Bad Thoughts: A guide to clear thinking
Corvo Books Ltd, London, 2003, ISBN 0-9543255-3-2
This is a concise fun book on the subject of rhetoric at a student friendly price of £8.99. The non-threatening cover, depicting a roughly sketched brain with background graffiti, masks what is really a very serious book on a serious subject. The book is written in a style which introduces the reader into the art and science of argumentation in a relaxed and painless way.
The importance of clear thinking and well reasoned arguments cannot be underestimated in our society today. In particular, for scientists, being able to express oneself clearly to different groups is an essential skill in order to be able to recognize bad arguments both in oneself and in others.
Apart from a lack of an index – a regrettable omission – there are occasional lapses where the author falls into the very traps he is warning us against. He inveighs against the UK government’s “reckless education policies” (p14), and further attacks the Prime Minister’s position on fox –hunting (p88) and Iraq (p90). These are clearly matters the author feels strongly about, but no reasons are given for these statements. If we take the “Authority Fallacy” (p13) as something to be wary of: i.e. when people who are not expert in a particular field state their opinions as facts, then the author is certainly guilty of this – perhaps “Author Fallacy” is a better term. Another lapse is the use of the term “widely accepted” (p121); such authoritative terms are pinpointed as specious (p16). On the other hand in any debate, diversity of viewpoint is an asset. One does not want to be led to the conclusion that no opinions are useful – if arguments from authority are never allowed, then what is left, no matter how well reasoned, might be rather arid.
The chapter on prejudicial arguments handles a rather subtle topic in an engaging way. One lapse here though is an equivocation on the word “exceptional” in an example quoted by the author (p36). Apart from its common meaning of “extremely special”, in accountancy and finance, with respect to company accounts, it has a very specific technical meaning, which just refers to certain types of loss, that satisfy a well-defined set of rules. The author’s criticism of the use of the term “exceptional loss” by a Company confused the two meanings. The loss may well have been exceptional (extremely special) but it certainly was exceptional (as defined by accountancy rules).
The critique on homeopathy (p92) is spoilt by a miscalculation. In a footnote, the author explains that in a 20X dilution, you would need tons of medicine to get even one molecule of active ingredient. This would be true in a 30X dilution, but in a 20X dilution you would in fact get hundreds of molecules in a single pill.
On the scientific front the discussion on the speed of light is a bit wayward. The author maintains that: “Light travels either faster, slower or at the same speed as sound” (p31). One has to be careful when talking about the speed of light to ensure that you are talking about the speed of light in vacuo. Light travelling through a medium- glass or water for instance - can travel much slower than the speed of light in vacuo. In particular, light can sometimes travel slower than the local speed of sound. In these cases, scientists observe Cerenkov radiation – a kind of shock phenomenon a bit like the sonic boom of an aircraft travelling faster than sound.
Apart from a lack of index, which I think is quite a serious shortcoming, the lapses described are quite minor and should not detract from the book. All students, particularly science students, should have a course on writing skills, and this book would provide an excellent text on argumentation skills.