Friday, December 23, 2011

Part 1 (a): Purpose and usage - Humbug! 2nd Edition

The short title of this book is Humbug! Humbug" may be defined as "deceptive or false talk or behaviour" (OED). Our general aim in writing this book was to create a tool for the detection of humbug. Humbug! is intended to serve two main purposes. 1) A "ready reference" which may be consulted as required during discussions, forums, debates, lectures, public talks, seminars and tutorials, whether such events are part of a formal program of study, or open to the broader community. 2) A guide to be consulted as part of the reading and writing process – particularly by students as they research and write seminar papers or essays for assessment purposes.

Humbug! is more intended as a tool to be consulted as the occasion demands, rather than a book to be read in a linear fashion, from beginning to end. Users may find it to be a useful resource for those occasions when they read or hear a suspect statement or claim, and they want to identify the flawed reasoning in the assertion – and perhaps respond to the claim with informed skepticism. There are other such texts available to the reader that aim to do this too. As Hamblin states: "Most modern writers have their minor preferences of arrangement (of fallacies), but it is almost always the same material that is being chopped about and served up reheated." (Hamblin, 1970: 49). Our approach in chopping up and reheating fallacies is focused on pragmatism and ease of use.

The subtitle of the book is the skeptic's guide field guide to spotting deliberate deceptions and false arguments. (Skeptic: "A person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions." – OED.) The skeptical enquirer, whether a student, an academic or a member of the public is a person who has the habit of questioning assertions made by others. Skepticism is a desirable trait in any person in any walk of life and it is an essential foundation of scholarship. However skepticism is sometimes confused with cynicism, and it is important to preserve the distinction. A person who is cynical is one who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest. The outlook of a cynic is often contemptuous and mocking. The outlook of a skeptic is by contrast positive and productive. He or she assumes nothing about motives and is focussed on deeper understanding of issues - and on real solutions to real problems.

This second edition of Humbug! has been expanded and includes sections on Skeptical Thinking Tools and Bad Faith. Skeptical Thinking Tools is a small section that provides a brief overview of some simple techniques and rules of thumb we have found useful in the analysis of arguments and in forming one's own position. Bad Faith is based on an article Jef wrote for the Australian Skeptic journal. It outlines the use of critical thinking skills in bad faith.

The core of the second edition, as with the first, does not concern itself with the structure of good arguments, or with models for enquiry. Rather, the content focuses on error. The underlying premise is that if individuals become astute at identifying and critiquing flawed arguments, they will become more skilled at identifying sound arguments presented by others and in formulating sound arguments of their own. When students, journalists, writers and participants in discussions and debates know what not to do in presenting an argument, they will develop a more sound perception of what they should do.

From our perspective, the elimination of flawed reasoning is the most important foundation of a sound argument. This book is therefore analogous to a scalpel. A surgeon uses a scalpel to remove diseased tissue – the skeptical enquirer can use this book to remove diseased arguments. A biologist uses a scalpel to remove extraneous tissue from a specimen in order to expose the essential structure of the specimen to scrutiny. In the same way Humbug! may be used to identify and remove poor reasoning from the reader's own arguments, and to allow the reader to examine and expose poor reasoning in the arguments of others.

Part 2: Deliberate deceptions and false arguments - is an expansion on the first edition. There are forty-eight specific deceptions and false arguments named and described. It should not be assumed by the reader that our list is exhaustive, or that there is a general consensus on the number and nomenclature of the types of deceptions and false arguments in the "body of literature" on fallacies in thinking, critical thinking and informal logic. These were selected because they are commonly encountered in published writings on contentious issues, topics of interest to skeptics and in student writing for assessment purposes. The expansion covers fallacies we have found further examples of since the first edition, including some "new" fallacies of our own coinage.

We use the terms fallacy, flaw, humbug and deception interchangeably. Technically a fallacy is an “argument gone wrong”. A logical fallacy is very specific – it is a deductive argument that is in an invalid form. An informal fallacy covers all the “wrong arguments” that may have a valid deductive form, but are based on erroneous premises.  Humbug covers all this but includes deliberate deceptions, such Moving the Goalposts and Stacking the Deck.

Each fallacy has a primary label (the heading). Other terms and/or related concepts are listed below the heading. The primary labels given were chosen over other possible labels for clarity of meaning. We have opted for vivid and memorable terms over less emphatic alternatives. Some of the primary labels and other terms/related concepts are very widespread and would be encountered in almost any book on critical thinking or informal reasoning. Some of the fallacies described will not be encountered in any other books as the fallacy and its label are our own coinage (e.g.Argument by Artifice, Burden of Solution, Sanctimony, Simple-Minded Certitude and WTF? Fallacy).

We decided not to organise our treatment of fallacies in thinking around a taxonomy of fallacies - as is often the case in other books and websites on fallacies (and as has been requested of us by some readers). We simply list fallacies in alphabetical order by name. Our justification at the time the decision was made was in part a function of the blurry edges between fallacies (e.g. Stacking the Deck and Observational Selection may be difficult to distinguish at times) and the fact that that there is as yet little consensus in the literature on the names of fallacies and taxonomic groupings. While there is no agreed-upon standard set of fallacies, the naming and describing of fallacies is a necessary step in the development of humbug-hunting skills.

For this edition, we gave the idea of classifying fallacies serious and scholarly consideration. For example, Hamblin states:
A fallacious argument, as almost every account from Aristotle onwards tells you, is one that seems to be valid but is not so... Of those who invent their own classifications... their most noteworthy characteristic is that they disagree not only with the Aristotelians but also extensively with one another, and have quite failed to establish any account for longer than the time it takes a book to go out of print... Despite divergences of arrangement, there is considerable overlap in raw material as between one writer and another: the individual kinds of fallacy are much the same, even down to their names. (1970: 12, 13)
As such, we decided our original decision should stand. (For a taxonomic treatment of fallacies see, for example, Gary N. Curtis site: (

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