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11 June 2009
How to spot a bogus argument - Part I

I’ve been meaning to write this for some time.  It started when, for the first time in many years, I was present at a predominantly left-wing gathering.  It was, if nothing else, a rich vein of nonsense.

It got me thinking.  Are there ways in which you can spot that an argument is nonsense or, at least, suspect?  Are there types of argument that should set the alarm bells ringing?  Would it be possible to look at an argument and say: “Well, that’s an X error and that’s a Y fallacy” etc?  I suppose I had it in mind that if enough people were aware of how to separate intellectual wheat from intellectual chaff then, well - because libertarianism is clearly in the intellectual wheat category - they’d become libertarians without the need for any intervention from me or my ideological soulmates.  How cool would that be?

Anyway, I didn’t get very far that time, but recently I started thinking about it again and started compiling a list.

And then I thought: “I wonder if anyone’s ever had a go at this before?”  Hmm, it turns out they had.  Of course, they had.  See, for instance:

A List of Fallacious Arguments
Logical Fallacies: shorter but prettier

Wikipedia also has pages on propaganda and rhetorical techniques etc.  Even so, there were members of my list that I didn’t feel quite fitted into any of these pre-existing categories.  So, here goes:

  1. Vague and shifting definitions.  I hate these.  Shifting definitions - words that are used to mean one thing in one place and another in another are the worst but any word or phrase that could mean more than one thing should get the alarm bells ringing.  “Racist” is a good example.  Do you mean gas-chamber racist or blacks-run-faster racist?  Big difference.
  2. So what?  Can often sound rude but it’s a devastating question.  It’s a useful practice when someone makes a point to ask: “Well, so what?”  For instance, and I’m not making this up, one criticism I’ve heard made of Austrian economics is that it hasn’t advanced since the 1920s.  Well, so what?  Good theories don’t have to “advance”.
  3. Do you understand it?  OK, I don’t understand fluid dynamics but I appreciate that if fluid dynamicists hadn’t got their models right planes would fall out of the sky.  But that does not apply to the average political debate.  If you don’t understand the terms that are being used or the argument that is being made it’s probably nonsense.  Brian Micklethwait holds that when it comes to technology if you don’t understand it that is their problem, not yours.  Much the same applies to politics. Actually, it gets worse.  If you don’t understand it there’s a good chance they don’t either.
  4. Is this the most important thing?  I once read an article criticising the career of Winston Churchill.  Nothing wrong with that - there’s plenty to criticise.  But at no point did the author address himself to Churchill’s actions in 1940.  Which was a shame because if it hadn’t been for his actions at the time he wouldn’t have had a reputation worth criticizing.
  5. Changing the subject.  God, I hate this.  Why can’t people just say:  “That’s a good point, I think you’re wrong but I can’t come up with a good counter argument right now.”?
  6. “Key”, “strategic”, “essential”.  Beware any arguments involving these words.  How would you know if something was key, strategic or essential?  There’s no test.

Part II is here.

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  1. Madsen Pirie wrote a very good book on this, “How to Win Every Argument”. It’s a great catalogue of fallacies and how to both spot them and exploit them for one’s own purposes. Highly recommended.

    Posted by Jackie Danicki on 11 June 2009 at 09:26am

  2. When I referred to “technology”, I was. just to be clear, talking about kit that I was/am thinking of buying and trying to use, not how to design airplanes.  If I don’t understand how to make a computer printer which I might buy work (or, more recent example, how to get Linux to pay attention to an SD card I just stuck into a netbook), that’s their (Linux’s) problem. If I don’t understand how 747s stay airborne, that’s my problem.  The people who built them and who now fly them clearly do.  My befuddlement is absolutely not evidence that they are befuddled also.

    So, a shifting definition there.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 11 June 2009 at 03:40pm

  3. I think point 5 is very important.  The problem, though, is not that people are necessarily wrong in how they think, but merely unwilling to say: you make a good argument, but I’m not convinced.

    Closely related, the truth is not logically determined by how fluently contending arguments about what it is are put.  You can be fluent and wrong, incoherent and right.  Hollywood villains and Hollywood leading men embody these twinned notions all the time.

    The equations fluency-equals-wickedness and mumbling-equals-virtue are deeply embedded in American popular culture, which might explain why Americans are, so often, so very unfluent, compared, e.g., to educated Brits, or even compared to Europeans speaking English without it being even their first language.  Americans think, perhaps without examining the assumption, that embarking on complicated sentences and finishing them successfully would make them wicked.

    Tangenting even more, I particularly hate it when Americans who are clearly capable of being fluent (by which in particular I mean brief) nevertheless deliberately choose not to be (by which I particularly mean waffle on at tedious length while actually saying less rather than more), for what they imagine to be moral effect.

    Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 11 June 2009 at 03:53pm

  4. Madsen Pirie.  He did write a book.  I’ve read bits of what I assume is the same one.  I almost mentioned it. The only problem I had with the one I read is that a lot of it was in Latin and I didn’t understand it.  Also, a lot of the fallacies seemed to be of the really basic variety which you don’t often get in politicial arguments.

    And I think the sites I mentioned cover more or less the same territory.

    But I could be wrong.

    Shifting definitions.  Ouch.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on 11 June 2009 at 06:49pm

  5. Pretty good piece. I’m looking forward to reading part 2.

    Posted by Antoine Clarke on 20 July 2009 at 01:38am

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