How I wrote How to Spot Dishonest Arguments the way I did and why
How I wrote this book the way I did and why
I was on the debate team freshman year at West Point. It apparently affected more than I realized at the time. And West Point in general engenders increased respect for the usefulness of rules. You’ve probably heard of Robert’s Rules of Order. They were written by Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert, West Point Class of 1857.
Robert’s Rules apply to the conduct of meetings where dozens or hundreds of people are participating. I read them as research for this book, but they are too formal for the purposes of this book. They are mainly about creating a written policy in a large meeting. Who gets to talk and in what sequence and how votes are conducted along the way. You see these sorts of rules in the House and Senate and in student-council or other town hall type meetings.
This book is more about debates you see on Facebook, on TV cable news shows, in politics, in court rooms, around the water cooler at work, in a college dorm or class room, or a bar.
The problem is that the vast majority of what you hear in such debates are dishonest tactics. The further problem is that most people don’t recognize that they are dishonest. They think they are normal. After you read this book, you will recognize them as dishonest.
This book ought to be a sort of style manual for cable TV and other debate discussions. Style manuals are used by periodicals to tell all the writers and editors how they punctuate and spell and what voice to speak in and so forth. What TV and radio debate hosts do now is too dishonest and unruly. They regard intellectually-dishonest debate tactics as part of the “game” they are broadcasting.
Furthermore, “style manual” is not strong enough. This book sets for the rules that ought to be adhered to in debates. I am very fond of the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE). I commend many of them to you in this book. My book expands the list because the FRE are too limited.
It is also like a code of ethics. Journalists and lawyers are supposed to be professionals and professionals purport to be ethical. They also claim to be seekers of truth. If you applied the rules in this book to the typical TV-cable program debate, and bleeped the violations, most of the show would be bleeped out.
And if the shows do not adopt my rules or rules like them, you can use my rules to judge the integrity of the journalists in question. They all claim to be honest. Hardly any actually are. Yet they get all uppity if you accuse them of “fake news” or lying. This book will enable you to cite the exact honesty rules they are violating.
Cable TV and other news media have recently made a big display of fact checkers. Bravo! They also have sometimes had a body language checker. Okay, but that’s a bit subjective. And they have legal checkers to say what the law is relevant to the subject being discussed. Excellent.
But this far, they have not have had a logic-fallacy checker. Logic fallacy is the academic phrase for intellectually-dishonest debate tactics. It falls under the philosophy department in most universities. There are also violations of the scientific method. Many are manifestations of behavioral economics biases.
Damn the academic philosophy departments for deliberately obfuscating this subject to make it harder to understand, thereby making the philosophers seem more distant and superior to ordinary laymen. They insist on using all sorts of unnecessary and difficult-to-understand words and concepts like syllogism, inference, categorical, disjunction, correlative, conjunct. This is a deplorable habit of academics which is condemned in the writing business as “writing to impress rather than express.” I had to wade through a lot of that crap and translate it to Plain English when researching and writing this book.
For example on page 117 of Logical Fallacies by Bo Bennett Ph.D., he covers the “Fallacy of (the) Undistributed Middle.” What is the Plain English translation of that? Don’t worry about it. It is so obvious and common sense that I left it out of this book.
Some are essentially Nazi Brown Shirt tactics—refusing to allow your opponent to speak. Others are non-verbal scoffing. Much of the dishonesty uses misleading graphics. Still others ignorance of probability and statistics methods that are required to understand the facts in question.
A friend of mine named Stephen Roulac calls real estate investment a multi-disciplinary subject. In that context, discipline refers to academic subjects. Stephen also has a B. A. in economics from Pomona, a law degree from the University of California, an MBA from Harvard Business School which is also my alma mater, a Ph.D. in strategy and finance from Stanford, and a CPA. I have accused him of trying to monopolize the market for real estate investment advice because he is almost the only one with all those degrees.
In fact, this book is also a multidisciplinary subject: philosophy, science, behavioral economics, and probability and statistics, criminology, law, journalism, psychology, engineering, and risk management.
Basically, I believe Americans really need to become educated in these subjects in order to keep the country from being led off a cliff by lying politicians, trial lawyers, court room “experts,” and partisan journalists.
With regard to my subtitle—“and keep your own thinking straight”—the whole new field of behavioral economics says we humans are generally not keeping our thinking straight. Our brains have evolved to have all sorts of short cuts that are invalid in many situations. And we also have what Nobel-Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said,
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
This book started as a list of intellectually-dishonest and intellectually-honest debate tactics on my Website. Google Analytics revealed it was extremely popular so I expanded it and turned it into this book.
John T. Reed
May 1, 2020