The pleasures of bad arguments

I have recently moved to a new neighbourhood and while taking advantage of the free wifi at my local library I also took the opportunity to dig around in their shelves. There I made the pleasant discovery of a small and somewhat random philosophy section where I unearthed a recent offering from the British philosopher Julian Baggini. Baggini is a member of the Humanist Philosophers Group and one whose work I had not yet read so I decided to check him out, literally. The book I selected was The Duck that Won the Lottery: and 99 Other Bad Arguments published in 2008 by Granta.

The book is laid out as one hundred little snippets of analysis each one starting with an example of a bad argument in action, a label identifying which type it is and a full discussion. The discussion is then followed by some questions and ideas to think about to put the reader’s new found analytical skills to use and there are cross references to other related arguments in the book. Baggini writes in a very accessible and modern style, taking his examples from across the board, catching out among others: atheists, theists, politicians (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, USA Democrats, USA Republicans), scientists, celebrities (actors, musicians) vegetarians, pacifists, capitalists, anti-capitalists, intelligent design proponents, newspapers (Guardian, Independent, Observer, Telegraph, Times) and many more still.

The freshness of the material, the straight-forward writing and the well-structured chunks makes it perfect for those who appreciate the focus and impact of a well-written blog. I devoured this book while sitting on the tube, cooking pasta, waiting to meet friends and putting off other work. The stand alone sections make it really easy to dip into the book whenever you have a spare minute or want something stimulating. While it does mention the work of philosophers occasionally when relevant, the focus is on the argument at hand so the reader is not put off by the usual “Plato said…” style of philosophical writing which can make the reader feel ignorant before a concept has even been introduced. Nor is the author too arrogant or condescending. Baggini freely admits that we all make these errors at times and does not exclude himself from this at all. There is no sense that the author is using the book to taunt or condescend others as he chooses a wide range of sources from a number of view points and is careful always to assess the argument and not the overall position.

One thing that struck me as I read the book was that it would make a great resource for group discussions. In particular, I thought the length of a chapter might lend itself very well to a quick discussion after the register has been taken at school. This should not be taken to mean that I think it does not make suitable material for adults. On the contrary, I think these are great ways to kick start discussion on a variety of topics, be they new or old, and from a range of perspectives. With one hundred examples, there’s plenty to choose from and Baggini equips the reader with plenty of tools to use. It would be a great way to get a group to open up and start talking without necessarily having to navigate the minefield of well-entrenched, personally held views.

In summary, this is a very enjoyable thought provoking book which lets the reader think for themselves and maybe even gain a little humility. Try buying it for someone who enjoyed Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and who thinks they know everything. There is something to be learned from the philosophers still. Now that I’ve returned it to the library, I’m going to keep an eye out for a copy for myself that I can dip into every now and then…

2 Responses to “The pleasures of bad arguments”

  1. 1 thenarcissismofsmalldifferences October 21, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    Keep an eye out for those Philosophers Claire ;0)

  2. 2 Andrew November 6, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Sounds great. I could do with a decent guide to logical fallacies.

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