Magazine article The Spectator

A Very Short Guide to Winning Every Argument

Magazine article The Spectator

A Very Short Guide to Winning Every Argument

Article excerpt

Madsen Pirie says that logic and a few Latin terms can help you destroy any challenger in intellectual confrontation

When I taught logic at an American university, the chief problem was to entice students to take the course. The smorgasbord approach they used to build a degree meant that students wanted things which might be useful to them, or ones they might be good at. Logic, alas, was perceived as neither, and classes were largely made up of very bright students who were not afraid of it and who thought it might be fun.

It would be difficult to show that it is a valuable life skill, given the remarkable number of successful people who happily get by without it. Many high-achieving executives, respected media commentators and prominent politicians do not seem to be held back by a lack of logical fluency, while many who are precise with their words and arguments are neither successful nor popular; nor, indeed, are they rich.

The students were correct about the fun side of it, though. My staff colleagues used to demand a warning when the part of the course devoted to logical fallacies began.

Students would point to alleged errors committed by professors and lecturers in other courses, giving impressive-sounding names to the fallacies they claimed to have spotted.

Does it win arguments, though? Yes, it can. If the cracked steps in an adversary's chain of reasoning can be identified, you might not change their mind, but you might undermine their case to onlookers. You might also learn how to avoid gaps in your own arguments.

Some suggest, for example, that we should lower the speed limit on motorways to 60 mph on the grounds that it would save lives. One might dispute this, but surely it isn't a fallacy? Yes it is. It is a runaway train.

We might indeed save lives by lowering the limit to 60 mph, but if saving lives is our motive, we'd save even more by lowering it to 50 mph, and more still at 40 mph. The train doesn't stop at 60 unless extra arguments are added, otherwise it goes on until we save the maximum number of lives, with a speed limit of 0 mph.

A speed limit represents a compromise between the need to reach places within acceptable times, and the risk of death or injury which high speeds incur. Currently, it has settled on 70 mph. To argue successfully against 60 mph, you need only ask why that figure is better than other ones. Any reduction might well save lives, but why that one?

England's national fallacy is probably the argumentum ad temperantiam, which is the supposition that a moderate middle course must be the superior option. A distaste for extremism has ingrained in the English a preference for standing in the middle of every alternative, and thus reaching only halfway to accuracy and virtue. If you see someone in a pub claiming that two plus two equals four, against another who says they equal six, just walk over and suggest that five is probably about right. Every Englishman in the pub will nod sagely in agreement with your moderation. Nonetheless, sometimes one of the extremes may be correct; there is no link between moderation and accuracy.

If the English like the temperantiam, the environmentalists like apriorism. Some people get horses and carts the wrong way round. Normally when we see what the facts are, we either retain or modify the theories which predicted them. To give undue primacy to the theories is to venture into the territory of apriorism. …

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