False and misleading arguments are nothing new. In ancient Athens, a class of intellectual bullies known as the Sophists used creative deductions to twist the truth and 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, no matter how false or implausible, and persuade people to accept it as being reasonable through seemingly straight-forward deductive reasoning. The Sophists made their livings 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.
Some view ancient Athens as the cradle of democracy. But it was a deeply dysfunctional democracy. It was led by mob rule and was authoritarian and tyrannical. The mob executed Socrates, Plato’s mentor, because they wanted to – and they had the votes. Athenians slaughtered the men then enslaved the women and children of 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 leaders for petty grievances, which caused many others to flee Athens and become mercenaries in Persia, critically weakening the Athenian military when they could least afford it.
The Sophists played a central role in the politics and culture of Athens, and 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 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 false and abusive tactics, which is the subject of his book Sophistical Refutations, or The Fallacies of the Sophists. This was an important step towards his later book, Prior Analytics, which contains the first detailed explanation of formal logic.
For most of history since then, logic was considered the first of the liberal arts and the foundation for all further learning. Logic focuses on the structure of arguments, rather than their content. Learning logic helps people see the importance of evidence, experience, and specialized knowledge when evaluating anything beyond the bare structure of an argument. Renaissance humanists, such as Petrus Ramus, taught logic to help people resist the authoritarian abuses of medieval scholastics, which were similar to those of the Sophists. Critics mocked Ramus for believing that even ordinary people could learn logic.
Logic was 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 all came to an end after leaders restricted the use of logic to religious purposes only 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 I also restricted logic to religion only; and when the Soviets took over, they restricted religion! The Russians have a terrible track record when it comes to logic education. So does China. Followers of the ancient philosopher Mo Tzu may have understood some elements of logic even before Aristotle, but their ideas were stomped out by the authoritarian Qin dynasty. A British logician visited China in 1920; 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 once popular among ordinary people in America, at least in the northern colonies and states. The founders of Harvard University were students of Ramus, and teaching logic was a top priority. Benjamin Franklin published a book on logic for young people. But logic has fallen out of favor even in America. 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. Fortunately, a tiny percentage of students continued to study logic voluntarily in elective classes at universities and even community colleges. 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 technical and scientific literacy, but also our capacity 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 it bears mentioning that logic is closely related to ethics; it is not surprising that a decline of ethics has followed the decline of logic. 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, but few schools have adopted it. The outdated and mistaken ideas of education reformers still have great influence on the training of education leaders and their attitudes towards logic. 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.