Some Arguments Are Both True and False

Learn the methods of critical thinking.  There is little in life that will serve you better.  Critical thinking allows you to see the defects in popular arguments and it allows you to question your own thinking.  Do not believe everything you think.

One of the great failings of modern society is the loss of the capacity to see spurious argument.  We prefer celebrity and 5-second sound bites.

There is a well structured example in the Financial Post on 29 September 2015.  No Limits To Growth.

The authors compare the ideas of Paul Ehrlich, prominent doomsday theorist and author of several books including The Population Bomb, with those of economist, business professor, poker player and author, Julian Simon.

Ehrlich argued that because the resources of earth are finite and the population is growing, both true, therefore there will be inevitable starvation and chaos.  Hundreds of millions must starve, the UK would cease to exist by 2000, and other similar comforting thoughts.  His celebrity was extensive in the 1970s and 80s.

Simon did not argue about the basics of Ehrlich’s idea of finite resources and growing population.  They are both true after all. He did argue with the conclusion.  He believed that an increasing population increases overall well-being.

Simon’s position showed that Ehrlich’s argument was fallacious because it did not include all of the factors that are relevant to the conclusion.  Narrowing the fact set leads to faulty conclusions.  Always ask if you are seeing all the premises that relate to the argument. So what did Ehrlich miss?

Simon pointed out that starvation was the outcome if you counted only the resources and the mouths to feed.  Other factors mattered too.  Each human is more than a mouth.  Each human also provides a brain to discover and hands to work.  Simon’s thesis was, more brains and more hands overcome the problem of more mouths. And with room to spare.

The article’s authors point out that while the Earth’s population increased by 800 million people in the 1980s, the price of resources mostly fell.  Not what Ehrlich would have predicted.

There are two takeaways:

  1. People who predict doom and decay and “that cannot be done” are wrong more often than those who predict that things can be done and that mankind will flourish.  Doom sees limits.  Prosperity sees opportunities.
  2. Critical thinking assesses the validity of an argument.  Ehrlich’s argument is correct given the limited number of premises in it.  The argument is wrong because A and B are not the complete set of true premises that affect the conclusion.  In this case A and B, together with also true premises D and E, reaches another conclusion.

It is very easy to believe a conclusion when it’s apparent logic is unassailable, but you must learn to mistrust conclusions before you know if all the possible premises have been considered in the argument.

Social justice, privacy, security, and environmental integrity arguments abound.  None are based upon complete premises.  All pick their facts to convey the desired message.  These subjects are not the only ones.  There are almost no arguments present in our society today that include all the important facts.

Be careful.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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