How do you avoid bad thinking? How do you detect nonsense? By nonsense we mean fallacious reasoning. Robert J. Gula’s book Nonsense is a great place to start to begin to think critically and to spot fallacies in reasoning. (Review here.) It’s a book that is thorough with an informal style with plenty of entertaining examples. If it’s a fallacy, it’s probably in this book. In the final note of the book, Gula distills the book into 15 principles. Here is that content: 15 Ways to Detect Nonsense:
- Be alert to anyone who speaks in absolutes: who uses words such as all, none, no one, never, always, everyone, must, immediately, or who refers to a group of people as if all the members have identical characteristics, beliefs, or attitudes.
- Be alert to generalizations, especially to generalizations that are not supported or that are supported from just one or two specific, unusual, or extreme examples.
- Be alert to anyone who uses emotional language and evaluative words instead of objective, factual responses.
- Do not confuse opinion, attitude, personal bias, speculation, personal assurance, or unsupported generalization with hard, factual evidence.
- Be sure that the issue under discussion is clear and precise, that its ramifications and complexities have been identified, that its goals have been identified, and that the words and concepts have been defined.
- Be sure that the evidence is relevant to the specific topic of discussion, not to some related topic.
- When an authority is referred to, do not automatically accept that authority unless his/her credentials are relevant to the issue under discussion.
- Make sure that the conclusion follows from the evidence.
- Be sure that you do not put others in a position where they have to make inferences and that you are not put in a position where you have to make inferences. In other words, be sure that necessary steps are not omitted in an argument. Avoid making assumptions.
- Wherever possible, do not allow rational discussions to become heated arguments. When a discussion becomes heated, stop the discussion, determine the source of the problem, clarify any misunderstandings, and then bring the discussion back to the topic. When people are disagreeing, make sure that they know the specific nature of the disagreement.
- Make sure that the evidence is thorough, not selective.
- Don’t quibble; don’t argue just for the sake of arguing.
- Think critically. Never let a fallacy go by without making a mental note of it; even if you don’t say anything, say to yourself, “This is nonsense.”
- Whenever you hear an argument, examine it before you accept its conclusions. Ask three questions:
- Are the statements–the premises–the points being made and used as evidence–true?
- Is the evidence complete? Or has the evidence been one-sided?
- Does the conclusion come incontrovertibly from the evidence? Or might a different conclusion just as easily have come from the evidence?
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.
The world does not need another smart aleck.