Friday, December 19, 2014

November's Book: Straight and Crooked Thinking

November represented a dark time in the history of this blog - the only month since its beginning that I didn't post an entry. Expect this inactivity to be rectified very soon, starting right now with November's book. I had it mostly done by the end of last month but alas, sometimes life gets in the way.


Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert H. Thouless
Psychology (1930 - 127 pp.)

I will open by saying that my description of this book may not be totally accurate, and there's not much I can do about that. This book is not really psychology by current standards - it is best described as something clunky like "reasoning and argumentation". However, as Robert H. Thouless was a practising psychologist, and applies social science methods at various points throughout the book, I will defer to what it meant to write on psychology back in 1930. Related, the book was originally published in 1930, re-released in 1953, and I have the latter version. I have listed 1930 here in order to capture the spirit that went into composing this book rather than the one that went into issuing a second print run. That said, Thouless's 1953 preface admits to some changes, most notably the updating of discussed issues to meet the Cold War climate. (Frequent discussion of socialism figures prominently in these changes.) Lastly, my copy is a PDF copy meant for tablets or e-readers, so the page count is wildly off. If you want to check my page references, you may do so here.

The book's practical field guide style is a welcome departure from more arcane academic tracts: "If we have a plague of flies in the house we buy fly-papers and not a treatise on the zoological classification of Musca domestica. This implies no sort of disrespect for zoologists, or for the value of their work as a first step in the effective control of flies. The present book bears to the treatises of logicians the relationship of fly-paper to zoological classifications." (109) My study of professional fields makes me sympathize with this position. It is good to be able to read a book and then act on that book in practice. Although I already knew much of what is contained here, it is a good summation of many of the dishonest and/or incompetent tricks that are regularly used in argumentation. It is also very well organized, with each of the first thirteen chapters discussing a different argumentative flaw. Thouless openly admits to discussing crooked thinking (fallacies) far more than straight thinking (truisms), for which he compensates by including ready-made solutions for when an opponent in debate uses crooked thinking. An example is his attack on the use of words in different ways to muddle arguments: "What we must be clear about is that a new use of a word is not a new statement of fact." (43) Simple statements like these help frame his thesis quite effectively.

Many topics are covered very well. Thouless's interdisciplinary application of his thesis that people should be clearer and more honest in their arguments is well done. An early example is in Chapter I (use of emotional words or phrases), which he applies in a criminal trial context, in that "[an] obvious objection to the use of the word 'scoundrel' before the man is convicted, which puts it in the ranks of 'crooked thinking', is that it 'begs the question' or assumes what is to be proved. The man is only a scoundrel if he is guilty, and yet the word has been used in the course of an argument to prove that he is guilty." (12) This is absolutely spot-on. Another is the very well presented position I was taught in an entirely different context by a New York labour lawyer. Put simply, it is that whenever someone enters an unfamiliar environment, that person should look around, learn how it works, and when necessary, question its practices. Just because something was done before does not mean it should be done now or in the future, or even that it was optimal back then. Thouless's comparison of the past and the present underlines this perspective: "we should not be hoodwinked by mere authority, but ask in the first case whether, in this particular matter, our ancestors had sound reasons for their opinion, and in the second case whether the modern man is in this matter better informed than his fathers and therefore more likely to be right." (72) Straight and Crooked Thinking's continual emphasis on breaking positions down into their underlying parts is one with which I sympathize completely. Similarly, Thouless's argument against blind obedience to authority figures is stated very well. In true academic fashion, Thouless criticizes regurgitation-based academic environments: "It is part of the business of a professor to see that his students remain in a condition of critical alertness towards what he tells them instead of falling into this reverence which is the emotion accompanying the acceptance of prestige suggestion." (72) Thouless's "critical alertness" is something I have always tried to achieve, regardless of how much consternation it may have caused my professors over the years.

In true 1930 fashion, and I suppose also in true 1953 fashion, the book is gratingly didactic. The mock conversation at the end of the book is difficult to read as a result. I fully understand Thouless's fury at what he must have perceived to be a society full of poor-quality debaters. It is difficult to believe, though, that the right answers are necessarily his. Sometimes he strays too far down that path, as in the exam-style presentation of the mock conversation, including a recommendation to the reader to not read his commentary until after attempting to find all the crooked thinking. (115) While I understand Thouless wants to make the book as accessible as possible, quizzing the reader comes off as overbearing. All things considered, though, the list of fallacies mentioned throughout the book, along with their cures, is a great way to conclude. (109-114)

My largest problem with Straight and Crooked Thinking in an argumentative sense is in its slavish application of social science methods to fuzzier problems. This is where the distinction between a science and an art is of extreme importance, and Thouless simply refuses to acknowledge it. He writes an entire section on the use of irrelevant or misleading analogies (Chapter XII), yet fallaciously compares the solving of social problems to the curing of medical problems: "Our own individual illnesses can be cured by scientific methods. The diseases of the great society to which we belong cannot be so healed until we accept for national and international affairs the same basic scientific principle that the way to get rid of an evil is to discover its cause by the methods of scientific research and then to destroy that evil by removing its causes." (107) Many would argue that national and international affairs cannot be studied with the same sort of scientific pursuit as the curing of an illness. I will take Thouless's advice here and note that "Imperfect analogies occur commonly in serious discussion and are best dealt with by simply pointing out where the analogy breaks down." (94) Where Thouless's analogy of social problems to medical problems breaks down is as follows: (a) many illnesses may be cured permanently, whereas social problems will persist regardless of what government or private industry does to ameliorate them; (b) expertise in medical matters is far more explainable than in social matters - who is the expert dictating social solutions to us? A politician? A historian? A lawyer? - and (c) unlike with the general consensus that curing illness is good, there are so many perspectives on social problems it is impossible to evaluate them without considering Thouless's named fallacy of each debater having his or her own internal prejudices. (Chapter XIII) Certain issues in this world are not solvable objectively as Thouless may wish, and in doing so, he has violated his own rule against wrong analogies. This, ironically, may reveal his prejudice. The word "destroy" in the passage above may also be an emotionally charged word, which he recommends against doing in Chapter I.

Straight and Crooked Thinking is an interesting historical artifact that should be appreciated for what it is and is not. It is a useful summary of many logical fallacies, argued in an entertaining way covering multiple disciplines. It is not going to solve anyone's world, nor is it going to appear entirely applicable in a 2014 context. The reference to discussing a "Negro" near the start of the book (5) is an especial example of how the book, for all its timeless argumentative points, is also completely locked into its own time period.

NOTE: Coincidentally, while writing this entry I received an email alert directing me to this article. While Warren Buffett tends to make good points, I could not help but think of Thouless's fallacy of following prestige. (64) The article also runs into the issues of dealing with businesses Buffett is not necessarily an expert in (for example, how would one apply Buffett's investment knowledge to running a shop floor of a steel company?), and vagueness in suggestions like "keep your focus". (66) I will finish by introducing an interesting fact that is utterly useless as an argument: Warren Buffett was born in the year Straight and Crooked Thinking was first published.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 6

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