Wednesday, November 16, 2011

15 Ways to Detect Nonsense

How do you avoid bad thinking? How do you detect nonsense? By nonsense we mean fallacious reasoning. Robert J. Gula's book Nonsense is a great place to start to begin to think critically and to spot fallacies in reasoning. (Review here.) It's a book that is thorough with an informal style with plenty of entertaining examples. If it's a fallacy, it's probably in this book. In the final note of the book, Gula distills the book into 15 principles. Here is that content: 15 Ways to Detect Nonsense:
  1. Be alert to anyone who speaks in absolutes: who uses words such as all, none, no one, never, always, everyone, must, immediately, or who refers to a group of people as if all the members have identical characteristics, beliefs, or attitudes.
  2. Be alert to generalizations, especially to generalizations that are not supported or that are supported from just one or two specific, unusual, or extreme examples.

  3. Be alert to anyone who uses emotional language and evaluative words instead of objective, factual responses.

  4. Do not confuse opinion, attitude, personal bias, speculation, personal assurance, or unsupported generalization with hard, factual evidence.

  5. Be sure that the issue under discussion is clear and precise, that its ramifications and complexities have been identified, that its goals have been identified, and that the words and concepts have been defined.

  6. Be sure that the evidence is relevant to the specific topic of discussion, not to some related topic.

  7. When an authority is referred to, do not automatically accept that authority unless his/her credentials are relevant to the issue under discussion.

  8. Make sure that the conclusion follows from the evidence.

  9. Be sure that you do not put others in a position where they have to make inferences and that you are not put in a position where you have to make inferences. In other words, be sure that necessary steps are not omitted in an argument. Avoid making assumptions.

  10. Wherever possible, do not allow rational discussions to become heated arguments. When a discussion becomes heated, stop the discussion, determine the source of the problem, clarify any misunderstandings, and then bring the discussion back to the topic. When people are disagreeing, make sure that they know the specific nature of the disagreement.

  11. Make sure that the evidence is thorough, not selective.

  12. Don't quibble; don't argue just for the sake of arguing.

  13. Think critically. Never let a fallacy go by without making a mental note of it; even if you don't say anything, say to yourself, "This is nonsense."

  14. Whenever you hear an argument, examine it before you accept its conclusions. Ask three questions:
    • Are the statements--the premises--the points being made and used as evidence--true?
    • Is the evidence complete? Or has the evidence been one-sided?
    • Does the conclusion come incontrovertibly from the evidence? Or might a different conclusion just as easily have come from the evidence?

  15. Finally, no matter how skilled in argument you may become, never forget the opening sentence of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado":
  16. The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.
    The world does not need another smart aleck
Excerpt from: Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies by Robert J. Gula.


CaroSCAT said...

It seems you can only get it from the US! But looks like an exellent read.

Brian Auten said...

Also available at amazon UK, slightly updated cover and title.

CaroSCAT said...

Thanks Brian. I saw that but didn't think it was the same thing. Have ordered.

Neil said...

Excellent post. Hope I Can pick up that book sometime.

Chad said...


Outstanding post!

"I don't think he's human."


Skylar said...

Another popular one out there is "How to Win Every Argument" by Madsen Pirie. Are there any good comments on this one?

NFQ said...

A delightful if somewhat awkward post for a Christian apologetics site. Good luck putting these tips to use! Perhaps you will be the first advocate of religion to use "objective, factual responses" instead of "emotional language and evaluative words". I've subscribed to your blog in the hopes of seeing some relevant, clear, and precise "evidence [that] is thorough, not selective".

Bobmo said...

Great post, Brian, thanks! I just have some questions about item #1. Should we *always* be alert to anyone who speaks in absolutes? Should *everyone* do so, at *all* times? This suggestion seems ironically self-contradictory.

Brian Auten said...


Good point. But I don't think it is self-contradictory, because it is not claiming that these things equal an error. But it is often one of the most common signs of error.

Applying this claim to itself doesn't harm the statement, because it is not saying "everyone who uses absolutes is committing an error in thinking."

Bobmo said...

I guess the question then becomes why are we exhorted to be alert to the use of absolutes if their use does not constitute a fallacy. "Be alert to" appears to be a synonym for "avoid."

I think that I agree with 14 out of 15 of these suggestions, and maybe only 13. Some may consider the proposition "Everything that begins to exist has a cause" (something I strongly believe) to violate #2, though it probably escapes since there is rational support for it.

Brian Auten said...


The use of absolutes does not necessarily mean a fallacy. The reason he asks us to be alert to it is because so many fallacies are fallacies of generalization. When you use an absolute, you are immediately making a claim that offers no exceptions. It simply increases the chance that someone is committing a fallacy.

"Be alert to" is not a synonym with "avoid" -- this is just a handy tool for detection -- to look closer and examine the reasoning to see if it may be in error.

Just like he says, "be alert to" generalizations and emotional language. Those don't constitute fallacies either -- but fallacies often have those characteristics.

Bobmo said...


I suppose I can't really object to your definition of "be alert to", as long as it accurately represents Mr. Gula. It makes sense that these approaches may increase the likelihood of fallacies (although I still can't help but suspect that Mr. Gula would rather avoid all absolute statements and generalizations.)

Peter Schaefer said...

Think of #1 more along Swinburnean (inductive) lines. 'Absolutes are often (not always) a problematic thing, so put it to the test.'

bob wallace said...

Make sure that the starting assumptions are correct. I.E. when a statement is made like "For the sake of argument, let's suppose that..." followed by a relevant statement, logical arguments and conclusions, the conclusions may not be true if the original assumption, that may have receded into the memory by the time the conclusions are presented, is faulty.

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