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Commonplace Nonsense

A Preface to Logical Argumentation

                                                                                                                “I just know that that doesn’t make any sense, but I’m not sure why.”

It’s frustrating to know intuitively that what you’ve just heard is nonsense but not to be able to identify why it is nonsense. If you’ve ever found yourself in that position, what follows may be of some assistance. It identifies and itemizes the many different guises that erroneous thinking may assume, and it explains some of the reasons for erroneous thinking. What follows may not turn you into a skilled adversary, but it will give you the tools to become one. And, even more important, it will put you in a position of strength in directing a discussion.

You’ll find many of your friends and acquaintances in the list of logical pitfalls below, but you will also find yourself from time to time. None of us is immune to nonsense.

Are humans by nature hopelessly perplexed creatures? By nature, yes. Muddled, yes. But the situation is not hopeless. As Aristotle claimed. men and women may be rational animals, but they are not by nature reasoning animals. Careful and clear thinking requires a certain rigor; it is a skill, and, like all skills, it requires education in reasoning skills, intellectual honesty, practice, and vigilance. Before you can use your reason, you should know the traps that are always awaiting the untutored mind. Hence this paper on Logical Argumentation - a paper on how to avoid nonsense, is a brief summary of the devices that camouflage and circumvent rational debate. If we recognize the pitfalls and ruses, we may be able to avoid them and perhaps be able to discourage others from relying upon them.

First, some general principles. Let’s not call them laws; and, since they’re not particularly original, I won’t attach my name to them. They are merely a description of patterns that seem to characterize the ways that people tend to respond and think. For example, people:

1.      tend to believe what they want to believe.


2.      tend to project their own biases or experiences upon situations.


3.      tend to generalize from a specific event.


4.      tend to get personally involved in the analysis of an issue and tend to let their feelings overcome a sense of objectivity.


5.      are not good listeners. They hear selectively. They often hear only what they want to hear.


6.      are eager to rationalize.


7.      are often unable to distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant.


8.      are easily diverted from the specific issue at hand.


9.      are usually unwilling to explore thoroughly the ramifications of a topic; tend to oversimplify.


10.  often judge from appearances. They observe something, misinterpret what they observe, and make
terrible errors in judgment.


11.  often simply don’t know what they are talking about, especially in matters of general discussion. They
rarely think carefully before they speak, but they allow their feelings, prejudices, biases, likes, dislikes,
hopes, and frustrations to supersede careful thinking.


12.  rarely act according to a set of consistent standards. Rarely do they examine the evidence and then form a conclusion. Rather, they tend to do whatever they want to do and to believe whatever they want to believe and then post hoc find whatever evidence will support their actions or beliefs and conveniently ignore any counter-evidence. They often think selectively: in evaluating a situation they are eager to find reasons to support what they want to support and they are just as eager to ignore or disregard reasons that don’t support what they want.


13.  do not have a clear conceptual understanding of words employed in the discussion and consequently often do not say what they mean and often do not mean what they say.


To these principles, let’s add four observations cited by J.A.C. Brown in his Techniques of Persuasion: “Most people want to feel that issues are simple rather than complex, want to have their prejudices confirmed, want to feel that they ‘belong’ with the implication that others do not, and need to pinpoint an enemy to blame for their frustrations.”

The above comments may seem jaundiced. They are not meant to be. They are not even meant to be critical or judgmental. They merely suggest that it is a natural human tendency to be subjective rather than objective and that the untrained mind will usually take the path of least resistance. But the path of least resistance rarely follows the path of rationality and logic.


To assist you in overcoming the aforementioned "commonplace nonsense" you are now ready to go to my Logical Argumentation pages.



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