Sunday, June 11, 2017

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing Bogus Arguments

The author calls this “a troubleshooting guide” similar to the owner’s manual of a car or computer. “It is aimed at everyday users and consumers of reasoning…” It certainly meets that measure. The main thrust is on failures of right reason such as inconsistency, equivocation, and begging the question. The author also reveals false claims, principally phony statistics.

Before moving into financial consulting and electioneering for the open market in his homeland of New Zealand, Jamie Whyte completed master’s and doctor’s degrees in  philosophy at Cambridge University (Wikipedia here).  You can find some of his essays archived at the Cobden Centre here. The Centre is named for the successful manufacturer and proponent of laissez-faire in early 19th century Britain, Richard Cobden.  His writings are archived at the Online Library of Liberty here.

In formal terms, Jamie Whyte is an objectivist, a strict rational-empiricist whose logically consistent statements explain experiential facts. This book is his attack on some of the people who fail to meet either standard.
 
Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments
of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders

by Jamie Whyte. (McGraw-Hill 2004, 157 pages.)
Google Books has an extract of the first chapter
on why you do not have a right to your opinion, here
The first crime that Whyte investigates is the claim that you have a right to your opinion. No such right exists. Whyte points out that this assertion is founded on an ambiguity. You do have a political right to an opinion. However, that is not to be confused with the epistemic right to an opinion. The epistemic right to an opinion, says Whyte, is similar to the right to boast. Just as you first must achieve something worthy of boasting, so, too, is the “right” to an opinion earned by correctly identifying facts and then explaining them rationally. When someone retreats by claiming that they have a “right” their opinion, they are actually admitting that they are wrong, or at the very least, they can present no reasons and facts to support their assertions.

In the chapter “Prejudice in Fancy Dress” Whyte demolishes Pascal’s Wager and several other examples including Faith and Mystery. The subhead “But Still” examines calls for the acceptance of ignorance. This is actually a variant of the non-existent right to an opinion. Yes, the facts are on your side. Yes, your argument is logical. But still I prefer my prejudices.

The chapter “Shut Up!” scrutinizes several ways that those losing an argument seek to cut off debate by silencing their opponent. Well-known facts are boring. That a claim can be countered with a boring fact in no way mitigates the strength of the contrary assertion. That a boring fact has been marshaled is especially strong, as it points to a clear violation by the party demanding that the other shut up. 

Under the subhead “Shut Up, You Sound Like Hitler” Whyte calls mass murder “something of a lottery.”  He tells of being in a Lenin Bar in Auckland, “decorated with red stars and black and white images of the great Communist leader.”  Hitler bars, he notes, seem to be in short supply. 

In the chapter on “Empty Words” Whyte goes into some depth on the use and abuse of sneer quotes. His example focuses on post-modernist philosopher Imr√© Lakatos. When you say that my “facts” are in dispute, it is clear from the quotes that you do not believe my claims to be facts. Whyte says that in discussing the work of physicist A. A. Michelson, Lakotos’s excessive use of sneer quotes reveals that he believes knowledge to be impossible because facts are non-existent. This is not unique to one philosopher. Whyte calls the abuse of quotes a hallmark of post-modernist academic writing.

Implied Generalizations slip into discussions – and usually slip by unchallenged. Whyte offers a bald example. When a Christian says that homosexuality should be illegal because it is condemned in the Bible, that is an implied generalization because the Bible condemns many things, including the use of cotton-polyester blends. Backing off from making illegal the use of mixed fabrics (also working on the Sabbath and eating shellfish) then leads to an inconsistency. Whyte also offers a mundane example in Tony Blair’s active campaigning against fox hunting while insisting that other forms of hunting (including fishing) would never be proscribed by his government. Why not?  The implied generalization is that cruel sports are wrong. The resultant inconsistency is that some are acceptable after all.

The chapter “Begging the Question” is subtle and deep. Most of this book was fun to read and I had little difficulty relating to the material. Whyte is a good writer. His topic is compelling. His examples are from everyday experience. However, I read “Begging the Question” three times through and made close notes all along. It paid off well. Whyte sets up a debate in which libertarian Jack calls for an end to regulations. Socialist Jill claims that this would lead to mass poverty. In fact, Jill is begging the question. Jack’s position is that property rights are absolute. Rather than accepting the premise, Jill needs to address it by first showing that property rights are not absolute. Whyte then offers a longer discussion on tolerance. When a Christian fundamentalist asserts that abortion is murder, the response is not, “If you believe that, then do not have an abortion, but neither should you interfere with the rights of others to have them.”  Substitute the word “murder” for “abortion” and you can see that the plea for tolerance only begs the question: Is abortion murder or not? 

You will find discussions of false statistics, weasel words, hurrah words, morality fever, coincidences, and more. It is easily true that no one likes to be contradicted, but that is one way that we discover the truth. As Whyte points out, when you are crossing the street in the false belief that there are no cars coming, you don’t mind being contradicted. Intransigent devotion to the truth is always in your best interest.
  
(An earlier version appeared under Books on the Rebirth of Reason discussion site for September 3, 2008,  here.)  

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