First published in the 1930’s Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless sets out the most common ways people put forward “dishonest arguments”: those arguments which are mostly built on fluff and no real substance but we find ourselves nodding along with until we recover sometime later and realise none of it made any sense. Straight and Crooked Thinking trots along at a fast pace clocking in at just over 200 pages and covering over 30 examples of dishonest tactics used regularly in arguments. These tactics are just as prevalent today as they were 80 years ago.
Thouless writes in a charming, friendly style which sounds a lot like a chat with a Dumbledore-esque professor (he was indeed a lecturer in Psychology). Much like Dumbledore, you get the feeling he was a very progressive man trapped in a very conservative culture. Moreover, they both faced this challenge with wit, whimsy and good cheer alongside more practical work to combat the evils they saw in the world. I would argue Thouless’s contribution was this book, designed to engage and rally the general public to think more critically and not allow themselves to be easily persuaded by cheap tricks. Unsurprisingly, Thouless is quick to draw on examples relating to racism, sexism and socialism so he will undoubtedly appeal to a more left-leaning audience. Though he states in the preface that political ideology has nothing to do with a good argument and his examples are instructive only.
Despite my edition being from 1974 and written by an academic, it’s actually a very easy read with the charm and gentle humour of a Jane Austen novel. I usually shun older academic texts, not because I think they aren’t worth reading but because I find them difficult and tiring to understand, but this book was surprisingly accessible. On the other hand, the examples are dated but I do not regard this as a flaw. It largely takes the sting out of their deconstruction as most of us have got past the point where, for example, we think women shouldn’t be allowed to vote and hence we are in little of danger of getting offended and missing the structural issues with the argument. If I have one criticism, it’s that the book did hop about from topic to topic even within a chapter which was a little confusing. Luckily, the book is so short it hardly makes a difference and it does contribute to the feeling of having a chat with Thouless rather than slogging through a textbook. However, if the book had been longer it would have been frustrating.
My favourite parts were the appendices which provide a summary of the book and give the whole thing a bit more structure. One details all the dishonest arguments presented in the book (together with their retorts) and another has an example of a “crooked argument” between a professor, a clergyman and businessman while they are drinking port after dinner. With one eyebrow raised you can enjoy a professor suggesting we apply natural selection to those living below the breadline, while the clergyman bumbles his way through the arguably more moral stance of aiding the poor by appealing to his status as a philosopher (which Thouless comments are based on the “very slender” grounds of a 3rd in Philosophy from Cambridge from 20 years ago). To me the whole thing is largely farcical (as opposed to offensive) but others may find casual discussion of eugenics off-putting. It has accompanying footnotes to explain Thouless’ opinion on their debating technique but we are encouraged to skip these at first and make our own notes with reference to the numbered list in the previous section. I thought this was a great idea that could be adapted for school or university classrooms with an argument created by the teacher or taken from the news as an exercise. The most difficult part of putting this book into practice is the ability to recognise crooked thinking in the wild as such arguments tend to wash over you if you aren’t incredibly vigilant (I’m pretty sure politics relies on that fact). This exercise is a good way to practice and I wish there had been more of that sort of activity suggested throughout the book.
Thouless ends the book by hoping the general public can resist these persuasive but irrational arguments in the hope that “such a democracy, informed and guided by scientific knowledge, could take conscious control of our social development and could reasonably hope to destroy those evils that now seem invincible”. There will never be a time when this book isn’t relevant, this year has been a year of “crooked thinking” from Brexit and the death of the expert to the Trump-Clinton presidential election and I would be inclined to rename this book “Trump Politics 101”. It’s worrying to think that 85 years later all 38 examples of debating trickery given in the book are instantly recognisable and widespread today.
Thouless died in 1984 at the age of 90 but had he been alive today what would he think of our progress? I believe he would be saddened to see that as a society we still haven’t managed to shake off our dependence on those crooked arguments but he would be happy to note our general progress towards acceptance and equality. The fact that hundreds of articles, YouTube videos and blog posts can recognise, analyse and tear apart the arguments of Farage, Trump and their ilk is a testament to our willingness to engage critically with political arguments and hopefully one day we will “destroy those evils that now seem invincible”. This book could be your first step to doing just that.
If you would like to pick up a copy of this or any of the other academic books I review here, I highly recommend Abe books. You can often pick up an older ex-library copy for a fraction of the price of a brand-new textbook. (They don’t sponsor me, I’m just a poor student who doesn’t mind slightly musty books).