Thursday, May 22, 2008

Using Logic 101 as Non-Defensively as I Can...

I'm having a truly great experience with work these days. As I wrote about in an earlier post, Chief and I are standing our department up from scratch. We're both hard-chargers, so it's a great role for both of us to be in -- sink or swim, and we're basically on our own to chart the course.

One of the things that he's teaching me is not to be defensive. I actually think it's natural and normal for people to become defensive when they feel like they're unfairly characterized. However, because defensiveness never comes off well in any setting, I'm glad he's working as hard as he is to beat it out of me. (By pressing all the buttons he's figured out need pressing, and doing it quite often).

One thing that's certainly a "button" for me is when people say -- teasingly or not-so-teasingly -- that I'm a ticket-puncher. I understand why they say it -- non-traditional pre-military background, and strong, openly-declared interests in writing and government as potential future vocations. It's a natural, easy heuristic for people to use, and an easy narrative to make fit. People love simple narratives for the mental shortcut they always provide. After all, when is nuance really worth the effort, anyway?

I guess the reason I get defensive about it is that there's enough truth running through it to bring it close to home -- I really am interested in pursuing a career sometime down the road in writing, government, or some combination of the two. I'm fully cognizant that what I'm doing now might help drive that engine in the future. But it's also touchy because of the implicit assumption of aspersions cast upon my motives for involvement with the one earthly *thing* that I love more than any other (U.S. military), the only *real job* I've ever had, and what I've dedicated my twenties to, at significant short-term opportunity costs.

So if I said it didn't touch a nerve, I have to admit I'd be lying.

To switch the gears back to the nuts-and-bolts of my life's trajectory, I'm also fully cognizant that it's a contradiction-in-terms to "plan" a writing career. For everyone who gets to be Tom Clancy or Robert Kaplan, there are hundreds or thousands who are just as talented but never do. It's also a contradiction-in-terms to "plan" a career as a high-level government appointee. And as a registered Independent with no party affiliation, my statistical odds of ever being elected to a partisan legislative body are officially close to zero. (The only Independents in recent Congresses -- Bernie Sanders and James Jeffords of VT, and Joe Lieberman of CT -- were prior partisan electees).

But okay, back to the original theme. When people kid me in person about ticket-punching, I'm just going to laugh, shrug, and throw a l'il barb back at them (thanks, Chief). But since this blog offers the advantage of a written format that allows for lengthier explanations, let me crack open my Logic 101 textbook to show you why it's wrong-headed in spirit:

(1) Use of inductive logic. Inductive logic basically means you're starting from the conclusion and then tacking on your premises in order to prove a point. You can use inductive logic to pretty much conclude anything, and you'll never really be wrong. You can ignore all the facts at hand, or just the ones that don't neatly fit, and your desired outcome is guaranteed. Just think show trials in Stalin's Lubyanka or "justice" for male desecendants of slaves in the post-bellum Deep South, and you'll see why inductive reasoning can be an all-around bum deal. So, in my case, it's a way to fall back on a preconceived shorthand idea and just plain ignore the fact that I'm not getting out, even with three neat holes in my Iraq card. In fact, I would say that volunteering for an Airborne unit in a critical-needs MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) with the highest op-tempo of any service would be pretty darn close to a 180-degree tilt from that. I'm tweaking the way I'll serve so that I can stay in one place and (hopefully) avoid any *individual* mobilizations, but I'm also virtually guaranteeing plenty more no-kidding on-the-ground time in one of the major current theaters.

(2) Mutual Exclusion. Mutual exclusion is a logical fallacy that wrongly assumes two things can't co-exist. To say that you can't love something and still benefit from it is actually a great example, and I'd use it if I were teaching basic logic. I actually proved this while talking to a friend recently who brought this whole ticket-punching topic up, which actually inspired me to do this blog entry. Here's how I responded (name changed to protect the innocent):

Me: So, you and Sally have been together for a few years now, huh?

Friend: Yep (breaks into big grin).

Me: Would you say it's been a great experience for you, I mean, overall?

Friend: Definitely. In this sense, definitely the best ever for me.

Me: Really? So in other words you're saying you don't love her.

Friend: Huh? (Getting upset). Whoa. I didn't say that. Where did you get that? Not from me. WHAT?!?! (Clearly confused and maybe angry)

Me: No, I'm just proving your absurdity from five minutes ago.

I'm not sure if he *got* where I was going but I trust that you will.

(3) Correlation as Causation. This is one of the easiest logical fallacies to spot in everyday life, like in news reports that say, "A new study shows that people who drink more than three cans of diet soda every day have higher rates of obesity and heart disease." The correlation has to do generally with the other health habits of the three-diet-soda-and-up crowd, but it's totally baseless either to infer that one caused the other. To tie things back to this blog entry's theme, the big idea here is that it's actually pretty natural for anyone with a strong interest and passion for world events, history, and government to want to actually experience the things that inspire great works of literature, non-fiction, and parliamentary debate (and all of this is said, of course, without even touching the feeling of seeing, on live TV, a jetliner directly impact a family member's floor of a building and believing him to be dead, and then realizing your own life had just been spared by a computer somewhere at Priceline that kept you off of United 93).

In other words, sometimes there's a natural correlation that's much more curvy and fuzzy than a single point-to-point solid line causation driving a decision.

So back to the whole let's-not-get-defensive-thing: If anyone who barely knows me ribs me about ticket-punching, I'll spare them all (or any) of this -- I'll just break out my Dr. Julius Hibbard laugh and make a joke about having walked past the usher at the door.

If it's someone who I know a little bit better (and actually cares enough to hear the answer), I'll just say (non-defensively, of course!), "Well, sure. Like most things, that's *sort of* true and also *sort of* not true."

And if they want the full story, I'll just refer them to the blog.

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