When the Heuro Becomes the Villain

The point:  Most logical fallacies are merely heurisms – aka educated guesses - taken to unreasonable extremes: causing one to jump foolishly from consideration to conclusion, leading to either delusion or deceit.

The rant that goes with it:

If possession is 9/10ths of the law, then heuristics are the basis of 9/10ths of logical fallacies.  Wikipedia describes “Heuristic” as:

…experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery. Where an exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Examples of this method include using a “rule of thumb”, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, or common sense.

The saying, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is a good example of a heuristic.  For the sake of this post, it is a particularily good example because it is often associated with jumping to conclusions – ie: when gossip is involved.

Heuristics are good for spotting red flags or making safe bets, but they becomes fallacious when they are used to jump to definite conclusions. For example, “He is right because he is the boss” is a classic Appeal To Authority logical fallacy because – even though the chances are probably pretty good that being experienced, qualified and talented enough to become the boss – it is a safe bet that he will probably be right, does NOT mean that he IS right for sure. If this were true, then you would not be justified in questioning his decision if he were to instruct you, say instruct you to carry out the Final Solution…and we all know how THAT worked out for the employees who were put on trial at Nuremberg.

A more straightforward example is this: Someone offers to make a bet over a dice roll. He says he will roll the dice once, take bets and if the second roll matches the first, he will double the betters’ money.  He rolls a 6 and calls for bets.  The heuristic thinker thinks this is too good to be true (probably a scam using a weighted die that always rolls 6) but he bets $10 anyway because there is an 83% chance he will win if the game is honest and he can afford to lose $10 if he is unlucky or the game is rigged.  The fallacious thinker considers the same risks but refuses to bet because he KNOWS it MUST be a scam. The dice rolls up 3. The heuristic thinker takes the $20, wishing he’d bet more but thankful it wasn’t a scam and appreciating the extra $10. The fallacious thinker, upset that he should have gambled his house, resolves his cognitive dissonance by concluding that both of the others were in collusion to convince him to play in a second round with a rigged dice…and runs them over with his car.

Heuristics – as well as the majority of the most common logical fallacies – are intuition based (and in the case of logical fallacies, mixed in with a little bit of confirmation bias and the instinct to grab at straws when losing an argument) thought processes.  There is nothing wrong with this so long as we do not delude ourselves into thinking that we the conclusion = knowledge. We have evolved to think in this “chances are…” way because in a pinch, we could make statistical assessments in situations where we didn’t actually have enough facts to be 100% certain. This gives us the power of heuristic thinking, so that we can act in the most reasonable way even without enough facts to know for sure what to do.

However, this power can overwhelm us and we can easily mistake our reasonably-induced statistical assessment for deduction of straight fact. This is where the fallacious logic comes in. This overdriven logical quirk of ours remains in the gene pool because sometimes the situation is SO dire, that we could not make the best choice unless we BELIEVED our conclusion was 100% correct. For example, imagine your great-great-great…great-great grandfather is being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger out of your familiar hunting ground and you came to a fork in the path. To the right, you hear a river and to the left, you hear more tigers growling. He could stand there like a neurotic idiot deliberating whether or not a pride of ventriloquist tigers is waiting by the river while they cast their growls to the left of him (POSSIBLE but highly IMPROBABLE) or he could turn right KNOWING (falsely or not) that the tiger will not follow him into the river. His delusion of certainty allowed him to react unconsciously…and voila, you are here today to be thankful for his assumption.

That being said, your best friend Billy’s great-great-great…great-great grandfather might have made a similar decision in a different forest, except he was extremely unlucky enough to encounter a pride of ventriloquist tigers waiting by the river…as the tiger that was chasing him died of a heart-attack anyway.  But of course you don’t have a best friend Billy because he inherited the whole not-existing thing.

The basis of this post is to demonstrate that most logical fallacies are the result of unintentionally mistaking (delusion) or intentionally twisting statistically-reasonable thought processes (deceit) into undeservedly-definite outputs.  See how these very common logical fallacies, including the aforementioned Appeal to Authority, fit this description:

Ad Hominem:

The doctor is being sued for malpractice right now, so his diagnosis of cancer must be wrong.

A doctor being under the microscope for medical wrongdoing is an excellent reason to be suspicious of his competence, so best to be cautious and get a second opinion…as long as you have time.  However, because the suit could be frivolous or perhaps not related to the subject at hand, you could deprive yourself of a timely warning if you reject his diagnosis outright over the matter of malpractice alone.

Argument from Personal Incredulity:

I’ve seen the positive test results, I don’t smoke and I refuse to believe that non-smokers can get lung cancer, so the diagnosis is definitely wrong.

Considering that you don’t engage in the most common cause of the diagnosed illness, it could be more likely that the test is a false positive than that you are in the small percentage of people who get such cancer without smoking, but there is still enough chance that you do have cancer to have the tests repeated a couple of times to make sure.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc:

Every time I get close to a doctor, the cancer test comes back positive.  Therefore, the doctors’ lab coats must be the cause of my cancer and so I will stop seeing the doctors and wait for the cancer to disappear.

Well…that’s just silly and I won’t try to defend that one.  Clearly the real problem is with the doctor’s cancer-infested stethoscopes!

Why all the cancer references?  Cancer is an apt metaphor for the runaway effect by which perfectly healthy induction methods breed into destructive and delusional psuedo-deduction methods that compete with and eventually overwhelm the thinker’s faculties for reason, resulting in a complete takeover of the process and eventual death of the good idea.

Although heuristics are a smart and quick way to put your thoughts and focus in (probably) the right direction, they won’t take you all the way to a reliable conclusion.  True, heuristics may result in your being right some or maybe even most of the time (if you are extremely lucky), but if you keep up this practice there is a good chance that you will be grievously wrong when it really counts…and when you do fail, prey to the FSM that a logician isn’t standing next to you with his list of logical fallacies, saying “I told you so!” as he cites your specific error.

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