[Review] Give Them An Argument: Logic For The Left

No longer the recondite passion of philosophers and mathematicians (and the terror of humanities undergrads) logic has today become — bizarrely — politically loaded. As Ben Burgis points out in the book whose title is above these words, it has become associated with, broadly, the right end of the political spectrum.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, people on the right talk about logic a lot. Ben Shapiro somehow got the reputation of being someone good at argumentation; Stefan Molyneux wrote a truly awful sounding book about logic.

Centrists are in on the game too. The classical liberals associated with Areo and Quillette tout free speech and science while castigating the left for silencing and deplatforming, for disdaining science and corroding academia with grievance studies.

If the right and (some of the) centre have been happy to brand themselves as the standard bearers of rationality, those roughly left of the spectrum have been happy to let them. One influential species of online leftist has a particular rhetorical style that forefronts snark instead of argumentative substance. In a different corner of the internet, more academic leftists marshal concerns from, say, speech act-theoretic analyses of pornography, or critical race theory’s views about the exclusionary nature of the canon to question the thought that speech or science are transparent mediums of thought as opposed to power-inflected tools.

The aim of Burgis’s book is clear: to claim a space among this motley for Leftists Who Logic, showing that leftist concerns are not only compatible with, but will eventually demand, the capacity to create and respond to arguments.

With a PhD in logic he is the ideal person for this, and the book is a relaxed introduction to some topics in informal and (a tiny bit of) formal logic. Burgis’s method is to present a range of case studies of bad reasoning by famous people, introducing tools to let us see why and how they go wrong, and how to argue better ourselves. In addition to this, it makes the broader case that leftists should use these tools.

I think it unambiguously succeeds in the first aim, of imparting knowledge about logic. For reasons I’ll give below, I’m less sure about the second, but regardless this book successfully makes the case that leftism and logic do, or ought to, mix. I’ll do three things here: first I’ll say a bit more about the political context and why this book is important; second I’ll give an outline of its contents; and third I’ll give a novel and somewhat trollish argument against its central thesis that good arguments are what socialists should aim at.

The Challenge of the Dirtbag Left

If you’re not very online, you might wonder why this book needs to be written. Is it controversial that being able to assess and create arguments is bad?

Well, yeah, kinda. In addition to the fact that logic has been tarred by association with IDW doofi, there’s a rhetorical style associated with the contemporary left that downplays the importance of reason.

Although it’s not confined to them, it’s useful, as Burgis does, to concentrate on the extremely popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House who typify what is known as the dirtbag left. So, opening up Twitter, head to one of the Chapo boy’s pages, and you see, for example, this:

It’s riffing on an anti-abortion meme itself riffing on this meme; it contains ironic references to pop culture detritus and pornstars. It is pretty much paradigm dirtbag left, found all over leftist Twitter.

Now here’s a question: Why do people react like that to current events? What about this style makes it wildly popular and lucrative?

Note that it’s not — to make a point whose obviousness might make it easy to overlook — the only possible reaction to the recent anti-abortion decisions in the US. One could express one’s horror and terror at the patriarchy; one could point to the hypocrisy of the senators; @byyourlogic could even show their was something wrong, by the GOP’s own logic, with their logic. And people do, but there is no brand of leftism honoured with a title as the dirtbag left is, and there is no other podcast that takes in over $1 million a year as Chapo does. Their style and success calls out for explanation.

I don’t have the explanation (although I’ll gesture at one below). But it doesn’t matter for our purposes — the important thing to note is the possible consequences of this style. If this is what’s cool, people will imitate it. And if they do, they will think that this is how one should react to political news, with absurdity-laced nihilism.

And here, I think, is Burgis’s aim: to show that this shouldn’t be our only reaction, that leftists have arguments and should use them, and that while there is place for snark (as Burgis happily admits) it can’t be our only reaction to the world. Discussing Chapo, he writes:

A left that only knows how to shame, call out, privilege-check, and diagnose the allegedly unsavoury motivations of people who disagree with us will lose a lot of persuadable people whose material interests should put us on our side.

This, it seems to me, is both exactly right and important. Much of the left is very insular, disdaining engagement with ideological opponents, and this is harmful. Matt Bruenig, for example, probably knows more about the wonky mechanics of socialism than pretty much anybody, but he spends (some of) his time on Twitter ironically retweeting Trump and not engaging even with obviously good faith interlocutors. The massively popular Joe Rogan podcast hosts many centre-right people, while the only leftist voice I noticed in recent episodes was Russell Brand. Leftists should get out more (to the credit of both, I think, Burgis has appeared in both Areo and Quillette defending leftist views.)

The Contents Of The Book

So the book is responsive to a need — it’s the need of counteracting, or supplementing, a particular approach to current events that, for whatever reason, is ‘against facts, logic and reason’ (as the subtitle of the Chapo book has it).

The first chapter discusses the need for logically literate leftists, along the way introducing some basic notions from informal and formal logic: some fallacies and basic modes of reasoning. The next takes apart some bad arguments by Ben Shapiro, using the opportunity to point out more common mistakes and styles of bad reasoning. This logic-in-the-wild approach is a good way, I think, to introduce this material, showing that these tools are not abstract things but can be used when watching YouTube or reading a paper. Three gives us some more fallacies, a rebuttal of the bad argument going from the failure of socialisms past to the inevitability of the failure of socialism future, and a discussion of some dubious arguments for libertarianism.

In the fourth chapter, we see that political types being horrible at logic has form, presenting some truly embarrassing passages from Trotsky and Ayn Rand, while the fifth points discusses Nate Silver’s misusing stats for ideological ends. The sixth points out that socialism requires democratic engagement, and so will require ‘the biggest project of collective self-education in human history’ a big part of which is people ‘learning to carefully and precisely reason with each other’. Socialism is not only compatible with logical rigour, but demands it.

The book is entertaining and easy to read, and the choice of material is good. Even if the thought of ‘logic’ makes you balk, there’s nothing to fear about this book — very few symbols, and none of the rote translations into propositional or first-order logic that bore undergrads (and the grads who teach them.)

There are a couple of things it would have been nice to include — material on probability theory, in light of the fact that thinking probabilistically is associated with good reasoning, and some intro to stats, in light of the concerns about p-hacking that draw so much attention today. That said, I understand why they didn’t make the cut, as adding this stuff would turn the book from something one can casually and quickly read into more a slog.

An Argument Against Giving Them An Argument

So the book succeeds in its aim of expositing some important material. What about its broader goal of showing that logic and the left mix?

Like Burgis, I have PhD in (more or less) logic, am very aware of the importance of clear thinking, and see the worry about some of the left’s rhetoric. At the same time, it’s not entirely obvious to me that good reasoning will be conducive to political success.

So let me present an argument for this doubt that has the twin virtues of i) offering an explanation of the popularity of the scatological Chapo Trap House rhetoric and ii) trolling the right wing people who love argument so much.

It goes like this. Our mind, just like our body, is the end product of many tens of thousands of years of evolution, and its mechanisms should be evaluated with that fact in mind: the particularities of the way we are, at least sometimes, are to be explained by the fact that those particularities made us more fitting for the environment we found ourselves in back in the day.

Let’s turn this way of thinking onto ideas, as, for example, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett did. People have argued that there are ideas that are really good from an evolutionary perspective but really bad from the perspective of truth. Dennett, for example, famously suggests that religion might be like this: something about religious ideas lodges in our mind and shapes our behaviour to make us play well with others, a necessity when we moved from being foragers. Religious ideas are good ideas, then, from the evolutionary perspective. But most religious ideas (even if you’re a theist, since there are a ton of religions making competing claims and surely at most one can be true) are false, and so the ideas that work for us might not be true ideas.

Going further, evolutionary sexologist and renowned SJW Geoffrey Miller suggests that perhaps our whole ideological scheme favours flashiness over truth:

Sexual selection … may have profoundly undermined the reliability of our conscious beliefs. This is the level of epistemology that people care about when they challenge other people’s claims to “knowledge” in the domains of religion, politics, medicine, psychotherapy, social policy, the humanities, and the philosophy of science. It is in these domains that sexual selection undermines the [thought that evolution has endowed us with accurate minds], by turning our cognitive faculties into ornamental fitness advertisements rather than disciples of truth. (The Mating Mind)

We write and podcast and tweet not to get at truth, but to get laid. If this is so, we should be worried about placing too much faith in logic as a means of getting our political ideas received.

Of course, this is highly speculative and could be challenged at numerous points. But it does seem to explain some things: the popularity of Chapo, say, and, in a different vein, Brexit and Trump. The possibility that we’re just not, for the most part, rational creatures, can’t be discounted, and our politics should be open to it. Maybe the thing to do is keep on with the dick and fart jokes and hope that they, rather than sound and valid arguments, will serve as receptacles that will lead people to sign up for the DSA.

Should this trouble Burgis? Only partly. Because note — I just presented an argument for why we shouldn’t rely on arguments. It has premises and a conclusion. You can ask whether the premises are true (whether it is sound — hasn’t meme theory been debunked?). You can ask whether it involves some fallacy.You can ask whether it is dialectically effective against Burgis. In short, to know whether you should or should not give anybody an argument requires being able to assess and evaluate arguments. And reading Burgis’s book will help you do this.

The past while has seen an uptick in books about socialism such as the Chapo book and Bhaskar Sunkara’s Socialist Manifesto (I reviewed them respectively here and here). They, along with this book, are products of a resurging socialism and together form a neat mini-library for the leftist of 2019.