This is a book about logical (informal) fallacies. The idea is that by learning the common errors of thinking, one is in a better position to identify them and avoid the same errors. The author would point out that no one is immune to nonsense; we all make errors in thinking. The task here is to learn to avoid the pitfalls. Gula shows us the areas that arguments can go wrong:
When an argument is unsuccessful, it has probably gone wrong in one of the following areas: 1) The evidence has not been thorough; contradictory evidence has been overlooked or ignored; 2) The evidence has not been accurate; false or unsubstantiated or misleading statements have been claimed as fact; 3) The conclusion has not clearly and uncontrovertibly come form the evidence; the relationship between evidence and conclusion has not been a firm one.1The most common categories of informal fallacies are those of irrelevance, confusion, and oversimplification. The author spends time focusing on each one of these categories, splitting them into smaller subcategories as he goes along. Within this book he lists some 170 fallacies (not an official list), with many falling into multiple categories.
What makes this book fun to read is that for every fallacy described the reader can instantly recognize the fallacy from personal experience (TV advertising, sales pitches, politics, etc.) One may find this book extremely helpful in sifting through the chaff of TV advertising and a large amount of popular sales tactics. At the same time, the reader may cringe when confronted with the fact that he too has often been guilty of the very fallacy. Perhaps most importantly, one’s own thinking is being corrected.
Some of the subcategories that Gula offers are the following: emotional language, propaganda, suggestion, irrelevance, diversion, ambiguity, incorrect inference, oversimplification, evasion, and a handful more. The writing is clear, simple, and very informative. The majority of the book deals with the fallacies, while later chapters focus on arguments, syllogisms and semantics.
Chapter 14, “More on Arguments,” is a notable chapter. Gula presents a number of helpful questions to ask yourself when getting into an argument: “…when you find yourself in an argument, the first question you should ask yourself is ‘Why am I arguing?’ and you should try to ascertain the motivation of your opponent.”2 He offers a number of reasons why people argue, and a list of many more questions to ask yourself about how you want the argument to end. The point is to determine not only why your opponent is arguing, but what your own motivations are; is it really the topic of the argument that you care about? Gula provides an excellent outline of questions you should address in order to clarify just what the argument is about and where the point of the disagreement actually lies.
The author’s goal is clearly to cut through the bad thinking, emotional and imprecise language, and to get to the point of the discussion. “To argue effectively requires skill, patience, delicacy, tact, diplomacy, sensitivity; it asks us to put aside our personalities and to address the issues; it requires us to be methodical, objective, analytic, and, above all, clear.”3
Although this is a book dealing with arguments, the author’s spirit and motivation is clearly not argumentative. Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies is highly recommended for its readability, practicality, and high quality content.
1. Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies (Mount Jackson, VA: Axios Press, 2002), p. 32.
2. Ibid., p. 122.
3. Ibid., p. 128.