The classic laws of logic attributed to Aristotle are:

  1. Everything is what it is.
  2. Contradictory statements cannot both be true at the same time.
  3. A statement is either true, or it is not: there is no third possibility.

Which is all very well, but how do you spot muddled thinking in practice? Enter Jamie Whyte and his book “Bad Thoughts, a guide to clear thinking”.

“Bad Thoughts” is a thoroughly readable book full of advice on how to spot bogus reasoning. I thoroughly recommend it. Consider, for example, some of these insights:

  • The appeal to authority. “Because I/the experts/the public say so” is not evidence of truth. And there is a difference between the power to decide a particular matter and what is a fact.
  • Opinions are not facts. Whether whisky is enjoyable is a matter of taste, not fact.
  • Expertise in one subject does not confer expertise in all subjects. How did Einstein know that we only use 10% of our brainpower?
  • Experience does not imply expertise. We all went to school, but we are not all experts on education. The same applies to many other matters.
  • Mystery is not an explanation. Mystery means there is more work to do, not that anything could be true.
  • Faith is not fact. Even expert attempts to examine whether there is a God, cannot draw a factual conclusion.
  • Probability is not fact. Probably true is not the same as certainly true.
  • Science is still science. Quantum physics has not refuted scientific truth.
  • “But still” is not a reasonable way of setting aside evidence.
  • Things declared self-evident often are not. “All people are equal” when taken literally means nothing — since I am myself, not someone else — whereas “all people are equal before the law” means something which may or may not be true.
  • Abuse is not refutation. If truth is repeated and becomes boring, saying it is boring does not make it false. Abusing the speaker personally, perhaps by attacking their motives, is a diversion.
  • Empty words including jargon and weasel words — qualifications, coulds and shoulds — do not create facts. Words we all use positively may mean nothing because they have been repeatedly redefined to suit preferences about their meaning: justice and freedom are examples.
  • Motives do not imply truth or falsehood. Low taxes may or may not be good irrespective of any motive for advancing them. “You’re just saying that” is not argument.
  • The right to an opinion. That no one can prevent us holding a particular view to be true implies neither truth nor duties on other people.
  • Inconsistency. Where there is contradiction, there is error, but conflict is not necessarily contradiction.
  • Equivocation. Ambiguous language is often used to conceal the truth. Consider Marx: defining profit as ‘exploitation’ does not mean that people are in fact treated unfairly when profits are made.
  • Begging the question. People take for granted what is in dispute, passing off mere assertions of their position as arguments.
  • Coincidence. Rejecting coincidence can lead to false beliefs about cause and effect.
  • Statistics! One must learn to see through bogus statistics: see the book!
  • Morality fever. Sincere empathy with suffering and injustice is not a substitute for reason.

Whyte concludes that if we are genuinely concerned about the welfare of others, we must understand the world in which they live: intellectual and moral seriousness are inseparable. If, like me, you are seriously interested in the welfare of everyone in society, please do buy this short book.