Friday, August 03, 2007


...Opinion, Argument and Humbug!

Strangely, people care about another person's opinion. I, for one, don't get it? I mean opinions in the non-legal, colloquial sense, a statement concerning what someone believes without any justification. If an acquaintance of mine merely asserts an opinion, rather than making an argument, my response is usually something along the lines of: "Oh yeah, whatever you reckon…" After all, opinions are like backsides, everyone has one and everyone else's stinks. There is simply no point in attempting to refute an opinion; by definition it is without any justification and as such worthless. No humbug to be found.

An argument, on the other hand, might well involve a belief, but reasons for that belief are given. This justification is either sound or fallacious and this is what makes an argument compelling or poor. Thus we have a myriad of humbug possibilities. The first step in identifying a poor, humbug filled argument is to understand what a fallacy is. The broad, non-jargonised definition is that a fallacy is a claim that is not justified or an argument that has gone wrong. Often on first inspection a fallacious argument might seem sound, but it is found to be flawed with closer scrutiny. There are numerous specific reasons an argument can be flawed (hence the numerous types of fallacies) but in general there are three broad categories.

A commentator is fallacious if his or her claim is based on a reason that is irrelevant, insufficient, or itself unjustifiable.* For example, the fallacy Impugning Motives is an irrelevant argument - arguing that an opponent is wrong because they have devious motives. Motives have nothing to do with the truth of a matter, whether a claim is right or wrong. The fallacy Unfounded Generalization is an insufficient argument. A generalization can only be made when a study is performed on a large enough sample for an extrapolation to be justified. A small or unrepresentative sample, therefore, is insufficient to make a generalization. The fallacy, Begging the Question is an unjustifiable argument. When someone makes an argument that 'begs the question', their conclusion is simply a restatement of their premises, but in a different form. The conclusion has not been justified.

Another flawed way of arguing is not fallacious, strictly speaking, but rather, devious. Humbug, is deceptive or false talk or behaviour (ODE). I tend to call all the types of humbug I spot fallacies, however, technically some are not fallacies, but deceptive techniques used to win arguments. Moving the Goalposts is a good example. If a commentator is arguing a particular point or position, they might start to avoid discussing it further, by subtly changing the topic of conversation. Hence, the goalposts have been moved. Often this is done when they realise the topic they began with is a little too challenging. (Politicians are the exemplars.) When a commentator does this we are safe in assuming they are not genuinely interested in getting at the 'truth' of a matter. They are interested in 'winning'. They have not advanced a fallacious argument in order to win - instead they have been devious - knowingly avoiding an argument or topic that might be troubling, to something a little more advantageous.

Humbug becomes easier to spot with practice, but a few clues should set off the alarm bells. In all cases, the key criterion for humbug - a fallacy or devious deception - is that it is advanced in the form of an argument. The argument is flawed if the reason advanced in support of it is irrelevant, insufficient, unjustifiable, simplistic, misleading or deceptive. So 'arm up' and get hunting.

What with all the crazy newfangled technology about these days, we thought we'd get in on this podcasting business. I believe we will be the first ever "Fallacycast"!

Here's the link to direct download the inaugural podcast: What is humbug?.mp3 and subscribe here:

In it we discuss the general idea of fallacies and "critical thinking" and why we were moved to write a book on fallacies. If you've ever wanted to hear what we sound like, or if you just like Australian accents, now's your chance...

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