False and misleading arguments are nothing new. In ancient Athens, a class of intellectual bullies known as the Sophists used creative reasoning to browbeat people into accepting nonsense. Here’s an example, from Plato’s dialog Euthydemus:
Sophist: Is this your dog?
Man: Yes, it is my dog.
Sophist: This dog has puppies, so it is a father.
Man: Yes, it is a father.
Sophist: This is your dog, and it is a father, so this dog is your father!
The idea is to support a conclusion, any conclusion, using arguments with valid forms but misleading premises. This humorous example shows a common technique that blurs the distinction between form and content. Such techniques can be effective because, without proper teaching and experience, people struggle to recognize the distinction between the separate meanings conveyed by the form and the content of an argument. Valid forms can seem to give authority to conclusions even when the premises are false or their truth is unknown. The Sophists made their living teaching such techniques, mostly to politicians or rich young men who wanted to become politicians. In Plato’s early years he thought the Sophists were clever and interesting, but in his later years he saw them as a scourge on society that should be expelled from Athens.
Many people think of ancient Athens as the cradle of democracy. But it was a deeply dysfunctional democracy, led by mob rule, and it was authoritarian and tyrannical. The mob executed Socrates, Plato’s mentor, because it wanted to and it had the votes. Athenians slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children on the peaceful island of Melos; their justification was that "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." They even executed some of their own military generals for petty grievances, which caused others to flee, critically weakening the Athenian military when it could least afford it.
The Sophists played a central role in the dysfunctional politics and culture of Athens, and in the character of its democracy. This, understandably, contributed to the reasons that Plato hated democracy. As a youth he witnessed the fall of Athens to Sparta, and as an adult he endured the execution of his beloved teacher, Socrates. Plato wanted to expel the Sophists and abolish democracy. In his most famous book, The Republic, he called for the rule of philosopher kings and a totalitarian aristocracy. His student Aristotle, however, thought differently.
Aristotle recognized the problems of Athenian democracy, but he loved freedom. Rather than calling for Sophists to be expelled, he taught people how to expose and defend against their misleading and abusive tactics in his book Sophistical Refutations, or The Fallacies of the Sophists. This was an important step towards his later book, Prior Analytics, where he explained the more fundamental subject of formal logic for the first time.
For most of history logic has been considered the first of the liberal arts and the foundation for all further learning. Logic focuses on the structure of an argument, rather than its content. Recognizing this distinction helps us understand the importance of evidence, experience, and specialized knowledge when evaluating any argument, whether about science, religion, politics, or whatever.
Renaissance humanists, such as Petrus Ramus, taught logic to help people resist the authoritarian abuses of the medieval scholastics, who were obsessed with debates over religious authority and doctrine. The scholastics blurred the distinction between form and content just as the ancient Sophists had. Critics mocked Ramus for believing that even ordinary people could learn logic, and he was brutally murdered during the St. Bartholomew Day massacre; but his ideas about the true nature and purpose of logic liberated European universities from more than 200 years of stagnation under authoritarian orthodoxy and opened the way for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.
Logic was also popular during the Golden Age of Islam, when it was the most advanced and prosperous civilization on earth. This was a time when some of its schools were led by Christians and Jews, and its judges were legal scholars, not religious authorities. But that came to an end when leaders restricted the teaching and use of logic to religious purposes only -- again, blurring the distinction between form and content. And with the decline of logic, the mullahs were able to hijack reason with authoritarian deductions, much like the Sophists.
A similar thing happened in 19th century Russia, when Emperor Nicholas the First restricted the teaching of logic to religion only; and after the Soviets took over, they restricted religion! The Russians have a terrible track record when it comes to logic education. So does China. The ancient followers of Mo Tzu might have understood some aspects of logic even before Aristotle, but their ideas were stomped out by the authoritarian Qin dynasty. A British logician visited China in 1920, and his influence led to the training of a few excellent Chinese logicians; but the free use and teaching of logic are absolutely incompatible with authoritarian rule, and most came to America.
Logic was popular in early America, at least in the northern colonies and states. The founders of Harvard were dedicated students of Ramus, and teaching logic was a top priority. Benjamin Franklin published a book on logic for young people. The early South, however, had very different attitudes and traditions about logic. Its colleges taught logic only as a subcomponent of rhetoric, not as a stand-alone subject, and they did not focus on the distinction between form and content. Ideas about logic are fundamental to the way people think about many other things; and as we have seen multiple times, when educational traditions ignore logic or the distinction between form and content, in every case they are accompanied by authoritarian orthodoxy. The American South was deeply authoritarian until well after the civil war and assimilation with the union.
In modern America, unfortunately, logic has fallen out of favor everywhere. Education reformers in the 20th century eliminated logic as a required subject in schools because they thought it has no social value. Although logic was not banned, its removal from public schools has had a similar effect: an increase of authoritarian culture and a decline of reason. Only a tiny percentage of students has continued to study logic voluntarily in elective classes at universities and even community colleges, and these few have had an enormous impact on our technological advancement and economic prosperity.
As logic literacy continues to decline, its value and necessity continue to increase. We are confronted with the abundant fruits of something that most people no longer understand. This is a problem because it undermines not only our scientific literacy, but also our ability to defend against, or even recognize, authoritarian abuses of reason. We are losing the ability to responsibly use and maintain what we have created. And logic is closely related to ethics, so it is not surprising that the decline of logic education has been followed by a decline of ethics. A professor at Stanford University, Dr. Michael Genesereth, has written about the urgent need to start teaching logic again:
"Logic has to be and must be taught to all students if we want to prepare responsible citizens. A logically literate populace will know how to ask the right questions of their leaders, how to spot fallacies, and most importantly, how to make decisions that truly align with their values. Logically fluent citizenry is not really an option for any functional democracy, and there is so much at stake in thinking systematically that training for it must be included in the curriculum and cannot be left to chance."
The Stanford Logic Group released a free logic curriculum for high schools in 2016, which makes a clear and appropriate distinction between form and content, but few schools have adopted it. The outdated and mistaken ideas of the education reformers still have great influence on the training of education leaders today, and the state of logic education today explains a lot about our society and what it is becoming. But we can change that; we can start teaching logic, again.