Fallacious reasoning and bad arguments are omnipresent wherever people dispute politics, religion, science, or really anything else of importance. It takes considerable effort to catch a fallacious inference, when one disputes an argument, but especially in arguments one supports. Many rigorous yet usually rather dense and dry textbooks are dedicated to exposing the myriad of unsuccessful attempts to support a view by reference to what, unfortunately, fails to lend any support to it at all. Some may recall laboring through a college course in logic or critical reasoning, with much respect, but usually not with a great deal of fondness. It is a pleasant surprise to find rigor and amusement conjoined in Ali Almossawi’s brief An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. As its title suggests, it too is dedicated to exposing bad arguments, but in an entertaining and witty manner, making for an altogether fun perusal. In a refreshingly humorous style, the book outlines 19 bad forms of argument, clearly and concisely, followed by a little illustration for each, featuring large-headed animals with a rather curious stare. Depictions from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) appear to have provided the inspiration for some of Almossawi’s illustrations.
As Almossawi announces at the beginning, “This book is aimed at newcomers to the field of logical reasoning, particularly those who, to borrow a phrase from Pascal, are so made that they understand best through visuals,” and he has tailored the book to his target audience well. (With the caveat that the newcomers Almossawi is talking about are of a reasonably advanced age; I rather doubt the book could be entirely appreciated by children, as a cursory glance at the illustrations might possibly mislead one to believe.) The explanations Almossawi provides for what makes the 19 bad arguments particularly poor are vivid, easy to follow, and accompanied by helpful examples. No prior exposure to logic is required to follow along. The few technical terms used throughout the book are nicely explained at the beginning of the book. Reading the book as someone whose profession it is to educate students to avoid bad arguments, I kept marveling how seemingly effortlessly Almossawi presented some rather common flaws in reasoning and argumentation, all the while making a mental note to incorporate some of it in one or another future class.
So what are some bad arguments Almossawi exposes? One is the argument from consequences:
“Arguing from consequences is speaking for or against the validity of a proposition by appealing to the consequences of accepting or rejecting it. Just because a proposition leads to some unfavorable result does not mean that it is false. … For example, take Dostoevsky’s line, ‘If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.’ Discussions of objective morality aside, the appeal to the apparent grim consequences of a purely materialistic world says nothing about whether or not the antecedent is true.”
The example is well chosen. As someone teaching introductory ethics on a regular basis, I would place a considerable bet on this questionable line of argument coming up sooner or later during the course. Another bad inference, related to the argument from consequences, is the infamous slippery slope:
“A slippery slope attempts to discredit a proposition by arguing that its acceptance will undoubtedly lead to a sequence of events, one or more of which are undesirable. Though it may be the case that the sequence of events may happen, each transition occurring with some probability, this type of argument assumes that all transitions are inevitable, all the while providing no evidence in support of that.”
Very well put. The slippery slope argument must surely be a candidate for the laziest of all bad forms of argument, which does not bar it from being rather fashionable, even in circles of the highest prestige. One may just think of the evil tidings against some bold innovation or technological advancement by the crowd of incorrigible doomsayers, or the various barriers erected against new lines of medical research, or some social change. One specter or another of utter demise seems always destined to appear just a little bit further down the road. Yet more often than not, one might be excused in coming away with the impression that certain outspoken critics of some change or innovation just cannot fathom what might be possibly wrong with the change or innovation, being henceforth compelled to finding faults in some other development altogether, the merits and demerits of which really are not under debate at all. Yet even if it should turn out that this other development is poised to push us over the precipice—and Almossawi is spot on in his diagnosis of the great want of support such a claim usually embodies—it simply does not show that the original change or innovation is not on sound footing, to continue a metaphor: one better does not press too far, lest one might get on a rather slippery slope.
I kept marveling how seemingly effortlessly Almossawi presented some rather common flaws in reasoning and argumentation, all the while making a mental note to incorporate some of it in one or another future class.
Some other bad arguments featured in the book are the infamous straw man, false dilemma, hasty generalization, and guilt by association. I especially liked the example of the Scotsman, who unfortunately happens not to be a true Scotsman, an example Almossawi borrows from the logician Antony Flew, intended to illustrate the insincere attempt of evading counterexamples to one’s contentions about some particular generalization by inserting the qualification of having spoken only “true” instances. As a programmer himself, I suspect Almossawi did not choose his own example entirely accidentally:
“One may posit that programmers are creatures with no social skills. If someone comes along and repudiates that claim by saying, ‘But John is a programmer, and he is not socially awkward at all’, it may provoke the response, ‘Yes, but John isn’t a true programmer.’”
Most fallacies Almossawi selected are informal fallacies, which logicians contrast with formal fallacies. For the latter, one need only consider their structure or form to appreciate why they are fallacious; for the former, one need pay attention to their specific content also, that is to say, pay attention to what in particular they are all about. ‘Affirming the consequent’ is a formal fallacy, since inferences lead only in one direction, from what is called the antecedent to the consequent, not the other way around, which is precisely what this kind of bad argument is trying to do. To appreciate this fallacy, it does not matter from what to what precisely one is trying to move; the reverse direction by itself is problematic. Again Almossawi offers a neat example. Suppose people who went to university are (statistically) more likely to be successful in life. Then we may conclude of someone who went to university that she is (statistically) more likely to be successful in life. So far so good; what we may not conclude, however, is that someone who is successful in life will have gone to university, since the original inference suggested only one route to success, where there might be many others besides:
“[Someone’s] success could be a result of schooling, but it could also be a result of his upbringing, or perhaps his eagerness to overcome difficult circumstances. More generally, one cannot say that because schooling implies success, that if one is successful, then one must have received schooling.”
There are, of course, cases where one may draw an inference in both directions, which is called ‘equivalence’ by logicians. If some geometrical object is trilateral, it is also triangular, and vise versa. But in the case of the fallacy of affirming the consequent, we are dealing only with a one-way street, and one must ensure not to enter it the wrong way.
These are just a few samples of the (mostly informal) fallacies covered in the book. Almossawi’s selection seems perfectly sensible. For sure, in light of the many other fallacies he might have covered, his ultimate selection retains a perhaps inevitable element of arbitrariness, which need not constitute a flaw in a treatment intended to be brief.
Alejandro Giraldo’s illustrations following the explanation are fun, and mostly quite helpful. Most are clever and cute. Some require a bit of thought for making the relevant connections, which I suspect might be intended. Some remain a bit obscure, even after considerable thought. The fallacy of composition and division, the final one featured in the book, is accompanied by what I take to be two shoveling bees or ants, in a grid, and one can sort of see where this illustration is going, but then, only sort of. The explanation of the fallacy itself is entirely straightforward: “Composition is inferring that a whole must have a particular attribute because its parts happen to have that attribute.” The illustration, however, remains somewhat obscure. It was telling that in the released audio version of the book, which made some attempt to reenact each illustration, this last one was left out entirely. Perhaps Giraldo found it more difficult to illustrate this fallacy; all the same, Almossawi’s example, it seems to me, would have made for a rather nice blueprint: “If every sheep in a flock has a mother, it does not then follow that the flock has a mother.” With some circle and lines depicting the motherhood relationship, it would have seemed possible to represent each member of the flock relating to another member in that relationship, without it being the case that the whole is standing in this particular relationship to anything.
All told, Almossawi has produced a very charming little book of bad arguments, which, as one reviewer of a popular online bookseller aptly points out, would make for a very nice addition to one’s coffee table. It’s not a must read, obviously, but a fun read, despite its rather ponderous subject matter.