History Repeats: Ancient Tactics of False Reasoning Have Returned, but We Can Defeat Them, Again.

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

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.

Ramus 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.

What Happened to Logic Education?

For most of modern history, logic was a core requirement for every single educated person in the developed world. In fact, teaching logic was one of the main reasons universities were created in the first place. William Shakespeare and John Milton grew up during times when even young children studied logic in grammar school. Shakespeare's writings are filled with references to logic, and Milton wrote “of all the arts the first and most general is logic..."

But today logic is seen as a niche, technical subject that only a small fraction of educated people know anything about. How did this happen? Logicians and historians do not agree. Some blame politics, others blame the market. John Sowa, a leader in artificial intelligence and ontology, said: "I blame Bertrand Russell. He wanted schools to stop teaching traditional logic and replace it with symbolic logic. He got 50% of what he asked for." Bertrand Russell was a famous advocate for the education reforms of the early 20th century which de-emphasized the classical liberal arts in favor of subjects thought to be more modern and practical.

But logic is practical, especially in our modern media-driven world where politicians, advertisers and pundits constantly use their own forms of reasoning to persuade us of some position or another. When we follow others' rules for reasoning, or even our own, we often make mistakes. The rules of logic are the same for everyone, but they do not come naturally, they must be taught. And because logic is no longer required in schools, logic literacy among educated adults is declining. The Institute for Logic and the Public Interest was formed to promote logic education and reverse the insidious effects of logic illiteracy.

"But of all the arts the first and most general is logic ..."    John Milton

We Need Logic Now More Than Ever

Thinker2Logic is essential for critical thinking. For most of modern history logic was considered the starting point for all learning, and for 900 years it was a required subject for every student at every school. In fact, teaching logic was one of the main reasons universities were originally created.

Education reforms around the beginning of the 20th century eliminated logic as a required subject. It remained popular for a while as an elective in colleges, but eventually that popularity died out. Today only a small fraction of educated people know anything about logic. Computers were developed just as logic literacy had become scarce. But computers don't reduce the value of logic literacy, they increase it – significantly. Computers could be to logic literacy as the printing press was to standard literacy. But that is not possible when schools don't teach logic.
Aside from computers, logic is important for everyday thinking. It allows us to recognize good arguments from bad, evaluate the claims of advertisers and politicians, and solve problems. The ancient Greeks understood that logic does not come naturally, it must be taught. And when logic is not taught, people are less able to reason effectively and they become more vulnerable to deception and mistakes. Many of the ills of society today are clear and predictable results of the decline of logic education, and they are only getting worse. We need logic now more than ever.
Many people assume that “if logic is so important, schools would sill be teaching it.” They don't understand the history, or the urgency. The word logic has even lost its meaning. Most people think logic simply means "way of thinking" or "what makes sense" in a given situation. It is common to hear "I don't agree with that logic" – but the principles of logic are the same for everyone, whether they understand them or not. Rather than saying "I don't agree with that logic," those who understand logic might say "I don't agree with that conclusion," and then use logic to examine the original assumptions. Disagreements often come not from logic, but from different perspectives, interpretations, and goals. Understanding logic helps people recognize the roots of disagreements, and when disagreements are better understood, they are more easily resolved or avoided.
Logic is often misunderstood to be the opposite of emotion. Not true! We use the same patterns of reasoning whether we follow our heads or our hearts. But if we don't understand basic logic we can make mistakes or be misled, regardless of our motivations. Learning logic may even increase emotional intelligence and self awareness by helping people reason more clearly. There are absolutely no disadvantages to learning logic, and many advantages.
We urge everyone to support logic education. Logic courses are offered at most universities and even most community colleges. Stanford University wants all high schools to teach logic. Their Intro to Logic course is available online for free, and is a good option for many people. Employers especially benefit from logic education. Business leaders can offer their employees business-focused logic training through our Center for Logic and Business Communication.
Learn more about how you can help promote logic education here.

"King James said, 'No bishops, no king.'
With greater confidence we can say, 'No logic, no science.'"
Alfred North Whitehead,

Logic and the Organization of Information

frickeAuthor: Martin Frické
Publisher:  Springer (2012)

This book is not for everyone, but everyone should know why it is important. The author believes that logic is fundamental to the field of information science, but other scholars in his field do not understand this important fact. He opens with a quote from 1929: “That the study of classification extends into logic… should not deter the educated librarian…”, and he discusses how Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz envisioned the use of logic to organize information in the 17th century. But Frické notes that "The monumental and authoritative Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition, 2009, does not have an entry for logic in its 6,856 pages" (p 121).

Modern information scientists do not recognize the value of logic in their field because few of them have ever studied it. Information managers should be able to rely on information scientists for guidance on how to use logic to organize information, but they cannot. Deficiency of logic education is the root cause of many difficult and costly challenges facing modern enterprise organizations.

With the decline of logic education during the 20th century it has become possible to earn a degree in almost any subject, including a PhD in information science, information management, or even computer science, without taking even a single introductory course in logic. This incredible fact highlights the irony of an advanced society that could not have developed without logic as the cornerstone of its education, but that now no longer expects it to be studied or understood.

Applied Mathematics for Database Professionals

AM4DPAuthor: Lex de Haan and Toon Koppelaars
Publisher:  Apress (2007)

The title of this book is misleading. It is not about mathematics, it is about classical logic, which is usually taught as introductory material in philosophy departments at universities and and even most community colleges. It is not difficult. This book teaches how to apply the simple principles of logic to the complex process of database design.

Logic provides the basic underlying principles behind the millions of databases that form the nervous system of modern commerce and management. But unfortunately the vast majority of database professionals have never studied logic, an ironic fact that co-author Toon Koppelaars discusses in his blog. Knowledge of logic does not come naturally or even from experience. It must be taught.

Logic was eliminated as a required subject in schools during the first half of the 20th century and computers were developed during the second half. But computers do not reduce the value of logic education, they increase it. And no activity relies more heavily on the practical application of logic than designing and querying databases. Deficiency of logic education is without doubt the primary root cause of the most difficult and costly information management challenges facing modern organizations. These challenges could be reduced or eliminated by teaching basic principles of classical logic and how to apply them, which is what this book does.