Straight and Crooked Thinking

Unspun supposes that many bloggers and commentators in blogs often face the frustration of adversaries who employ dishonest arguments when presenting their case. Some do it because they are unskillful in arguing their case, others do it because they are crooked thinkers.

In a modest attempt to contribute to better blogging and better quality conversations in blogs, Unspun is reaching back to the past to recall lessons learned from a wonderful book called Straight and Crooked Thinking  by Robert H. Thouless.

In this age of Wikipedia there is even a summary of the 38 dishonest tricks that crooked thinkers use in their arguments (see below). Anyone interested in logic and rhetoric should rush out and get it, if it is still in print. Unspun has a copy because he bought many, many years ago and has taken it everywhere with him.

If you read Thouless well, the next time someone tries to pull a fast one on you when you are putting forth your argument, you’ll know what to do. 😉

1) The use of emotionally toned words (pp 10-25)
Dealt with by translating the statement into words emotionally neutral
(2) Making a statement in which “all” is implied but “some” is true (pp 27-38)
Dealt with by putting the word “all” into the statement and showing that it is then false.
(3) Proof by selected instances (pp 32-37)
Dealt with dishonestly by selecting instances opposing your opponent’s contention or honestly by pointing out the true form of the proof (as a statistical problem in association) and either supplying the required numerical facts or pointing out that your opponent has not got them.
(4) Extension of an opponent’s proposition by contradiction or by misrepresentation of it (pp 39-43)
Dealt with by stating again the more moderate position which is being defended.
(5) Evasion of a sound refutation of an argument by the use of a sophistical formula (pp 41-44)
Dealt with by analysis of the formula and demonstration of its unsoundness.
(6) Diversion to another question, to a side issue, or by irrelevant objection (pp 44-48)
Dealt with by refusing to be diverted from the original question, but stating again the real question at issue.
(7) Proof by inconsequent argument (pp 49-50)
Dealt with by asking that the connection between the proposition and the alleged proof may be explained, even though the request for explanation may be attributed to ignorance or lack of logical insight on the part of the person making it.
(8) The argument that we should not make efforts against X which is admittedly evil because there is a worse evil Y against which our efforts should be directed (pp 50-52)
Dealt with by pointing out that this is a reason for making efforts to abolish Y, but no reason for not also making efforts to get rid of X.
(9) The recommendation of a position because it is a mean between two extremes (pp 52-54)
Dealt with by denying the usefulness of the principle as a method of discovering the truth. In practice, this can most easily be done by showing that our own view also can be represented as a mean between two extremes.
(10) Pointing out the logical correctness of the form of an argument whose premisses contain doubtful or untrue statements of fact (p 58)
Dealt with by refusing to discuss the logic of the argument but pointing out the defects of its presentations of alleged fact.
(11) The use of an argument of logically unsound form (pp 58-64)
Since the unsoundness of such arguments can be easily seen when the form of the argument is clearly displayed, an opponent who does this can be dealt with by making such a simple statement of his argument that its unsoundness is apparent. For one’s own satisfaction when reading an argument of doubtful soundness, it will often be found useful to make a diagram.
(12) Argument in a circle (p 64)
(13) Begging the question (pp 65-66)
Both 12 and 13 can be dealt with in the same way as 11; by restating your opponent’s argument in such a simple way that the nature of the device used must be clear to anyone.
(14) Discussing a verbal proposition as if it were a factual one, or failing to disentangle the verbal and factual elements in a proposition that is partly both (pp 67-77)
This is really an incompetent rather than a dishonest way of arguing. The remedy is to point out how much of the question at issue is a difference in the use of words and how much (if at all) it is a difference as to fact or values.
(15) Putting forward a tautology (such as that too much of the thing attacked is bad) as if it were a factual judgement (pp 71-72)
Dealt with by pointing out that the statement is necessarily true from its verbal form.
(16) The use of a speculative argument (pp 78-83)
Rebutted by pointing out that what is cannot be inferred from what ought to be or from what the speaker feels must be.
(17) Change in the meaning of a term during the course of an argument (pp 88-94)
Dealt with by getting the term defined or by substituting an equivalent form of words at one of the points where the term in question is used and seeing whether the use of this form of words will make true the other statements in which this term is used.
(18) The use of a dilemma which ignores a continuous series of possibilities between the two extremes presented (pp 103-105)
Dealt with by refusing to accept either alternative, but pointing to the fact of the continuity which the person using the argument has ignored. Since this is likely to appear over-subtle to an opponent using the argument, it may be strengthened by pointing out that the argument is the same as saying, “Is this paper black or white?” when it is, in fact, a shade of grey.
(19) The use of the fact of continuity between them to throw doubt on a real difference between two things (the “argument of the beard”) (pp 105-108)
Dealt with by pointing out that the difference is nevertheless real. This again may be made stronger by pointing out that application of the same method of argument would deny the difference between “black” and “white” or between “hot” and “cold”.
(20) Illegitimate use of or demand for definition (p 109)
If an opponent uses definitions to produce clear-cut conceptions for facts which are not clear-cut, it is necessary to point out to him how much more complicated facts are in reality than in his thought. If he tries to drive you to define for the same purpose, the remedy is to refuse formal definition but to adopt some other method for making your meaning clear.
(21) Suggestion by repeated affirmation (pp 111-114)
(22) Suggestion by use of a confident manner (pp 114-115)
(23) Suggestion by prestige (pp 115-118)
The best safeguard against all three of these tricks of suggestion is a theoretical knowledge of suggestion, so that their use may be detected. All three devices lose much of their effect if the audience see how the effect is being obtained, so merely pointing out the fact that the speaker is trying to create conviction by repeated assertion in a confident manner may be enough to make this device ineffective. Ridicule is often used to undermine the confident manner, or any kind of criticism which makes the speaker begin to grow angry or plaintive.
(24) Prestige by false credentials (pp 115-118)
The obvious remedy for this is, when practical, to expose the falsity of the titles, degrees, etc, that are used. The prestige then collapses.
(25) Prestige by the use of pseudo-technical jargon (pp 116-118)
Best dealt with by asking in a modest manner that the speaker should explain himself more simply.
(26) Affectation of failure to understand backed by prestige (pp 118-119)
Dealt with by more than ample explanation.
(27) The use of questions drawing out damaging admissions (pp 199-120)
Dealt with by refusal to make the admissions. The difficulty of this refusal must be overcome by any device reducing one’s suggestibility to the questioner.
(28) The appeal to mere authority (pp 122-125)
Dealt with by considering whether the person supposed to have authority had a sound reason for making the assertion which is attributed to him.
(29) Overcoming resistance to a doubtful proposition by a preliminary statement of a few easily accepted ones (pp 128-130)
Knowledge of this trick and preparedness for it are the best safeguard against its effects.
(30) Statement of a doubtful proposition in such a way that it fits in with the thought- habits or the prejudices of the hearer (pp 133-135 and p 157)
A habit of questioning what appears obvious is the best safeguard against this trick. A particular device of value against it is to restate a questionable proposition in a new context in which one’s thought-habits do not lead to its acceptance.
(31) The use of generally accepted formulae of predigested though as premisses in argument (pp 161-166)
The best way of dealing with predigested thinking in argument is to point out good- humouredly and with a backing of real evidence that matters are more complicated than your opponent supposes.
(32) “There is much to be said on both sides, so no decision can be made either way”, or any other formula leading to the attitude of academic detachment (pp 166-167)
Dealt with by pointing out that taking no action has practical consequences no less real than those which result from acting on either of the propositions in dispute, and that this is no more likely than any other to be the right solution of the difficulty.
(33) Argument by mere analogy (pp 169-178)
Dealt with by examining the alleged analogy in detail and pointing out where it breaks down.
(34) Argument by forced analogy (pp 178-179)
The absurdity of a forced analogy can best be exposed by showing how many other analogies supporting different conclusions might have been used.
(35) Angering an opponent in order that he may argue badly (pp 146-147)
Dealt with by refusing to get angry however annoying our opponent may be.
(36) Special pleading (pp 154-156)
Dealt with by applying one’s opponent’s special arguments to other propositions which he is unwilling to admit.
(37) Commending or condemning a proposition because of its practical consequences to the bearer (pp 157-158)
We can only become immune to the effect of this kind of appeal if we have formed a habit of recognizing our own tendencies to be guided by our prejudices and by our own self-interest, and of distrusting our judgement on questions in which we are practically concerned.
(38) Argument by attributing prejudices or motives to one’s opponent (p 159)
Best dealt with by pointing out that other prejudices may equally well determine the opposite view, and that, in any case, the question of why a person holds an opinion is an entirely different question from that of whether the opinion is or is not true.

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16 thoughts on “Straight and Crooked Thinking

Add yours

  1. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that today i started to write a blog as you recommend me to, and here you are posting a thread how to write a better blogging. I think, somehow, we are psychologically connected. 🙂


  2. Great Post, Unspun. I often use these dishonest techniques in arguments with people have found them surprisingly easy to sneak by people in Indonesia !


  3. @Achmad: You are not alone. I shudder to wonder what anyone, armed with a copy of Thouless, would find if they did a forensic on Jakchat or Block M blogs.

    @winterinoz: I notice you’ve finally took your first steps into blogging. Welcome to the blogosphere and don’t forget to enjoy yourself.


  4. Strangely, many of the JackChat and Blok M blogs, whilst perhaps past their prime, at least have an idea, however distant of fair play in debate. It’s the national newspapers that are the worst offenders, or the debate in the DPR. “Indonesians shouldn’t talk like that,” or, “you wouldn’t understand, you’re not Indonesian,” or worst of all Bakrie on the mudflow, “it was easier to talk to the people as Indonesian-to-Indonesian,” to a foreign journalist. I wish someone had translated thouless into Bahasa Indonesia. Then there’s the classic Javanese debating response; evade the question, smile, say nothing, then slag off the person behind their back.


  5. Hi Unspun,

    Wow…Cool book by the sounds of it…I’ll go look it up!

    I have a stupid question…Erm, what’s pp? =)

    PS: I found your blog from the mass (reply) email you sent out…=)


  6. @Daphne: Yeah. It’s way cool and has helped Unspun recognize many dishonest tricks when in arguments. If you want to practice identifying dishonest tricks in arguments a good place to start is pp=pages. Don’t know why it is and would welcome any explanation why pages is abbreviated such.


  7. What a coincidence !! I just found the book 2 days ago at Bras Basah, Singapore, and then I stumbled upon this thread !!! I bought it for a mere SG$3 !! After which I also got a 20% discount. So I basically paid SG$ 2.40 for the book. It was such a “steal”. My copy is the 1964 version. Oldest known version is 1956. Although not in mint condition, this pan piper paperback has yellowed with age, and resembles a very old “Hardy Boys” paperback.

    One cannot help but get a whiff of the typical “old library book” type smell wafting with every turn of this 188-page “antique”.


    This website with the 38 dishonest tricks has been around for many years.
    You really ought to give credit or at least link to it.

    I’ve thought for many years that all arguments from all politicians/public servants and the media should be subjected to these 38 points for an honesty check.

    Robert Thouless’s book has been out of print for many years now.


  9. @Musashi: Wasn’t aware of that link but thanks for letting me know.

    Agree that politicians. public figures and the media — as well as some bloggers — should be submitted to the 38 points.

    But now we have blogs don’t we where we can indeed subject them to a Thouless test. That way we’ll influence at least five readers each 😉 but you knw what they say about a journey of a thousand miles…


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