Bad Arguments

A lot of arguments simply don’t make sense. Spotting bad arguments is a vital, and I’d guess, rare skill for academics and business people. Ali Almossawi has a fun little book on bad arguments — all illustrated to make them more memorable. I don’t completely endorse all the descriptions but he raises important things to bear in mind when listening to arguments.

For instance: 1) A straw man — when one caricatures an opponent’s argument. 2) The slippery slope — when a plan is assumed, through a series of logical leaps, to lead to disaster. 3) Argument from consequences is particularly interesting. Here one says that if an opponent’s argument were true terrible consequences would follow. This is then used as evidence that it can’t be true. I.e. I don’t want it to be true so it can’t be true.

Some bad arguments are hard to classify objectively as they depend upon your perspective. For example, an appeal to irrelevant authority is only classed as such if you think the authority is irrelevant. We won’t all necessary agree on this.

My personal favourite is the appeal to ignorance. This “.. assumes a proposition to be true simply because there is no evidence proving it is false” (Almossawi, 2013, page 24).  If you don’t know something you can use your lack of knowledge as support for your case. We do that in academia all the time. A great line that we all use is “to the best of our knowledge we are the first researchers to do this”. This is clearly easier to argue if one knows little of past research.

How we make, hear, and respond to arguments is fascinating and Almossawi will have helped more people think about the problem of bad arguments.

Read: Ali Almossawi (2013) An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, The Experiment, New York