With eighteen months to go in the presidential campaign, I decided to procure a survival manual, which I’ll use liberally, not conservatively, as the political rhetoric heats up. The survival manual in question is an excellent little book about how not to get fooled by fallacious or manipulative reasoning. The book is Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies, by Robert J. Gula. At nine dollars, it’s a bargain.
Emotional language, propaganda, diversion, and evasion are not the proper tools for critical thinking and scientific discovery; when unaccompanied by sufficient evidence and reason, they are nonsense. They do, however, work effectively for persuasion and manipulation. Why? Because, as Gula points out early in the book, critical thinking and analysis is difficult; it’s a lot easier for us to trust others who share our already-chosen ideology and who talk as if they’ve already done the hard work for us. Here’s the quotation he chose for the beginning of his chapter on logical fallacies; it’s from Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair:
Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are these not the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?
If you get a copy of Gula’s book, you’ll be equipped to sort out and categorize most of the nonsense we’ll be hearing for the next year and a half. A few examples:
• “Cut spending or raise taxes” = false dilemma;
• “Tancredo is a xenophobe” = personal attack;
• “Thousands of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming” = appeal to the bandwagon;
• “Global warming is really a global, left-wing political movement” = hasty generalization;
• “Ethanol subsidies and tariffs promote energy independence” = diversionary appeal to the Iowa caucus voters;
• “The debt is 9 trillion and growing” = appeal to large numbers without context;
• “Foreigners own more than half of our federal debt” = appeal to fear, glittering generality, and outright falsehood.
Those are just a few examples. Developing the ability and agility to categorize the nonsense talk as fast as it comes at us—from all directions—is like getting good at counting cards at the blackjack table, or at swinging the mallet in whack-a-mole. For the upcoming presidential campaign, I intend to be skillful with the mallet, and Nonsense is the playbook I’ll use to polish my reflexes. I hope I'm not alone; our politicians deserve to get better questions than they've become accustomed to.
1: A concise summary of logical fallacies is on the web: Stephen Downes Guide to the Logical Fallacies. It’s one of my most-clicked bookmarks, a good quick-reference to have at hand—in addition to Gula’s book above.
2: Although manipulation is always undesirable, persuasive tools and techniques can frequently yield beneficial results—if and when they complement sufficient evidence, reason, and critical thinking.
3: I'm like everyone else: imperfect at the processes of critical thinking. I'm almost always thinking about it, however.