Reaching an uncritical mass

Reaching an uncritical mass

A group of teenage students are so concerned with the poor state of Thais' logic skills that they're offering online lessons in critical thinking

Leap of logic: A screengrab from the Anti Fallacy page on Facebook, with a quote from Leonard Nimoy's character Spock saying logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it.
Leap of logic: A screengrab from the Anti Fallacy page on Facebook, with a quote from Leonard Nimoy's character Spock saying logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it.

'She's just a farmer. She knows nothing." That was the example Terachet Rojrachsombat used on Facebook to illustrate his lesson on ad hominem, or abusive, arguments. The post drew an immediate reaction.

"Is it similar to when the old uncle said farmers don't know anything?" asked a Facebook user under the name Singha Trader Saweks, apparently referring to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who in April said farmers don't understand the constitution or democracy.

The examples provided by the Anti Fallacy Facebook page are appealing for a reason: not only are the lessons reader-friendly, but they also represent examples widely used in Thai public life.

Logical fallacies are, in simple terms, any arguments where an error in reasoning is made. That could come through an inductive argument, such as: The sun has risen every day of its existence, therefore it will rise tomorrow. Or it could simply be using personal abuse to discredit a person's argument rather than engaging with the reasoning behind the argument.

Each fallacy on the Facebook page is summarised in two to three images, drawn on a blackboard by a cartoon version of a girl in a Thai school uniform. The examples used in the lessons range from ghosts, alcohol and sex to more serious issues such as the government, the constitution, global warming and military conscription.

Within a day of being launched just last month, the page received 5,000 "likes".

But little did the readers know that their mentors are high school students.

"There are only 10 people who know that I am one of the administrators," said 16-year-old Terachet, who does most of the work behind the scenes.

IRRATIONAL THAIS

On the evening of April 5, Terachet and a friend were talking about debating as they left Triam Udom Suksa School. The conversation gravitated towards logic, and Terachet showed his friend a logic textbook from the Chulalongkorn University Book Centre.

The book was the second edition of Schaum's Outline of Logic, which Terachet noticed during one of his daily visits to the book store in March to read geography textbooks, in preparation for the local selection of students to compete in the International Geography Olympiad.

Both Mr Terachet and his friend ended up purchasing the 800 baht book.

"I read it and I was hooked," Terachet said.

The next day Terachet invited four of his friends to set up a Facebook page called Anti Fallacy in an attempt to educate Thais about becoming more rational. Although he is fluent in both Thai and English, Terachet chose to target a Thai audience because they are "less rational" than foreigners.

"Sometimes I get sick of seeing terribly irrational Thais in the news, especially politicians," he said. "Thais will only recognise a fallacy when it is very absurd, such as '1 is a number. 2 is a number. Therefore 1 = 2.' I want the term to be more prevalent."

Terachet summarised the first two chapters of the book into seven introductory episodes, which were launched on the website on April 23 and covered topics such as the components of a good argument and the relevance of premises and conclusions. By then, the page had six administrators, all Year 11 students and five from the science programme of the prestigious Triam Udom Suksa School.

Two days after its launch, the page had gained wide interest, with several comments suggesting that such lessons were long overdue.

"This is so in-depth! Honestly, it took me so long to understand. It's so different from the learning process that I'm used to. What did you guys study?" read a post from a Facebook user under the name Kanthon Rakkhum.

LOGIC CRIMES

By the start of this month, Anti Fallacy began its first lesson on fallacies, starting with ad hominem arguments attacking the person rather than the idea of the argument, such as "She's just a farmer. She knows nothing" or "If you think like this, you aren't Thai".

Facebook users are encouraged to send direct messages to the administrators asking them to identify fallacious arguments they encounter. The administrators then choose the most interesting arguments for analysis on the page. One example was regarding the mother of anti-coup activist Sirawith Seritiwat, who was charged with violating the lese majeste law, for allegedly replying "ja" -- a non-committal acknowledgment -- to a private Facebook message from fellow lese majeste accused Burin Intin which was reportedly critical of the royal family.

The page identified four logical fallacies: hasty generalisation, guilt by association, denying the antecedent and slippery slope.

According to the explanation provided on the page, arriving to the conclusion that "ja" meant the mother was aiding and abetting Mr Burin is considered a hasty generalisation. By inferring that the mother has committed a crime because she had a conversation with Mr Burin, who also allegedly committed a crime, is considered guilt by association.

Authorities have argued that the mother's failure to stop or warn Mr Burin was against the law. However, the Anti Fallacy page explained how this is considered "denying the antecedent": If warning someone is not against the law, the failure to warn someone doesn't necessarily mean it is against the law. All three fallacies lead to a slippery slope argument, said the post.

Nowadays, Terachet says he does 95% of the administrative work on the page, identifying himself as "Insomnia" when he posts replies. He often intervenes when coming across rude language. "If we use rational arguments, there is no need to use rude words or be aggressive, because the other side will be unable to provide a good argument anyway," he wrote in a reply.

SCHOOL OF THOUGHT

The Anti Fallacy admins are not alone in their battle. Last September, 17-year-old Parit Chiwarak set up a campaign pushing for the scrapping of civic duty classes imposed by the National Council for Peace and Order. The NCPO created guidelines for schools, listing five areas: Thainess; love of the monarchy, nation and religions; being a good citizen under democracy with the monarch as head of state; reconciliation; and discipline and responsibility towards oneself and society.

Parit, who is also a student at Triam Udom Suksa but is not involved with the Anti Fallacy page, reasoned that the subject should be replaced by philosophy, and considered rational thinking to be a more important trait than obedience.

"Order and ethics isn't something that can spring out of rote learning," said Parit, who is also known as "Penguin".

Parit rose to fame when he attempted to submit a petition to Gen Prayut during an anti-corruption seminar. He was detained and taken to Pathumwan police station before he was able to hand over the petition, so instead he decided to set up an online petition on the website Change.org, which has gathered more than 3,400 supporters.

Prach Panchakunathorn, a former lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's philosophy department, said he was impressed with the students' efforts to educate Thais, and the fact that these students saw the need to run such a campaign suggests that for them, Thai people don't get enough education in critical thinking.

Thais are introduced to the subject of formal logic as part of their high school mathematics class, while informal logic is offered as a mandatory subject in university only for philosophy and some liberal arts majors.

"Our parents' generation hardly knows what logic is. It is a term that has only been used recently in Thai society," said Mr Prach, who is now pursuing a doctorate of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

He blamed the media for being the largest contributor to irrationality among Thais, saying that journalists have failed to hold to account people using logical fallacies, resulting in the same mistakes "over and over again".

"I think the media, by failing to perform factual and logical checks, have become no more than a mouthpiece for the famous, the rich and the powerful," he said.

Mr Prach pointed out that while a large number of fallacies are not deliberate and are a result of carelessness, those used while discussing controversial issues -- including political ones -- are often deliberate and designed to obtain desired results. "Everyone commits logical fallacies. But those committed by the military have been more dangerous, because they have been used to justify repression against dissidents and human rights violations," he said.

IDLE MINDS

One of Terachet's inspirations for setting up the page was Jessada Denduangboripant, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of science, who helped promote the page during its launch. The scientist was well known for leading a campaign which exposed as bogus the GT200 "bomb detectors" procured by Thai security forces.

Two years ago, he disputed the authenticity of the Naga fireballs, which are purported to naturally rise from the Mekong River high into the air and which many believe are produced by the magical snake Naga.

"Science and logic are not rooted in the Thai way of thinking, which is why we tend to believe things easily and use irrational arguments," said Mr Jessada. "For instance, people don't question the existence of ghosts. Instead, Thais have a saying, 'If you don't believe it, don't be disrespectful.' "

For Terachet, logic is not only the basis of scientific progress but also advancement of the country in general. This is especially true if something is considered to be true because most people believe it (ad populum), or simply because it "always has been done" (appeal to tradition), he said.

"If Charles Darwin based his beliefs on appealing to tradition, he wouldn't have come up with the theory of evolution," said Terachet. "Another example is the high importance teachers place on students wearing school uniforms. They claim the practice has been going on for a long time, but how do they know that it's good?"

Anti Fallacy puts a certain amount of emphasis on political issues, with each lesson featuring at least one example of a political fallacy.

"Most irrationality comes from those who are obsessed with the nation, religion and the monarchy," said Terachet. "Coup-makers from the era of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn to Gen Prayut are the most irrational ones, since they tend to make inconsistent statements."

Terachet argued that being rational will help lower Thailand's current conflict involving the red-yellow political divide, since both sides will provide more valid arguments.

"For instance, if we make an ad hominem attack on a red shirt supporter, concluding that because he is a red shirt, therefore he is not a good person, then we aren't focusing on the real issue," he said.

AGE NO BARRIER

Anti Fallacy was posting up to five new lessons per week, but since the new school term started on Monday, progress has slowed down. Still, Terachet insists the page will continue to grow and eventually cover more than 30 types of logical fallacy.

This semester, Terachet is attending tutoring classes four days a week for maths, physics, chemistry and musical composition, which he says is crucial for students of the science programme. In Terachet's course, more than 80% of the students end up being doctors.

Maintaining the page "is very difficult. It drains all my free time, but it is worth it," he said. "The most difficult part is coming up with examples that need to be rechecked over and over in order to make sure there is no mistake."

Since the day it was launched, the page has had a total reach of about 67,000 people. According to Facebook statistics, the largest audience is 18- to 24-year-old men, who comprise 27% of the total audience.

"It's a tendency that you can't avoid. The new generation is more rational than the old generation, and this page will further accelerate that process," Terachet said.

Until now, very few people were aware of the true identities of the page administrators. When one Facebook user asked about their education background, Terachet replied that it was "a secret".

Terachet and his friend Trin Kanchanavasita were the only two administrators who were willing to reveal their identities, with the latter recently selected as one of Thailand's four representatives to compete in the International Geography Olympiad.

Yet Terachet presents himself as a modest young man, requesting that Spectrum focus the article on the issue of logic rather than himself.

His largest and only concern, however, is what will happen when the public realises that the administrators are all high school students.

"I am afraid that people will disregard what we say because we are kids," said Terachet. "Regardless of the extent of criticism, I need to realise that if I don't do the work, who will? Logical education is beneficial towards Thais."

State of minds: High school student Terachet Rojrachsombat started the page after becoming fed up with seeing irrational arguments thrown around in the media.

KILLER ARGUMENT

• Premise one:  Somchai protests against the corruption of the government.

• Premise two: Somchai is a serial killer.

• Conclusion: The government isn't corrupt.

• 'Ad hominem' (against the person): attacks a person's age, character, family, gender, ethnicity, social or economic status, personality appearance, dress, behaviour or professional, political or religious affiliations. The implication is that there is no reason to take the person's views seriously.

• Why it's a fallacy: Even if Somchai is a serial killer, this has no bearing on whether the government is corrupt or not. To dismiss Somchai's view simply because Somchai is a serial killer is to commit an abusive fallacy.

CHALK AND CHARTER

• Premise one: Politicians are against the charter.

• Premise two: Politicians probably want to be corrupt.

• Conclusion: Therefore we should vote to adopt the draft charter.

• Vested interest: attempts to refute a claim by arguing that its proponents are motivated by the desire to gain something (or avoid losing something). The implication is that were it not for this vested interest, the person would hold a different view, and we should discount their argument.

• Why it's a fallacy: Regardless of whether or not politicians want to be corrupt, it doesn't mean we should accept the charter. Those who use the vested interest argument in this case might want people to vote for the charter by saying that politicians don't support the charter because they want to corrupt. This causes people to lose focus on the real issue of whether or not the charter should be passed.

MARCHING IN STEP

• Premise one: Your son can hold a position in the army without going through all the necessary steps.

• Premise two: Everyone else bypasses the necessary steps when applying for a position in the army, not just me.

• Conclusion: Accepting applicants who did not go through the formal process is not wrong because everyone else does it.

• 'Ad populum' (appeals to the people): When we infer a conclusion merely on the grounds that most people accept it.

• Why it's a fallacy: That 'everyone else does it' does not provide any relevant connection to whether or not bypassing the system is right or wrong.

DOGS AND FLEAS

• Premise one: Samak voted for that political party.

• Premise two: That political party is bad.

• Conclusion: Don't befriend Samak.

• Guilt by association: the attempt to repudiate a claim by attacking not the claim's proponent, but the company he or she keeps, or by questioning the reputations of those with whom he or she agrees.

• Why it's a fallacy: The premises are irrelevant to the conclusion. Even if Samak voted for a bad political party, it doesn't mean he is a bad person.

WE'VE GOT NOTHING

• Premise: If you oppose the government, you will be arrested.

• Conclusion: Therefore you shouldn't oppose the government.

• 'Ad baculum' (appeals to force): attempts to establish a conclusion by threat of intimidation.

• Why it's a fallacy: The premise is irrelevant to the justification of the conclusion. In this case, even though the speaker does not provide a conclusion, the listener will automatically be forced to reach such a conclusion -- that he or she should not oppose the government. In order to avoid this fallacy, the argument needs to include reasons to back up its claim why people shouldn't oppose the government, such as due to its ability to restore peace and order.

Sources: Anti Fallacy Facebook page and Schaum's 'Outline of Logic', Second Edition.

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