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May 31st, 2007 (Permalink)

Book Review: Thank You for Arguing

Title: Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion

Author: Jay Heinrichs

Publisher: Three Rivers Press

Date of Publication: 2007


[O]ne big difference between formal logic and the art of persuasion is their attitudes toward the rules. Logical fallacies are verboten in logic, period. Commit one, and logic sounds the gong and you’re booted off the stage. … In rhetoric, on the other hand, there really are no rules. You can commit fallacies to your heart’s content, as long as you get away with them. Your audience bears the responsibility to spot them; but if it does, there goes your Ethos. Your audience will consider you either a crook or a fool. (P. 205)


"Rhetoric" is a term that went out of style a long time ago, except in its pejorative sense in politics: "that's just rhetoric". The original meaning of "rhetoric" was the study of how to speak persuasively. The study of rhetoric developed in the oral cultures of ancient Greece and Rome in which most people were illiterate, but could of course speak and understand speech. The great literature of these cultures was mostly poetry that people would hear spoken or see performed on stage. The Homeric epics even existed as oral traditions before they were written down. Without television, movies, or radio, politics was carried out through public speaking.

In ancient Athens, in particular, the way to succeed in politics was through persuasive speaking before the assembly, which was a sort of town meeting. Also, Athenians were almost as litigious as Americans, and a knowledge of how to speak well would be useful in the law courts. As a result, there was a booming business in the teaching of rhetoric, as wealthy families were willing to pay the itinerant teachers known as sophists to teach their sons how to speak in public.

A feud began between philosophers and rhetoricians in the ancient world, because they were vying for the same students. Plato criticized and parodied rhetoric in many of his dialogues including Euthydemus, which is one of the earliest treatments of logical fallacies. Aristotle, who had been a student of Plato, wrote books on both rhetoric and logic, including the first book about logical fallacies.

Yet logic and rhetoric have different goals: The goal of logic is to understand reasoning, both in how it can guide us to the truth and how it can lead us astray. Rhetoric, in contrast, has the goal of persuasion. In other words, logic is concerned with how to get to the truth, whereas rhetoric is only concerned with how to seem to get there. From rhetoric's point of view, it doesn't matter whether an argument is actually cogent, what matters is whether the audience thinks it is. This is why the only rhetorical objection to the use of fallacies is the fear that you might get caught.

As a result, philosophers since Plato have tended to condemn rhetoric as an immoral practice, but part of understanding the truth about the world is to understand human psychology, including how people's minds are changed. It's not necessarily the fault of those who teach persuasion if marketers, advertisers, and political propagandists use rhetoric to mislead. Blaming rhetoricians for the misuse of rhetoric is like blaming nuclear physicists for Hiroshima.

This brings us to Jay "Figaro" Heinrichs' book Thank You for Arguing, an old-fashioned rhetoric book given a sugar coating of pop culture references. You can see this in the subtitle's grouping of Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson; many of the chapter titles are similar:

You'd better read this book fast, as it will have a short shelf life. Will anyone ten years from now remember who Paris Hilton was? I hope not. Figaro is not writing for the ages. In fact, though he throws in some current references, he writes like a baby boomer. Anyone less than middle-aged may not recognize many of his allusions. Here's a small sample that I recognized, but that younger people may not: Alice's Restaurant, Bluto, Captain Kangaroo. If you don't get at least two of these references, you may be too young to go on this ride. Even I'm too young to get "the Eddie Haskell ploy"!

In addition to the "hip" references, it's also written in a "bloggy", conversational style, studded with anecdotes about Figaro's family and snippets of dialogue. This style seems more appropriate for short entries in "blogs" than for a book, where it becomes tiresome.

Books on rhetoric often have their own lists of fallacies which differ from, but overlap with, those found in logic books. I suspect that this is due to the development of two independent traditions stemming from the common source of Aristotle. Unfortunately, logicians and rhetoricians tend not to read one another, so that the two traditions have developed in different directions. This may explain Figaro's odd logical terminology: for example, he often seems to use the word "proof" for "premiss" and calls "tautology" a type of fallacy. I don't know whether these are instances of standard rhetorical terminology or an idiolect. However, they probably won't confuse a lay reader as much as a logician.

More worrisome, Figaro also seems to be unaware of any developments in logic in the last two centuries―two centuries in which there have been more developments in logic than in the previous two millenia. This ignorance leads to some confused or misleading accounts of fallacies. The worst of these is Figaro's inclusion as a fallacy of reductio ad absurdum, which is a powerful validating form of argument that is common in mathematics.

Even worse, though, is Figaro's condescending caricature of logic:

To show you how rhetorical logic works, I have to give you a brief―very brief―summary of the philosophical kind of logic, starting with that torturous device, the syllogism. You may have suffered from syllogisms sometime during your education. They’re a widely used introduction to logic, and almost entirely useless in day to day conversation. Aristotle himself seemed committed to make the syllogism as boring as possible.

As I said before, I think that it's unfair to blame rhetoricians for the misuse of rhetoric, but I do blame Figaro for misleading his readers about logic. We don't need a world with less logic in it. Instead, we need more logically-literate people who can resist the misuse of rhetoric. Part of being logically literate―which is a type of scientific literacy―is to know that there have been many important developments in logic since Aristotle, even if you don't know the details of those developments. For instance, not realizing that computers run on modern logic is about as scientifically illiterate as not knowing that they run on electricity.

However, if you keep in mind that Figaro doesn't know what he's talking about in the chapter on logic, or just skip it, there is much else in the book about rhetoric. Unfortunately, Figaro's knowledge of rhetoric seems no more up-to-date than his knowledge of logic. In both cases, he appears to think that no progress has been made since Aristotle, or perhaps, in the case of rhetoric, Cicero.

Actually, I'm not sure that rhetoric has advanced much since Cicero, though that may just be due to my own ignorance of the subject. If true, so much the worse for rhetoric, and no wonder it seems to have dropped out of the academic curriculum. However, there have been important developments in the study of persuasion in psychology, where they belong. If you really want to understand how to persuade people, try Robert Cialdini's Influence, which is just as easy to read as Thank You for Arguing.

Nonetheless, there is much practical wisdom in Aristotle's advice on persuasion, and Figaro's book is a much easier read than the original―even allowing for the frequent gratuitous "Simpsons" references. For instance, Aristotle divided persuasion into three categories: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos―the Three Musketeers of Rhetoric. Logos is an appeal to the audience's reason, while Pathos plays on the audience's emotions, and Ethos gets the audience to like and respect the arguer. You might think that logic is only concerned with Logos, but that would be a mistake. Fallacies of appeal to emotion obviously fall under Pathos, and appeals to authority often fall in Ethos territory. Aristotle was surely right that liking a person tends to make it easier for that person to persuade us, and his insight is supported by modern psychology, as reported in Cialdini's book, which devotes a chapter to it.

Despite Thank You for Arguing's faults, its chapter on fallacies is not bad given its briefness. I especially like the name for post hoc: the Chanticleer Fallacy. It's a much better name than the Latin phrase "post hoc ergo propter hoc" but, unfortunately, many people may be unfamiliar with the story of the vain rooster who thought his crowing made the sun rise.

I also liked the book's "Persuasion Alerts": short sidebars in which Figaro tells you what rhetorical move he's making in the text at that point. They have the odd effect of undermining the persuasion that he's trying to accomplish in the text, though they also serve to teach the tricks of the trade by example. To the extent that the book is not simply a cynical exercise in teaching how to manipulate people without regard either to ethics or logic, it's due to these alerts. However, if you're looking for a funny, easy to read book about logical fallacies and rhetorical trickery, you might try Madsen Pirie's How to Win Every Argument, instead. I'm pretty sure that its cynicism is satirical, whereas I'm not so sure that Figaro isn't serious in his misology.


Reader Response (7/14/2007):

I read with interest your review of Jay Heinrichs' "Thank you for arguing". While I would probably agree with you that the book is not worth reading, I feel I should point out a couple things that might interest you concerning the field of rhetoric. First, Jay Heinrichs is not a rhetorician. Unlike you and I, Mr. Heinrichs does not hold a terminal degree in anything, so he is not a particularly good representative of rhetorical scholarship. Second, your alma mater, Indiana University (at least, ten years ago) had one of the most prestigious graduate programs in rhetorical scholarship. Just as logic has developed since Aristotle, so has rhetorical scholarship. The field is alive and well and still granting terminal degrees at major universities. In fact, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the person behind Fact Check, is herself a rhetorical scholar―or at least started out that way.

I do not consider myself a rhetorician, though I have published several articles on argumentation. I come at it from my background in academic debate and my training in communication, rather than as a rhetorician or logician. Mostly I study how people argue in marriage. There are a couple books you might be interested in that do a pretty good job of integrating rhetorical and logical traditions in argumentation scholarship. One book, written by a philosopher, is Rhetorical Argumentation by Christopher Tindale. Another book that is a must read for people who study argumentation is A Systematic Theory of Argumentation: A Pragma-Dialectical Approach by Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst out of the University of Amsterdam. Anyhow, I couldn't let your comments about rhetoric being "a term that went out of style a long time ago" pass without response.

Harry Weger, Jr., Ph.D.
Nicholson School of Communication
University of Central Florida

Thanks for filling us in, Harry. I was hoping that someone who knew more about rhetoric than I would do so. I did not know about I.U.'s program in rhetoric, despite the years that I spent there as a graduate student. As I mentioned in the review, there's an old feud between philosophers and rhetoricians, and it's not over yet. In general, there's an unhealthy over-specialization and fragmentation of disciplines in academia, and the fact that logicians and rhetoricians ignore each other is bad for both.

I'm afraid that I haven't read the two books you recommend, but will do so as soon as I can manage it. However, I am familiar with van Eemeren and Grootendorst's work, but had forgotten that they are―or, were, in the case of the late Grootendorst―scholars in "Speech Communication" or "Rhetoric". This fact alone is enough to show that post-Aristotelian rhetoric has made a significant contribution to the study of logical fallacies.

May 30th, 2007 (Permalink)

Fact Check it Out

Annenberg Political Fact Check reports on how the proposed budget is being spun:

Republicans say that even with some proposed extensions, Americans will be paying $217 billion more in taxes over the first two years after the budget takes effect than they do currently. Some Republicans call this the largest, others say second-largest, increase ever levied. There is a lot of guesswork in that $217 billion figure, but even if it is accurate it would be the largest increase only as measured in 2007 dollars without any adjustment for inflation….

Politics means never having to adjust for inflation! Democrats counter that they're not raising taxes a penny. Technically, this is true, since they're simply allowing some tax cuts to expire, but for those who have to pay more money to the IRS it's going to have exactly the same effect as a tax increase.

Source: Jessica Henig, "Counter-Rotating Tax Spin", Annenberg Political Fact Check, 5/30/2007

May 27th, 2007 (Permalink)

What's New?

The Conjunction Fallacy and the Conjunction Fallacy!

May 17th, 2007 (Permalink)

Lessons in Logic 5: Arguments and Explanations

This lesson is a departure from previous lessons and their direction to take a detour to an issue raised in the following email. Keith Jewell questions whether the following exercise from Lesson 3 is actually an argument, as stated in the solutions:

When interest rates fall, investors put higher values on future corporate earnings and dividends and thus bid up share prices.

I claimed that this passage is an argument and that the occurrence of "thus" in it is an argument indicator. Here is Keith's objection:

I suggest that this is not an argument, or at least not the apparent argument. For "thus" to be an argument indicator it must be used with the meaning "gives reason to believe": premiss gives reason to believe conclusion. I do not think the meaning of the exercise was (1) "investors put higher values on future corporate earnings and dividends" gives reason to believe (2) "investors bid up share prices". I do not think the sentence attempts to support a conclusion, I think it hypothesises a mechanism so that the meaning is 1 causes 2; 1 is not put forward to increase our degree of belief in 2, but to explain why it's true. Indeed, the confidence in 2 is much greater than in 1; if it is an argument it is 2 gives reason to believe 1 rather than vice versa.

I agree with Keith's analysis of the meaning of the sentence. He is right that the point of the passage is to explain why share prices go up when interest rates fall, rather than to try to convince the reader that that's indeed what happens. Where I disagree with Keith is on a matter of terminology: I use the word "argument" in a broad sense to include explanations, whereas Keith is thinking of arguments and explanations as disjoint categories.

Usually, it's not profitable to argue about the meaning of technical terms; one should simply choose a term, define it, and then stick to the defined meaning consistently. However, in this case the narrower meaning of the word is quite common in logic books, and I'm broadening its meaning to include explanations. This departure from standard usage calls for an explanation.

Many logic books nowadays have a short chapter or section, usually near the beginning of the book, explaining the difference between a piece of reasoning which is an argument in the narrow sense and one that is an explanation. This difference has to do with the purpose served by the reasoning:

One reason why it seems necessary to draw this distinction is that explanations frequently use the same indicator words―such as "thus" in the exercise above―as arguments in the narrow sense. So, if you rely upon indicator words to identify narrow-sense arguments, you'll occasionally mistake an explanation for such an argument if you're not careful. However, whether a piece of reasoning is an explanation or a narrow-sense argument has little, if any, effect upon its logical analysis and evaluation.

Reasoning can be used for many purposes, and attempting to convince the audience of the truth of a conclusion is only one such purpose. Some arguments aim to convince the audience of the falsehood of a premiss by reasoning to an obviously false conclusion; such an argument is known as a reductio ad absurdum or an indirect argument. Some reasoning proceeds with no intention of either establishing the truth of the conclusion or the falsehood of a premiss, but simply to see what implications hold between propositions. It seems to me that what purpose is served by reasoning is not a logical question, but a pragmatic or even psychological one.

Now, an alternative to using the word "argument" in such an unusually wide sense would be to continue to use it in the standard sense and use "piece (or unit) of reasoning" for the broad sense. This would have the virtue of not confusing readers such as Keith who are already familiar with the standard usage. However, "piece of reasoning" is awkward, and I don't know of a better term. Moreover, logic is usually understood to be the study of "arguments", but there's no reason why explanations should not be part of this study. Therefore, when you see the word "argument" in these lessons and in the Fallacy Files as a whole, remember that it means a piece or unit of reasoning, including explanations.

Exercises: Determine whether the following pieces of reasoning are arguments in the narrow sense or explanations. Since there is no mechanical way to do this, you must use your general knowledge. Is the author trying to convince you that the conclusion is true (argument) or is the author trying to explain why it's true (explanation)?

  1. Today we know why the planets take such unusual paths across the sky: though the stars hardly move at all in comparison to our solar system, the planets orbit the sun, so their motion in the night sky is much more complicated than the motion of the distant stars. (P. 8)
  2. In 1609, Galileo started observing the night sky with a telescope, which had just been invented. When he looked at the planet Jupiter, Galileo found that it was accompanied by several small satellites or moons that orbited around it. This implied that everything did not have to orbit directly around the earth, as Aristotle and Ptolemy had thought. (P. 10)

    Source: Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, A Briefer History of Time (2005).


Previous Lessons:

  1. Introduction
  2. Statements
  3. Arguments
  4. Conclusion Indicators

Next Lesson: Premiss Indicators

May 12th, 2007 (Permalink)

Pull Quote

I was curious about what the context of Larry Silverstein's "pull it" quote―discussed in the Resource listed below―might reveal about its meaning. So, I obtained a copy of the PBS documentary from which it was taken. Unfortunately, the documentary itself doesn't provide any context for the quote, such as the question that Silverstein was answering, or anything he said before the quote itself that would give the antecedent of "it". However, the film does shed light on a related claim made by conspiracy theorists.

Some conspiricists claim that "pull" is a technical term for a controlled demolition of a building using explosives. One piece of evidence that they give for this interpretation is a short quote from earlier in the same documentary: "We're getting ready to pull Building 6."

This quote is often accompanied by a half-minute video clip taken from the documentary. The claim is that World Trade Center building 6 was demolished with explosives, thus establishing that the word "pull" is used to refer to such demolitions. However, earlier in the documentary, the narrator says the following:

The use of explosives to demolish World Trade Centers 4, 5 and 6 was rejected for fear workers would risk their lives entering buildings to set the charges.

So, how was the heavily-damaged but still standing WTC 6 demolished? Here's a transcript of the video clip:

Narrator: By mid-December, the Department of Design and Construction had leveled World Trade Center buildings 4 and 5.

Man: Hello? Oh, we're getting ready to pull Building 6.

Luis Mendes: We had to be very careful how we demolished Building 6. We worried about the building six coming down and then damaging the slurry wall. So, we wanted that particular building to fall within a certain area.

Here the clip conveniently ends, but the documentary continues:

Man: We got the cables attached in four different locations. They'll be pulling―pulling the building to the north. It's not every day you try to pull down an eight-story building with cables.

At this point, we actually see Building 6 being pulled down with cables, rather than explosives. So, the quote taken in context not only does not support the claim that "pull" refers to an explosive demolition, it demolishes it.


Resource: Silly Celebrity, Too

Fallacy: Quoting Out of Context

May 10th, 2007 (Permalink)

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

Re "Coral is Dying. Can It Be Reborn?" (May 1): The coral farming and transplantation efforts described in Cornelia Dean's article may prove useful in restoring individual patches of reef in popular tourist sites. However, such labor-intensive and costly reef restoration work is no match for the threat that global climate change poses to coral reefs worldwide.

Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world who depend on coral reefs for food, income and shelter from ocean waves will suffer. Perhaps we should focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than protecting our favorite dive spots.

Why not do both? Reducing greenhouse gases may already be a lost cause, so why not do something that may save at least some reefs? How will reef restoration efforts detract from the attempt to reduce greenhouse gases?

Source: Simon Donner, "Saving Coral Reefs", The New York Times, 5/8/2007, p. D4

Fallacy: The Black-or-White Fallacy

May 8th, 2007 (Permalink)


Gas prices hit record high

ATLANTA (CNN)―The price of gasoline has hit a new record high, averaging $3.07 for a gallon of self-serve regular in the United States, a survey reported Sunday. When inflation is factored in, the new price trails the all-time high in March 1981. At the time, gasoline cost $1.35 a gallon―in today's dollars, that's $3.13 a gallon, said Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the Lundberg Survey. Still, in raw numbers, the $3.07 beats the previous high of $3.03 in August of 2006.

However, when inflation is factored in, not only is $3.07 less than the record price set in 1981, but it is also less than the previous record set last year. Inflation is a wonderful boon for journalists, as every year they can write the same pointless story about the same meaningless records. And I can write the same entry every year about the same pointless stories about the same meaningless records!

Source: "Gas prices hit record high", CNN Money, 5/7/2007

Update (5/21/2007): Both the Lundberg Survey and American Automobile Association are now reporting that the average national gas price has exceeded the 1981 record when adjusted for inflation. So, now it's time to panic!

Source: "Gas prices: Worse than '81 oil shock", CNN Money, 5/21/2007

May 4th, 2007 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Check it Out

The New York Times has an interesting essay on blurbs in book ads which quote reviews out of context. I always use the blurbs from movie ads as examples, but not because I think that movie ads are worse than those for books, though the article suggests that they may be:

We’d like to think that while the quotations in movie ads regularly feature near-hysterical raves from marginal or even nonexistent critics, the genteel world of book publishing is above all that. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, and some say publishers are becoming only more brazen.

However, there's one bad practice that book blurbs share with movie ads:

And then there is the question of creative punctuation. As the writer Sarah Vowell says, "There must be something to be done about inserting exclamation points." The ground rules here are, for some, unclear. "There’s latitude with exclamation points. Anything looks better with an exclamation point," said a prominent book editor who spoke on condition of anonymity….

I can't see any justification for adding an exclamation point onto a quote since it can change a mildly positive, or even neutral, description into a rave, as evidenced by the Jonathan Yardley blurb discussed in the article. It may be too much to hope that ad writers would stop quoting reviews out of context, but it's not too much to expect that they not add punctuation other than ellipses.

Source: Henry Alford, "Literary Misblurbing", New York Times, 4/29/2007

Answers to the Exercises:

  1. An explanation: "so" is a conclusion indicator, and the conclusion is: the motion of the planets in the night sky is much more complicated than the motion of the stars. Hawking is explaining why the planets' motions are more complex than the stars'.
  2. A narrow-sense argument: "this implied that" is a conclusion indicator, and the conclusion is: Everything did not have to orbit directly around the earth. Hawking is not explaining why everything did not have to orbit around the earth, since the fact that Jupiter's moons don't orbit around the earth implies the conclusion that not everything orbits around the earth, but does not explain it.

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