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on 2 June 2011
Reading this book is like watching Barcelona dismantle their opponents on the football pitch. You don't need to know much about the beautiful game to appreciate the simplicity of the passes, the fitness of the players, the intricacy of the dribbling, and so on. Likewise, anyone with a modicum of reason will enjoy Stephen Law's masterclass in how to steer clear of "Intellectual Black Holes". Perhaps as important as the detailed analysis is seeing reason in action - one of the best ways to appreciate the beauty and power of reason itself. In football, the cynical player resorts to foul play to stop a great team. In life, the sloppy or cynical thinker - the cult leader, the purveyor of quack medicines, the dodgy financial advisor - simply has to "raise enough intellectual dust" to put their opponents on the back foot. Law identifies eight strategies - including playing the mystery card, going nuclear, pseudoprofundity - which are the intellectual equivalents of the two-footed tackle, the shoulder barge, and so on. He unpacks and explains these key strategies in pungent and entertaining detail, and provides us with enough rational rocket fuel to keep our minds from being sucked into the reason-free zone that is an Intellectual Black Hole.

"Why does it matter if some people happen to believe absurd things?" It matters if they are in positions of power, in government or in the media. President Bush, for example, famously relied on the "God-sensing faculty" in his gut to guide the ship of state. It also matters if they are powerless or vulnerable to exploitation. We should protect children from the more dangerous religious beliefs of their parents, and we should look out for those who are coerced or duped into, say, wasting "both cash and emotional energy seeking out reassurances about lost loved ones that are, in reality, worthless". So, apart from sheer curiosity, both self-interest and compassion should motivate our inquiry.

The title may strike some as being less than serious. Studying bullshit is, however, respectable philosophy, the subject of Harry Frankfurt's excellent essay On Bullshit. As Law emphasizes, it's not the content of a bullshit belief system that is necessarily the problem (since the content may, on occasion, be true), but "the manner in which its core beliefs are defended and promoted". The bullshitter says whatever suits his purposes, "without any care as to whether what he says is true".

The bullshitter would prefer you to share his freewheeling attitude, and although he may seem neutral as far as truth is concerned (it's not his primary goal), he certainly doesn't welcome reason or clarity. The reasonable person can't help but care about the truth, since reason itself is "truth sensitive" and functions "as a filter on false beliefs". So, because reason is bound to unmask the bullshitter sooner or later, anything capable of disrupting "the truth-detecting power of reason" will naturally be embraced. Hence, the popularity of these eight strategies.

Most of them also function as conversation stoppers (precisely what is needed by anyone losing an argument). How do you respond to someone who just knows they have psychic powers? Is there time to move the semantic goalposts back into position (assuming you noticed them being shifted in the first place)? Has untangling all that pseudoprofundity sapped the will to live? Understanding what's going on is half the battle; putting that understanding into practice to keep the conversation going in a reasonable direction is the other, more tricky half. Bullshit artists don't tend to hang around once they've raised "enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape".

Going nuclear is perhaps the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card, since it stops reason itself. If you can cast doubt on reason, then any conclusion that is not to your taste can simply be dismissed as groundless. Law identifies two main variants. The skeptic "lays waste to every rational argument, bringing every belief down to the same level", alluding along the way to the genuine philosophical puzzle of how beliefs are justified, and typically finishing with a flourish: "ultimately, everything is a faith position!" The relativist, in contrast, likes the truth so much that we can each have our own: there's your truth, my truth, his truth, and oh, yes, if you insist, scientific truth, just one among many, all of which are equally "valid".

The problem is, those "who press the nuclear button rarely do so in good faith". They'll "rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument" but as soon as things turn against them they'll start jabbing that finger, demanding that you "show a little humility", and pointing out, with an air of resignation, that there are more things in heaven and earth "than are dreamt of in your philosophy". What adds to the frustration of having a perfectly good argument maligned is seeing your opponent strike a sanctimonious pose, exuding "an air of calm intellectual and spiritual superiority". Such people are not very nice, to put it mildly, and this personal dimension is brought out wonderfully in the Tapescrew Letters at the end of the book, which lay bare the kind of instruction a senior guru might hand down to an apprentice.

One minor quibble is that Law too readily signs up to Hume's idea that we can't get an "ought" from an "is". Recent work (e.g. Hilary Putnam's The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays and Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape) shows that this question is still open. To be fair, the context was not an in-depth examination of the supposed dichotomy; he was making the point "that there may well be questions science cannot answer". His conclusion, that "scientism is probably false", is a position few would disagree with.

Real black holes are dangerous objects far enough away for them not to keep us awake at night. Intellectual black holes are much closer to home, and the cause of real harm. While those of us lacking robust intellectual and other psychological defences are most easily trapped, "we're all potentially vulnerable". Stephen Law has provided a booster jab for the brain, to keep us all that little bit safer.
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on 15 June 2011
Stephen Law has long had the skill of explaining complicated ideas with clarity. His latest book greatly bolsters the rational cause by exposing, and then dismantling, the bogus arguments by which irrational beliefs are defended. This book is exceptionally useful for those seeking to understand the array of specious arguments used by those who hide their beliefs from reason - unconsciously or consciously. Outstanding.
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on 23 July 2011
As a sceptically inclined teacher of Religious Studies, I was very pleased to discover this book. It actually covers a good deal of the content of the Philosophy of Religion syllabuses presently offered by examination boards in the UK and does so in a very clear and often amusing manner. Special highlights are the extensive treatment of the evidential problem of evil and the critique Law offers of creationism. I'm not sure that this is widely known but Religious Studies 'A' Level offers one of the best opportunities to encounter the thinking and writing of prominent atheists such as Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer and Richard Dawkins. Personally, I wouldn't be overly concerned if Religious Studies morphed into Philosophy at secondary level as there is emerging evidence that engaging with philosophical ideas from an early age boosts longer term attainment levels (as Law himself has noted in another excellent book of his - The War For Children's Minds). But in the meantime, those sceptics who would like to see Religious Studies disappear from the secondary curriculum and are, perhaps,celebrating its omission from Michael Gove's EBacc possibly need to realise that the philosophical element in this subject is something vital that surely needs to be both retained and promoted. Returning to the book itself, many (not all) of the current recommended textbooks offered by the OCR Board on the Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics are ponderously written and uninspiring. Law's book is therefore to be welcomed as a corrective to much of this stodgy fare. Indeed, Law seems to have positioned himself as the 'Anti-Vardy' in this territory (and if readers of this review are baffled by this term they just need to find out more about one of Law's colleagues at Heythrop). In closing, I would just like to add that my only reservation about the book is its treatment of ineffability, delightfully encapsulated in Law's phrase 'Effing the Ineffable'. The octagenarian philosopher Bryan Magee has recently had something to say about the difficulties of communicating the transcendental in a brief and superb article that can be freely accessed and read online by typing in his name along with the title: 'Intimations of Mortality'. For those who don't know him, Bryan Magee's 'Confessions of a Philosopher' is one of the greatest autobiographies written by one. He is not a religious believer but offers a different perspective from Law on the significance of ineffability and it would be great to see a revival of interest in Magee's writing.
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on 29 December 2011
First off, I quite liked reading this. It's interesting and makes you think.

However, I was also rather disappointed by it. I was hoping for a wide-ranging discussion on the various "intellectual black holes" as well as a good selection of examples of such thinking. However, the author seems rather fixated on debunking young-earth creationism, and while I agree with his views, the repetitive banging on about it got a bit tedious after a while. I would like to have seen more variety in his arguments. As it is, the book veers uncomfortably close to a rant.
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on 19 April 2012
This is fairly likable, if you like this sort of thing, but there is an element of fish-in-a-barrel dynamiting about it, and it is not clear exactly what the intended audience is: the fish are certainly not paying attention, and the prose hews more closely to the style of professional analytic philosophy (i.e. it reads more like a discussion of complex but remorseless end-game strategy in chess - if your opponent moves his knight here, then you can move your pawn here, if, on the other hand, he moves is queen here, then you move your bishop there...) than popular journalism. I wonder how much of a popular appetite for this sort of thing there is. The sort of people who are likely to read it (people with decent degrees, who do not believe in god, or crystal power, or the Daily Mail, but who sometimes, and more often than they would admit, have a weakness for homeopathy), are not likely to find a lot to disagree with, or to be surprised by: what they will get, and it is worth having, is everything in one place.

I was not expecting the focus to be so much on attacking theological arguments. I was, to be honest, expecting a more general discussion of intellectual hygiene. But it is fairly short, and, as I said, if you like this sort of thing, then it is worth the read. Or at least most of it: I suspect that only a professional philosopher would bother to stop to take a swing at Alvin Plantinga, and I'm a bit skeptical that reliabilism has quite carried the field in epistemology to the extent that Law implies.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 January 2012
Stephen Law offers us a spotters' guide to various forms of evasion and dishonesty used to prop up bad arguments. But what is a good argument? To answer that, we need to understand what an argument is. Anthony Weston's general definition of an argument comes in very handy here: to make an argument is to offer `a set of reasons or evidence in support of a conclusion'(see his A Rulebook for Arguments)

There are better and worse reasons for believing in various propositions. The truth does not always lie somewhere in between. There is no middle ground between the theory of gravity and the theory of levitation because the former has good evidence to support is and the latter does not. You can make good arguments in support of the theory of gravity, because there are solid reasons, verified by experiment, observation and experience, to accept it.

But if you don't have good reasons, then you can cheat. Or to put it colloquially, you can resort to BS, to `get out of jail free'. Stephen Law sets out to describe these in language free of jargon and cant.

First there is the appeal to the mystery, a kind of beam-me-up Scotty when you are stuck in an intellectual hole. Cannot square the presence of evil with the claim of god's perfect benevolence? No problem - appeal to mystery. God works in mysterious ways. Have trouble explaining how Noah managed to pack in those hundreds of different species of dinosaurs into the ark? No bother. Just adapt your theory to the evidence - breezily explain that Noah only had a few dozen `types' of dinosaurs, which then bred and evolved after the flood. Other handy devices are to pile up anecdotes (count all examples of successful correlations for instance of a homeopathic treatment but discount and ignore failures). You can also have recourse to see-saw meanings, to borrow Weston again, what might be called equivocal language or weasel words, changing your definitions and meanings half-way through an argument. You claim that all property is theft. I point out that you own a BMW. So you move the semantic goalposts. You say that that's the result of the sweat of your brow. So that's not theft. Or you can try pseduoprofundity - dressing up common truths with portentous platitudes, making unintelligible statements on the assumption that obscurity equals depth. Or there is the `nuclear option', the appeal to relativism - your truth is as good as mine, the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes, science and religion are just faith positions and so on.

Why does any of this matter? Bad arguments have bad consequences. They are the stock-in-trade of the charlatan guru and snake oil salesman. Members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide on account of the word of a lunatic with appeals to mystery and pseduoprofundity. And of course not so long ago an American president decided to invade a Middle Eastern country on account of a gut feeling, not on account of evidence.

Law has written a useful book for spotting types of bad arguments even though it cannot BS-proof against all forms of bad arguments. Some - such as pseduoprofundity and relativistic appeals - are easy to spot. But some forms of BS reasoning seem to amass plenty of facts - or claims masquerading as facts - and it is not always easy to tell if this is a dishonest exercise or not, because one does not have the time to cross check every claim cited. Conspiracy theories are hard to combat for this very reason. One thinks of the endless farrago of `questions' raised by 9/11 `Truthers', the `pods' on the planes, the `puffs of smoke' emitted by the towers as they collapsed: refute one contention and another is asserted in its place.

How do we counter this? The actual practice of science, were it to be better known, would doubtless assist. Scientific theories make concrete predictions, upon which they stand or fall. Cosmologists by and large no longer accept the steady-state theory over the big bang theory of the origins of our universe, not because of any ideological preference but because the theorists of the latter made predictions that were ultimately vindicated. Conspiracy and other quack theorists seal their theories against falsification, using ever more convoluted means of sustaining untenable positions, no matter what evidence counts against them. There are those who believe aliens create crop circles, despite the fact that it can be shown how crop circles can be faked. Over time, some bad arguments collapse under the weight of their own absurdities or they just go out of fashion but the temptation to resort to BS is unlikely to go out of fashion. So I can recommend rationalists and skeptics to buy and keep Stephen Law's book to hand, because you'll need it.
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on 5 August 2011
Excellent book confronting the ways that people justify believing things that cannot be rationally or evidentially justified. The writing is clear and accessible and the book is layed out in a way that helps the reader to follow easily. The only sad thing is that the people who most need to read it never will!
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 January 2013
This book is a collection of logic errors often made by religious people to defend their faith.

I don't think it comes even close to covering all the mistakes they make (the book would have to be massive) but it does a decent job on the major ones.

Religious people will find this book very offensive especially some fictional letters from a guru to a junior guru at the end which describe how to take over someone's mind using the book's list of logic errors.

Proper logical thinking is actually very difficult for example just because somebody's argument is full of holes does not necessarily mean they are wrong, it only means they have a poor argument. Also non-believers make logical errors as well.

People that don't like religion will love this book, religious people will hate it and I think to best understand it you will need a standard logical errors book to know how logical errors work and then you can use this book as religion specific logical error text.
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on 5 April 2016
This is a first-rate book for anyone who wants to avoid the mistakes in thinking, which as humans, we all make. It is equally as good at giving you the tools to see how other people try to hoodwink you or themselves when defending irrational beliefs. It has excellent explanations of the mistakes in thinking which lead to for example, conspiracy theories. It also has a concise breakdown of what does, and what doesn't constitute confirmation of a scientific theory, which was the best I've come across. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about how to avoid pitfalls in thinking which can lead to unsubstantiated beliefs as well as the underhand techniques used by people arguing for non-rational explanations of events or beliefs.
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on 27 November 2015
Interesting and engaging. Does however have a tendency to rely on the very intellectual conceits which he is dissecting and criticising.
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