Julian Baggini’s “Do They Think You’re Stupid” is a light, amusing read with a serious meta-lesson tucked away inside. Presented as a list of 100 common argumentative fallacies and why they’re wrong, it can actually be interrogated as a guide to good analysis.
The key take away messages are two:
Firstly, critical thought and engagement with other people’s reasoning and your own is crucial. There isn’t any formulaic response or recipe to good thinking, only practice, care and diligence. As Baggini notes, it “requires not so much memorizing a catalogue of fallacies but adopting a habit of constructive, thoughtful skepticism in our reading and listening.” A simple message but the most important.
Secondly, a point made again and again with different fallacies: The key to understanding and unveiling them is through analogy. For example, in the abortion debate it’s common to claim that something like “when life begins” is not black and white, but grey, and this claim means, well, whatever, depending on who you talk to. Regardless though, the strength of the claim rests on the argument that there is no clear boundary between life and death, just like there is no real distinction between black and white. Except that when you phrase it like that the fallacy is obvious. By the colour analogy it uses to make the claim clear it is also clear that actually we can make distinctions between things which vary in a smooth, continuous fashion. Black really is different from white, even though there are all the shades of grey. In other words, the question of “when life begins” cannot be so blithely swept from the table. Interesting…
Ultimately, the book advises a humble approach, and warns especially of the “fallacy fallacy”: the easy assumption that having thought about how to think one should just assume one is right, when in actual fact it is all too easy still to make glaring logical mistakes. As salutary warnings, Baggini lists a few examples of renowned people who should have “known better”. The ultimate point? Thinking rightly is not easy!