It’s quite common, I think, for all people – me included – to respond intuitively and unconsciously to behaviour that we don’t understand with the belief ‘This person/thing/behaviour/rule is nuts!’ This phrase captures the feeling that, if someone or something appears to display a low level of rationality, then the low level of rationality must stem from the madness – inability to think and behave rationally – of someone or other.
The most recent example of this that I’ve seen is in a discussion between the highly rational, entertaining and challenging Canadian-American writer Mark Steyn and the US radio presenter Hugh Hewitt.
Here is the transcript:
Hugh Hewitt: And we have the juxtaposition of the president going to the Coast Guard Academy and lecturing those young officers to be that their — global warming is their #1 concern, and the Ayatollah Khamenei going to Iman Hussein Military University in Tehran to announce that inspections, they will not occur at any military center and we’re not going to be allowed to talk to their nuclear scientists. The juxtaposition is amazing.
Mark Steyn: One of these guys is living in the real world and dealing with reality, and the other isn’t. And the president’s words were actually — aside from the fact that they’re completely preposterous, the president’s words were just in the most ghastly bad taste – when he’s telling these guys that the main challenge they’re going to have to face in their careers is the threat of climate refugees when just this week, in the three days, four days since ISIS took Ramadi, there are 100,000 refugees streaming west toward Baghdad because of him! There’s not going to be any climate change refugees! The climate change refugees at the moment: Zero. None. Zip. There aren’t any. But there’s 100,000 refugees streaming towards Baghdad to add to the millions who’ve come from Syria and Iraq, destabilized Jordan. In Libya, they’re getting on boats and they’re going toward Italy and Greece, and ISIS is putting little jihadist boys onto those boats so they can get to Italy and Greece and disperse through Europe. These are real refugees – and he’s telling the United States Coast Guard that the main challenge of their careers is going to be climate refugees. This guy is bonkers. He’s fiddling with the temperature data while Ramadi burns!
Hugh Hewitt: That is it. He’s bonkers.
While this reaction is so common as to be natural in people, it is also an error in formal logic – it is the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, or FAC.
The FAC takes the syllogistic form:
If P, then Q.
That is, assuming the rule that P (the antecedent) causes Q (known as the consequent), and having observed Q, the observer concludes that P must also have occurred.
The syllogism gives rise to a fallacy because, while P may indeed cause Q, there could also be any number of other causes of Q, some of which we may know, others of which we may be entirely ignorant. And just because we know of the rule ‘If P, then Q’, doesn’t mean that all instances of Q were caused by P. So observing Q is a necessary, but not sufficient, reason for concluding that P has also occurred.
Applying the syllogism to the ‘This ‘X’ is nuts!’ conclusion gives:
If ‘X’ is mad/bonkers/nuts, then Q.
Therefore, ‘X’ is mad/bonkers/nuts.
Obviously, there could be many reasons for Q, some or all of which may be hidden from, or beyond the conception of, the observer. Reasons for why President Obama is acting in the way that he is – neglecting the situation in the Middle East while lecturing at the Coast Guard Academy about some of the consequences of Anthropogenic Global Warming – is likely not to be a mystery to President Obama and his staff, and neither are these people likely to think that they are acting with low rationality.* They might not have good reasons, and of course it is possible that President Obama is bonkers. But we can’t tell that from only having observed Q.
Associated with this topic is the idea of the Logic-Bubble, a concept introduced by the magnificent and prolific Edward de Bono in his book Edward de Bono’s Thinking Course. The Logic-Bubble is a way of thinking about a person’s mind-set – the set of assumptions and logical reasoning which allow them to interpret the world around them and make decisions about acting in that world (page 83):
A logic bubble is that bubble of perception within which a person is acting. The bubble includes perception of circumstance, structure, context and relationships.
The similarity of the Logic-Bubble to a person’s mind-set can be seen from this quotation from page 10 of Heuer’s book, discussing the mind-set:
Patterns of expectations tell analysts, subconsciously, what to look for, what is important, and how to interpret what is seen. These patterns form a mind-set that predisposes analysts to think in certain ways. A mind-set is akin to a screen or lens though which one perceives the world.
While we can easily observe a person’s actions, it takes effort to uncover the contours, fabric and workings of her Logic-Bubble. And few people will make this effort. Most prefer simply to observe the actions, pronounce ‘This guy is bonkers!’, and dismiss her from then on. They completely miss the possibility that the person’s actions make perfect sense according to the reasoning that goes on within her Logic-Bubble.
But for those of us who are serious about improving our thinking and decision-making, and understanding how other people think and come to make decisions, a first step in this improving and understanding is to acknowledge the existence of the Logic-Bubble / mind-set, and seek to understand how that Logic-Bubble is constructed and generates conclusions.
As de Bono said, on page 83 of his Thinking Course book:
If someone does not agree with you or does not do what you think he ought to do there are several possible attitudes. He is stupid. He is bloody-minded. He is obstinate. There is, however, an alternative attitude: he is highly intelligent and acting intelligently within his own logic-bubble. And his logic-bubble happens to be different from yours.
It is this attitude that we want to cultivate, as an alternative to the knee-jerk ‘This guy is nuts!’ reaction.
*It is, today, quite apposite that we draw on a quotation from something John Nash (God rest his soul) once said (at the 17:40-minute mark), which illuminates one aspect of this question:
You don’t want to admit that you are crazy. You see the other people as crazy, but you’d like to think of yourself as not crazy.