Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Reasoning" in English:

A recent letter to the NYT reminded me of my total frustration with attempts to win a logical argument in English (or any other human language for that matter). There is a wonderful field of math, the Logical Calculus, that deals with true and false statements and the conjunctions (if, and, or ...) that can bind them together. Logical calculus assumes you know the truth of simple statements. It lets you figure out if you have a well formed complex statement and, if so, whether it is true. You can track a whole logical argument that way, deciding whether the conclusion of the whole argument is true.

But human language is ambiguous. Words have multiple meanings, mean different things to different people. Sometimes "and" means "or". There are tons of evidence to quote from in the "real world" that often are in conflict. And we've all had the experience of reading beautifully framed arguments that come, reasonably, to opposing conclusions. The essence is - you've got to remember that no matter how convincing an argument sounds, it's not logical and it may not be true.

But we've all been trained to make, and to respect, good written rhetoric. So we've got to keep pinching ourselves to remember to DISrespect it. Bonnie R. Nelson and Robert S. Nelson (of Brooklyn) caught the New York Times in one of these logical conflicts. Their letter quotes from two editorials, but all you need is the letter, which I've quoted here extensively (I hope they and the NYT don't mind):
In "Blood and Oil" (editorial, April 16) you say "It is time for Nigeria's government to begin taking into account the plight of the people who live around the oil wells that have sustained the country for so long."


In "Hugo Chavez and His Helpers" (editorial, Dec. 10) you excoriated president Hugo Chavez ... for using "high world oil prices to increase funds for poplualr social programs for the poor, making him electorally unassailable." The letter writers want to know why the NYT supported opposite views in what were doubtless reasonable-seeming arguments.
(I'm sure that any polished writer can argue convincingly that the statements were not "opposite" at all when placed in context. Or that they were. Etc., Etc. Etc. ...)

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