(techno)Logical Fallacies: Which is Yours?

By Kate Sheehan |

Every teacher I know dreads being asked “When are we going to use this in real life?” The question is frustrating because the answer is often “Well, you might not, but I have no way of knowing, and yes, this will be on the test, and spelling most certainly counts.” We may never use algebra proper after high school (unless you count those Facebook memes that assume we’ve forgotten PEMDAS), but I think an argument can be made that we use algebraic thinking regularly. For librarians, there’s an obvious utility of being able to talk about books (and by extension, movies, and television shows), but surely those English class discussions help even those who would never join a book club as adults. The high school class I’ve been revisiting frequently is one where nobody asked how we’d use it in real life: a logic class I took junior year.

Obviously, I did not become a logician or a lawyer (despite my mother’s frequent suggestions that I consider law school), so I am by no means a professional user of formal logic. In fact, one of the biggest lessons I gleaned from that class was that logic is rarely found in the wild. After I had taken the tests and retired the textbooks to my “I should probably hang on to this” shelf, I had trouble remembering more than a few of the formal logical fallacies (though I read news and opinion pieces with a more critical eye). Enter the Internet!

Of course, approximately 8 jillion websites list all of the different logical fallacies, but I am fond of yourlogicalfallacyis.com. The attractive site gives simple overviews of the most common fallacies. As a new parent, I like the emphasis on using their poster as a teaching tool. Why am I writing about this on a technology blog?

If you’ll permit me an anecdotal argument, I think it’s easy to take technology too personally. At work, our jobs are bound up in software and hardware, so a glitch in the ILS or a faulty cable can waste hours of our time and make us feel incompetent. “We look stupid in front of patrons” is one of the biggest complaints I see from the librarians I work with. At home, our lives reside increasingly in the circuits and data in our smart phones. We’re lost without our calendars, we love our photos, we freak out when our backups fail or our gadgets are drowned by baby drool.

Troubleshooting and solving tech problems, though, is usually a logic puzzle. Returning to these logical fallacies that I learned an increasingly long time ago has provided a touchstone for thinking about and working with technology. Not to say that IT folks are paragons of logical virtue. "Have you tried turning it off and on again?” is something of a superstitious ritual in IT (but it does work, right? I mean, we’ve all seen it work. Yet the ability to separate the technical from the emotional makes both easier to handle, whether you’re a frustrated end user or puzzled tech support person.

“Correlation is not causation” is something of a rallying cry online. It’s sometimes seen as obnoxious, but false cause is important to think about when we’re looking at technical difficulties. “Correlation is not causation” is less useful as a snotty comeback and more helpful as a mumbled incantation against the universal tendency to see connections where none exist. If you haven’t been able to print from the ILS since the upgrade, those are way more likely to be related issues than if you haven’t been able to print from Word since the ILS upgrade. Automatic updates and their opposite problem – computers that aren’t updated until someone comes to fix a problem or do a software upgrade muddy the waters for the end user and the support person called in to help.

Sometimes, causation is irrelevant to the solution. Why did your printer stop talking to your computer? Who knows? If it’s a recurrent problem, then finding the culprit is helpful. But if the problem is fixed, your IT person may not have the time or inclination to track down the issue. Or she may be waiting to see if it happens again. Problems that recur without pattern are frustrating for everyone, but chasing a false cause doesn’t help solve them.

Unsurprisingly, talking about logical fallacies is often interpreted as petty and condescending. It’s too bad, because no one is immune from these flaws in thinking. Every one has confused correlation and causation – it’s really easy to do and catching ourselves shouldn’t be a source of shame. National Public Radio's Car Talk guys were always excellent at discussing the difference between correlation and causation. A caller would be sure, for example, that cold weather caused a problem, but the brothers would eventually show that it was not the cold itself, but the driver’s different behavior when the weather was cold that caused an issue. It wasn’t, say, that the seat belt mechanism locked up in the cold, but the caller was using it differently when bundled up and bemittened.

Not understanding something about our cars doesn’t seem to upset us in the same way that being flummoxed by our computers does. I know I’ve started sentences with “I don’t know much about cars,” nor have I delivered a long apology for not knowing about the particulars of my transmission. Yet I hear these types of apologies for technological uncertainty all the time.

I would not add insult to injury by suggesting that you not only do not understand why your printer isn’t working, but you’ve also thought about the problem badly. That is not my intent here. 

I want you to join me in opening this can of worms. What kinds of (techno)logical fallacies do you encounter? What do you catch yourself doing? Refer to yourlogicalfallacyis.com for a couple dozen choices. False cause comes up for me a lot, but I know I’ve caught myself committing other logical sins.

Next month, I’ll touch on memory, which is not strictly a logic problem, but plays into a lot of tech troubleshooting (I swear to you, there used to be a Pandora icon in Apple TV, but when I went to stream music through Apple TV, it wasn’t there. Support forums tell me it never was, but I am left with the uneasy sense that the latest upgrade stripped a feature from my device). Leave a comment about your favorite logical fallacy below.