Saturday, April 27, 2013

How to Win Every Argument book review

How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic by Madsen Pirie  consists of a collection of strategies to rise to the top in any discussion. These strategies are ready-to-use out of the box, no assembly required and thus can be wielded effectively by almost anyone.

These strategies are what are labeled 'fallacies'. Fallacies are devices that short-circuit logical arguments while keeping a semblance of truth and validity. These are so pervasive that they sprout spontaneously and have never been eradicated. These also can trip or befuddle most opponents handing, as the title promises, victory to the user more often than not. This book contains a whole set of them. Each fallacy is described as to its nature and use with a word or two to its origin or pedigree. All included fallacies are ordered alphabetically for easy reference and categorized at the end of the book.
All right and well; the review could end right here. However, there is a nigh insurmountable caveat here: fallacies are fundamentally unsound, each and everyone of them, so much so that most, if not all, are known since antiquity, hence the Latin names some carry.

This raises the question on the true intent of this book. The author readily and willingly concedes to the fallacies' speciousness; no apologies offered. In fact he expressly states that he wanted to write this book "for the wrong people".  Such candidness is refreshing, but does he really mean it? He is a serious author of serious books and has many of those under his belt which makes the present book even more surprising. I find no hint that contradicts his stated goal. Notwithstanding, I'll venture an hypothesis: he really hates people using fallacies, so he wrote this book to let the 'wrong' people use them, have them sink under their own weight, and ultimately teach them a worthwhile lesson on proper thinking, all under veil of the promise of winning every argument.

In general, fallacies are a no go. They can take you up to a point on run of the mill discussions, but the user will be shot down every time whenever faced by a sophisticated interlocutor and these will appear more often as the importance of discussion increments and these very discussions will be the ones that matter most. That's on efficacy. On the inner satisfaction of winning arguments this way, would one really have it knowing it was obtained by tricks?

Further, although each fallacy with its possible uses, no overarching strategies to combine or thread them are given. It is up to the reader to read through them all, pick the ones that might come handy and remember and use them properly on the fly. Maybe here too proper thinking has the upper hand, because of its straightforwardness.

So is this book worthless? Not at all. As a reference it is a great resource. If you don't want to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people who rely on fallacies reading and knowing about them develops some resistance and help avoid them in one's own arguments. I'd recommend you reading it concurrently with some standard argumentation text (for the moment I recommend Waller's Critical Thinking: Consider the Verdict) by contrasting Pirie's strategy for a given fallacy with the antidote from the other book. This way the learning is richer than reading straight through. Plus, it is also a fun read. Each of the examples generally garners a dry humor comment by the author. 

And one more thing. Aristotle himself, the father of logic on this side of the world, says that sometimes the only approach to make headway with some people is with falsities (Topics, VIII-11,14). So, in conclusion, How to win can find a place in one's shelf as a defensive or offensive tool but use with caution when considering the latter.

On a side note: My local college library must really have liked it much since they have four copies of it on their catalog. 


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