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October 2018

Finding the logic to come together; bridging the gap; hate/love, demonize/humanize, fear/hope.


* A gentle warning: You might find SAVVY this month a bit heavy. If nobody else appreciates the topic, I got a lot out of thinking it through and trying to articulate the logic.  If you suffer from insomnia, this would be a good edition of Tips and Topics to read with your head on the pillow.

With the mid-term elections coming up November 6, I have been trying to get my head around all of the partisan and tribal division in the USA (and around the world actually). So when I heard abstract mathematician, Eugenia Cheng interviewed on Science Friday earlier in October, I was pleasantly surprised by what she said:

I have found ways to understand what other people are thinking from their point of view and to find ways of bridging the gap to show that we’re not actually on completely different planets.”

I thought I was good at empathy, but I have been struggling with what might bring us all together for the good of the country (and world) rather than for the good of one’s political party, subgroup, advocacy topic (gun control, abortion, climate change etc.) or other divisive issues.

Dr. Eugenia Cheng is a mathematician, and Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of a new book: how logic can help us agree, or at least disagree more helpfully – “The Art of Logic in an Illogical World” (Basic Books, 2018). I listened intently to see what I could learn from Dr. Cheng on National Public Radio’s (NPR) Science Friday program on October 5, 2018.

If you’d like to hear the whole 24-minute interview, here is the link to “Using Logic In A Maddening World”

Science Friday, October 5, 2018


Consider some of the highlights on why we “butt heads when trying to persuade people we disagree with.

I excerpted from highlights provided at the program’s link and bullet-pointed them to make the points clearer:

  1. On finding the logic in a situation.

Eugenia Cheng:

We can find the logic inside situations even if the whole situation isn’t completely logical.

  • The discipline of mathematics begins with abstraction, where you shave away some of the details that aren’t completely relevant to the situation, to find out what’s really going on at the root.
  • When you’ve got to the root, then you look at the logic.
  • You find that a lot of different situations become the same at the root.
  • That gives you a way of connecting different situations and tapping into some connections between things.


Shave away details and discover the common root of arguments about:

  • Voter suppression
  • Cancer screening
  • Accusations of sexual harassment

These apparently different arguments have the same root:
Do we care about false positives more or false negatives more? 

  • On Voter suppression

If you make it easy to vote without careful scrutiny of voter registration information, you could get false positives with people voting who should not be allowed. If you have strict voter registration and rules, you might get false negatives, by taking away the rights of someone who deserves to vote but couldn’t because they didn’t register to vote by the deadline.

  • On cancer screening

If you make it easy and widespread to have cancer screening (low cost and many screening sites), you could get false positives diagnosing people as having cancer, when they do not. If you restrict who can get screening to just family members of cancer patients and tighten the criteria to certain ages and races, you can might get false negatives and miss people who have cancer, but didn’t land in the cancer screening net to be allowed a test.

  • On accusations of sexual harassment

If you make it easy to accuse a person of harassment, you might get false positives and have innocent people’s lives destroyed by a false accusation. If it is hard for people to accuse others of sexual harassment due to a conspiracy of silence or the intimidation of powerful people, you can get false negatives and have people getting away with sexual assault who really should be punished.

  1. On starting with the same definitions.

Dr. Cheng: What often happens is that people simply use the wrong definitions right at the start.

  • This is one of the key ways in which we might think that people are using the wrong facts.
  • That’s something that mathematicians are very careful about: Agreeing on terms right at the beginning.


  • Arguments on the internet where people say things like they believe that all immigrants are illegal. And that is not correct. That is the wrong definition of an “immigrant”.
  • Or people support the Affordable Care Act but not Obamacare. They’ve got the wrong definition of Obamacare.
  • There was a survey of undergraduate male students showing that many of them said they would have nonconsensual sex if they thought they could get away with it, but they would definitely not commit rape. This means they’ve got the wrong definition of rape.
  1. On if emotion and logic are inherently exclusive.

Dr. Cheng: Your emotions are always valid…..we have been led into a false dichotomy between emotions and logic……some people-I’m afraid it’s often men-take the position that if you are emotional, then it somehow proves that you’re not logical, and that’s not the case. I know that I’m a very emotional person, and also, that I’m a very logical person.   

  • Emotions and logic aren’t working against each other.
  • You don’t actually have to suppress all your emotions in order to be logical.
  • If anyone tells you that you’re being too emotional and that that means you’re not being logical, that just isn’t true.
  • Yes, it is very difficult to find the logic in a situation when you’re feeling very strong emotions.
  • That’s where the mathematical discipline of abstraction really helps because it means that I can look at a chain of logic and separate that out from the emotion.
  • I’m not saying I shouldn’t feel emotions, but I put the emotions in a different compartment and think about the chain of logical steps. This helps me to understand another person’s point of view, even if I disagree with them very viscerally.
  • If I abstract from that and look at their chain of logic, step by step, then I don’t have to feel what they are feeling but I can see the logic they are using.


Take the example of a woman’s accusation of sexual assault against a man with an established and successful career.

  • If you have strong emotions and pain for the person who suffered the assault, it may be hard to see the man’s angry, hurt point of view and the need for careful investigation of the alleged assault with due process and patience.
  • Additionally, it is hard to see the logic of presuming the accused man who adamantly denies the assault is just as likely to be truthful as the accuser is.
  • If you have strong emotions and pain for the accused man whose reputation and career may be ruined or derailed by the accusation, it may be hard to see the wounded woman’s point of view and the need for careful investigation of the alleged assault with due process and patience.
  • Additionally, it is hard to see the logic of presuming the accuser is just as likely to be truthful as is the accused man who adamantly denies the assault.

By putting the emotions in a “different compartment”, we can begin to understand another’s point of view by looking at their chain of logic, step by step. You don’t have to feel what they are feeling but you can see the logic that they are using.

“And this helps me to understand another person’s point of view, even if I disagree with them very, very viscerally and I’m very upset about their position. If I abstract from that and look at their chain of logic step by step, then I don’t have to feel what they are feeling, but I can see the logic they are using. And those two things can be separate. But then I can actually use the logic to be able to understand their points of view despite my emotional disagreements.” (Dr. Cheng)


Dr. Cheng: “I have found ways….. of bridging the gap…..that we’re not actually on completely different planets. It’s not black and white. It’s usually that there’s some kind of gray area in between. And if I can find that we’re both on the same gray area, just in different places, then it’s much easier to think about sliding around it than to think about flipping an entire coin onto the other side.”

With this aspiration in mind, here are a few Tips I summarized from the Science Friday program.


Be aware of the “false equivalence between one argument and another argument.”

Eugenia Cheng: “And this often happens in what’s called a straw man argument. But I prefer to call it straw person, because I don’t like gendering things unnecessarily.”

  • If you make an argument which seems quite reasonable to you, sometimes somebody will replace it with a much more extreme argument and believe that that’s what you were trying to say.
  • Then they’ll knock it down, because the extreme argument is much easier to knock down.
  • That can be very aggravating, because they’re essentially painting you in a very bad light and then taking a moral high ground.


Again, take the example of a woman’s accusation of sexual assault against a man with an established and successful career.

  • On one side, the false equivalence and straw person argument is that every man accused of sexual assault is a rapist, or serial harasser, which is not what people are saying.
  • On the other side, the false equivalence and straw person argument is that any woman should be able to destroy the life of any man just by accusing him of sexual assault, which, again, is a very extreme position that I don’t think anyone really is taking.


Spend more time and energy trying to understand the other person’s point of view rather than defending your own views.

Ira Flatow: Is part of the problem that we don’t see how others see us?

Dr. Eugenia Cheng: I think that is part of the problem. But I think a big problem is that we often spend too long trying to defend our own points of view instead of trying to understand somebody else’s points of view. And we often focus on trying to change someone else’s mind instead of trying to see their points of view and see what its validity is.


Be careful of black and white thinking.

Eugenia Cheng: “So the next problem is a question of black and white thinking. And this happens a lot where people get into arguments in extremes.”

  • Many of our arguments turn divisive, because we take extreme opposite positions instead of something more moderate in between.
  • There is an argument around saying something like, you’re making everyone into a rapist. Or one that Professor Langbert said on his blog, that we are characterizing just spin-the-bottle crimes as rape.
  • It is very black and white thinking to call all forms of sexual assaults and harassment “rape”. There is a scale. There are things that are as bad as rape, and there are other things that are bad, but not as bad as rape.


Slow down and practice mindfulness to understand the opposing views and people.

Ira Flatow: I think…… of the hardest things to do these days is to just count to 10.

Dr. Eugenia Cheng: Yes. That’s a very important aspect of it, because logic is a slow process, and it doesn’t happen in the format that is very popular in the current modern world which consists of a mic drop, or a one-liner, or some kind of meme that doesn’t have very many words in it, or a 280-character tweet. Logic takes longer than that. And I wish we could all take time to slow down our arguments so we have time to explore the logic and build the logic.

Ira Flatow: So it’s almost like mindfulness. You have to find a way to catch yourself in the moment.

Dr. Eugenia Cheng:  Yes, it is a lot like that. And I think that kind of mindfulness can help us understand the logic inside our own emotions. Because our emotions are all coming from somewhere. There is something that is causing them.

And I honestly believe that when I see somebody who is feeling something emotional about something very differently from me, if I do that mindfulness for them, even if they are unable to do it for themselves, then I can start to understand what their basic belief is from which all of this is stemming. And maybe I can see how that basic belief is different from my basic belief. And that’s why we think different things, not because we our logic is different, but because our starting points are different.


Have you noticed how some people running for office vow to stay positive in their campaign, focus on issues not personalities, take the high road and inspire people to vote for them? Then their poll numbers start lagging behind their opponent and their political consultants jolt them out of their naivete and urge them to “go negative.”

I’ll never run for political office because I can’t stomach the realities needed to win. My hat goes off to the women and men willing to put themselves on the line and stand for office…..and it’s not for the big bucks.

Here are a few naïve and idealistic questions to ponder in this bitter election season:

  1. Why is it easier to hate than to love? – Google that question and you’ll get many helpful points of view in various people’s blogs and opinion.
  2. Why do we demonize the “other side” or people we don’t agree with, rather than seeing them as humans just like us with universal common feelings and needs for love, acceptance, respect, safety, nurturance, attention……..? – Easy to dismiss LGBTQ people until you find out your son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother, uncle or aunt is “one of them”; or to reject those alcoholics and addicts until you realize you or your loved one suffers from the disease of addiction.
  3. Why is it easier to mobilize people by using fear and scarcity thinking than inspiring people with hope, abundance and generosity? The primal law of self-preservation, (every person for themselves) is so strong. But we are a big and wealthy country. “Americans waste an unfathomable amount of food….roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away-some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting “one third of all foodstuffs.” Wasted food is also the single biggest occupant in American landfills, the Environmental Protection Agency has found.”

American food waste

I have found ways to understand what other people are thinking from their point of view and to find ways of bridging the gap to show that we’re not actually on completely different planets” said Dr. Eugenia Cheng.

I’m still working on that. I hope you will join me too in finding ways to bridge the gap.

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