Arguing · Investigation

Is that logical?

(Editors note – this is not the article I promised to write on “Arenas of Change” – I got distracted by the wondrous world of logic).

I promised a class that I would write something on “The Arenas of Change”, which is a theory about how teams interpret reality.

The theory is based on the idea that teams act on their interpretation of reality, rather than on reality itself. The “Arena” is the system within which the team interpret and act on information.  And this is made up of the team’s existing norms, ceremonies and other components of their culture.

By understanding the “arena” in which work and change are occurring, we can understand the way information will be processed and therefore the way the team will act on it.

One of the implications is that, even if my message is logical, the team might ignore it or re-interpret it to suit their current understanding of the world.

So I guess it would be logical to assume that this article will be on the Arenas of change: Unfortunately, I got distracted.

I ran a course on technical writing this week and we discussed the internal logic of a document. And I promised to write up a summary of our discussion on “logic”.

So now I am going to write a couple of articles meandering through both ideas.  In this one, I will simple state that:

When you write a document, you will naturally accept all the arguments that match your existing interpretation of reality. So you may well structure your message in a way you think is compelling; that completely fails to engage an audience who do not share your interpretation.

If you want to be a good technical writer you need to structure your document in a way that allows the reader to understand and challenge your logic.  This is true whether it is a business case, email, blog, telepathic communiqué, whatever.

If your reader agrees with what you are saying, he or she can thus skim to the end and agree that you are very intelligent. If they disagree, then your document should entice them to answer the questions they have as those questions come up. And if they reject your logic, then you should both be able to see the specific point of difference.

If this is logical, then let’s discuss how we can assess the logic of a statement.

Let’s assume I am running a popular training course. You have enrolled and I have sent you a course guide.  On page one is the statement

This is the address and room number for the course. Note that if you are not here by 9am, I will lock the door.

When I write this I think it is quite clear. But if you have ever known a first year philosophy student, then you know that any philosopher can deliver over 10 pages refuting every aspect of what I say.

Our friendly philosophy student might start asking “9am on which day; which door; is there really a door; Is it a course, or is it really an artificial construct, constraining our ability to truly face the abysmal nature of corporeal existence”. And I will respond with “please leave me alone now”.

Minding your P’s and Q’s

What our friendly philosophy student is learning to do is to start applying a simple formula called “If [P] then [Q]”, where P is the first part of the statement and Q is the conclusion.

Let’s look at my statement that “If you are not here by 9am then I will lock the door”.

What I want to say is that if you are there late (after 9am), you will not be able to come into the class until the next break (say 10:30).  But I am not actually saying this: I am forcing you to make this interpretation.

To test the statement I can ask “If [I lock the door at 9am] then [what]”. This reveals that my statement [P] does may not result in the conclusion that I want the reader to get.  In fact I might have meant that “If you are late the door will be locked, so don’t panic.  Just knock and I will let you in”.

Similarly, it is a fair assumption that if you come before 9am then the door will be open.  But in fact I might lock the door at 8:55am and when you complain I might say “I never said I wouldn’t lock it early, only that I would lock it at 9am if you are not there”.  This would be logically correct, even if it is also absurd or annoying.

The P-Q tests are all straight forward and can be applied to just about any claim.  All you do is see if the statement suggests any of these:

  • P then Q: If P is true, then Q is true. (or it might be stated as “Q is true because P is true”);
  • P then not Q: If P is true then Q is not true (similarly Q is not true if P is true).  For example “He knows how important it is, so he won’t be late” or “It is before 9 so the door will NOT be locked.;
  • Not P then Q: If P is Not true then Q is true (similarly Q is true as long as P is not).  For example “If she was not at the meeting then she will assume we are working on option A” or “If it is not after 9am then the door will be open”; or
  • Not P then not Q (similarly Not Q because not P): “If she is not a permanent employee she will not care about the project”, or if you are not there before 9am, the door will not be locked.

The approach is to simply find which of the above structures can be found in the statement.  If none can be found then you will need to list the assumptions that could make it true and see if these are valid (or add them).

If you do find one of the structures then you can simply start asking:

  • Is P true?: Is it always true?; How do we know”? How would we know if it wasn’t? When is it not true? What does each noun and verb mean in P – could any be misinterpreted? If P is not always true, is it reasonable to assume P is true in this context?;
  • Is the connection (then Q or then not Q) valid: Is it always the case? When is it not? What do I need to assume for it to be true? Do the nouns and verbs used in Q have the same meaning as when they were used in P?;
  • What is not being said? Does it matter in this context? and
  • What happens when I apply the other rules? (for example with the statement “if you are late then I will lock the door” – what happens if I am not late? Can I assume the door is unlocked?).

If you apply this kind of logic test sensibly you will realise that many of our communications fail the logic test. 

If you take it all the way then you will find yourself questioning whether doors exist, but if you use it reasonably you will be able to predict resistance and confusion in your communication.

So the good news is that you can improve the quality of the statements in your own communication and learn to find flaws and dodgy-ness in the communications you are the victim (audience?) of.

The bad news is that a series of statements that are perfectly logical can still be a meaningless message if they do not combine logically, or flow together, or have relevance for the document your are writing.

So grouping statements together logically will be the next blog.


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