shouldn't tax the whole community to pay for schools. It's going to be hard to argue against (a) (note it doesn't say "it is solely the parents' responsibility...), but when we fill in the missing premises, we find our point of attack.

This isn't as valid argument as it stands. It relies on an implied premise (or 2). Formal logic will help you figure out what they need to make the argument work. They would need something like the following 2 premises: (b)If it's the parents' responsibility to make sure their children are educated, then only parents should pay for schools and (c)If only parents should pay for schools, then we shouldn't tax the whole community to pay for schools.

Now that we've "fixed up" their argument, we have a little bit more to sink our teeth into. (c) I think is relatively uncontroversial, so long as not everyone in the community is a parent, but (b) is probably a good place to attack. Again, (b) doesn't say it's only the parents' responsibility, so why should they shoulder the entire financial burden? Or maybe you want to say that while it is the parents' responsibility to make sure the children are educated, it's the society's responsibility to make sure the parents have the means to do so.

The point is that the controversial premise is one of the implied premises. Formal logic should make picking those out really easy.

Section 1.2 - Inductive Logic
When answering (1), formal logic will help you separate arguments into two categories: those with Inductive Probability of 100% and those with IP <> A1: 95% of grad students cannot run a 4 minute mile
A2: I am a grad student
Therefore, I cannot run a 4 minute mile.

The inductive probability of this argument is 95%. Strictly speaking, it is invalid, but it's still a good argument.

Inductive logic will help you evaluate arguments where the inductive probability is less than 100%. This will involve statistics (as in my example), plain old induction** (generalizing about future results based on past results), analogies, probability, and other areas. Depending on the teacher, you may get a lot or a little math in this section. I personally don't expect my students to be able to calculate probabilities, just use them, although I may change this.

Section 2
In Section 1, we were mostly concerned with the connection between the premises and the conclusion: If the premises are true, how likely is the conclusion? If we've determined that the truth of the premises makes the conclusion at least likely, then we need to figure out if the premises are true or not.

In a lot of ways, this goes beyond the scope of a critical thinking class (at least a 100 level course). Determining the truth of premises will involve empirical investigation, stat/probability calculation, sociological research, etc.

In 1.1.1 I talked about this a little bit. We filled in the missing premises to make the argument valid, but then we saw that premise (b) is probably false, at least you can make a case that it's false - I gave a couple example of why we might think so.

Section 3 - Logical Fallacies
A few of these have been mentioned in earlier comments, but these are ways reasoning can go wrong. It's important to be aware of these. Identifying them takes practice. I would recommend looking at sample questions from the GRE analytic writing section. There's usually some faulty reasoning in those.

As with invalid arguments, identifying a fallacy doesn't mean your opponent's conclusion is false, it just means they need a better argument for it. (You might say the burden shifts back to them)

Probably the best way to get a grasp on the various fallacies is to classify them by type.


Section 3.1 - Formal Fallacies***
These are fallacies where a formally invalid argument is being treated as formally valid. See creasy boy's earlier example of affirming the consequent.

Section 3.2 - Inductive fallacies
There are a variety of ways an inductive argument can go wrong. You may have a false analogy or too small of a sample size in a statistical generalization, for example. False cause is put in here sometimes, and that's one that you see all the time (e.g. I'm sure you've seen the graphs mapping the correlation between the decline in sea piracy and the rise in global warming)

Section 3.3 - Fallacies of relevance
These fallacies occur when a premise is irrelevant to the conclusion. The various ad hominem fallacies will be in here. For example:
John says that we should be concerned about global warming, but John is a petty larsonist, so we shouldn't be concerned about global warming.

The fact that he's a petty crook has no impact on whether or not we should believe his warning about global warming

Section 3.4 - Circular reasoning
Circular arguments typically occur when your conclusion is part of your support for one of your premises. For example: God exists. We know this because the Bible says so, and we can trust the Bible because it is God's word. The claim that the Bible is God's word already assumes that God exists, so it isn't good support for the conclusion that God exists.

Section 3.5 - Semantic Fallacies
These fallacies are focused on the meanings of words. For example, a word may be used in two different ways in the same argument (equivocation). It is dangerous to walk near banks, because you may fall in. Bank of America is a bank. Therefore, it is dangerous to walk by Bank of America, because you may fall in. The argument equivocates on the word "bank"


There are so many fallacies, it's hard to remember all of them. Almost all, however, will fall into one of these categories. You can get by by just learning the categories. Whenever you encounter an argument (especially one that seems fishy), run through these categories. Does the argument rely on an irrelevant premise? Does the argument rely on using a word in two different ways or in an ambiguous way? etc. Once you've narrowed it down in that way, you can identify the specific fallacy, if you need to, and you'll soon learn the names of the most common ones.

Section 4 - Conclusion
This post ended up much longer than I originally intended, but that's partly because I think everyone should be required to take critical thinking. The basics are those 2 steps I mentioned at the beginning. The first concerns the relation between the premises and the conclusion. A good argument should at least have premises which if true make the truth of the conclusion likely. The second step then asks if those premises are actually true.


Formal logic will help with the first step. It will allow you to understand how the premises and conclusion are supposed to be connected and this will allow you to identify 1) when they're not connected in the right way (formal fallacy perhaps) and 2) how to fix it, if it can be. Fixing the argument often helps pinpoint the disagreement. Formal deductive logic is a nice place to start because it's cut and dry. Either the argument is formally valid or its not. We can verify with truth tables, etc. Inductive reasoning is a little "looser," but once you have a good grasp of the deductive side, the inductive doesn't seem so bad.

Should you take a formal logic course? Maybe, but what you really want is critical thinking. It still strips away the emotion. Not once in my course description above did I mention emotion. It does come up, but only as a fallacy (e.g. appeals to pity). We're not concerned with "convincing" arguments, we're concerned with good arguments (All good arguments should be convincing, but not all convincing arguments are good).

*You should always give your opponent's argument the best possible interpretation
**Induction is one type of inductive reasoning - nice and confusing, eh?
***These category titles are pretty standard, but I've taken these from Schaum's Outlines: Logic (Nolt, Rohatyn and Varzi)

posted by chndrcks at 11:15 AM on November 25, 2009

Well, in my experience with arguing a few things have always seemed to be true.

In order to remember that many exact citations, one either has to have an eidetic memory, harp on only one thing constantly, or make it up. Since nearly everyone seems capable of doing this, I imagine it's somewhere between two and three. Also, arguments outside of debate club rarely include logic, and logically understanding the argument may be far more frustrating if your sparring partner does not. I personally don't think using the word "inequality" is a weasel word, especially when you were comparing tangible things: tax money and number of provided service. More likely this person once took his own logic class, remembered that word, and couldn't think of any refutable evidence.

Now to your question: just based on you asking this question, I feel you would enjoy a logic class in general. As far as understanding arguments, before you take a class, get a GRE essay review book or two out of the library and browse them. In one of the two essays you write you are given an argument or statement, and must explain why it is or isn't logically sound. I actually remember much, much more about argument logic from studying for the test than I do from the logic class taught to me by an assanine PHd candidate, and I think you can get a feel for what such a class would entail from the book before diving in.
posted by itsonreserve at 11:16 AM on November 25, 2009

One more thing: when you get into these arguments, try to step back and ask yourself why you're arguing and what you'd like to happen. This is particularly important for rational people, because we define ourselves as rational and tend to miss the times when we're not being rational.

Our ARGUMENTS might be rational, but why are we arguing?

Is it simply for aesthetics? In other words, is it because Bob just said something untrue, and an untruth is an ugly scar that must be removed?

Is it because we want to arrive at an important truth through argumentation? Okay, but how likely is it that we'll be able to achieve that when arguing with THIS person?

If I'm really honest with myself, I have to admit that most of the time I argue, I do it for inter-personal reasons. It's hard for even me to see that, because if I might really care about the topic of the argument. Still, why I am having THIS argument RIGHT NOW with THIS person? Yes, I am vehemently pro choice, but why do I care so much about convincing Bob? (I'm not saying it's wrong to try to convince him, if that's really your goal, though it may be impossible to convince him.)

Most of the time I argue, it's because I want to prove my worth to someone, because I'm sick and tired of someone (maybe not the person I'm arguing with), because I'm scared, because I'm tired of the other person getting his own way, etc.

All those reasons are perfectly natural human reasons to argue, but they have nothing to do with abortion.

Of course, an argument has to be about SOMETHING, even if that thing is a macguffin (Hitchcock's term for the all important thing the hero is trying to get but that is actually just a plot device to get the hero into a situation), so I'm not saying it's wrong to argue abortion when the real argument is about "you always think you're right" (or whatever). But I do think it's worth pondering this stuff from time to time.

Rational people and irrational people are more alike than different -- they are both humans. They both tend to argue for the same reasons. They just dress their arguments differently.
posted by grumblebee at 11:22 AM on November 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing the idea that a logic class isn't going to help much with this in practice. Whoever said it's like taking algebra to manage your money has it exactly. The logic classes my college offered where in symbolic logic, which entails learning a lot of symbols and it's more akin to math than arguing. If you want to learn about arguments, take basic philosophy classes.

That being said, grumblebee's comment about arguing with people who aren't rational is spot-on. You can learn everything you want about arguments and it won't help, it will just make people more pissed off at you if they're not themselves rational. Seriously.

Another thing about rational people, regarding citations: provided you're not making some outrageous argument, rational people understand that you can't always remember the cite for something and will mostly take you on good faith. With rational people, you're able to have conversations that say, "Well, I read somewhere, I think it might have been Blah Blah Journal, that blah blah blah, but I can't entirely remember, sorry about that." And that person will say, "Well, okay, if that's the case, then maybe blah blah blah, but I would argue that maybe blah-blah." This is all provided that you're not being heated yourself; if you're heated, it tends to come across that you're making things up but trying to cover your ass.

If you're not arguing income inequality among a group of people whose livelihood somehow revolves around it -- like social workers or politicians or something -- then having to cite things is sort of stupid. It's nice if you can do it, but realistically, if you're just arguing with your friends who don't know anything about it, they're not going to even remember the cite to look it up and confirm that it's true. The other kind of funny thing is if you're arguing with people who don't know anything about the topic and you DO cite something, it just makes them more angry and they think you're a hoity-toity intellectual asshole. If they demand that you cite something when they don't know anything about the topic to begin with, then they're the asshole. For the most part, arguments are judged on their own merit and if all participants in the conversation have a good grasp on why arguments are good or bad, then cites aren't needed. Things like statistics need cites, though, since you can't intuit those with reason alone.

But really, don't use citations when people are being assholes. You say this: "I was then asked if it wasn't the responsiblity of the parents to make sure their children were educated. Everything I said that related to socioeconomic realities was disregarded as not based in reality." That person? Not rational.

One last thing I wanted to address. You said this: "These aren't idiotic people I'm dealing with."

I went to middle school and high school at places that were for academically strong students; think test scores in the 98th percentile range. My fellow students were ALL very smart, and some were even knowledgeable. One thing that became clear to me by the time I got to college was that someone can be both smart and knowledgeable and still be irrational. They can still be terrible at arguing. Very often, I'm sad to say, people that take pride in their intelligence are the most insecure about their intelligence because it's the basis of their self-esteem. They will argue against things reflexively, even if they don't know what they're talking about, because they want to seem like they do and they think being contrary will show that they know more than you. I know this because I did this for a time.

When you've argued with someone who isn't insecure this will sink in more fully, but for now, don't waste your time arguing with insecure people. Since their primary objective, which they usually don't even realize, is to ensure they seem intelligent, there is no circumstance under which they will allow your points to be valid in their mind. People who value truth or knowledge over their own intelligence argue much differently and you will be able to have reasonable conversations with them. They will concede points when it makes sense to do so. They will not dismiss things you say unless you say something absurd.

Intelligence doesn't have a lot to do with whether someone is irrational or not. The most rational and easy-going people I've ever met were when I was working at a restaurant with largely high school and college-aged students who weren't doing fantastically academically. The most irrational and insecure-but-intelligent people I've ever met were when I was working in politics, and when I went to school. I've been lucky enough to know some people that are both intelligent and rational, but in my anecdotal experience there's less of a correlation there than you'd expect.

Don't seek out argumentative discussions with smart people, seek out those discussions with rational people.
posted by Nattie at 11:57 AM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

LobsterMitten said what I wanted to say but was much more concise.

A critical thinking class should get you used to the back and forth of a legitimate (good faith) debate. Presumably, you gave an argument which included the phrase "income inequality." They objected to your argument on the grounds that "income inequality" is a "weaselly" phrase. Pointing out a fallacy isn't as clear and decisive as pointing out an invalid argument (unless that's the fallacy). The burden of proof is on them. That is, they have to say why they think it is objectionably weaselly and let you respond to this.
posted by chndrcks at 12:00 PM on November 25, 2009

One of the pitfalls of trying to discuss socioeconomic problems is a chicken and egg and a correlation is not causation problem. They almost always can be broken down into one side who believes socioeconomic ills are reflections of the behaviors of people, and the other believes the behaviors are the result of the socioeconomic situation. There is no winning. And I suspect your argument partner didn't mean that income inequalities were weasel words, but that they were red-herrings. That person probably was trying to imply that there is some other reason why schools had different performance issues beyond money.

In other words, a critical thinking or rhetoric class might help decipher what others are saying just as much as it might help you comminucate better. (Typo left in for comedy.)
posted by gjc at 8:14 PM on November 25, 2009

drjimmy11 and Bardolph kinda hit the nail on the head.

i had a done of classes in rhetoric in my undergrad major - pretty much my last two years were rhetoric.

from what everyone is saying, i think that critical thinking is what i need.

i can certainly argue from both sides, that's not an issue. it's just that when someone says something that throws me off completely (like inequality being a weasel word), i don't think to ask them if there's something else we can use to describe the situation that doesn't sound weasel-ly to them.

i definitely have no idea how to be on the offense rather than defense in a conversation about something like this. so maybe critical thinking would help me understand how this works.

thanks everyone - this was a pretty interesting page of replies to read and take in. i'm glad to know the difference between logic and critical thinking so i can figure out where to strengthen my skills.
posted by sio42 at 9:10 AM on November 26, 2009

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