Could Dilbert’s ‘mean’ robot be logical?

2 Sep

Dilbert Robots Read News

You never know where or when you’re going to bump into a logical syllogism. Or shall I say an ATTEMPT at a logical syllogism.

I scan the daily paper, including the comics, for interesting and challenging blog topics. I chuckled recently when I read Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon featuring a news anchor robot that sports a bad attitude.

Panel # 1 reads:

The Supreme Court ruled that engineers cannot be found guilty of murder

When I encounter a statement like that, my logical antennae tend to perk up. Why? Because I’ve just met a CONCLUSION. Now I need to hunt for the argument, also known as the reasons. Scan on with me!

Panel # 2 reads:

Lawyers argued that any good engineer knows how to get away with murder, so getting caught is proof of innocence. 

This statement appears to be an argument in itself. The telltale two-letter word, SO, often introduces a conclusion. Yet when I tried to tease out the assumptions lurking in this complex sentence I got bogged down.

Part of cartoonist Scott Adam’s humor resides in his deliberately obtuse attempts at logic. Here’s what I came up with as I struggled to make heads or tails out of these tangled words:

  • All engineers who are ‘good’ at being engineers are engineers who know how to conceal their guilt
  • No engineers who are caught in a murder are engineers who are guilty

But then the questions that arose gave me pause; as well they should when anyone advances a belief!  I wondered,

  • How is ‘good’ being defined?
  • And who is doing the defining?
  • Is there a hidden assumption that a good engineer might actually commit murder but be capable of concealing it so that he can’t be charged as ‘guilty’?

Then I saw something troubling in the clause after the comma (‘…so getting caught is proof of innocence’). I would have expected the ‘bad robot’ to have concluded rather:

  • So getting caught is proof that the accused is NOT a good engineer

Since this logical workout comes from a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ comic strip, we mustn’t take it very seriously. But I did attempt to represent it with a Venn diagram.

The red annotation reads: “Set of all engineers who are innocent of murder”

The blue label shows: All ‘good’ engineers

The black set comprises: All engineers who don’t commit murder

Dilbert Engineer Venn Diagram

There is not enough information given in the 3-panel cartoon strip to know how to portray the non-good engineers.  Are they engineers who commit murder and get caught?  Or does the concept of ‘good’ engineer include any other talents than the ability to get away with murder? How and where do I draw THAT set?  Where are there intersections of sets?

I’m not too bothered that I didn’t dissect it to the satisfying point of seeing how it worked. Why not?  Too many fallacies and problems that I don’t have the energy to sort out!  So I’ll call it ‘a day’ and lay aside my cartoon logic analysis.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful for the 30 or so minutes I invested in playing around with Scott’s wording. Actually, the process of drawing different category sets and subsets helped me think. And thinking is never a waste of time. So what if I had to conclude that I was dealing with some crazy robot’s irrational news reporting!

Oh, and in case you couldn’t make out the wording Scott Adam’s concluding cartoon square, here’s

Panel # 3:

The ruling was unanimous because no one could figure out which side was the liberal one.

Maybe I spent my energy on the wrong parts of the cartoon!  Oh, well.  I enjoy challenging myself to think through assertions, whether encountered in conversations, in my reading or in movies. Wanting to grow wiser, my goal is to become quicker to think and reflect and slower to share my views. Join me in being on guard, with a nose ready to sniff out poor reasoning and irrational statements.

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