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Updates an invaluable guide to spotting faulty logic
on 31 July 2006
We've all been in the situation where some smart-alec produces an argument, often as a joke, which everyone knows must be wrong but where nobody can quite see the mistake.
More seriously, I suspect most of us have seen debates where one side appears to have much more evidence to support their case, until someone comes along who presents the other side of the argument so much better that everyone is convinced - at least until after the superior speaker has won the vote/verdict/board or council decision, by which time it is too late.
Madsen Pirie's book is a masterly and very entertaining guide to the different tricks which people can use to make their argument sound much stronger than it really is, how to spot them, and what the holes in their logic are.
He lists the logical fallacies which, by accident or design, can lead people to support false conclusions.
Unfortunately, as Madsen Pirie points out, knowing why the argument you are listening to is wrong does not always make it easy to defeat the person advancing it. Arguments "ad baculum" (by threat of force) do not go away if you prove the person making the threat to be wrong, irrelevant humour, if it is funny enough, can carry away a valid argument on a gale of laughter, and emotional appeals can be extremely hard to stop with mere logic.
Nevertheless, to be able to understand why an argument is wrong is a useful start - if you don't know yourself you have little chance of persuading anyone else. And this book is really helpful at showing you how to see where faulty logic is in play.
This book is an updated version of a book published in the mid 1980's with the title "The Book of the fallacy - a training manual for intellectual subversives." The new text is about 95% common with the earlier version, although it has a few updated concepts such as "Thatcher's Blame."
Very sadly the new book does not include the highly amusing cartoons which illustrated the original version. That is almost the only fault I can find with it - a criticism which would be covered under the chapter of the book on "Trivial objections."