Math Formula

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Think logically!

Some while ago, I reflected upon mantras and sayings, which often more or less accurately represent people's schools of thought. Not quite as severe, yet annoying at times, are platitudes. They tend to be not so deeply burned into our minds as mantras, but nevertheless sometimes their shortsightedness is striking.

One of the platitudes which made it to the olymp of particularly stupid platitudes is: Think logically!
What I find surprising about this statement is NOT that typically it is plainly wrong in the strictest meaning of the word logically. What I find surprising instead is that it reveals an extremely widespread misconception about how knowledge is obtained and applied. Let me elaborate.

While this statement has merit in certain situations (e.g., in a course on, guess what, logic), most frequently it is simply misused. A few examples:

  • When boiling noodles, do you put the salt into the water before it starts boiling or afterwards? Think logically!
  • How do you hang that picture? Think logically!
  • How do you calculate the area of a circle? Think logically!
Again, what I find irritating here is NOT the misusage of the word "logical" in the strictest meaning of the word. More than not, what the speaker really means is: "Apply your knowledge about the principles of our world onto that particular matter.". But even then, this statement does not make sense at all!
Most likely, asking that respective question about doing something does not only show a lack of understanding of the matter per se, but also about which questions to ask in order to come up with a solution.

Someone who already knows how to boil noodles might ask back further on: Think logically, how do water and salt react with each other (in chemical terms)? How will you level the picture after you hung it? Just look at that circle, how many square-units does it consist of?

All of these questions make perfect sense - in hindsight. Just as like the correct questions that lead to the ultimate answer to the initial question could be: What is the seeding point of noodles? Which material is picture made of? What is the square root of 2?

Obviously, none of these questions make sense in the context at hand. Yet, there is no way the initially asking person can possible know this; otherwise he would not ask at all!
Learning something is not only about the respective application, but also learning which questions to ask during application. 
Telling somebody to "think logically" gives him the impression of failing to realize something obvious. But the contrary is true - telling somebody to "think logically" reveals failure to realize how you yourself obtained that knowledge! 

Think logically! Remove that platitude out of your dictionary - your kids, classmates and colleagues will thank you for your nonviolent communication.

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