Lessons in Logic

So myself, my mother, and two guests walk into a Chinese restaurant. Part of the conversation goes like this.

Mom: The way they grow food here in the US is different from the way they grow food in China. That must be the reason why people have allergies here.

Me: Have you ever heard of the phrase correlation does not equal causation? Yes, thats a possible cause i suppose, but you haven’t said anything to say why it is a better explanation than, say, genetics. Let me give you an example… Chinese people are lactose intolerant. Chinese people eat rice. Rice causes people to be lactose intolerant. Where was my use of a logical fallacy?

Mom: Well… Stop talking about scientific things with people who don’t understand science.

Me: Mom, you do realise that airplanes don’t fall out of the sky just because you don’t understand how they work. I know that this sounds crazy, but the same laws of reality apply to everybody, anywhere, no matter what your cultural predisposition is. Like… this is really insane but whenever you cross the International Date Line in an airplane you don’t fall out of the air.

Lunch Guest: How old are you?

Me: Sixteen.

Lunch Guest: You’re going to change your mind about a lot of things as you get older.

Me: … ?

Mom: That’s right. There are a lot of things that you don’t know yet.

That’s right. Because I’m a teenager, when I grow up I’ll come to realise that correlation does equal causation. And I will come to embrace the fact that the laws of nature operate differently for different people, and that the world is flat if only you believe it is.

Note to adults: Saying that a logical fallacy isn’t fallacious because the person telling you it’s fallacious is young doesn’t make it less fallacious. Also, if you really have some kind of knowledge that we lowly adolescents haven’t got then how would we ever grow older if you didn’t tell us? What good does it do to say “there are a lot of things you don’t know” and not tell us? Absolutely nothing.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by wazza on June 8, 2009 at 4:43 pm


    what they mean is that you haven’t yet developed the deep and abiding mistrust of anything that doesn’t immediately present itself as understandable to your preconceptions that is so characteristic of humans.

    Luckily, you’re the kind of person who won’t anyway. Those of us who have been exposed to preconceptions entirely based on the idea that preconceptions should change can generally avoid falling into fallacy.

    Nil illegitimo carborundum!

  2. Posted by jen on June 8, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    It’s either what wazza said or they meant that you haven’t yet learned that what you feel is more “true” than what you can intellectually discern. Again, something you are not likely to grow into, given your start….

  3. Ugh, that’s so patronizing. “Maybe when you’re older you’ll realize that a teenager couldn’t possibly know anything about anything.”

  4. Posted by Al on June 8, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Well, one thing you know now but weren’t fully aware of before is that a lot of old people are idiots 😉

  5. Posted by Kimbo Jones on June 8, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    That’s really frustrating to me. I don’t have kids yet, but I like to think that I would allow them to challenge me on my biases without patronizing them and giving them vague “advice”. I had similar experiences with my parents growing up. They are not academically-inclined and sort of don’t “get” me on that level so I’ll sometimes say things that I think goes over their heads and rather than ask me to explain, they just pat me on the head and tell me that these things I’m talking about scientifically “aren’t like that in the real world”. Whatever that means. Such a shame the way people dismiss intelligence in youth rather than encouraging and enriching it.

  6. Posted by Tony on June 9, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Keep going. I knew more as a teenager than I do now!

  7. What they wouldn’t tell you is this:
    Adults hate it when kids are smarter then them. This is especially true when you scrape at our precious life varnish. When you grow up your brain gets tired of seeing the truth.

  8. Posted by Resfirma on June 10, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Everything you said is correct and you will not unlearn those things (at least I hope not). But what you have not learned is that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” It seems that there were no students with you at the Chinese restaurant.

  9. People like that really annoy me. ‘I’m older than you therefore everything you say to me is rubbish’. There’s certainly some rubbish in that line of thought, but it’s not what they think! Luckily for me my family are logical, but if they weren’t I’m not sure how sane I would be by now!

  10. I hate it when I argue and others say the same thing to me: “You don’t know f***ing everything! duh duh duh” Not knowing that they don’t know about things as much as anyone else don’t know about things. And recently, the most infuriating phrase was: “when people tell you something is true, it is true! stop arguing!!!!111oneone” Plus, it doesn’t matter if you know a lot of thing if the things you know are nonsense, self inconsistent, and you can’t support it. Of course, sometimes you have to assume things, but still, one should try to find out as much as one can to find out whether a claim is true.

  11. […] whatever gap they perceive. This is the utter absurdity that discussions devolve into, like being slapped in the face. You don’t know […]

  12. Posted by Bill on June 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    First off, I understand your position. I was 16 myself once and, like you, was smart — 16 was when I earned my bachelor’s degree. I completely understand both your argument and the feelings behind your argument. Nevertheless, your mother and the lunch guest are, in their way, correct. In the 26 years since I was 16 I have, in fact, changed my mind many times and learned many things.

    Taken out of context, their statements are absolutely true. You will learn things as you grow older and you will change your mind about many things as you grow older, although probably you won’t change your mind about the scientific method, it’s pretty tried and true.

    In context, though, they are changing the topic of the conversation back to your mother’s comment about not talking science to people who don’t understand science. What you are missing — what anyone is missing who has lived an entire life primarily within the environment of academia — is experience with other subcultures. Academia still pays lip service, at the very least, to the importance of truth and accuracy and being correct. Someone skilled in argumentation is usually, at least, given a modicum of respect. (Or fear.) Truth, justice, morals, being correct, these are all given elevated importance within the academic community. Most of the world is not like academia.

    Couple of things to know: first, most people (a very strong majority) lack the intellect to comprehend what probably comes natural to you. Second, since intelligence doesn’t work for most people they substitute other things, either knowingly or (more likely) unknowingly.

    Last year I retired from a Fortune 500 technology company. Here’s how it works there: you present a rational argument for a position or positions, with supporting evidence. If the person hearing the argument is sufficiently high in the hierarchy, such as the president of a division, then your argument might only has merit if it agrees with the executive’s whim.

    If you’re arguing with someone low enough to be worried about how their actions look (generally vice presidents and below, with insecurity increasing the lower you get on the totem pole) then a variety of responses can be made. Your argument can be misinterpreted, turned 180 degrees without a blink of an eye, with YOU specified as the source of the stupidity. Ridiculous arguments (akin to creationism) may be made attempting to call your science into question. People may go off and do something completely different and then claim they didn’t remember you telling them anything else. Your motives and integrity may be called into question. People will convince themselves that their opinions are facts and that your facts are mere opinions.

    It is teh suck. And that’s without touching the interpersonal social and emotional aspects of living in a world where what you care about and what drives you (seeking and analyzing to discover truth) is treated, at best, as an irritant and, at worst, as contemptible.

    As a truth seeker with a fine mind you are in for many painful conflicts, even if you choose to stay within the confines of academia. My hypothesis is that people like your mother and the lunch guest are simply incapable of understanding the drive to know, to discover, to continue to learn. That mode of operation fails for them. Attempting to get them to participate in that mode of discourse makes them uncomfortable, so they reject it. Since all of us have a tendency to think that others are like us, they reach the conclusion that you, too, will one day reject your current mode of operation.

    You almost certainly won’t. Many people like us may “drop out” in various senses of the word, but the drive for accuracy and truth is too central to our personality to get rid of easily.

    Experience does count for something: experience is knowledge, and although I would have mostly scoffed at the idea when I was your age, there is a subset of knowledge that can only come from having a host of human experiences and contrasting and comparing them across time and in different contexts, a type of knowledge that is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to compress and distribute in text. Which doesn’t mean that your mother and the lunch guest aren’t foolish, even though their comments are literally true. It just means that you are going to be continually faced with foolishness, and how you respond to that will be a core element of your personality.

    Good luck, you’re going to need it.

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