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Don't argue, just buy it. Then you can argue.
on July 1, 2003
A college applicant allegedly wrote the following one-word essay to describe himself: "Concise." While I was tempted to coopt that entire essay as a review for this book, ultimately I decided to be more verbose: first, some general remarks about the relevance of this book, then a summary of its content.
I often lament that the mythical "average person" does not appreciate what counts as evidence, nor distinguish between prejudice and rational conclusion. This is particularly evident in the realm of politics, where inflammatory rhetoric is the rule and rational argument the exception. If this tiny book (or its equivalent) were required reading for every high school senior, or college freshman, I wager there would be a wholesale shift in the texture and value of day-to-day discourse. No longer would we hear "Don't vote for that crook!", but the more sober, albeit prolix, application of modus tollens, "Public office requires honesty. Jones is dishonest. Therefore, Jones should not be elected to public office."
Of course, "Don't vote for that crook!" will never be abandoned for the simple reason that it is good tight prose. Yet, wouldn't it be grand if it were crystal clear to everyone that it is simply shorthand for the more prolix version? I claim that it would, for then we would be apt to challenge such a remark with "What evidence do you have that Jones is dishonest?", rather than "Would you rather I vote for that child molester, Smith?" The latter invites further character assassination of Jones, if not impeachment of his entire lineage. Perhaps I'm just a stuffy academic, but I can't help thinking that the introduction of a bit of cool logic into every-day discourse would lower our collective blood pressure and maybe, just maybe, allow us to occasionally see beyond our prejudices.
This wonderful little book lists 44 specific suggestions, or "rules", for injecting much-needed logic into argumentative discourse. In the author's words, each rule is "illustrated and explained soundly but above all briefly"; Hence, to Weston the book is a "rulebook" not a textbook. Weston continues "In this book, 'to give an argument' means to offer a set of reasons or evidence in support of a conclusion." This is in contrast to the variety accompanied by loud invective and broken china.
Throughout the book, Weston offers advice that we would all do well to remember. For example, he reminds us that one can neither craft nor analyze an argument by merely consulting our prejudices, and that "it is your reasons, not your language, that must persuade." With regard to language, Weston asserts that prejudicial or loaded language "preaches only to the converted, but careful presentation of the facts can itself convert." Moreover, "It is not a mistake to have strong views. The mistake is to have nothing else." Well put.
Weston also injects some broadly applicable principles of critical thinking (although he does not label them as such). For instance, in contemplating possible solutions, explanations, or causes, he urges us to continually look for more options, rather than immediately narrowing them. In so doing, we can state our case more fairly, and possibly head off objections more effectively. But perhaps the most important admonition is this: "If you can't imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don't understand it yet." Imagine a world in which all disputants took this to heart!
Beginning with short arguments consisting of a sentence or two, Weston builds to a chapter on crafting effective long arguments. As usual, Weston anticipates common blunders and warns us, for example, to first "find out what each side considers the strongest arguments for its position." He then prepares us for the inevitable process of rewriting and reorganizing our arguments as we accumulate evidence and analyze positions on all sides. He coolly advises us to adopt a different strategy, or even a different conclusion, should we discover that our initial inclinations are not adequately supported by the available evidence. While this may seem obvious, it would be wonderful if everyone actually did this.
Weston provides some concrete advice on writing, such as developing one idea per paragraph, getting to the point quickly, and stating the conclusion clearly and directly. According to Weston, you ought not "fence more land than you can plow. One argument well-developed is better than three only sketched." To do otherwise would be like "preferring ten very leaky buckets to one well-sealed one." Finally, Weston urges us to preemptively raise possible counter-arguments and to develop them in sufficient detail that our readers will fully appreciate the position we are disarming.
The book includes a short but helpful chapter on fallacies, focusing primarily on the two "great fallacies" of generalizing from incomplete information and overlooking alternative explanations. One angle that I found illuminating is that several classic fallacies are in fact species of "overlooking alternatives", such as "affirming the consequent", "denying the antecedent", and "false dilemma". Several fallacies were discussed in this chapter that I have not encountered elsewhere, at least not by these names: specifically, the fallacies of "persuasive definition", "poisoning the well", "provincialism", and "weasel words". All are tersely but amply illustrated. Weston concludes with a brief chapter on definitions, of which there are several varieties: stipulative, operational, essential, and genus-and-differentia. I found these distinctions to be equally illuminating. As Richard Feynman said, "To name a thing is not the same as to know a thing", yet it is often a step in the right direction.
In summary, I found this book to be an excellent guide to crafting effective arguments. Although I have studied formal logic fairly extensively, and even informal logic to a lesser degree, this book left me with many new ideas, and made familiar old ideas suddenly more cogent and relevant. And, it's concise.